We must rethink what we think we know

By October 19, 2010 Insights

I read/saw three things recently that reinforced the fact that the complexities of this modern era require a dramatic change in the way we approach problems, assess information and design solutions. I don’t have the statistics at hand (rewind… I’m too busy at the moment to do a Google search for them), but few would argue that the amount of information we are exposed and have access to is hugely greater than it has historically ever been.

We are exposed to more choices, more experiences and as a result are required to make more decisions than every before – from deciding which link to click on to which brand of toothpaste to pick up.  For better or worse, we’re hyper-stimulated and hyper-distracted. I also argue that ironically, while we have more data available to make informed choices, we are relying more on our intuition and emotion because there is just too much information to assess.

My first case in point — a recent article in the Atlantic on truth and the invention of fact in political debate. Many of us have had to talk sense into our friends or family after they’ve urgently circulated an internet virus hoax or succumbed to a wild rumor. How many times have I gently suggested “consider the source”? Yet my observation is that we ‘read what we believe’ rather than believe (or critically assess) what we read. Because we can. Because the way we consume information is changing but we haven’t yet figured out how to change the mechanisms to assess and confirm credibility. Unfortunately, the earlier utopian view (which I am still begrudgingly letting go) that ‘the truth will out’ in a democratic web is not, IMHO, really holding true.

So we need to be reeducated on how the media and the dissemination of information works. But first we need to rethink our education system. An excellent explanation of what’s happening with education — how our current standardized-test thinking needs to be rethought — can be seen in this brilliantly creative talk by Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms. To underscore his point — the context within which we learn is vastly different than it was when our current education systems were designed. The enormity of information, options and experiences requires a different approach to learning, one that is grounded in divergent, rather than convergent, thinking.

Lastly, I want to bring up economics, an area that’s never lacked for data but whose predictability in recent times is slipping through the grasp of economists. One reason of course is that the complexity of markets has swelled and become highly interconnected on a global scale. I’m no economist, but listening to my financial adviser and watching market indicators bump up and down while governments try old strategies to coax fickle indexes gives me a clue that the game has changed. I just read that Twitter is now a predictor of stock market movements… can you imagine relying on Twitter moods to manage your retirement portfolio!? Then again, if we’re more inclined nowadays to go with our gut, why not go with everyone else’s?

So, how do we go about rethinking our old systems? Can we? The skeptic in me isn’t hopeful because being a ‘creative thinker’ is still not a highly esteemed talent in the upper echelons of business and education (in spite of what’s listed on job postings) and design thinkers, that is, convergent thinkers, aren’t routinely invited to the Board. And yet, in spite of ourselves, we’re raising a generation who swims in the chaos of stimulation and who may be better equipped to see disparate relationships and patterns than the rest of us. In addition, proponents are hammering at the challenge and institutions such as Haas and Rotman are training future business leaders to embrace creative approaches. There may be hope.