“It depends …. ”

Oh, how we must like quizzes. It feels that every time I venture into the world of Facebook, I am exhorted to click on a quiz to determine what sort of something or other I am. It seems we want to be able to categorise ourselves, and quickly too judging from the few questions that seem to be able to measure and then categorise me in a matter of moments.

Whilst these quizzes can be a little bit of fun, as well as being totally useless, my concern is that this thinking actually pervades our working lives as well as that we have at home.

I work as an internal consultant, advising my business colleagues. Some of my work involves helping my various colleagues to understand situations they find themselves in. Outside of work, I also offer advice and discourse on a closed social network which is primarily for IT practitioners trying to help each other. In both these environments there are questions asked that frequently get answered with the same phrase:

“Well …. It depends…”

The common thread to the questions that lead me, and some of my peers, to give that sudden exhalation before the words “It depends.. “  is that the desired result is a defined category: a “black or white?”, “yes or no”, “make it simple”.

What makes me hesitate before I proffer an answer is trying to understand just what context underlies the question is being asked. One of the key things taught on my recent courses in Systems Thinking, is that people potentially have different perceptions. Read up on the terms “weltanschauung” or “World View” if you are keen on the background here. Essentially the combination of our nature, and the life events we have experienced, influences how we view any situation in a way unique to each of us.

So when you ask me to categorise something, for example if I am expected to define a recommended course of action, then the factors that I take into account as my rationale may be different to the set you have in mind. Going back to Systems Thinking, the term Boundary Critique is used to describe this. The factors I have considered, and thus the rationale for my answer, may not match yours. My thinking may well not be better or worse than your yours either, simply different. But then, the same applies to your thinking too.

So now we know what is going on, why is this enough of a problem to make me write about it?

It may just be that my circumstances are changing: the organisation I work for is changing structurally and culturally, our former financial view of the world is being supplanted by a business-lead view. I have more interaction globally with industry peers, some of whom are experiencing similar changes. Whether this is the factor or not, I find I am increasingly having to answer starting with “It depends…”

My suggestion here is that our world is getting increasingly complex for many reasons. Wider knowledge accessible through our increasing connectivity makes us more aware, our  business models are changing through things like  subscription models and BPO contracts.

In the past we had less bandwidth for communication. When I started work at British Aerospace as it was then, the news channel was a monthly newspaper. Now news would be distributed electronically, say, via an intranet, emails, or some form of internal social network such as Yammer. We take in and understand so much more than the generation that went before us. No wonder that our world views diverge.

If I was advising as I do today but 30 years ago, we would probably all have had the same news, the same background information, and be given the same challenges. Our world was, using Habermas’ categories, primarily that of the material world. Today we have assimilated different information, and our understanding of any given situation will vary widely as Habermas’ peer and personal factors take more prominence in our thinking.

Yet we seem to insist on making decisions as though we were still in the 1980s expecting our knowledge and thinking to be identical when actually it increasingly is diverging.

Two years ago I blogged here about our need to change the way we categorise things from a definitive “If it satisfies condition XXX then it fits into set YYY”, and move towards “Given the context, it is more likely to be considered YYY than, say, ZZZ”

This type of thinking is needed more than ever now, but it comes at a cost which is maybe what people find unpalatable. We cannot afford to simply answer now that “It is YYY”. Instead we have to add the context and rationale as to why it is most likely YYY.

So given all that information floating around that we have to assimilate, we need to add even more to justify our actions for folks to use in future.

No one said it was going to be easy, did they?


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