I watched this TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz yesterday: On Being Wrong.
One thing stuck in my mind. Schulz asks a few people what it’s like to be wrong, and they reply – “dreadful, thumbs down, embarrassing”. Which makes sense until she points out that this is only what we feel when we discover that we are wrong. Being wrong, otherwise, feels just fine.
She likens this to Wile E Coyote running off a cliff, and acting normal until he looks down and realises he is in mid-air, at which point he drops.
I looked at Schulz’s material on a prompt from Tim Harford’s book Adapt. Harford talks a lot about the value of making sure we get really effective, robust criticism of our plans. To avoid being wrong but not reacting because we don’t feel it. The Wile E Coyote syndrome.
None of this is startling stuff really. And organisations understand the need to counter it, hence the use of processes like devil’s advocate or Dave Snowden’s rather more rigorous ritual dissent. The trouble here is that when people are only playing a role, at some level we’re going to question their sincerity and motives. We can easily get distracted by wondering if they are genuinely concerned about something or just either (a) doing their best to be someone they are not or (b) using this process as cover to be exactly who they are. (Richard Stallman reflects on this stuff at greater length here.)
I think some of the best critical thinking is found not in fierce deconstruction, but in noticing the slight raised eyebrow or being curious about the slightest wry smile or frown. Being attentive to the tiny signs that something isn’t quite right, and then being really interested in them. I’ve got a lot better at this over the years, noticing tiny unexpected reacti
ons and responding with good natured curiosity to see what else is there. On the flip side, I also continue to learn the often high price of rushing things and not being sensitive to the small clues.
It’s a slower paced way of operating and it requires a kind of vulnerability to work. And I would say it’s a practice rather than a technique. A technique is something we expect to work, so it’s a way of feeling safe. Whereas a practice is a commitment to doing something that’s always a bit uncomfortable in the hope of learning something unexpected.
(I’m exploring this kind of practice in my online coaching webinars.)