Getting over the God Complex

infallible2I recently came across a superb (and highly relevant) TED talk by Tim Harford called ‘Trial, error and the God complex’. I humbly suggest that it is worth your while watching it – it (like most TED talks) is 18 mins. long.

(Note: For those of you who haven’t heard of Tim Harford, he is an economist and writes a great column in the (UK) Financial Times called ‘The Undercover Economist’. His columns have been drawn together into some really interesting books by the same name)

In the TED video, Tim tells us the story of how Archie Cochrane fought all his life against what he called ‘the God complex’, where the symptoms of this complex are:

“No matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.”

In fact we see people with the God complex around us all the time:

  • Our medical experts (Doctors)
  • Our economists
  • Our business leaders
  • Our politicians that we vote for
  • ….etc.
  • “people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world [as is relevant to them and what they want to achieve] works.”

Added to this, there is even a relatively new ‘business’ book genre out there that tells us we can all ‘fake it to make it’…which essentially encourages us to see if we can ‘catch’ the God complex because this will no doubt be good for us and our careers!

Tim nicely explains that the world is simply far too complicated for us to understand. It’s unbelievable how complicated the world has become…and is so far removed from the simple societies in which our brain evolved.

We find the God complex so tempting….we want to draw a few graphs (maybe a two-by-two matrix for those management consultants amongst us) and then say “yes, we get it, we understand how this all works!” BUT we don’t get it, and we never do!

This isn’t saying that we can’t solve complicated problems in a complicated world – we clearly can…but not by presuming we know the answer!

“The way we solve [complicated problems] is by humility: to abandon the God complex and to actually use a problem solving technique that works…and we have [such a] technique. You show me a successful complex system and I’ll show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.”

He goes on to give some excellent examples of trial and error* that have achieved great success (*which in my ‘Lean Thinking’ course we explain as the scientific method of experimentation). These successes couldn’t have been achieved by subscribing to the God complex, which would have meant finding an expert who allegedly had (or can work out) ‘the answer’.

“The moment you step back from the God complex and you say ‘let’s just try a bunch of stuff, let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not’, you can solve your problem”

Tim’s research (explained in his latest book) has concluded that the process of trial and error is far more common in successful institutions than we care to recognise. It is how they can be successful!

I love the bit where Tim basically says that, whilst lots of people say that his point (about experimentation) is blindingly obvious so “duh, nothing new there Tim”, he will only accept the ‘it’s obvious so no need to bang on about it’ critique when we change the way we educate our children, when our politicians change the platform that they campaign on (and how they act in office) and even more importantly, when we change the way that we vote accordingly.

I would add “…and our business leaders change the way that they ‘run’ our organisations”.

Tim’s message aligns perfectly with:

  • W Edwards Deming’s message of constant ‘Plan, Do, Study, Act’ cycles;
  • Taiichi Ohno’s message of going to the Gemba – studying the actual facts (evidence) rather than dealing in opinions;
  • Mike Rother’s message of setting a target condition (not a target) and experimenting through the obstacles to get there;
  • John Seddon’s message of understanding your system (study, get knowledge) before making any interventions;
  • …and on and on through the great System Thinking giants.

I love this quote:

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.” (H L Mecken)

Finally, a couple of warnings:

  • Beware of shonky experiments , in which you are merely going through the motions of what you want to do anyway; and
  • If you offer rewards contingent on the success of an experiment then don’t expect unbiased results!

The only true experiment is one in which you are open minded as to the outcome…and you should remove any instruments that might put this in jeopardy.

(Credit: the cartoon is of ‘Captain Infallible’ taken from doctorinsan

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