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New decade, new look: A spotlight on observation for effective problem-solving in the 2020

We are in the midst of accelerating change: global warming; jobs automation; an invisible infotech revolution. People and phenomena are increasingly inter-connected in complex, intangible ways. There is too much information, too little time. For decision-makers tackling contemporary problems, navigating past dogma and divining technology’s next breakthrough are everyday acts. The moment we learn something new, we are already out of date. To make useful decisions in the 2020s, we need to constantly question our instincts and look for hidden answers. The key to this is observation. But real observation is not easy, as it challenges our own perspective, and requires repeated viewing. To overcome this, we can re-embrace reflective and scientific dispositions. We can include different people and ways of thinking. The result is better decisions. Here, I share some personal reflections on practices that help us see clearly and move beyond usual habits of confirmation bias. I hope this will be interesting for anyone supporting or making decisions on pressing real-world problems.

“Conflict is often a symptom of complexity – a sign that there is more to things than meets the eye. Imagine an education that trained us to recognise conflict as a cue to examine complexity rather than a cue to dismiss it.” Shari Tishman

Although I am a scientist by training, I also really like art. Believing it was incompatible with science, and that you were either in one camp or the other, I ignored my artistic side for years. Last spring, I went to a lecture celebrating the 200th birthday of the art critic and thinker John Ruskin, and that is where I first understood the compatibility of the two subjects. Ruskin taught that observational drawing, an underrated pursuit, is one of the best ways to really understand the world scientifically, because it requires paying proper attention. Like science, drawing is an approach that invites us to challenge what we think we know. This inspired me to set up an experimental project with fellow fisheries policymakers where we get together after work to draw 80 UK commercial fish species, and gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of the fish our decisions affect. I wrote an article on the concept of the project here (you can see some of the work the group produced in the Instagram page.)Through this art activity, I wanted to explore confirmation bias, the theory that people naturally and unconsciously favour their existing beliefs or biases when drawing conclusions about a subject. Confirmation bias in the act of drawing leads to over-simplification, dismissal of reality, and the absence of critical details in the final picture. We tried some practical exercises designed to both reveal and correct for our own unconscious biases. But we also found that just the act of taking a moment to stop and browse in itself is enlightening – who knew there was a commercial fish species called a greater forkbeard?

“We assemble a world from pieces, assuming that what we see is both coherent and equivalent to reality. Until we discover it is not.” Nicholas Mirzoeff

This project was a useful prompt to reflect on how unconscious bias can come into other aspects of human life, including work, and what it does to the quality of decision-making if we do not address it. People who support decision-makers orchestrate all the processes needed in supporting those decisions, so play a critical role in scrutiny. However, we are all human and prone to making automatic judgements, especially if we are rushed. If the answer seems to be obvious because it is instinctively or morally the ‘right’ thing to do, then it is tempting to jump straight to that and leave out the critical thinking part. But, to quote my wise friend and conflict expert, Mike Martin, it is not enough to be right. If we are making important life-changing decisions on a topic that is entangled in a dynamic, real-world or physical context, (and there are very few topics that are not), checking our views and beliefs about that subject, and the world it is part of, is essential. Gaining a more accurate view, we can advise effectively. Aware of what we do not know, we can avoid the pitfalls of hubris.

How do we practically do this? This year I will hit the 11-year mark working in Whitehall as a policy advisor on a range of social and environmental issues. Reflecting on the aspects of the policy world that I’ve enjoyed the most, at the top of the list is the experience of leading transformational projects. These are projects that require re-examination of established ways of working, arrangements or assumptions. We look at things scientifically, afresh, new tools are applied, people with different backgrounds and ways of thinking are brought together. Conversations are dynamic and enriching. These kinds of change-making projects have been great opportunities to appreciate the value of observation in handling difficult topics.

“I am never satisfied I have handled a subject properly til I have contradicted myself at least three times.” John Ruskin

One of the most important components of the observational toolkit is people. I have worked with many types of talented analysts, often in multi-disciplinary teams: statisticians, vets, mathematicians, physicists, social scientists, lawyers, negotiation strategists, economists, biologists, operational researchers (specialists on handling complex systems). The diversity of their approaches combined with others’ subject knowledge has been invaluable for arriving at effective solutions. The role of analysts is not to over-complicate; instead, they use innovative ways to help us digest complexity quickly and democratise our decision-making. They stop us from missing things in our rush to be right. Working with people who think differently and who openly challenge one other also keeps things interesting!Of course, depending on the work environment, problem-solvers out in the real world do not always have access to specialists in all of these fields and we are not always trained ourselves in every discipline. But there are still some basic things we can do to build observation, inquiry and insight into projects. Admittedly there might be a few mental barriers to get over first. The tools can seem too obvious (aren’t we doing that stuff naturally anyway?). Being shown to be wrong is kind of uncomfortable. And maybe, subconsciously, we dislike a little bit the threat structured methods pose to the alchemical mystery surrounding the dark art of our decision-making.

“Keats… believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong… Newton’s unweaving of the rainbow led on to spectroscopy, which has proved the key to much of what we know today about the cosmos.” Richard Dawkins

In the next few months, I will be embracing observation by delving a bit further into some approaches I have found helpful in general problem-solving. In this post, I will share a very brief outline of possible broad approaches to looking. I will then explore these a bit more in future posts, with the aim of getting into increasingly advanced tools. I reflected in the last paragraph that many techniques for observation are actually very simple, so readers will probably find most things in the list below really obvious. There is nothing groundbreaking or novel here! But sometimes when we are busy it is useful to have a quick memory-jogger, so I will try to include links to at-a-glance information that can be accessed quickly. I will also find recommended courses for anyone who has more time to dedicate. At some point I hope to demonstrate more clearly why these approaches are beneficial. Finally, I want to bust any myths that drawing diagrams to aid thinking is only for artists and quantitative analysis is only for ‘technical’ people. Everyone can draw, and everyone can get numbers.
As mentioned above, this post is not an official view from my employer.

If you are interested in policy tools recommended by the Civil Service, see the Open Policy Making Toolkit on The 5 Policy Tests are also excellent. All of this is relevant for a wide range of policy and non-policy problem-solving, decision-making or strategy-forming.Any tools or approaches I mention here are for guidance only; there will never be a ‘right’ tool to use. Most people running problem-solving projects or supporting decisions on a tight timescale will not have the luxury of trying out everything. The problem-solver could adapt approaches creatively and try different tools or combine them. Mid-way through a project, some techniques might become irrelevant and others become more useful. The main idea is to get out of automatic ways of seeing from the start, be experimental and test options with other people. Even under time pressure, we can do this. In fact, it becomes more important.

There are 3 ‘ways of looking’ themes in my insight toolkit: looking widely, looking closely, and looking at the invisible. I have also included a fourth, more personal, theme around physical techniques for creating mental clarity and objectivity (sleep, breathing, drawing etc).

Here are my 3 Ways of Looking themes:

1-Looking widely – problem scoping and identifying. 
No issue can be separated from the rest of the world. Getting a feel for the scale of a new challenge and all its contextual inter-dependencies is one of the most important steps in a project. It requires strategic wandering around and outside the topic at hand, getting out of our boxes. There are some off-the-peg frameworks for this, for example this problem definition sheetdesigned by the public service management consultancy 2020Delivery. Great to complete in a group, or, even better, ask a few people completely new to your field to have a go, as they can think more objectively and sometimes come up with brilliant new links and ideas. Re-doing the exercise halfway through a project is also useful. Other simple frameworks for expanding the mind to identify important issues and elements are SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and PESTLE analysis (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) – templates for these techniques are downloadable here. Additional practices are lots of reading, talking, visiting different places, and making space in the day for the mind to wander. Again, these may be obvious, but how often do we prioritise them?

2-Looking closely – data collection, data analysis and data visualisation.
Checking assumptions on topics needs time for inquiry and detective work. Data here means qualitative and quantitative information, and we can explore and interact with both types in ways that make things clearer to us. Talking to analysts right from the beginning of a project is invaluable and, if you can, have them as core members of your project group. Good visual presentation of existing or new quantitative data or analysis can really help get to grips with what’s going on. Alberto Cairo’s The Truthful Art is a very readable teach-in on how to tell the difference between high and low quality charts, how to present data visually, and how to understand basic statistics. It’s a beautiful book. Highly recommended in a world full of misleading infographics. Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is a classic. Check out Hans Rosling’s TED talks, also, as well as his wonderful book, Factfulness. I’m reliably informed by statisticians that the Guardian also does a good one-day course on data visualisation (also known as ‘data viz’). Finally, getting a grounding in statistics is really useful for engaging effectively with practically every difficult world issue. I will look out for some online resources on statistics and post later, but if you like books, the first few chapters of ‘Introductory Statistics for Biology Students’ by Trudy Watt are very straightforward to get to grips with.

3-Looking at the invisible – revealing hidden patterns and interactions, and acknowledging the unknown. 
The world is multi-dimensional and is teeming with properties and relationships that we cannot see. To cope with this, we need to get out of our linear thinking habits and use approaches more appropriate to revealing complex systems. Data analysis can be one way to help us uncover information and reduce uncertainty by exploring relationships between things. But there are also intangible elements we need to get to grips with. Any real world problems are ‘wicked problems’ – they are almost impossible to solve because of changing requirements, elements and interactions that are difficult to detect. We need to be ready to accept that exploration of the problem can lead us to change some fundamental assumptions, which might mean we need to begin again – but that’s all part of the process. Maybe we will begin again multiple times. Rather than being discouraging, this shows we are learning and progressing towards better solutions in light of the clarity we have achieved. In terms of recognised tools, Systems Thinking is about working meaningfully with multiple perspectives, ‘messy’ situations, and the ‘ecology’ and dynamics of problems. There is a free online course on systems thinking run by the Open University, Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice. Tom Wujec’s 9-minute TED talk explores how systems thinking and visualisation help make sense of complex and intangible systems like organisational change – his DrawToast exercise can be used with groups. Aditi Agarwal’s book on problem-solving contains a range of practical tools such as the 5 Whys. Creative thinking is another approach that I feel fits in this theme – check out Dan Holloway’s game for creative thinking, Mycelium, for inspiration.

The fourth theme, fostering mental clarity through physical exercisesis something to mainly practise outside work, but I see it as a key part of how to get out of tunnel vision and see things clearly. When we do this, connections form and ideas flow. Exercise and sleep help. Not necessarily for everyone’s tastes, I have also found breathing techniques from different yoga styles (particularly Kundalini) are really effective for clarity and understanding. In future posts I will try to see if there is any real science on this.

NB – All the observing, wandering and investigating should never be allowed to be a distraction from the project’s objective. It is good to re-focus frequently throughout the problem-solving process on what we are trying to achieve, and not get lost.

So, there is an outline of some areas I will tap into in more depth over the coming months. I hope people who read this find at least some bits helpful, or, if not, at least new and interesting food for thought. And, of course, in the spirit of building wisdom, and acknowledging the unknown, I’d be really grateful for any feedback or challenge, as well as any ideas to research further.

If you want to read more on rapid global change, the link between art and science, and benefits of observation, you might find the following texts interesting or inspiring:

* Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Vintage, 2019.
* Tishman, Shari. Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. Routledge, 2018.
* Henderson, Mark. The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters. Corgi, 2013.
* Fagence Cooper, Suzanne. To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters. Quercus, 2019.
* Hewison, Robert. Ruskin and his Contemporaries.  Pallas Athene (Publishers) Ltd, 2018.
* Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  HarperCollins, 2008.
* Holmes, John. The Pre-Raphaelites and Science. Yale University Press, 2018.
* Gayford, Martin. A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney. Thames and Hudson, 2016.
* Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How to See the World. Pelican Books, 2015.