Overcoming short-termism in how we solve tough problems

August 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

Samuel Wilson

Despite the presence of early warning signs, organisations, communities, and nations tend not to act on complex problems until it is too late (Bazerman & Watkins, 2004). Too often, it is only when complex problems escalate to become crises that the seriousness of problems becomes sufficiently widely recognised for action to be mobilised.

Although this failure to act on complex problems is often ascribed to failures of government and private sector leadership, such explanations are partial, at best.

A more complete explanation would accord more responsibility to us, as individual citizens and as members of organisations, communities, and nations. ‘We’ must assume a larger share of the responsibility for our collective failure to act to address complex problems.

Tough problems 

Australia, in recent years, has witnessed the emergence of a number of complex social, economic, political, and environmental problems.

These include economic inequality (Stillwell, 1993), the erosion of buffers against the coming downturn in the resources sector, the entrenchment of a new political culture that elevates private over public interests (Garnaut, 2013), and a salinity crisis (Beresford, Bekle, Phillips, & Mulcock, 2001).

Many other long-standing complex problems, such as the health of Indigenous peoples, gambling and other addictions, and social exclusion, have defied all interventions to date (Miller, 2011).

Why do we have trouble solving tough problems? 

Although the reasons for our failure to act on complex problems – also called wicked (Rittel & Webber, 1973) or super wicked problems (Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, & Auld, 2012) – are many, three are especially salient.

First, too often, short-term oriented quick fixes are applied to systemic problems instead of sustainable solutions (Garnaut, 2013). Second, our approach to complex problems is too authority-dependent – too reliant on experts and authorities to bring about the change we want to see in the world (Aigner & Skelton, 2013). Third, the central authority needed to address many of the complex problems is weak or absent (Levin et al., 2012).

These insights have implications for our understanding of leadership, particularly in the context of questions of how we should address our most complex social, economic, and environmental problems.

First, it suggests that we need to revise our understanding of leadership from ideas centred on authority and command to those that reflect the social processes through which people are persuaded to assume collective responsibility for their collective problems (Grint, 2010). Second, by extension, it suggests that we need to revise our understanding of the role that ‘we’ must play, as individual citizens and as members of families, organisations and communities, in addressing our shared problems.

This means that we, all of us, must learn to better recognise and understand our complex social, economic, political, and environmental problems. Doing so requires that we assiduously address the psychological, organisational, and political factors that inhibit our capacity to do recognise complex problems and to act on this knowledge (see Bazerman & Watkins, 2004 for a review of these factors). It also means that we must learn to assume collective responsibility for our collective problems – problems that we have jointly brought about – and to act with collective purpose to address them.

Australia’s choice 

As recently argued by Ross Garnaut, Australians now face a choice about how we will address our tough problems. Stated baldly, we face a choice between a short-term oriented business-as-usual or politics-as-usual approach, which privileges our immediate, private interests, and an approach that is oriented to the longer-term public interest or common good (Garnaut, 2013; Spratt & Sutton, 2008).

Whereas the business-as-usual approach preserves the status quo – manifest as a piecemeal, ‘best practice’, authority-led approach to our shared problems – the public interest approach requires that we change our minds and behaviours, including our laws and policies, when evidence supports change.

The public interest approach demands that we get better, and quickly, at whole-of-system approaches that engage actors across the whole system, not just experts and authorities, and draw upon this reserve of human, social, and cultural capital to imagine ethically, rationally, and culturally sophisticated ‘next practice’ solutions (Kahane, 2010, 2012).

Presently, the odds favour the business-as-usual approach, which is consistent with many of our innate psychological biases (Armstrong, 2013) and buttressed by our prevailing political culture (Garnaut, 2013), as well as the tendency of democracies to privilege the interests of present generations (i.e., presentism; Thompson, 2010).

Overcoming short-termism 

We need to ask ourselves what we can do to increase the odds that we will make the more wholesome choice – the public interest approach.

What can be done, in the short-term, to trigger a shift of focus away from what appear to be our immediate, private interests? What can be done to cultivate mindsets that encompass the interests of our future selves, the longer-term public interest, and the interests of future generations? These questions apply to all of us, not just leaders in the government and private sectors.

New social psychological research into psychological connectedness – the feeling of connection we have between our present and future selves – offers intriguing insights into how we might curb our tendency to privilege private over public interests, immediate over longer-term interests, and the interests of present over future generations.

Specifically, this research demonstrates that when people feel connected to their future selves, they are more likely to think and behave in ways that promote their longer-term interests (Bartels & Rips, 2010; Bartels & Urminsky, 2011; Ersner-Hershfield, Garton, Ballard, Samanez-Larkin, & Knutson, 2009; Ersner-Hershfield, Wimmer, & Knutson, 2008).

Moreover, in addition to enhancing rationality, psychological connectedness also seems to promote ethicality and to curb ethical failures, evidenced by stronger disapproval, and fewer instances, of unethical behaviour (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012).

Taken together, these findings suggest that feeling connected to our future selves can lead to judgements, decisions, and actions that better accommodate the interests of people who are psychologically distant from us. These findings point to intriguing new lines of research into how we can shift our attention, preferences, decisions, and actions away from a focus on our immediate, private interests towards judgements, decisions, and actions that reflexively encompass the interests of our future selves, other people, and future generations.

This research is in its infancy and much remains to be learned about psychological connectedness, especially its causes, its content, and it consequences, such as its relationship with the types of policies and leadership people are prepared to support. It is a social and research priority

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