To Make Better Decisions, Scan Wider

Like many others, during our strict lockdown early in the pandemic, we used jigsaw puzzles to while away the time. If you enjoy solving jigsaw puzzles, you know the most common tactics: start with the edges, sort the pieces by colour, sort them by shape, tackle a difficult section together, work on different sections independently, and so on. But one thing helps more than anything else: the front of the box that shows you the completed picture. The detailed tactics are useful, but the big picture shows how they need to fit together to create the final product.

We live our lives in detail – hour by hour, day by day, and week by week. In crisis and uncertainty, we narrow our time frame even more. We are more sensitive to small changes, more insular and protective, and less willing to take risks.

Know the detail so you can operate effectively each day, but also take time to look up and out to understand the big picture.

Think bigger and scan wider.

Whenever I work with leadership teams on their strategic planning for the future, we start with a ‘Scan Wider’ exercise to expand their perspective. It’s essential for being better prepared in a fast-moving, interconnected world.

As J.R.R. Tolkein wrote in ‘The Hobbit’:

‘It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.’

This sounds obvious, but you might be so busy with internal issues you don’t consider the live dragons just around the corner.

We’re seeing this now with the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

For one very topical example, look no further than the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

It seems like this has just come out of the blue, and has thrown a spanner in the works of our vaccine rollout. But if you scan wider and look at the global vaccine rollout, this kind of variant was inevitable.

I made exactly this point in my online presentation ‘Forever After’ last month.

You can watch the relevant extract from that presentation here (Note: At the time, we didn’t know about Omicron, so in this presentation I’m talking about its predecessor, the Mu variant):

A wider perspective sees around your blind spots.

You don’t need to be a futurist to scan wider. The signs are there – as long as you’re willing to look for them, understand what’s getting in the way of finding them, and then assess them fairly.

For example, the media (both traditional media and social media) hook their audience with detailed stories before discussing broad concepts. They know stories grab our attention, so they use them – good or bad. Bad news in particular is a more powerful hook.

A few years ago, when I was interviewed on TV about the future of food, the segment didn’t start with the challenge of feeding a global population of ten billion in 2050. Instead, it kicked off with a story of me eating crickets at a local pub in Perth! That’s the hook, and in this case it was a fairly benign story to grab viewers’ attention.

But many other media stories are designed to evoke fear or anger, and the relentless bombardment of these stories distorts our big picture perspective.

Hans Rosling points this out in his book ‘Factfulness’, sharing positive global data that surprise many people, because their past exposure to attention-grabbing detail has led to incorrect assumptions. The subtitle ‘Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think’ summarises the distortions:

  1. The GAP Instinct: Believing the world is divided into two groups: the ‘developing’ world and the ‘developed’ world
  2. The NEGATIVITY Instinct: Forgetting how bad the world was in the past, and assuming it has become worse
  3. The STRAIGHT LINE Instinct: Extrapolating past trends by assuming they will continue in a straight line in the future
  4. The FEAR Instinct: Making judgements based on past irrelevant fears, and grossly exaggerating modern threats
  5. The SINGLE PERSPECTIVE Instinct: Thinking all problems have a single cause
  6. The GENERALISATION Instinct: Putting people into groups and then assuming everybody in a group is the same
  7. The DESTINY Instinct: Assuming the future is just like the past
  8. The SIZE Instinct: Not putting large numbers into perspective
  9. The BLAME Instinct: Looking for culprits rather than real causes
  10. The URGENCY Instinct: Rushing to find simple solutions for every problem

Are you falling into any of these ten traps?

When making a decision, scan wider.

When you’re considering an important decision, start by scanning wider so you get more information to make a well-informed decision. Then, before making the final decision, take a few moments to scan wider again, just to be sure you’re putting it in perspective.


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