The Alice Paradox

Lewis Carol’s tales of Alice, the White Rabbit and other assorted fantasy figures are an unlikely beginning to a blog on 21st Century decision making.  So let me offer the reader an immediate clue, this about how make-believe, or as Carol called it ‘Wonderland’ now appears to be a standard and highly dangerous part of the executive toolbox.  Which leads to the Alice Paradox whereby decision makers find themselves being able to know so much but understand so little.  Thus making poor decisions.   

For those tempted to dismiss this idea, let me refer you to the collapse of Carillion and the ‘culture of denial’ among its main board.  Or perhaps G4S and the ‘humiliating shambles’ of its failure to provide sufficient security guards for the London Olympics.   Or even our own government and its ability to underestimate and overlook despite explicit warnings as to the consequences of doing so.  While all these examples are different, they all have two things in common.  First, the leaders and senior decision makers involved were clearly chasing images of the future that were simply not viable. And second, the same leaders and decision makers continued to pursue these impossible futures despite being warned of the consequences.     The question, therefore, is why?  

Well, there are numerous reasons.  Among them is that they perhaps simply did not wish to see the signs themselves, or hear other’s opinion of them.  The reasons for this are likely to be organisational and behavioural (and the topic of a future blog).  Where I want to focus today is on the ‘Alice Paradox’ or the increasing ability to know so much but understand so little.  This conflation of knowledge and understanding is already a problem for today’s leaders and executives, and one that will get worse.  Because the Alice Paradox is an inescapable condition of the emerging information age in which we now all live, work and make decisions.      

To explain the Alice Paradox we need to return to Wonderland.  Because it was here that Alice was encouraged to believe ‘six impossible things before breakfast’.  This type of behaviour is not limited to the fantasy world of Wonderland.  Nor is it uncommon.  The past and present are littered with occasions when decision makers have ignored reality, leading to unwanted results and unintended consequences.  For those tempted to dispute this, please refer to paragraph 2 above.  I’m also tempted to say ‘’ here but will resist the urge, although believing impossible things before, during and after breakfast seems to have occurred throughout its negotiation.      

So what causes this behaviour?  Well, there are many individual factors involved in the Alice Paradox.  But present in almost all examples is an unrealistic view of the future and insufficient challenge of convention and bias when making decisions.  All of which skew the interpretation of information towards ‘impossible’ outcomes.  This inherent human behaviour is not helped by the ‘Information Age’ in which we now all live.  In the Information Age we have easy and rapid access to sufficient data that the information it apparently contains has (apparently) become a source of power on its own.  In other words, information alone has become an irrefutable basis on which to make decisions.  But there is a problem here as well.

Nobody can doubt the now ubiquitous nature of information and the ever-increasing volume of it available via the Web.  It is everywhere, collected by (or from) almost everyone with a laptop and available to anyone with nothing more sophisticated than a mobile phone.  But endless information is not necessarily beneficial, particularly to decision makers.  In fact, it can often leave those who seek it unable to derive a single clear and definitive answer.  The ambiguity this generates reinforces natural human behaviour to choose images of the future that are familiar to the decision maker.  Familiar because they offer a more known (to the decision maker) and thus comfortable outcome.     But familiar visions and comfortable decisions do not mean that either will be right or even useful.  

This then is the Alice Paradox – the increasing ability to know so much but understand so little.  Decision makers who wish to avoid it need access to independently-generated Insight and Alternative Thinking.   

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