A conflict of mental models

In this classic work, Thomas Sowell identifies and analyzes two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reasoning about fundamental change. He explores the effects of these competing visions on social issues such as justice, equality, and power. Such forces are equally at battle within organizations as they strive to improve their performance, and in each of us as we make tradeoffs between opportunities with long and short term payoffs. In Sowell's 'constrained' vision, human nature is seen as unchanging. Individuals, organizations and societies are thus limited by this nature. Under the alternative, 'unconstrained' world view, human nature is instead seen as malleable and perfectible, just as the social contracts and structures which they create.

Consider this example, brought into focus by the 2008 financial crisis. The situation will be seen differently by people on different sides of the political spectrum. The situation is obviously tragic. Proposed strategies for dealing with such situations take many different forms: designing more effective means to avoid these situations in the first place, or mitigating their impact once they have occurred. Moral hazards are often at the core of such situations, and have been with us since popular fables like The Ant and the Grasshopper.

When one sees such events as random and relatively infrequent, our tendencies lean towards offering a safety net for those affected by such random events, being thankful that there but for the luck of the draw is us. If one instead sees such situations as patterns of behavior within the broader structure of a constrained system, suspicions are raised that individuals are exploiting this system for personal gain. With such beliefs, preferred choices lean instead towards leverage through incentives, within the constraint of fixed resources which similar situations present. Of course, interventions in systems are always subject to unintended consequences, which themselves can be as risky as the situation itself... and so one perspective's solution can increase the frequency of events that may appear to have random occurrences, since systems can be quite complex.

Sowell describes how these two radically opposed views have manifested themselves in the political controversies of the past two centuries, including such contemporary issues as welfare reform, social justice, and crime. He offers a convincing case that ethics and policy disputes circle around the disparity between these two outlooks... visions that themselves are perhaps not reconcilable, since they both reflect imperfect perceptions of an uncertain future - one optimistic, and the other (depending upon your point of view) either realistic, or pessimistic.

The constrained view implies an acceptance that history is relevant, and a belief that evolutionary approaches will be more viable than revolutionary ones. For example, in continuous improvement circles, a fundamental concept is that there will be an effective 'closed loop corrective action process' that acts upon historical findings and patterns observed in practicing a process, and successfully incorporates meaningful improvements from established baselines. For such an approach to be successful, there of course must be operational discipline in measurement and process management, several of many core disciplines that are essential for such systemic improvements to be realized. Freedom and discipline - two different abstractions - are in conflict. They can only be reconciled if an adequate understanding is achieved of how such concepts are to be translated into a vision for the future. The realizations of such visions are only possible when there is a shared commitment to their underlying meaning, and when experience, leadership, and effective action are consistently applied towards achieving that shared vision.

If progress on an evolutionary path is not obvious, then a revolutionary approach may be preferred.  Yet revolutions erode one's ability to forecast performance with any accuracy, and could even kill the goose that has been laying golden eggs.  While these world views are incompatible, each is to some extent self-fulfilling. As a result, they will likely remain in competition for all time, and lead to pendulum swings in behavior and strategy over time, according to who is in power, and they messages they chose to communicate about the current situation. This is why regardless of whether an evolutionary or revolutionary strategy is selected, outcomes should be measured by facts and data, rather than platitudes and testimony.


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