How successful leaders get great advice in a complex world

How successful leaders get great advice in a complex world

As a government minister, board director, or executive, your success relies on good decisions rooted in robust advice. But in our complex, volatile and uncertain world, how do you get experts to deliver trustworthy advice? The answers lie in the behavioural sciences and the practices of complex problem-solving.

“It’s hard to recall a period in history in which experts have been so comprehensively wrong on so many topics in such a short time.” This was the view of Adam Creighton, writing in The Australian [1], about the apparent incompetence of experts advising on issues like COVID-19, inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change, and the energy transition.

Creighton argues that the quality of expert advice has declined and the accuracy of predictions are rarely checked. He says that experts benefit even while others bear the consequences of their poor advice. He’s also concerned by “the rise in thinkers”. Is he right and, more generally, how do you get solid advice that won’t leave you stranded as circumstances change?

Advice on the decline

Are decision makers receiving poorer advice? That’s debatable. But our world has become more complex and dynamic. So, making predictions is more difficult and more vulnerable to changing circumstances. Indeed, Tetlock and Gardner, the authors of Super-forecasting, reveal that the accuracy of experts’ predictions decline toward chance when their forecasting horizon exceeds five years [2].

Nonetheless, experts are engaged to examine issues, draw conclusions and provide solutions. Regrettably, they are often naively mechanistic, without clear explanations of the assumptions on which they are based or the perceived likelihood of success.

And what we can say with more confidence is that predictions are rarely checked. Governments and their agencies are routinely criticised for failing to evaluate the effectiveness of public policies and the forecasts on which they are based [3].

Acting on advice

To be fair to experts, there’s no guarantee the advice they give is understood or acted on. Directors and executives are ultimately the adjudicators of business value just as Ministers are arbiters of public value. They are the decision makers that are ultimately accountable, deciding what advice will be heeded and often how it is communicated. So, in reality, it can be difficult to judge the quality of expert advice.

Treating experts fairly

It’s true that experts can be over-confident, assured of their expertise, because it has been the basis of years of success and promotion. But perhaps our expectations of experts are also unreasonably high, particularly now. It is fanciful to assume any domain expert can provide robust advice to the big societal problems that are messy, dynamic, and emergent.

Furthermore, the public and business problems we face are products of us. Our businesses, institutions, services, and systems of governance are based in our ideas, values, and choices. We are integral to challenges like inflation, the clean energy transition, and the pandemic. And our ideas about those challenges also evolve. So, how fair is it to sit in judgement of experts trying to make sense of these evolving situations of which we are an integral and emerging part?

Credible or viral?

We must also objectively assess the credentials of ‘experts’ presented to us. We live in a world where media revenue depends on clicks and eyeballs. Extreme content attracts attention, and virality is preferred over credibility. To media outlets chasing clicks, and audiences craving certainty, ‘black and white’ opinions are more attractive than sage shades of grey. Consequently, commentators can masquerade as experts to promote opinion and division over insight.

From where do people and 'tribes' obtain and judge 'great advice'?
People seek information to confirm their existing views and those of their ‘tribe’. We find facts to validate our beliefs more than we change our beliefs based on facts. It is one of the great challenges of communicating climate science [4].

A commentary on society

Ultimately, Creighton’s article is more of a reflection of the state of society. It speaks to the complexity of our world, our craving for certainty, our desire for quick fixes, the failure to resolve public problems, the erosion of trust in our institutions, and social movements against “the elite”. It speaks of our growing anxiety and need for someone to blame.

If, as a society, we reject knowledgeable people as part of “the elite”, what are we left with? Regression into divisive debates between narrow tribal ideologies? If not that, what is the alternative? How can we move forward?

Gaining reliable expert advice

Robyn Denholm, Chair of Tesla, says, “We need the very best minds (plural) working on these (big social) problems” [5]. And she’s right. But I’d go further. We also need leaders that are better at seeking, interpreting, communicating, and using advice about complex problems that are, for the most part, innately human. This means more mature leaders that can secure advice well.

Successful leaders understand that, in practice, this means you must:

Understand complex problems. You can’t effectively seek, interpret, and test advice if you don’t understand the nature of complex problems. Without this understanding, you risk accepting over-simplistic advice that may perpetuate or worsen a situation.

Engage multiple humble experts. Engage experts that provide informed but diverse perspectives, while being open-minded, careful, curious, and self-critical. An understanding of human behaviour is particularly important.

Engage with human motivations. Ideas and beliefs underpin our choices and decisions and how we engage with and respond to changing circumstances. The associated human insights are essential to understanding situations and making meaningful progress.

Explore alternative futures. Use scenarios to consider plausible alternative futures, developing options and recommended pathways that work well in multiple scenarios.

Expose evidence and assumptions. Demand clarity of the assumptions on which analyses and advice is based, favouring explanations that don’t rely on complex, improbable, and numerous assumptions. Communicate the level of uncertainty around predictions.

Accept implementation is experimentation. Hold your expert advice lightly, applying it through small steps to reduce your risk expose and allow learning. Manage resources and constraints to encourage more of the behaviours and outcomes that you want and discourage those that you don’t.

Take responsibility. As the seeker and recipient of advice, you’re responsible for what is sought, how it is sought, for what purpose, and how it is ultimately used, communicated, and learnt from. Use that power wisely.

Turning an explanation into a predictive model that allows us to estimate how events will unfold is crucially dependent on honesty over the assumptions we make about human behaviour

David Omand [6]

Conclusion

Seeking, providing, and using advice is challenging in our complex and dynamic world. We seek expertise particularly in dealing with the most wicked of problems. Yet we also judge experts harshly when the inevitable flaws in their advice are exposed. Rather than judge the experts, it is more productive to judge the process by which that expertise is sought, interpreted, promoted, deployed and improved. In this, we all have a role to play.


I hope you enjoyed this article. What resonated with you? And what do you want to know more about?

Note also that my latest book on complex problem solving provides much more information and insight to the ideas expressed in this article and better problem-solving practices.

1) Adam Creighton (2022) ‘Experts’ have been so wrong on just about everything, The Australian, 23 June.

2) Philip Tetlock, Dan Gardner (2015) Super-forecasting: the art and science of prediction, Random House Books, London.

3) Rob Bray, Matthew Gray, Paul ’t Hart (2019) Evaluation and learning from failure and success: An ANZSOG research paper for the Australian Public Service Review Panel, The Australia and New Zealand School of Government, Melbourne.

4) Dan M. Kahan (2015) ‘What is the “science of science communication”?’ Journal of Science Communication, 14 (03), Y04.

5) Sally Patten (2022) We need more female leaders to solve big problems: Tesla chairman, Australian Financial Review, 10 May.

6) David Omand (2020) How spies think: ten lessons in intelligence, Penguin Random House, London.

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