Have you ever seen a close-up photograph of the eye of a dragonfly? Beyond their slightly discomforting, alien appearance, they are among the most complex and highly-attuned structures in the natural world. Composed of thousands of lenses and photoreceptors, each eye creates a multidirectional mosaic of images and colors (many of which are beyond the capabilities of human vision) that give dragonflies all the information they require about their environment.
In their 2015 book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Dan Gardner and Philip Tetlock discuss how we can improve the clarity of our thinking and the accuracy of our predictions in an uncertain world. By examining the reasons why some people are more accurate forecasters of future events than others, Gardner and Tetlock show that intelligence is not the determining factor; there is no clear correlation between education and predictive ability.
But if intelligence isn’t the main reason why people are good at forecasting and decision making, how do ‘superforecasters’ set themselves apart from the rest? The answer – or at least part of it – is their ability to be ‘dragonfly-eyed’ in their thinking.
Gardner and Tetlock believe that one of the key skills that marks out a superforecaster is the ability to hold and synthesize a large number of perspectives and opinions about a topic at one time. By being able to cope with large volumes of dissonant information they don’t limit themselves to one or other side of a debate. Like the eye of a dragonfly, they are able to take in vast amounts of information and distil it into a clear picture. From there, they can make an informed judgment about likely outcomes.
By approaching complex problems with a ‘dragonfly-eye’ mentality, we can train ourselves to value multiple, diverse perspectives and synthesize them with our own knowledge to give ourselves a better chance of understanding and resolving situations. As Gardner and Tetlock explain, individuals who they classify as superforecasters are continually able to adopt an open-minded and reflective approach to their thinking, enabling them to avoid many of the cognitive biases to which we are all subject.
What does that mean for us in our capacity as leaders within sports organizations? In simple terms, we need to be comfortable with being self-critical and acknowledge the value of sourcing views from as broad a range of people as possible. Without those skills, we are leaving ourselves exposed to the patterns of thinking that can lead to poor decisions. As the authors of Superforecasting write, “individuals will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking.”
In tackling problems which feature deep, systemic interconnection (e.g. organizational restructuring), the ability to be ‘dragonfly-eyed’ and consider large amounts of often contradictory information and opinions is crucial to an effective decision making process.
Behaviors to be Cultivated
The good news from Gardner and Tetlock is that this ability to synthesize dissonant information is a behavior (or set of behaviors) that can be cultivated rather than an innate skill that some have and others do not.
Foremost among these behaviors is intellectual curiosity, namely “an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally charged beliefs.” It is this hunger for knowledge, challenging of the status quo, and openness to experience that can drive improved practices in decision making and scenario planning.
As Gardner and Tetlock write, “beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasure to be guarded.” If we can cultivate dragonfly-eyed behaviors and develop this attitude of healthy challenge towards received wisdom, then we will be putting ourselves and our organizations on a firmer footing when it comes to making critical decisions about the future.
Image: Boris Smokrovic/Unsplash