This weekend I read a fascinating article by Columbia professor Dr. Robert Jervis in the Boston Globe. He wrote about the way our brains make connections, how these connections inform our decisions, and how this process could have contributed to the incorrect decisions the CIA has made when drawing conclusions about terrorist threats. He made two points that were of particular interest to me.
The first point is his assertion that humans are very good at recognizing patterns and making connections that are relevant to our world view. In the work I've been doing, I would call this a linear connection. The second point is that once humans reach a conclusion, they are not very good at questioning their initial assumptions. They tend to disregard or manipulate data that could call their conclusions into question. (I'm sure we've all had frustrating experiences with this human trait.)
After reading the article, I was struck by the similarities between the problems the CIA is experienceing, and th eproblems many companies have when trying to innovate. And as is often the case with companies it became clear that, while I'm sure the CIA has plenty of good problem solvers among their ranks, I would bet they are lacking people with good problem-posing skills. Successful innovators are very good at questioning assumptions, making non-linear, synesthesia-like connections, and posing new problems. These people are more open to finding the path that reconciles the data they have, rather than paying attention only to the data that reconciles the path they have chosen. Sound familiar?
All of this then made me question one of my own assumptions. I believe that people who can make relevant (as opposed to random) connections between seemingly disparate ideas have a heightened ability to make cognitive connections. I have imagined this very physically, as a brain with more physical connections being made. But is it really this way? Maybe these people lack the ability to make the well worn connections that others make, resulting in the need to make new connections more often. Or maybe it's not physical at all. Is it due to a difference in the way we perceive information, or a tendency to suspend judgment until all data is reconciled?
I don't have an answer as to why this happens, but as I work to build models to objectively select people with good problem posing abilities I'm realizing that the need to identify and nurture their skills is broader than I had anticipated.