Maggie Jackson, a journalist focusing on the effects of technology on the nature of our humanity, and author of the book Distracted, recently highlighted research showing that the mere presence of a cell phone—even if it’s turned off—lowers “fluid intelligence.” That is, the phone essentially siphons our attention away from what’s in front of us, making it more difficult to solve unfamiliar problems. 

She cites other research demonstrating that instantaneous access to information (I’m looking at you, Google) makes it less likely that we’ll struggle to solve a new problem. Even a brief online search for information reduces our willingness to engage in the cognitively challenging process of deep thinking. 

Jackson sums up this situation as follows:

 In our current culture, “knowing” is becoming something brief, perfunctory, neat, packaged, and easily accessible. Yet complex murky problems demand firstly the willingness not to know, to understand that the time for ease in thinking has ended and the real work of reflective cognition must begin.

And second, difficult problems demand tenacity, a willingness to struggle and connect and reflect on the problem and its possible solutions and move beyond the first answer that springs to mind. This is when we must extricate ourselves from automaticity in thinking and call consciously upon the side of ourselves that can decouple from tried-and-true answers, gather more information, test possibilities, and build new understanding.

Given this situation, is it any wonder that we have difficulty solving the complex problems that afflict our organizations? Is it any surprise that we struggle to avoid easy, reflexive “solutions” that seldom address the root cause of a problem? Who wants to take the time to work on an A3, or DMAIC, or 8D analysis when you can just do somethingand get plaudits from the CEO for being a take-charge employee who gets stuff done? Why chew through a (real) bagel when you can have a donut?

A few years ago, Karen Martin wrote about an experiment she ran with her workshop clients. Instead of teaching them a full suite of root-cause analysis tools, she’d do the following:

  1. Ask the participants to list a few problems and solutions to them. 

  2. Introduce the concept of PDSA (but without teaching any root cause analysis tools).

  3. Have the participants list the same problems as before, but this time with possible root causes—and suggest potential countermeasures to those root causes.

Each time, the participants come up with different countermeasures. Karen points out that even though their solutions may not be “best,” by simply inserting an additional step she was able to shortcut reflexive knee-jerk responses, and push people towards deeper, reflective consideration. 

Synthesizing these two articles leads me to the following conclusions:

  • People naturally gravitate towards simplistic answers. (This is the Type 1 vs. Type 2 thinking dichotomy that Kahneman and Tversky described.)

  • Today’s omnipresent, always-on, completely seductive technology makes it even more difficult to think deeply about problems. It distracts us, and it weakens our mental muscles. 

  • It’s incumbent upon lean thinkers to help people overcome the natural and the technological hurdles to deep thought. Karen’s experiment is one way to do this. I’ve suggested another approach. Neither of our techniques is the ultimate method of problem solving, of course, but they’re both useful in developing the right mindset. The skill set can follow.