Three Frames of Mind in a Circle

18 Jun

A short while ago I spoke to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a major UK organisation. The Chief Executive was not in a good place. Years, even decades of stability, had been replaced by the need for new ways of working, doing more with less resource, and working with new partners; all the jargon and reality you hear in economic news. During the conversation, the CEO, admitted they had spent a period in denial, imagining the change was a shift in rhetoric and not in practice. This time spent in denial meant that by the time reality sunk in, they were forced to make even more drastic changes and at greater speed. These changes involved “leaning out” the management structure; basically getting rid of people they had worked with, liked and respected for years. With no real experience of this type of restructuring, they had settled into a clumsy vague style of telling colleagues the bad news.

Later I spoke to one of the senior managers who had been told their position was being made redundant. They had resented the lack of firm leadership in telling them the bad news, instead of “being told straight”, they had largely been left to pick the bones out of a series of vague messages which didn’t sound good. The conversation with the senior manager concluded with them observing “the CEO used to know this business inside out, was actually seen as innovate 10 years ago, you could rely on their judgement. But they just couldn’t believe the environment was changing, tried to wish it away, and then couldn’t even face telling us the bad news. I do sympathise, but they either need to change or get out. At the moment their head is in the sand”.
Looking back on this encounter I concluded that the CEO had moved around a circle, stopping off at three different mind sets.

The relationship between making sense of risks and uncertainty, and decision making, is a relationship which takes place on a rotating circle. As the circle rotates, it pauses, for a length of time no one can be sure of, at one of the three frames of mind. How risks are assessed, and the future anticipated, whilst the circle pauses at each of these frames of mind, determines the type of decisions which get made. The three frames of mind and the rotating circle help explain phenomena such as when experience and expertise, once so valuable and trustworthy, suddenly becomes the cause of catastrophe. It also explains how confidence can suddenly turn into crippling self-doubt, how procedures can become strait jackets and how and when intuition beats formal types of analysis. So, what is this circle and what are these three frames of mind?

Rudolph (2003) carried out a study with a sample of anesthesiologists to explore mind sets in decision making. The study involved the anesthesiologists tackling a simulated practice based scenario. The scenario provoked a diagnosis and a certain course of action, but then drip fed new information into the mix which contradicted any initial course of action. What initial diagnosis would be made? Would these professionals notice this new information? How well would they adapt? Rudolph analysed the performance of the anesthesiologists and divided the results up into four groups; Rudolph discovered four “mind sets” in operation.

There were those anesthesiologists who adopted a closed mind. This group stuck to their initial diagnosis and explained away later evidence and developments which contradicted this belief. There were those anesthesiologists who adopted an open mind. This might sound like the sweet spot, but Rudolph had an interesting name for the use of an open mind- diagnostic vagabonds. These professionals would not commit to any diagnosis, treating all potential hypothesis as tentative. There were the stalled mind set, who simply became stuck (a significantly small group). And finally, there were the adaptive problem solvers, generating a diagnosis, rigorously testing it, and based on feedback from this testing, adapting this diagnosis as necessary. This group were the professionals who noticed, synthesized (or rejected) and tested all new information, successfully “solving” the scenario.

The Rudolph study is a fascinating piece of work. It illustrates how well trained professionals can become fixated, uncommitted, stuck and significantly, adaptable. Drawing from the Rudolph study, I’ve seen three frames of mind in my work-

Fixated frame of mind- where people draw a conclusion, make a decision and then hold onto to a belief regardless of any contradictory information. These people, of all types and professions, hold on, dig in and apply a rigid mental model. All new information just bounces of it, until the cracks start appearing.

Adaptable frame of mind- this is the sweet spot. These are professionals and people who make a decision, choose a path and then test it. Based on what information the testing stage produces they adapt the decision or path they are on.

Open frame of mind- where people cannot settle on a decision. All options are kept open but none are chosen or committed to. These are feelings of frustration when someone cannot decide on a new car, dress or strategy, forever waiting for more data, or fudging positions. In this frame of mind we could encounter the search for the “perfect” choice, procrastination, or constant chopping and changing.

Imagine these three frames of mind located on a rotating circle. Each of us, regardless of who we are, our experience, profession and relative degrees of success can stop off at any of these frames of mind. Spending too long at the fixated stage can lead to being overrun and changing only when it is too late. Too long in the open frame of mind and you could end up frustrated, confused and forever in limbo. Spending as long as possible in the adaptable frame of mind is the goal, but I would hazard a guess it’s not possible to live there; sometimes we all become over confident, or feel that just that one bit of final information would reveal the optimal choice and it’s best to defer the final decision.

All these frames of mind have a view of how the future will play out. The fixed frame of mind sees the future as something they know. People in this frame of mind can be over confident in their plans, believing everything will move along a straight set of rails, or they can be crippled with self-doubt, believing one step outside the front door will most certainly end in catastrophe. The adaptable frame of mind believes you need to be committed but on the lookout for subtle cues and patterns, prepared to adapt when the unexpected occurs, with flexibility built into plans. The open frame of mind can’t formulate a vision of the future, is ensure about their resources to cope with change and the unexpected, so they stay forever at the analysis stage, or someone does them a favor and makes the decision for them.

The anesthesiologists in the Rudolph study were a snap shot of decision making at the time. All of us are on the rotating circle. When we stop, at two of these points we need to get moving quickly, at one of these stops we need to try and stay there as long as possible. Over the next few articles I’ll start rotating around the circle, stopping firstly at the fixated frame of mind. During this stop I’ll review the previous articles on this blog, research and expert thinking from the field, and the research I’ve produced which relates to a fixated frame of mind. Then I’ll be doing the same next for the adaptable frame of mind and finally for an open frame of mind. Before I start, there is one irony and recurrent theme to point out. Earlier I suggested that staying at an adaptable frame of mind for as long as possible is the goal, the irony, and the recurrent theme is this- the people who stay there the longest are the people who keep moving the most.

Rudolph, J. (2003) Into the Big Muddy and Out Again. Error Persistence and Crisis Management in the Operating Room. Dissertation, Boston College
Summary of the above can be found in
Klein, G (2009) Streetlights and Shadows. Bradford Books.

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