Omniscience is the enemy of social progress

By Kristy Muir

Thursday June 20, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

I recently had the privilege of being a teacher, panellist and participant as part of the 2019 JBWere NAB Social Leadership Program with Shamal Dass (Head of JBWere Philanthropic Services and Harvard’s Professor Kash Rangan).

It was sitting as a participant that I learned the most – not so much from the content, but from my reaction to the case study debate.

I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with one side of the debate.

Inherently, I know that this isn’t useful. I need to be able to really listen and be curious about alternative views.

It made me stop and really think more about how when we presume to know the answer, we rarely make positive progress.

As the week progressed, I couldn’t shake the notion that omniscience (or ‘all-knowingness’) is a hindrance to making true social change.

And so when I was asked at dinner to reflect on my week, I couldn’t help but share: “Omniscience is the enemy of social progress”.

I said this with the type of certainty that only comes about after a couple of glasses of good red.

While I was so certain about this (ironically omniscient) at the time, in hindsight and after talking to my clever team, this needs a lot of qualifiers*.

But I think there is some merit in my mantra. Here are three reasons why…

1. Being ‘all knowing’ has no place in trying to address complex social problems

Omniscience arguably has little place when trying to address complex social problems.

We can debate what is and is not ‘positive social change’ and for whom, but social change – addressing homelessness, financial exclusion, un/underemployment, educational inequity, early childhood vulnerability, place-based disadvantage (among other issues) – is complex.

Complex problems are not linear; there are no simple solutions or silver-bullets; they require multiple actors to respond with multiple levers across ecosystems.

No one individual, one organisation or one solution can address these problems.

Complexity theory and years of research has demonstrated this (Snowden, for example, is one of the best).

Alone, we barely know the right questions to ask, let alone the right solutions.

A CSI colleague recounted an example.

An organisation was trying to ‘solve’ the problem of transportation fines for homeless people and came up with a range of solutions.

However, it was only when they asked people who were homeless for their input that they were able to create an alternative solution that the organisation had not previously imagined.

The work and development order was the result (an alternative where people can pay their debts via volunteer work, training or treatment).

2. Being ‘all-knowing’ about a simple, reactive solution can prevent us from lifting our gaze beyond the work we’re doing or currently funding

As a society, we continue to focus on servicing problems with reactive simple solutions, rather than developing longer-term preventative or corrective solutions.

That is, we focus on ‘fighting fires’ and picking up pieces at the ‘bottom of the cliff’, rather than intervening early to prevent the problems in the first place.

Recent Hunger and Food Insecurity research shows that 8 in 10 disadvantaged families are skipping meals, cutting the size of their kids’ meals and choosing foods less balanced for a healthy diet because they cannot afford food.

We give out emergency relief, we provide breakfast clubs (which are all important), but why don’t we work upstream and Raise the Rate of social security, increase minimum wages and make work less precarious.

In the homelessness space, we rightly focus on providing food and blankets and reaching out to homeless rough sleepers, but we similarly get stuck ‘servicing’ the problem (and even then, we’re not meeting need – there were 86,100 unmet requests to specialist homelessness services in 2017-18).

We rarely look up long enough to focus on investing significant resources into affordable, appropriate and secure housing.

It’s this shift that has significantly decreased homelessness and therefore the need to service homelessness in Finland.

During the JBWere NAB Social Leadership Program (SLP), Professor Kash Rangan and I ran a Financial Wellbeing Workshop.

A group of cross-sector participants focused firstly on addressing the crisis in each of the systems – utilising real-life case studies with financial counselling and crisis support.

But as we progressed we together explored what would it take to ‘lift our gaze’ and ensure that Australians didn’t find themselves in these financially precarious situations to begin with: avoid irresponsible lending in the first place, disrupt the payday lending sector with alternative cheaper forms of credit, use data as a predictor and prompter for early support, lift minimum wages and increase working hours for the underemployed… (I could go on).

What was interesting though is that the immediacy of our response is usually to deal with the crisis.

Of course, no one should go hungry, be cold or unsafe.

But we also need to recognise that our brains are trained to come up with solutions to simple problems and not to move into the more complex space.

We are, as Berger puts it, “trapped by simple stories” and our “desire for a simple story blinds us to a real one”.

3. Being ‘all-knowing’ is a leadership trap

It is well established in leadership literature that being all knowing is not effective in dealing with complexity.

Berger (2019) calls “rightness” a “leadership trap” that “kills curiosity and openness to data that proves us wrong”.

In the workshops Kash ran, his case study methodology uncovers the views of opposing sides and challenges each.

It was interesting to see how the heart and the head engage with the debate and how different people take different perspectives and prioritise different solutions: for financial outcomes, for mission outcomes, for protection of the board, for the sustainability and scalability of the organisation, for minimising risk… Most of the participants are in multiple, executive and/or governance roles.

There is no shortage of IQ points; on the contrary, there was an overflowing abundance of wisdom in the room.

The problems we were discussing weren’t technical challenges.

Some were complex problems that needed to be addressed.

Others were tensions that needed to be managed.

Either situation requires exceptional leadership and the ability to remain curious, constantly ask more questions and to see different perspectives before coming to a conclusion.

This includes how we see the perspectives of people who are not in the room.

It’s not just about asking the right questions but asking the right people.

This happens more often than it should.

We come up with ideas for sponsorship but don’t ask a community what they most need.

A philanthropically funded collective impact initiative, for example, was failing in a disadvantaged community.

Significant resources had been invested in the initiative.

In telling the story, the community manager said that it wasn’t until they went back to people living in the community to ask what they actually needed, what they valued and begun to work with them (not for them) that the community started to see real progress.

Omniscience – to be ‘all knowing’ – and omnipotence – to be ‘all powerful’ – is potentially a dangerous combination because it assumes we have all the knowledge we need to make a decision and all the power to carry that decision out.

Change requires not just a shift amongst leaders, but also funders, teams and collaborators.

Each of these examples reinforces being mindful of the mantra, “Omniscience is the enemy of social progress”.

They reinforce that when we think we know the answer, we must ask more questions.

We must keep probing:

  • What are we missing?
  • Whose views have we not heard?
  • How do I really “listen to learn” and understand perspectives I don’t agree with (Berger, 2019)?
  • What do I need to hear?
  • How might I be wrong?
  • What might this mean for what’s next?
  • Who should I be working with outside of my organisation?
  • Is this really the best use of funding and resources? What else would we do if we could change the system?
  • What might we do differently if we ignored our sense of rightness?
  • We might just find friends of social progress: asking, listening, sharing, collaborating, creating, failing and holding onto the vulnerability and discomfort of not knowing.
  • So, is omniscience the enemy of social progress?

I don’t have the answer, but I think it is a mantra that is worth paying some attention to.

It might help me (and us) remember to ask more questions and to listen hard and wide before declaring a solution; to stop ourselves when we think we can solve a complex problem alone, to seek who else we should work with.

And, if we do, as Berger said, “escaping the rightness mindtrap might just make us better humans”.

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