Dealing With Complexity: Time To Explore, Not Exploit

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In the Wall Street Journal (March 8-9, 2014, page C2), Alison Gopnik wrote an interesting article “Why you’re not as clever as a 4 year old”, which may shed light on how leaders can more effectively cope with complex issues.

We think that children usually are worse at problem solving than we are. While that’s generally true, the result of her colleague’s work at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that sometimes that’s not true; and that offers an important lesson.

Focusing on patterns of using square and round blocks and trying to select the right ones to match new shapes (you can read the study for the details in the article), they found the children solved problems involving combinations better than adults. Why? Their hypothesis is that adults are expert at “exploit learning” – trying to find quick solutions from the ones we already know have worked elsewhere, while children engage in “explore learning” – trying out different possibilities, including unlikely ones even if they may not have much immediate payoff.

As we’ve discussed in this blog many times before, the world is getting more complex and leaders (especially those in an IBM study) are finding they aren’t prepared for some of the challenges. As children have the luxury of time and lack of prior assumptions, so we explore options. As grown-ups, under more time pressure, we focus on the “tried and True” and exploit those solutions.

Solving the problems of a more complex, interrelated world may require we take more time to explore new options than exploit the ones we already know – especially when they don’t immediately work. A particularly effective strategy is to start off exploring and then narrow it to exploit.

Have you had similar experiences? Share them!

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