As humans we incorrectly perceive that we have more control over events than we actually do. We are also often optimistic that when we take actions, that those actions will affect the changes we envision. The applicable cognitive bias is named “Illusion of Control,” or the tendency to overestimate one’s degree of control or influence over other external events. It is all part of being instinctively self-centered as most people are.
The consequence of this bias is that our that our solutions fall short of or miss the target objective. Perhaps they do not plan for as many resources as are truly necessary to achieve the goal. Or, our solutions constitute “swimming upstream” and attempt to affect more change than the institutions can actually bear. Or, more commonly, our solutions do not “swim downstream” and use inherent strengths the institution already possesses, strengths evidently taken for granted.
Leaders are especially susceptible to this illusion. A new leader will be installed and assess an institution. They will discover many shortcomings almost every office they review. The leader will come up with a sweeping plan to implement transformational change. They charge their directors to implement that plan. Metrics are created and the directors start tracking them faithfully. Per incentives those directors begin to target means to improve performance toward the metrics if not overall success. The leader is gratified and believes that he or she has changed the organizational culture and influenced the target audience. More often then not, however, what the leader sees is limited to, and controlled by, what the directors choose to communicate. Line employees may not even recognize the leader’s face. Even more likely, the external world will present challenges and opportunities that either hinder or help the institution fail or succeed. Perhaps a new leader is brought on to re-focus the institution or business on what the now previous leader neglected. The cycle begins again.
The Illusion of Control is particularly seductive in foreign policies. In the U.S. government we believe that if we cooperate with a partner and provide aid and advice to them, that we can alter the cycle or change the government for the better. We dedicate resources–time, money and effort–toward persuading our partners to reform and to assist us, perhaps by providing access to a base. Our country directors want to believe that by having a joint exercise or providing some Humvees, they are influencing our international partners. They start to look for signs of success, and more often than not, discover for what they are looking. Partners quickly learn what their U.S. government interlocutors want to hear and repeat it back to them.
Unless we deliberately observe and consider realities, we can have the illusion of control: it is probable that the individuals we are meeting with are not in control of the broader institution and are unable to implement changes to personnel policies, weapons procurement, government spending, or security strategy decisions. It is hard for us to fathom that by having strong positive relationships with a couple of government functionaries, that nothing will likely happen to reform the Internal Security forces much less influence the average citizen of our partner country. Unfortunately that is reality.
We can avoid falling for the Illusion of Control by ‘swimming with the current’ and not against it. Our solutions must leverage institutional strengths; as Einstein reputedly postulated, fish cannot climb trees. If we mean to transform an organization, we must be prepared to persistently expend the resources necessary to achieve it; that means working directly with the many employees that guard the institutional memory. We must ruthlessly prioritize our objectives and pursue only a handful that our directors can manage within their authority and span of control. We must ensure our metrics measure progress toward the end product, not merely promote pieces of the process.
I recently met with a client who is planning an ambitious agricultural aid project in an African country. “I want to transform the society,” he said proudly. The challenge is, of course, that transforming how millions of people perceive the world and cultural dynamics that have existed for over a thousand years. My advice to him is to dovetail his agriculture project into how that society operates already as much as possible, to leverage that society’s institutions, while introducing a couple of simple but novel facets to increase the probability of success. To avoid falling into the “Illusion of Control” trap, we must propose solutions that assign swimming to the fish.