Metacognition, our secret weapon

Why are organizations victim to “negative, culturally-driven patterns” while cities are not, asks Patrick Lambe at Green Chameleon. In a most interesting paper, Patrick examines why organizations seem to sabotage  themselves; why cities grow, corporations die and life gets faster; how the food price index is linked to political instability; and a long discussion on the role of witchcraft in most societies.

How Collectives Inhibit Insight (PDF) synthesizes much of my own recent thinking, on bureaucracy and the emergent nature of corporate culture.

These patterns of behaviour are emergent and unintended. Collectives do not sit down and decide by consensus to act in these ways. They just happen. But there does seem to be a “grammar” of collective behaviours, where specific kinds of circumstance will produce specific kinds of social response, and which therefore makes them predictable.

There are two ideas here:

(1) social collectives produce unintended (ie never deliberately planned by individuals or groups of individuals) habits of thinking and behaving, and provide those habits to their members – and these habits have predictable, discoverable “grammars” rooted in the circumstances of the social collective and its needs; and

(2) the natural “grammar” of social collectives in response to insight and innovation is to impose friction on the absorption of new ideas.

If we understand the grammar of how social collectives naturally respond to insight, perhaps we can understand how to work with the insight-activation mechanisms of that grammar, and avoid or mitigate the effects of the insight suppression mechanisms.

Social collectives seem to have a life of their own, no matter what any individual does. This can appear hopeless, but Patrick shows that we a powerful weapon, “we have something that social collectives do not have – and that is metacognition, the ability to reflect on our own thinking processes and to question them.” This is a powerful tool in all that we do within organizations and societies. The ability to see outside of our selves. With much discussion in various venues about 21st century competencies, I would put metacognition at the top of the list, as it’s the core of critical thinking.