Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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The successful attempts by these marginalized players to apply a new paradigm to the elusive anomaly can be effectively ignored – for a while. Very few people initially visit their cave.  Eventually, however, the message gets out that something “interesting” or even “important” is occurring in this backwater location by this backwater researcher or theorist. Gradually, there is acceptance of the ideas and practices embedded in the new paradigm and successful work with the anomaly. Expansion of the marginalized approach and answers eventually leads to a revolution. The new approach and answers become the new dominant paradigm.  The cave is now frequently visited, and many people move in. Many of the “old-timers” hang on to their precious but outmoded paradigm, but their time in the scientific spotlight has passed. They are now only acknowledged in the history of science textbooks.

It is important to recall that Kuhn focused primarily on the physical sciences. He believed that psychology (and most of the other social and behavioral sciences) are “pre-paradigmatic”—meaning that they are operating at the present time without a dominant paradigm or (to be a bit more generous) are operating with paradigms that are frequently overturned or significantly modified. Plato might say that Kuhn’s pre-paradigmatic state is one in which there are not any caves with sturdy walls. People are wandering around look for a cave in which to hide, learn, live . . .  But none exist for them (at least at the present time). This is perhaps the essence of our present mid-21st Century state of knowledge—and what many social observers (including myself) identify as a postmodern condition of fragmentation and fiction (Bergquist, 1993).

The Three Level Crisis of Expertise

The three levels at which we can leave our cave relates directly to three levels at which experts can be in trouble. On the one hand, it is wonderful that an expert can provide perspectives and practices that are helpful at each of the three levels. An expert can help a leader differentiate between bias and noise—as Kahneman and his colleagues have done in their provocative book. An expert can also align with Argyris and Schon in assisting a leader in discerning what in their behavioral repertoire is theory-in-use rather than theory-in-mind. In this regard, the “expert” will often take on the role of coach or consultant when assisting their client. At the third level, the expert becomes a challenging presence in the life of their client, often providing an interdisciplinary and “cutting-edge” perspective that encourages their client to “think outside the box.” At the very least, the expert can be a reassuring presence and source of support and encouragement for a leader who is venturing outside the existing paradigm of their organization or society. While the expert might not be able to provide blinders when their client exits the cave or a guidebook to the new cave they are entering, they can at least let their client know that their fears are warranted—and that new learning is certainly on the horizon.

Before we begin to celebrate regarding the opportunities for valuable expertise when one is considering a venture outside the cave, we need to recognize that these opportunities are often offset by potential problems. First, we must remember that the expert is likely themselves to be living in the same cave as the leader they are serving. What makes us think (or the “expert” think) that they somehow can avoid the biases of the cave? Alternatively, if they reside outside the cave, then how do they fine the credibility to speak with insight and wisdom about living inside the cave. These outsiders might have found their own “bliss”, but this euphoric state might not be available inside their client’s cave.

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