Consilience

“The love of complexity without reductionism makes art;
the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.”

—  Edward O. Wilson, from Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Consilience

literally a “jumping together”

of knowledge

“The principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” to strong conclusions. When diverse sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence are very strong on their own.”

Specialization in business and management disciplines has led to disconnected advice and increased risk for the business owner and executive. Seeking specialized advice is logical for increasingly complex problems.

However, with each advisor focused on his or her own knowledge, theory and practice, it is unclear whether the problem is adequately defined or the recommended solution appropriate. This is not an issue of incompetence but, as the adage goes, “to a child with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Business advisors see the world through the lens of their own training and experience, which creates its own unseen risks.

BlindMenElephantBusiness

This is similar to where healthcare has evolved – specialization at the expense of integration. Each specialty diagnoses and “fixes” the perceived problem Business advisors see the world through the lens of their own training and experience, which creates its own unseen risks.in the patient without fully understanding how alternative diagnoses might provide more effective interventions. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each sees, without malice or malpractice, what he or she has been trained to see. For idiopathic chest pain, the cardiologist tends to see it as a heart issue, the endocrinologist as hormonal, and the gastroenterologist as digestive.

In healthcare, this systemic problem is being addressed through a practice known as the Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH). Although conceived in the 1960s, PCMH has only recently been actively pursued by health systems to coordinate care. One individual, often the primary care physician, coordinates care from needed specialists. Diagnosis, intervention, evaluation and follow up are integrated to reduce risk and cost, speed care delivery and improve outcomes.

In business, executives seek specialized advice for increasingly complex problems. This approach is logical, and commonly used, but creates an unanticipated risk – depth of expertise without breadth. As in medicine, disconnected business specialists can create conflicting diagnoses and, if not addressed, antagonistic interventions. Each may prescribe a course of action or medication that may not be exactly on target with the core problem or opportunity. For a division with poor sales and marketing, the IT specialist sees the solution as a CRM system, the HR specialist as training, and the R&D specialist as a product improvement.

There is a way to fix this flaw in business advice, just as it is being tried in healthcare. This concept is called consilience, defined as the linking together of principles from different disciplines, especially when forming a comprehensive theory. Each discipline sees the world in different ways, using different data sources, measurement processes, theories and processes of proof. Consilience works by testing a theory across varied disciplines to see if it can pass muster and be validated by independent and objective tests. The more a diagnosis or recommendation works across many disciplines, the more likely it is to be valid. A good example of this is in evolution, where genomics, geology, paleobotany, geography, comparative anatomy and molecular biology all support both the theory and lead to accurate predictions.

When a business doesn’t know how to address a problem or opportunity, it calls in a specialist with presumed experience. However, there is no assurance that the current problem is the same as the last one this expert faced. Executives are more likely to get a good diagnosis and intervention if they seek advice from a diverse group of specialists. Although a board of directors, nominally focused on governance, can be helpful, an advisory board, consisting of subject matter experts, is better.

However, better still would be coordination of all external advisors. Consilience works by testing a theory across varied disciplines to see if it can pass muster and be validated by independent and objective tests..This consilient approach would ask for advice from all disciplines providing advice: legal, financial, governance, training, operational, HR, marketing, IT, sales, leadership and other perspectives.  For a private businesses, this means integrating perspectives of personal needs, business value and a competent long term strategy for eventual transition of the enterprise. Whether internal staff, such as a COO or operations manager, or an outside advisor, such as a management consultant, the executive benefits from having one independent and objective person coordinate and validate all of this advice.

Beyond delivering vetted and validated advice, there is another huge benefit to a consilient advisory approach. Each specialist, by having to accommodate other disciplines, and defend their own assumptions and conclusions, broadens their own perspectives. Mandating, or at least encouraging, consilient consulting improves the quality of your advisors.

The need for consilience will only grow as the complexity of issues facing companies, even small ones, continues to grow. Adopting consilience as a foundation for taking advice will allow management to minimize risk, reduce cost and speed improvement.