Deciding is often a tension between a long-term want and a short-term need, thus most times is a difficult process where a second order thinking is needed to unravel hidden implications of our decision in the future, preventing unintentional outcomes to occur.
The question is now how we can identify second order impacts. The straightest forward answer is by making the right questions.
Second order questions
In a decision-making process, we often make some questions related to the topic. These are usually first-order questions intended to understand what is happening. Second-order questions go far. They are questions intended to understand the process, built upon our first-order questions. They are questions about first-order questions.
For example: asking where I should go is a first order question. Why should I go there? That’s a second-order question. It allows me to think further and enlarge my perspective.
Making questions about the process let us avoid our biases, or at least being more aware of them. Our thoughts and beliefs are shaped by our experiences, our education, and our culture, among other factors. How we make decisions is usually constrained by them.
A mental model
Whether you’re a manager or not, and as Ray Dalio says, “failing to consider second consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions”. Therefore, the ability to deliver a second order thinking when we go through problems is a mental model with many advantages.
Second order thinking provides a framework. A way to consider not only the potential good of a decision in the near future, but its potential downsides and its effects later. Moreover, looking at possible compounded outcomes opens up the door to consider different possibilities to what we can achieve, and to be aware of the limits of our decision.
In terms of actions, this way of thinking should be deliberate because it requires some effort since it is deep complex iterative process.
For any given problem, we can come to a first solution with its pros and cons. But to identify future consequences, we need to ask questions to learn more about it: what the risks associated are, how it does impact the system (element, processes, flows), what others will think about this decision, or how I do know that this decision is right, for example.
After all these questions, we can make a more informed decision, bearing in mind not only first consequences but also second or third ones which allows me to learn, enabling better decisions in the future.
Second order thinking takes a lot of work, but since making decisions is probably the most important part of a manager’s job, it’s worth to give it a shot.