Monday, May 10, 2010

Blindsided by our mental models

Many of us myopically peer into the future, blindsided by our out-of-date mental models, believing that the observational tools we have at our disposal provide an accurate picture.

Or just when we think our mental model is the latest and the greatest, we discover the world has morphed into something else and that others have an advantage over us because they have a faster, smarter, more accurate something-scope.

More of us - than ever before - are contributing to new knowledge creation. 

Creative types such as artists, writers and scientists lead the way. They interpret the future for us. Set the scene. Try out new combinations.  They get to do this work simply because they are playful re-arrangers of what has gone before.

However, each of these creative roles is being democratized by the new media and the Internet. Millions get to play at being writers and publishers of blogs and wikis, producer/director/writer/actors in our own YouTube videos or the artist or photographer that sees the world through a new lens.

And as this new knowledge we create is split into ever more "idea spaces",  it becomes harder for any one person to comprehend it all. And so the business of government and the governance of business becomes more difficult and complex.

Knowledge is not only growing exponentially - so that more and more people are more knowledgeable about a tiny part of the "knowledge cosmos" - but each "idea space" comes with it's own complex jargon, that's hard for others outside the field to understand. Languages are now developing, not only through geographical isolation, but also professional isolation. It was always thus, just more so.

For example, many PhDs know more than anyone else in the world about their tiny needle point of knowledge in the knowledge cosmos, a little about adjacent fields, and the kind of generalized knowledge acquired by just living or via the media, the arts or travel.

And so it is more difficult than ever before to reach agreement across the boundaries of what we separately know. Because we can't trust others unless we understand what they mean, and believe what they say. Look at what's happening right now over climate change, nuclear power, abortion, the delivery of health services or economic policy.

Anyone who has ever looked through a microscope or a telescope can tell you there is much hidden from our senses. These extensions to our observational organs help us peer into the world of the very large, or the very small, to see distant stellar objects or micro-organisms that are invisible to the naked eye. Once-upon-a-time at a handful of magnifications. And as the technology improves, at millions of magnifications, all the way to the "edge of time".

I am reminded of the days we presented black tie "thinking theater" type events with Michael, an astrophysicist from the University of New South Wales. We awarded bottles of champagne to the tables who contributed the most inventive, but usually incorrect interpretation of images he had taken of the night sky. His favorite challenge was to show pictures taken at different wavelengths., Like these two. Nothing much at infra-red wavelengths. But a hive of activity in invisible light.

But, as a fisherman will tell you, what you catch depends upon the size of your net. And it is not just the measuring instruments which limit what we perceive, it is also our mental models. How blind is a person, brought up to believe the world is flat to the possibilities that flow from a spherical perspective.

Sadly, some are us are still using the "clockwork universe" perspective of Isaac Newton without realizing it. We see things in terms of cause and effect, people and processes to be controlled and managed, numbers to be crunched in algorithms that produce serial results.

Very few of us yet think in terms of the new sciences of complexity theory, quantum dynamics, fractals, chaos theory, evolutionary psychology or string theory. These ways of seeing the world in all its non-linear glory have been available for decades.

When we think in the ways of the new sciences, we see flows and processes, the deep interconnection between people and nature, self-similarity at every scale, emergent phenomena - new kinds of order - that seems to just pop out of the system, phenomena which are no longer either-or but both, simplicity within the complexity and complexity that follows from simple rules.

But if you are unable to think this way, you might not be able to see a phase shift occurring in market space, as our brains, the tools we use, and the jobs we perform, shift to a higher level of order under pressure from our desire for a better life. Like the current transition from a world focused on Knowledge tools and work, to a world in which Wisdom work, the work of the guru or leader, is being democratized. 

You might miss the shift to new and smarter technologies that help humans do stuff more reliably, with less impact on the planet. Your belief in cause and effect might blind you to the ongoing chaos in world financial markets, where hiccups in one country ricochet around the world, dragging under the local bank upon whom you rely for credit, which you did not realize was so highly connected to the rest of the world. Your conditioning to focus on one thing at a time, might limit your ability to get many projects started, only one of which might generate the attention it deserves or ensure it survives in a world of intense competition for ideas.

So here's a workshop to help discover what is hidden from your view:

1. Describe what it is like to make decisions in market, social and economic conditions of the early 21st century.
2. What is the mental model that you are using to view, manage and control your world? What are your assumptions?
3. Give examples of how managers might see the world in terms of opposing forces, management and control of people and systems, cause and effect and linear algorithms.
4. Describe what you know about quantum dynamics, complex systems, holographic order and chaos theory and how you have applied these concepts to your life, your work or the organizations to which you belong.
5. Quantum dynamics teaches us that phenomena have multiple aspects e.g. light is both a wave and a particle. Use this idea to explain the following concepts group/team, leadership/managership, producer/consumer and how thinking this way might help.
6. Complex systems undergo phase shifts from one level of order to another when catalysts within the system cross-catalyze each other. What kind of catalysts might you find in a marketplace which is undergoing transition from one kind of tool/work to another e.g. horse and buggy to car, CD to flash memory, and how is this relevant to you/your organization?
7. When you cut a hologram up into little pieces and shine laser light on it, you still get a three dimensional image because all the information is distributed throughout the system. Choose one of these terms and explain how/why they might be holographic. Relationships. Organizational knowledge. Resources. Concepts.
8. Explain how you could develop skills/capability holographically so your organization is more flexible and fast moving and why might this be useful today.
9. How could you organize your corporation or agency fractally - self-similarity at every scale - and what might be the benefits?
10. Give examples of how you could measure personal and organization performance in a rapidly changing world using some of the principles of quantum dynamics, complexity theory etc. and how you might disturb the dynamics of the organization, simply by making the measurement 
11. What dramatic changes could you implement in an organization by setting up initial conditions so multifaceted, complex behavior might flow from the adoption of simple rules e.g. servant leadership or dialectical discourse.

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