Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Black Elephants and the Magic of Insights

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Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, gesso and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author

If you’ve had a chance to see the new film, “The Imitation Game”, about the brilliant but sadly socially outcast British mathematician Alan Turing, you’ve probably been powerfully reminded–through its artistic rendering of a true story–of the critical roles which serendipity, hunches, and chance encounters have played in devising solutions to the most challenging problems of any age.  (Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie, and wish to be surprised when you do see  it, perhaps it is best not to read further.)

In the film, Turing and his teammates–a collection of unusually gifted mathematicians, including one woman– at Bletchley Park in England literally were racing against the clock to figure out how to decode German wartime communications during World War II.  Their efforts centered on the invention by Turing of a decoding machine (basically a prototype computer) but, despite hours of hard work and all their smarts, the team was about to be shut down by uncomprehending bosses under pressure to deliver results.  (The film has received mixed reviews–such as this one–due to its mix of imagined and actual events, and its alleged failure to convey that the Turing effort was part of a much larger effort underway at Bletchley.)

Illustration:  xxx plays Alan Turing in the film, The Imitation Game (Image from xxx/The Economist)

Image: Allstar/The Economist

Without giving away the storyline (the general outline of which is, however, a matter of historical record), it is in a moment of relaxation away from their secret laboratory,  bantering with friends who were supporting the war effort themselves but not privy to any of the Turing team’s information, that a chain of interactions leads to a breakthrough insight.  In the film, a casual comment by someone who is not on the Turing team has an instantaneous effect.  Her hunch becomes Turing’s insight and he and the rest of the team, up to then stymied in their task, had to act immediately.

This insight turns out be the what the team needed to successfully break the Enigma code.  Their success is credited by historians with turning around Britain’s fortunes in the war.  They also estimate that the code-breakers helped shorten the war by two years and saved approximately 14 million lives.

This film subtly highlights  some of the necessary ingredients of breakthrough thinking:  talent, expertise, hard work, team work,  intensity, diversity, false starts, time pressures, clear purpose, and random encounters with ideas from disparate sources outside the immediate field of inquiry.  While perhaps failing to give sufficient credit to Turing’s bosses (per some of the critics), the film also hints at why so many traditional organizations are so poor at facilitating this sort of thinking.  Whatever the gap between the historical reality and the movie, it is worth pondering:  What are some of the implications of a mismatch between the outsized global issues of our time and the incapacity of most organizations to nurture the modern equivalents of Bletchley Parks?  How can talent and good judgment be assembled most effectively to deal with the important, as well as urgent, “Black Elephants” of our times?

Most of us by now have heard of the Black Swan concept but the Black Elephant concept is not well known.  For this writer, it came into being when encountered in an op-ed by New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, in late 2014.  As he explains, a “black elephant” is a “cross between a ‘black swan’ (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the ‘elephant in the room’ (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

At a time of mounting challenges (including but extending well beyond the environmental issues cited in the Friedman piece) that are too big to fit into anyone’s inbox, or even anyone’s organization–where speed, as in the case of Bletchley Park, is of essence and stakes are high–the concept of black elephants seems a timely one.

The focus here on the roots of surprise inquires into how insights and breakthroughs come about.  The current age is no different from past ones, such as the example illustrated in The Imitation Game, in needing to aggregate, cull, and distill insights that can be acted upon in a timely way.  With more challenges filled with potential for highly improbable (but, therefore, according to Dr. Hand’s “laws of improbability,” practically inevitable) outcomes, however, the need for insights may be multiplied in present circumstances.

With high stakes involved in multiple arenas, this blog’s inquiry into the roots of surprise will next explore the findings of experimental psychologist and expert in “adaptive decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein, in his fairly new book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (2013).  Klein notes that generally we know very little about how insights are formed or what blocks them.  He too thinks it’s important to know more about where insights come from, so his book is meant to fill some of our knowledge gaps about the magic of insights.  In an upcoming post, I’ll feature some highlights from this book, and link to related material as I come across it.

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