Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Discontinuous Discoveries

Image:  Gouache and gesso  by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Gouache and gesso by Black Elephant Blog author

Have you ever wondered how well suited organizations today are for a world of inevitable surprises, including “black swans”, “black elephants,” and other outsized dangers and opportunities?  Most organizations are embedded in complex systems where even the tiniest decisions–such as how many times their drivers back up their trucks in a day–are monitored, measured, and evaluated.  Managers and employees are judged on how well they meet project goals established in the past, never mind what may be the new circumstances today.  While infinitely easier to manage–and, frankly, possibly the only way we know how at this point–such organizations are no longer fit-for-purpose in the world we’re living in, according to a great many people in touch with these realities.

“The world is not just rapidly changing; it’s being reshaped,” says Dov Seidman, author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, in a column today by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.   According to Seidman, “It’s all happened faster than we’ve reshaped ourselves and developed the necessary norms, behaviors, laws and institutions to adapt.”

What are some of the implications of such a mismatch?  As explored in the last post here on this blog, the breakthrough insights that led Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park to decode German wartime communications in World War II–the subject of the film, “The Imitation Game,” currently probably in a theater near you–emerged from a series of interactions that were not planned, expected, or inevitable.  (Thus this crucial breakthrough could not be “managed” by any conventional meaning of that term.)  Yet, from this series of connections, coincidences, and hunches emerged the glimmerings of a solution that turned around a war, shortening it possibly by a couple of years, and saving an estimated 14 million lives.   In a thought experiment, consider whether the Bletchley team would have succeeded if its laboratory was housed inside the institution to which it reported.  (It turns out that Bletchley Park was chosen primarily because of its proximity to a rail line connecting it to Oxford and Cambridge from whose universities the needed codebreakers were expected to come.) In today’s world, 75 years later,  are we leaving prospects for our well-being (whether on local or global scales) to chance by relying on outmoded ways of thinking about organizing knowledge?

Fortunately, in pockets here and there, it seems that we have learned, and continue to learn, much more about how innovation and insight creation work, and how their results can be harvested and applied to real-world problems.  Over at the University of Illinois, for instance, under the leadership of Dr. Bruce Vojak, co-author with Abbie Griffin and Raymond Price of Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms (2012), an online discussion group called the “epistemology of innovation” has been underway for some time.  In a series of essays, Vojak has made the case for the “non-linear” nature both of breakthrough innovation and innovators, as in this essay (cited with permission).

Linear and Nonlinear Systems

Image: From “On the Epistemology of Innovation: How Breakthrough Innovators Connect the Dots,” Number 23, February 1, 2014, accessed at http://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/27667 Copyright Bruce A. Vojak, 2014

Vojak’s essay distinguishes between non-linear and linear systems and includes this helpful chart for ready contrast.  He notes that breakthrough innovation is a “messy, complex process that does not follow nearly defined paths.” He continues:

“While a finite set of certain activities must be conducted as the innovation process unfolds (such as identifying the best problem to address, understanding the problem deeply, and synthesizing what is known into an innovative product concept), these activities typically are attended to repeatedly, in only a general order initially and with little or no predictability thereafter.”  Vojak concludes that the underlying nature of “innovative discovery” can be described mathematically by using chaos theory.  “Non-linear systems abound in nature,” he writes, “and also play a key role in engineered systems, such as the conversion of an audible signal to a much higher frequency, enabling its transmission in a communication system.”  He notes that breakthrough innovation, like a non-linear system (as he describes in the table above right), exhibits “identical extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, as well as the other characteristics of non-linear systems.”

Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist, dives into similar questions in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (2013).  One of the insights to come out of his work is that many organizations typically emphasize critical thinking at the expense of generating insights.  Yet, effectiveness (and performance improvement) depend on both.  “Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes,” he writes, and yet many people feel that their organizations stifle their attempts to do a good job (by having insights!).  In his book, Klein relates the results of his research into how insights get triggered, what interferes with insights, and how organizations can foster insights.

It turns out, Klein concludes, that:

“Insight is the opposite of predictable. Insights are disruptive. They come without warning, take forms that are unexpected, and open up unimagined opportunity. Executives may believe that they want insights and innovations but are most receptive to new ideas that fit within existing practices and maintain predictability.”

There is a “magic of insights, ” according to Klein.  This magic “stems from the force for noticing connections, coincidences, and curiosities; the force for detecting contradictions; and the force of creativity unleashed by desperation.”  It’s a tall order for organizations accustomed to delivering consistency and predictability.  But what are some implications of applying linear expectations to a non-linear world?

Future posts will take a closer look at what Vojak and his associates call the “epistemology of innovation” and the conditions  and habits of mind which Klein has discovered are forces for disrupting our thinking in ways which–in a disruptive world–are becoming more important in every endeavor.  As ever, links to relative material are welcome and will be included on this blog.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Black Elephants and the Magic of Insights

Elephant 6

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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Innovation, Risk, Uncertainty

Understanding Improbability

twin_sisters-press-07

Image: PBS.org (Public Broadcasting Station) Twin sisters, born in China, meet their new adoptive mothers who did not know each other and initially did not know the babies were twins. On that first day of acquaintance, the infants are soon dressed by their adoptive parents in clothes from their new homes respectively in Norway and in the U.S.: identical red-checked gingham dresses.

As 2014 draws to a close, it is impossible to ignore how remarkable a year it’s been in so many ways. Whether “mysterious”, “miraculous”, or “magical”–or tragic, terrifying, or tremendous–there have been so many surprising twists and turns, and these are merely the ones we know about.

Since this blog is about investigating the roots of how we are surprised, it seems fitting to note that this year has been one of unexpected and “rare” events.  Our minds seek patterns as a way of making sense of these developments–seeing similarities and expecting correlations to help us understand what is going on–but sometimes (often?) our innate pattern-making sensibilities mislead us. Our misplaced confidence in our understanding leads us to expect outcomes that turn out, in hindsight, to have been unrealistic.

So, it bears asking:  what is the nature of such surprises?  Why are experts proving so unimaginative (often admitting as much) at anticipating the scale of potential disasters, and does this mean that they are equally impoverished in imagining how large-scale breakthroughs (or “good surprises”)  in the human condition could occur?  What are the implications of a radically more interconnected globe and the rates and scale of the surprises we face? Shall we careen from one unexpected event to the other, temporarily struck dumb by the suddenness and scale (and typically cost–economically and otherwise) of the turn of events? Or, are some of the surprises that are real crises actually avoidable, as the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus says this year’s Ebola crisis was?  Are surprises similar in type or are there different sorts of surprises; that is, different in ways other than normative expectations of “good” or “bad?”  Are there ways to make more fortunate surprises more commonplace?   Clearly not only quality of life but actual lives are at stake in these problems.  These are some of the questions future blog posts here will pursue.

In 2014, there were many unexplained coincidences and developments, whether on the scale of individuals going about their daily lives or on the stages of geopolitics, global travel, or global public health. What are the chances, for instance, of one commercial passenger jet going missing, with all its passengers and crew aboard, in a sad incident still unexplained nine months later? Furthermore, what is the chance that three passenger airliners–two of them from the same Malaysian airline company, and all three from Malaysia, would be involved in rare disasters in the same year–as it appears that another airliner has met a tragic end this very week?

Similarly, many were surprised when Russian forces of some sort moved into Crimea earlier this year, and still more surprised a couple months later when a hybrid group of publicly virtually unknown extremists swiftly took control of large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.  Most everyone was surprised by the rapid drop in oil prices in recent months. (And what surprises might be in store because of this?)

As surprising–devastatingly so–has been the rapid spread of the Ebola virus.  Known to be deadly, this virus had always been–before now, that is–stopped in its tracks in dozens of previous outbreaks in relatively remote African villages.  (In a just published article in the New York Times, How Ebola Roared Back, ” the results of an investigation undertaken by that newspaper show how a series of missteps by health experts and organizations since May, 2014 contributed to this otherwise avoidable catastrophe. )

As so often happens with surprises, the experts were caught off-guard by this one.  There were so many things that were different about it;  as a result, experts were overconfident in their assessment last May that the Ebola crisis was abating.  Previously, Ebola outbreaks had occurred in remote villages in Central and East Africa, where the virus could be surrounded and isolated. (Ebola had not previously occurred in Western Africa.)  All told, these previous outbreaks had killed 1,590 people over four decades, only a fifth of the toll of the epidemic still unfolding across West Africa, according to the just-published NYT article. According to Dr. Petr Piot, the scientist who originally discovered the Ebola virus in the 1970s,  and a colleague, Dr. Jeremy J. Farrar, in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in September 2014, “The Ebola Crisis:  Immediate Action, Ongoing Strategy” (and cited in the aforementioned NYT article),  this year’s outbreak can be attributed not to unique characteristics of the virus but instead it is more likely to be:

“…a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities [in the Ebola-infected nations] after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response [emphasis added].”

Image:  Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (Concern-Liberians.org)

Image: Ebola orphan approximately 4 years old (Concern-Liberians.org)

Whatever the issue, it seems the experts were among the most surprised; x, y, or z wasn’t supposed to behave this way.  In an age in which we can program our smartphones to “Find My Phone” in case we misplace them, or microchip our pets in case they go missing, it is hard for the average person (and apparently also the experts)  to understand how a passenger jet with nearly 300 people aboard can remain lost almost a year after it went missing, or a known virus can overtake several nations in a matter of weeks.  Are there lessons that can be learned from these developments?  Whose problem is it to learn them?

Memories of improbable events, such as the terrible tsunami in 2004, also show how surprises can condition us–depending on our resources and level of political will and commitment–to deal better with future surprises. No one expected a tsunami on the scale of the one that occurred on December 26, 2004, exactly one decade ago last week.  Experts did not expect it.  Tsunamis are the deadliest of natural disasters and the one that hit the Indian Ocean region ten years ago contained energy equivalent to 10,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to a BBC  article, “Science Still Learning How to Limit Tsunami Misery” from a few days ago.  Just as in the case of West Africa this year, the vulnerability of the densely-populated areas in the path of the disaster was a factor in the tsunami’s devastating impact, including the loss of 230,000 people in more than 14 countries.

Years later, when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, lessons from the earlier tragedy helped mitigate but did not eliminate the resulting devastation.  No one had imagined a magnitude 9 earthquake nor unexpectedly high (30 meters) waves; designated refuge areas on higher ground were inundated as a result. By this time, however, Indonesia had a better approach than Japan, according to the BBC article, thanks to a collaboration with Germany called the GITEWS (the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System).

Image:  Washington Post

Image: Washington Post

On the eve of a New Year, those of us unaffected directly by such tragedies understandably would prefer not to think about them.   Fortunately, the desire to make sense out of events, whether tragic or marvelous, suggests that we have the capacity to eventually learn what it takes to limit the scale of disasters and maximize the likelihood of creative breakthroughs. The outset of a new year seems, therefore, a fitting time to realize how highly improbable events are not always, or even often, of the tragic variety; instead, they are the serendipitous moments that occur to each of us.  They could even be the breakthroughs that enable us to be better prepared for inevitable misfortunes and disasters.

As the subject of this blog is surprise, and not only bad surprises, it seems important to investigate the role that surprise, or at least uncertainty, plays in life. There is, for instance, the story told in a PBS special released this fall of identical twin sisters born in China, and designated to different adoptive parents–one couple from Norway and another from the United States, who were not told that the girls were twins.  When the two sets of parents went to pick up their new infant daughters on the same day at the same adoption center in China, each  couple brought with them an identical gingham dress for their baby’s first day in their respective families.  (The two couples suspected in that first meeting, however, that the babies were twins and later were able to confirm this; they continue to arrange for reunions of the biological sisters.)  And just last week, there was the story of a priceless heirloom engagement ring lost on the busy streets of Washington, D.C.–and then improbably found and (even more improbably) returned to its owner!

As the improbable year of 2014 gives way to a new year of surprises–with a toast held high for many more such happy surprises, and more rapid and effective global coordination for the tragic ones–future blog posts will examine more closely how improbably probable improbability is. Coming up: a look at the new book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day., by British mathematician and former president of the Royal Statistical Society, Dr. David Hand. And a close look at how insights and creative breakthroughs occur, drawing especially on the work of a senior scientist, psychologist, and expert on “adaptive decision-making,” Dr. Gary Klein, in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight (2013).

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