Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, urban sketching

Painting Pan & Avoiding Panic

Painting in the outdoors, or “plein air,” is a popular past-time for artists and great practice for everyone who wants to learn to appreciate their surroundings with new eyes. I am most likely to be found doing this on weekends when I have painting pals who want to be outdoors.  But a few (most, actually) of the people with whom I correspond do not have much time to paint whether in or out of doors, so I thought I’d write a post about what art is teaching me about readiness for the unexpected.

The other day, I found myself in a setting devoted to sustainable gardening and wild meadows where my subject turned out to be a small garden statue of the ancient Greek god of the wilds, fields, and flocks, Pan, with his man-like body and a goat’s hind legs.  The word “panic” is derived, I’ve since learned, from Pan’s name.

photo-of-pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Photo of garden statue of Pan at the River Farm, Alexandria, Virginia

This subject promised to be challenging, especially given changing circumstances. Sunlight vied with overcast skies, changing the shadows on the figure every few minutes.  In addition, a wedding was scheduled for these very grounds in a short time, so planning ahead was of the essence.  First off was a quick sketch to familiarize myself with this scene, and gain some idea of lights and darks.

sketch-of-pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Quick sketch in terracotta watercolor pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

Such a sketch can boost confidence for the next step, though it is true that you never know how a sketch is going to turn out and many sketchbooks, like diaries, are private partly for this reason.  Nor, increasingly, do we know what we will face, so sketching (or  a rehearsal or a “scenario”of any kind) is a way to increase our readiness for the unexpected, a subject that received more attention in the early days of this blog.

Seeing Things Differently and Avoiding Panic  Learning how to see in different ways, sometimes very quickly–including connecting with others who see things differently–is fundamental to survival, not only for the artist.  It has been called various things including cognitive agility, mindfulness, and “rapid reflection.” But I’ve observed that it often doesn’t get the attention you’d expect for something so critical.  In fact, in too many places, people are incentivized to ignore the unfamiliar and to treat it as irrelevant until an altogether too-obvious change in the status quo forces (some of) them to reconsider…and sometimes that is too late.   (Even in the absence of crisis, such a disinterest in the world can harden into a lack of curiosity which calcifies one’s situational awareness at a dangerously low level.  This has proven in the past to be particularly bad for living species of all kinds–not to mention modern-age businesses–and is especially risky in today’s world where we–and all our things, such as watches, cars, and phones–are more interconnected than ever before.)

pan-playing-pipes

Illustration:  Watercolor on Arches Hot Press by Black Elephant Blog author

Topping off this day  of plein air painting was the opportunity to see the movie, “Sully,” on the inspirational pilot and the first responders on that incredible day when a fully-loaded passenger plan had to land on the Hudson River.  From painting Pan in the wilds, I was confronted with wild scenes that would leave most of us panic-stricken if we were in the midst of them.

sully-photo

Illustration: Photo from indiewire: http://www.indiewire.com/

But this is a film of human strength and prowess, strong team work, and genuine leadership.  From the pilot and his co-pilot, to the crew, the ferryboat operators, air traffic control, and many other responders, the rapid response to this unprecedented event demonstrated the value of consciously preparing (across disciplines, stovepipes, and other boundaries) for the unexpected.    In this case, one imagines that such pre-crisis teamwork contributed to enhancing preparedness for an unprecedented situation.  Remembering the importance of the  “human factor”, as per Sully when he explains himself to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), is the critical difference.  His performance seems to be an example of “rapid reflection” crisis management in action; this film carefully adheres to the facts of the crisis as it actually unfolded and, therefore, truly is a “must-see” for all those in top management, whatever the field.

I’ve been reminded regularly that true artists respect unintended consequences  whereas experts of other stripes too often don’t.  Artists regularly experiment with techniques and materials, and absorb others’ approaches like sponges; many experts of other stripes too often don’t. There is seemingly an important paradox in this.

In an age when many clearly believe it is more acceptable to bash experts than to emulate them, the aspiring artist knows that study of others’ solidly perfected techniques–and, beyond this, historical appreciation as to what has been humanly possible and achieved over time–leads to greater consciousness of our individual shortcomings and more rapid recognition of the truly exceptional (as the film, Sully, also reminds us).  Recognizing these gaps can inspire us to be more curious and to learn more.  At the same time, experts themselves must prepare for circumstances never before seen (and, thus, for which there is no sketch, textbook or field of expertise). Indeed, a certain cognitive and doctrinal flexibility seems necessary, at a minimum, lest very deep expertise lead us to think that everything can be scripted, measured, and predicted ahead of time–as the differences between the NTSB and Sully demonstrated in the film.

The artist with skill in applying paint (or ink or any other medium) to paper or canvas–and expertise such as pilot Sully’s extraordinary tacit knowledge of the limits of his airplane, his ability to derive quickly from different inputs the most sensible course of action, as well as his abiding awareness of the value of human life–demonstrate human capacities  that total reliance on computers, for instance, or checklists can never achieve.

So, while it is true that you generally don’t want the pilot of your commercial jet to be creative in getting you from point A to B, the movie, Sully, does show us that adaptation in the face of the unexpected requires a degree of mindfulness  (and openness to ongoing learning) that cannot be assumed.  At their best, therefore, artists and experts of all types, whether commercially successful or not, seem to combine deep knowledge with a degree of cognitive flexibility that is hard to sustain from deep within “stovepipes” of all types, from academia to industry.  Dealing effectively with this conundrum seems to me to one of the most important things we could do these days.

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Surprise, Uncategorized

Room with a View

With nearly all the people in this area still inside their houses after the snowstorm of the past 36 hours, a cardinal took a peek into the window today.

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake fine point black marker) by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink (Kuretake fine point black marker) on Arches Cold Press 140 1b watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author

Sunlight lit up the scene outside, creating dramatic shadow shapes on the snow, a real challenge to paint.

After a while, it was time to take a walk outside in this wonderland, following a small path stamped down by others who passed this way earlier. Next on this blog, a look at why  about one inch of snow that fell last Wednesday caused relatively more havoc in this area of about six million people than nearly 30 inches that fell yesterday. It turns out that, like snow blindness, “paradigm blindness” can affect our ability to see, and prepare for, what’s right in front of us.  This is related to material we will commence teaching in the university semester which begins this week, so it is good for me to review it.

After the snow 1

Illustration: Watercolor sketch on Arches Cold Press 140 lb watercolor paper by Black Elephant Blog author

 

 

 

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Uncategorized

Superforecasters and Dragonfly Eyes: Booknotes

Despite my best intentions to get through an ever-growing stack of books, a brand new one crept into the mix and demanded my immediate attention, so here goes, with a few notes on it:

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon black pen and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon black pen and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, (Crown Publishers: New York, 2015).

In this book, the authors, Tetlock, a professor of psychology, political science and business and Gardner, a journalist and author, note that “we are all forecasters,” in the sense that we need to make decisions that involve uncertainty (as when we buy a home or make an investment or decide to relocate, etc.).

When it comes to really big events, like market crashes, wars, etc., however, we expect to turn to “experts.” Unfortunately,  according to the authors’  research results, the experts we might most expect to be able to “forecast” events with precision are less able to do so (against certain types of problems) than “ordinary” well-informed people who are not experts in the subject matter.

These “ordinary” people have some extraordinary characteristics, the authors realized when they analyzed their research results.  These include an ability to step outside of themselves and get a different view of reality, something the authors note is really hard to do.  But the ordinary people who did the best in the forecasting tournaments run by the authors, exhibited a remarkable ability to do just this:

“Whether by virtue of temperament or habit or conscious effort, they [the successful forecasters] tend to engage in the hard work of consulting other perspectives.”

In conducting U.S. government-backed research, the authors found that people such as a retired computer programmer with no special expertise in international affairs  could successfully answer very specific questions such as “Will the London Gold Market Fixing price of gold (USD per ounce) exceed $1850 on 30 September 2011?” People they worked with, such as this individual,  were enabled by the rules of the research project to update their forecasts in real time, incorporating new information in their estimates as they came across it.  (The process is explained in detail in the book.)  Over time, “superforecasters,” such as this retired computer programmer stood out among the pack.  Such people, write the authors:

“…have somehow managed to set the performance bar so high that even the professionals have struggled to get over it…”

The results made the authors inquire into the reasons for the “superforecasters'” better performance.  They write that “It’s hard not to suspect that [so-and-so’s] remarkable mind explains his remarkable results.”

Indeed, some of their superforecasters have multiple degrees in various subjects from various top-notch universities, speak several languages, and lived or worked abroad, and are voracious readers.  But, assuming that knowledge and intelligence drive strong forecasting performance would send us down the wrong path, concluded the researchers.  To be a superforecaster “does not require a Harvard PhD and the ability to speak five languages,” they concluded.  Many very well-educated and intelligent participants in their study “fell far short of super forecaster accuracy.”  They continue:  “And history is replete with brilliant people who “made forecasts that proved considerably less than prescient [citing Robert McNamara — defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as one example].”  So, the authors conclude:

“Ultimately, it’s not the [data/brain etc] crunching power that counts. It’s how you use it.”

Well, duh, you might say.  Isn’t this obvious?  Apparently not.

Dragonfly Forecasting So how do these superforecasters do it?  What do they have in common?  The authors survey a number of case studies from their research to provide some insights.  What they discovered is a capability they call “dragonfly forecasting.”  The researchers observed that the super forecasters, while “ordinary” people, have an ability to synthesize a large number of perspectives and to cope with a lot of “dissonant information.”  They have more than two hands, write the authors, because they are not limiting themselves to “on the one hand or the other hand thinking.” (Sidebar:  I just attended a seminar on energy and climate challenges where one of the speakers, an engaging, colorful and normally compelling orator, clearly), made the comment that “on one hand you have total environmental disaster or, on the other hand, total commercial disaster,” concluding that “we need to get on the right side of this.”

Illustration: Seminar sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Seminar sketch using Black Sharpie pen on Stone Journal notepaper by Black Elephant Blog author

This sort of binary thinking can be quite limiting, particularly when there is no “right side” as is the case, more often than not, when facing a world of increasingly complex challenges.  I heard more examples of this “either-or” thinking problem again just yesterday in an all-day conference, with people literally saying that they don’t see an option beyond the frame they’re in.)

“I’ve Looked At Things From Both Sides Now” 

By contrast, the dragonfly eye in operation, according to the authors, is “mentally demanding.”  (Already,in this mere statement, we run up against some cultural and cognitive realities in many large organizations where everyday urgent matters and matters only perceived as urgent (possibly because of this very binary winners vs. losers thinking) take up almost all available bandwidth.)

Superforecasters “often think thrice–and sometimes they are just warming up to do a deeper-dive analysis.”  Forecasting is their hobby, write the authors.  They do it for fun and also because they score high in “need-for-cognition” tests.  These tests rate people who have a tendency to “engage in and enjoy hard mental slogs.”

There also is an element of personality likely involved, they conclude.  The traits involve “openness to experience” which includes “preference for variety and intellectual curiosity.”

The authors conclude, however, that this dragonfly eye capability, which involves synthesizing a growing number of perspectives, has “less to do with the traits someone possesses and more to do with behavior.”  These behaviors include “an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally charged beliefs.”  Interestingly, the researchers have concluded that, without this behavior, individuals (forecasters or not) “will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking.  [emphasis added]”

Those with a dragonfly eye cultivate their ability to encounter different perspectives.  They are “actively open-minded,” write the authors.  There is an actual psychological concept around this cognitive behavior.  For superforecasters, therefore, “beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasured to be guarded,” conclude the authors.

There are too many implications of this work–important implications–to cover in a blogpost.  But it must be said that the book raises implicitly at least as many questions about how to proceed in a complex interconnected world as it attempts to answer.  For instance, fewer enduring problems of real consequence can be addressed with a simple forecast, no matter how accurate, in a bounded time-wise constraint.  Inherently complex “super wicked problems” discussed earlier on this blog do not lend themselves to this sort of forecasting.  Tougher choices involve immersing ourselves in deeper questions of values and longer-term perspectives.

Nonetheless, what the authors have demonstrated with their research offers us the opportunity to pursue these challenges with greater awareness of individuals’ different cognitive and philosophical outlooks, and perhaps–from a corporate human resources point of view–to allocate jobs and tasks to people based on comparative evaluations of their cognitive and behavioral strengths.

As more and more issues require deeper thinking and appreciation of systemic interconnections, it may become ever more important (even if not acknowledged in organizational priorities) to find ways to incorporate “dragonfly eye” sense-making behaviors.   The authors have observed that “belief perseverance” can make people “astonishingly intransigent–and capable of rationalizing like crazy to avoid acknowledging new information that upsets their settled beliefs.”  When people have a greater investment in their beliefs, it is harder for them to change their views.

There is important stuff in this book which requires a great deal more reflection. So, this thread of inquiry will continue in the next post’s look at another new book called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, by Jamie Holmes (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).    Not at all “nonsense,” thinking about thinking matters.  Even if these books fail to provide us with concrete next steps, the relevance of these works to current challenges facing decisionmakers, and their advisors, in all sectors cannot be overstated.

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Uncategorized

The Shape of the New (unfinished)

Already the week is nearly over and it’s been quite full, making it impossible to get through the nearly 500 pages of the new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. At least, I’ve made it through the section on Adam Smith, and partially through the section on Marx.  Still to come are the chapters on Charles Darwin and Thomas Jefferson. Amid warnings in the media about the state of the global economy, and on the heels of the UN General Assembly Meeting focused on sustainable development goals, it seems safe to say that this book is super timely. It’s clear that it’s well-written and thoughtful, making one want to know how the authors bring it all together in the end. It’s just that, with the spectacular weather we’ve been having, it’s been hard to avoid the stronger pull of the outdoors, and some very special sketching opportunities.

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Apropos of the “shape of the new,” one of the sketching sessions this week occurred alongside the Cylburne Mansion in Baltimore where a metals magnate during the “Gilded Age” in the late 19th century built his home. Situated today on a large parkland which comprises the Cylburne Arboretum, this is a spectacularly beautiful place, where flowers and trees are abundant and crowds non-existent.  As one reads in The Shape of the New, the onset of the Industrial Age which gave rise to a new elite made mansions like this one possible in the late 19th century.

The Freer and Sackler Galleries were another stop earlier in the week on an equally majestic day weather-wise.  There is a small exhibit about the ancient city of Palmyra–once known as the “city of palms”–in modern-day Syria, there. It is impossible not to reflect on how the antiquities so recently destroyed managed to last, outdoors no less, for nearly two millennia up to our present times.

Palmyra statue

Illustration: Photo of the sculpture of Haliphat

Here it is possible to wonder where the shape of the new is headed.  The lone statue of an elegantly dressed and wise-looking young woman, known as “Haliphat,” seems to be trying to tell us something across the ages.  Unlike so much in Palmyra, she survives, here in this exhibit, so we may yet learn what this statue conveys across nearly 2,000 years.

On the way out, a muscular statue of a guard towered over us, and seemed to demand to be sketched.  He represents one of two guardians (the other was positioned at the far end of the hall) of Buddha and hails from the 14th century.

A subsequent post will return to The Shape of the New.

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch of a

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

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Innovation, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing From Life

In an open life studio, where all types of artists gather to practice drawing or painting from a professional model’s pose, it is striking how differently the participants depict the model in their artwork. No “analytical objectivity” is possible here; everyone sees the same model quite differently.  It  is impossible for any two people’s drawing to be alike, or even for the same person to repeat exactly the same drawing a second time.

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

In what ways might this process of deciding what to draw, and how, be related to “design thinking”?  From considering the future of countries and even economics, there seems to be more attention being paid to the need for thinking differently, if not even ahead. Some experts on international affairs seem to be exercising design thinking, for instance, when they posit alternative futures for a country like the United States, as in the new book by Ian Bremmer, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (2015). What is different about the thinking processes that enable us to consider alternative futures or to plan for the consequences of unpredictable developments?

Certainly art students are encouraged to have a plan and to think ahead to where their brush is going, where the light is coming from, what kind of paper they have, and to pay attention to the shadows, “cools” and “warm” values. Splashing colors on a page may work for some but for most of us learning how to think about techniques, and gaining confidence through practice, are necessary. It’s a sort of strategic thought process. It is difficult to get the hang of it at first.  Being comfortable with taking risks is part of the process, clearly: an ink blot here or a dribble of water there might damage what seemed before to be coming along just fine. Alternatively, that ink blot or water stain might make this painting really special!

In art as in life, the decisions that must be made seem endless, and each one bears heavily on the final result.  But the artist gets to make his or her own decisions usually, and must live with the results.

In a more populated context with many people potentially affected by the outcome of decisions, what is the process of consultation and deliberation that must be followed? How to deal with the inevitable inkblots, and their unintended consequences?  Is the factory-model of organization helpful or hurtful in such times; what are the alternatives?  With highly integrated challenges mounting (along with the rise of intricately networked systems riding on technologies few people really understand), what insights could we be drawing now to build upon in the future? Who will create these insights, and how?  How will we know where the brush is going, and to what end? Who will be wielding the brush in an interconnected age such as ours? …  Per request a future post or two will list some reading possibilities.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Bridging Old and New in Frame Innovation

According to the author, Kees Dorst, of Frame Innovation:  Create New Thinking By Design,  (The MIT Press, 2015), we are “collectively being tripped up by today’s problems.”  Tackling emerging complex, dynamic and networked problems with old approaches makes no sense, he writes; “the trusted routines just don’t work anymore.”  They require a “radically different response.”  But what do those responses look like, and how do organizations large and small mobilize them?

head sketch

Sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dorst argues that the interest in “design thinking” up to now has often led to ineffective responses.  He says that this is because, up to now, we have tended to turn to the “designers” to generate solutions, “rather than [recognize and enlist]…the key ability of expert designers to create new approaches to problem situations,” or “framing.”

The creation of new “frames” to approach problem situations is the key, and a special element of designers’ problem-solving practices, writes Dorst (citing Whitbeck 1998).  Dorst’s book introduces fresh practices based on lessons learned so far on how to link sound design approaches to real-world problems in different domains.  From designing high-speed rail links to dealing with challenges involved in social housing and reducing crime rates, he shows how designers are confronting the complexity of a situation head-on.  From elegant 19th century-era hotels in places which tend to attract large numbers of people with 21st century tastes to large government institutions struggling to adapt to cross-sector challenges, devising cost-effective and future-sensitive ways to update our problem-solving approaches seems like a ‘no-brainer,’ doesn’t it?  But it turns out that, while obviously necessary, it is far from easy, especially for those working in long-established organizations.

Illustration:  Watercolor, ink wash, Faber & Castell gold Pitt artist's pen, and Gelly Roll white pen (view from a park in Baden-Baden)

Illustration: Watercolor, pen, ink wash, Faber- Castell gold Pitt artist’s pen, and Gelly Roll white pen (view from a park in Baden-Baden, Germany) on Stillman & Birn paper Alpha-series by Black Elephant Blog author


 In Dorst’s view, “we have an unprecedented need to extend our problem-solving repertoire so that it can address these issues.  Future posts on this blog will look at some of these strategies, but–in the meantime–those who are interested in this subject will find  Dorst’s book useful. (So, in a belated response to the reader who asked on this blog some weeks ago something like, “is this really anything new?”, it appears that Dorst’s answer would be: yes, we are dealing (or, failing to deal) with a new class of problems that are highly complex and cannot be solved by those working within a single sector.)

Coming up, a bit more on this, and some recommendations for related books and links.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Sketching and Frame Innovation

Anyone who sketches or attempts to create anything new is attempting to create a new way of seeing something, even if just for themselves, in their own sketchbooks, or–as I did last night–on the back of an envelope.  They are, to varying degrees, storytellers.   Urban sketchers certainly are storytellers or, if you will, citizen reporters, and “plein aire” artists, drawing and coloring what they see! Those who tell stories about their sketches, their sculptures, their jewelry-making projects, their workshops, or other sorts of creative endeavor are providing narratives to put a frame around the effort.  So sketching leads straight to frame innovation…which is getting serious attention in some business and academic circles.

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

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

It appears that artists have a lot to teach those of us who have depended primarily (so far…) on our analytic brains to carry us forward. And who, after all, isn’t an artist, given a chance? What happens when our analytic brains are simply not up to the challenges (some of which may be “black elephants”) ahead?  A few posts back began to look at a book on this subject published by MIT Press recently.

This post thus will segue back into the discussion of frame innovation raised a few weeks ago here on this blog (and to which there may be a few more unanswered questions by now).  One question so far raised, for instance, is whether the ideas behind “frame innovation” are, in fact, anything new?  The next few posts will consider this and related issues.

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