Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketching is Seeing

Illustration:  Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

Illustration: Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying  strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,”  increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected.   We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here.  (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train:  How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action”  at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)

But, our  classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch.  This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or  even the exact facts on the ground  (simulating reality).  The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes.  Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially.  Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester.  We all learn something in the process.

Boy sketching

Sketching something imaginary?

We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.

tulips and capitol

Photo: U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. taken by Black Elephant Blog author

Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.

Bridge photo

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!

bridge pastel 1

Illustration: Work -in-progress pastel sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished.  Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented.  (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)

Lakeside watercolor 1

Illustration: Work-in-progress watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes.  Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.

How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions.  Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles.  But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As  more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt.  It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary.  Would we better off  if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school?  One wonders.  Meanwhile, it’s  no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire:  sketch away!

Standard
Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Driving Innovation on the Fuel of Creativity

When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that?  If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source?  Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?

Zoo sketch 1

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

Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all…  Is that what we must accelerate?  Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ?  There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.

With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.:  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014).  Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future.  How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon.  Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation.  Coming up next…

Standard
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

 

 

 

Standard
Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Sense-making in a “Shapeless” World

It’s been said that we’re living in a “shapeless” world. What is meant by this is that our understandings about the geopolitical shape of our world has become fuzzy, hazy, or contradictory.  People, whether formally recognized as decision-makers or not, must make decisions. Some are becoming aware of having to work harder to make make sense of things.  They might wonder if they have the necessary tools to do so.  Often, however, people (especially experts) would not want to admit such uncertainty.

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author on Arches 140 lb. Cold Press paper (October 2015)

There is a deeply-held belief in modern life that knowing things and eliminating uncertainty gives us more power and security, and that anyone who exhibits uncertainty and/or reflectiveness is therefore weak and indecisive.  (This is related, as well, to being perceived as  “doer”–a “climber”, a “mover” and a “shaker.”)  Deeply ingrained concepts of success are tied to our perceptions of others as confident, bold, and expert.   Certainly, we know, the stock market does not like uncertainty, and that’s because it’s made up of people having to make decisions. People do not like uncertainty and, for some potential setbacks, go so far as to buy insurance to protect themselves so as to better manage risk.

Up to now at least, accumulating facts, expertise, and scientific knowledge–and mastering the material world–seemed to suffice for decision-makers.  So, what’s changed today?  Cannot the facts of any matter provide us the answers we need to steer a safe course through choppy waters?

Of course, it is debatable what shape the world was in when it had more shape in our minds: the “Cold War” comes to mind. It gave shape to things, but perhaps not a shape most of us, at least those with any appreciation of history, would care to repeat. There also was the shape of the 1990s when it seemed to many that technological advances and globalization would inevitably lift all boats.  The Financial Crash of 2008 upended many experts’ basic beliefs about the essential shape of the world, and many experts today acknowledge that nothing yet has taken the place of the old certainties now pretty much ripped to shreds.

Into this incoherence comes a new book that may help us to self-diagnose, at least. Our yearning for “shape” is the focus of this book by Jamie Holmes, a “Future Tense Fellow”, at the New America Foundation, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).  Drawing from many interviews and lively case studies, Holmes looks at how we make sense of the world. He studies the neurological wiring that makes us calm or agitated in varying states of certainty or uncertainty.  He finds that uncertainty is an “emotional amplifier”:  “it makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable.”  Holmes examines how the world of medicine has changed in a data-abundant world, for instance.  And he delves deeply into  how our sense-making minds naturally work to solve the puzzles of every day existence.  So, what has changed that makes the world seem shapeless, at least to some, today?

The paradox of modern existence, according to Holmes, is that “technological acceleration–in transportation, communication, and production–should provide more free time” but, in fact, most of us feel “continually squeezed” by overwhelming options and limited time to assimilate and evaluate information,” he writes.

Indeed, abundant information has created more uncertainty!  So much information “makes even the simplest decisions–where to eat, which health plan to sign up for, which coffee maker to buy–more fraught.”

Avoiding this reality or denying it would be of little use, Holmes writes.  “Managing uncertainty is fast becoming an essential skill.”  In his prologue, he cites economist Noreen Hertz’s argument that “one of today’s fundamental challenges is “disorder–a combination of the breakdown of old, established orders and the extremely unpredictable nature of our age.””

In his book, Holmes demonstrates that “being able to handle ambiguity and uncertainty isn’t a function of intelligence.”  (Interesting too that being a “superforecaster” also is not a function of intelligence (see previous post).  But it is an emotional challenge.  This is because individuals have varying needs for “closure,” a concept developed by psychologist, Arie Kruglanski, Holmes writes.  People who understand this concept, even merely intuitively, actually can manipulate others’ discomfort with ambiguity.  “When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions.”  This is the stuff of radical and dangerous shifts in popular attitudes over the course of history; it merits our deeper understanding.

What’s important in this work is Holmes’ seemingly original and certainly unusually accessible treatment of the importance of contextual circumstances in changing individuals’ need for closure.  This trait is not as hard-wired as many of us might assume.

Learning how to deal with what we don’t understand is a critical skill becoming more necessary for all of us in this “shapeless” and still fairly new century, according to this author.  It turns out that uncertainty and contradictions provide the environment for people to unleash their creativity.  Making sense of a shapeless world requires imagination and other cognitive skills which most people have but may not have had occasion to exercise as much as they would have liked.

Speaking of which: due to an abundance of choices, and must-do’s, today, this subject will be continued at a later date here on this blog, of that I am fairly certain.  Understanding what our options are for making sense of complexity is a subject that deserves our undivided attention.  Having read this book, I am confident that it does too.  So, to be continued…

Standard
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.

Standard
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

Standard
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.

Standard