Innovation, living in the truth, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty, Watercolor Painting

Scams, Shams, and (Body) Slams

While preparing for a presentation (and a little book stemming from it), and doing some color studies for sketches to accompany them, the news has continued to be very distracting as it is presumably for everyone. In the last 24 hours alone, from a journalist sent crashing to the floor allegedly “body slammed” by a person aspiring to elected office (or is he already in office?)–to confirmation from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) that the health of our nation is going to take a huge body blow if the latest health care plan is passed–to disconcerting news about NATO (also “body slammed?”), it is tough to keep one’s eyes on the task at hand.  But perhaps the combination of these colliding impressions is good for something after all…

In sorting through older material, I came across the famous “boiling frog”–a metaphor, of course, for not noticing when there are gradual changes in your surroundings, until it is too late.  According to the metaphor, a frog in a pot of slowly heating water will not react quickly enough to save himself and will eventually die.  (This is literally not true; the frog will jump out if he can, apparently.  I myself have not tested it, but I respect scientists and experts and they have).

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This is a week too in which we have heard the word “suborn” used in open testimony. It’s a useful word.  It seems related to another one rarely heard:  “inure”, which the dictionary defines as “becoming accustomed to something, especially something unpleasant.”  (Perhaps this is a good time to recommend a currently best-selling new little book, available on Amazon for less than $6:  On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale.)

With so much coming at us almost hourly, it sometimes seems like the fate of the world is being decided right now.

WhereDoWeGoFromHere?

Illustration: Color study, Watercolor, acrylic and gouache, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by Black Elephant Blog author (2017)

People are tired of being distracted by it but the most conscientious know that too much is at stake to turn away. Much as we might like to, we can’t tune out what is going on because it’s unfortunately true– the fate of the world is being decided right now.  And if we tune out, we will surely not be as fortunate as the sensitive frog who manages to escape the dangers of his warming world.

So, we must not become inured to the bruising pace of the news cycle.  It seems to me essential to find ways collectively to both deal with every incoming distraction and yet look beyond it to make sense in time of where we are going and might wish to go instead.

Momentous times indeed, but I have faith we will prove to be at least as smart as  frogs.  So back to the drawing board…

Standard
Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “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.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

Standard
Risk, Surprise

Boiling Frog Syndrome

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

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

We come now to the metaphor of the “boiling frog syndrome” which has many metaphorical cousins, such as an “ostrich with its head in the sand.”  This metaphor refers to the notion (apparently untrue according to biologists who have tested it) that a frog will not jump out of gradually heating up water–and, sadly, dies.  (In reality, the experts say, if the frog can jump out it will.)  This expression is used to warn of our built-in tendencies to ignore or dismiss changes that are so gradual (or long-term, or complex, or multi-faceted) as to be nearly invisible or even incomprehensible.  As specialization drives experts, analysts, and planners into focusing on ever-narrower slices of knowledge, the thought goes, they lose an ability to see the whole.

Whatever our daily preoccupation, this fragmentation of our attention affects us all, in sometimes unnoticed ways, leading me to wonder if we might all have a bit of boiling frog syndrome.  If so, what do we do to counter it?  Who are those who manage to overcome this syndrome, how do they do it, and are we able to hear them?

As someone who has been spending a lot of time in the gym lately (to get ready for those New Year’s resolutions!), it is impossible to miss the many HDTV screens propped up overhead.  They beam down at all, apparently selected to represent a spectrum of political and entertainment tastes.  Seemingly, there ought to be something for everyone, as no less than twelve different channels are simultaneously broadcasting literally in our faces.

Those who want to can tune in to the channel of their choice, wearing headphones connected to the fitness machine they’re on to hear their chosen flavor of the news. While people pump their legs on this or that machine, with water bottles propped up on the machines, towels cast to the floor, and iPods attached to their spandex belts, horrific images of violence in cities and countries around the world flash up in front of us–simultaneously.  When I leave the gym, I feel refreshed usually from exercising but usually have a vague sense of unease from having just been enveloped by oversized TV screens purporting to tell me something.

Bursts of “news” with next-to-no context tell us little, despite the inordinate amount of time devoted by each channel to endlessly rehashing details of the day’s top headlines.  Although these stories are immensely important, it is difficult to hear about them in dueling soundbites, so I generally try to ignore them altogether while at the gym.

The interconnections and deeper underlying causes or trends are rarely examined, of course, in the “news” because they are not news.  Such phenomena develop slowly over time, like gradually heating water.  Occasionally a tipping point of some sort or other is reached:  a catastrophe occurs that focuses our attention…but only for the time it takes before another sudden eruption captures the news.  Beneath the surface so much else is going on…but it is difficult to make sense of it, and thus it doesn’t ever make the news.

Some recent works (such as here  and here)  suggest that we are applying the wrong models (and thus harbor ill-founded expectations about risks) to trying to understand the complex (increasingly interconnected and interdependent) systems that make up global society today.  Mankind’s very successes in developing more efficient supply chains, transportation systems, and ICT are creating new vulnerabilities, or “systemic risks,” which we generally are poorly equipped to detect, let alone understand.  These risks represent “highways for failure propagation” which can ultimately result in “man-made disasters,” say the authors.  Highly interconnected systems, such as the financial system, or food and energy markets, are complex systems that are difficult to predict and control.  If there is a mismatch of expectations, it might be difficult-to-impossible to see these risks in time–leading in turn to the “surprises” or “abrupt changes” that are the focus of this blog.  Would such risks be like the “boiling frog”  or a “black elephant?”  It seems that this may be a fitting point at which to consider what the originator of the “black elephant” concept intended…coming up in a future post!

Standard