8. Triggering Novelty

Humans think and act autonomically: you touch something hot and quickly withdraw your hand without thinking; or arrive home from your evening commute without any recollection of the journey. Our ability to safely navigate our way through 99,9% of our day, without unnecessarily draining our energy intensive brains, is an evolutionary advantage. Yet if we’re on auto-pilot all the time how can we know when we need to switch it off and pay attention to something that really matters?

Daily experiences develop long-term cognitive patterns that we draw on to perform common tasks quicker.⁠ [1] Experts have created more viable patterns on a given task so see more quickly than novices what to do. However, the work of Gary Klein who investigates how experts make decisions ‘in the wild’ rather than in artificial situations, (such as US college campuses where most psychology research takes place — overlaying all results with a cultural bias) discovered something perhaps startling for those who believe in expert thinking:

Experts don’t seek to best-fit patterns to optimise their response, but first-fit patterns that ‘satisfise’

Humans are not computers — we don’t process information. We typically only take in just 5–10% of data available to us, filling in the blanks by pumping back SIX times more information from our long-term memories (as this famous experiment demonstrates [⁠2]). “Based on this partial scan we match against patterns stored in our long term memory and perform a first fit pattern match against those patterns. To do anything else would be to deny our evolutionary inheritance”.⁠[3]

So, what happens when an expert is confronted with something genuinely novel that they’ve never been exposed to before?

In a paper titled ‘The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again’ a team of psychologists asked 24 radiologists to try and detect nodules (small swellings) in a stack of lung x-rays. On one of the x-rays they inserted a picture of a gorilla — 48 times larger than the average nodule — in a clearly visible place. Rather than ‘in spite of being experts’ but ‘because of being experts’ 83% of them didn’t see the gorilla, even when eye-tracking technology confirmed they had looked directly at it. Our autonomic brains simply don’t let us see things we’re not used to seeing.

Experts are not to be dismissed — you’d still prefer a qualified radiologist examining your x-rays than an unqualified one — but we need to recognise the limitations of our brains and learn when it’s wise to doubt the expert; even if that’s us ourselves.

“A choice must be made between allowing the entrained patterns of past experience to facilitate fast and effective [decision-making] or gaining a new perspective because the old patterns may no longer apply.” ⁠[4]

Humans are able to reflect on and learn from failure. Project post-mortems help carve out new cognitive patterns that help us avoid repeating mistakes. Attitudes towards failure are critical for learning and innovation. A culture that seeks to blame and punish mistakes as a default response forces people to put their efforts into cover ups rather than learning — meaning they’re more likely to repeat the same mistake again. Attitudes to failure and rates of innovation therefore are strongly correlated.

In the moment of recognising failure a mental state known as the ‘novelty-receptive brain’ (NRB, or popularly called system 2 — thinking slow; or Conscious Processing) is triggered. This is a momentary alertness (and momentary due to the high energy costs it extracts) opens us up to seeing the novel with fresh (or beginners) eyes, paying more attention to new signals coming in than old patterns being churned out by our past experiences.

“It is the only process in the brain capable of forming a mental picture of a situation at hand and then playing out different possible scenarios, even if those scenarios have never happened before. With this ability, humans can innovate and learn in ways not available to other species.” [⁠5]
So how can we trigger this state of alertness and receptivity to the novel?

Structuration Theory (A.Giddens) outlines that traditional understandings of change focus on either structural modifications (e.g. to the architecture of an organisation) or the actions of agents (employees, customers etc.) within those structures . Yet a ‘duality’ also exists. While a structure constraints the action of the agents, (creating the explicit or implicit boundaries as to what they can or can’t do) these actions can change the structure itself. Actors have optionality — choice about which paths to take or strategies to adopt. And if the organisation has been smart enough it will design real options into their structures — not making them so rigid that people can’t act according to an evolving context. This gives a structure an adaptive capability — critical in a world with high uncertainty.

In Britain, in the early 1970s the ‘Magic Roundabout’ was built (see picture above) by observing how drivers navigated a busy intersection. It has since consistently topped the list of the country’s worst roundabouts. It’s unusual design (5 smaller roundabouts going clockwise around an anti-clockwise roundabout) and lack of traffic lights or other signs forces drivers to slow down and triggers the energy-intensive NRB — a heightened state of awareness (which is why drivers don’t like it — it’s tiring). They are now no longer navigating on auto-pilot but instead having to pick up real-time signals from the environment and from what others are doing if they are to get round it without hitting others.

Although the roundabout seems chaotic it is actually an example of how a structure forms the foundation of a complex adaptive system. It has options built in: drivers more familiar with the roundabout (e.g. those living or working nearby) tend to drive quickly anti-clockwise straight through the middle, while novices crawl clockwise around the outside. These design features — slowing drivers down, triggering drivers’ NRB and providing options — are the secret sauce that contributes to the roundabout never jamming up — even in peak hours — or ever having had a fatal accident.

The structure of the Magic Roundabout designs with the duality in mind — humans are a critical part of the system’s adaptive strength because the system has been designed to leverage untapped human capabilities. The unimaginative alternative is to shuffle everyone around in boxes according to a pre-described set of stages dictated by dumb traffic lights:

A sculpture: might a traffic light system for the Magic Roundabout look like this?

Where similar ‘duality’ experiments have been tried in other locations [⁠6] — distributing decision-making to those in the system rather than being controlled by ‘the Centre’ — traffic flows have sped up and accidents reduced as drivers operate their vehicles with their human capacities switched on.

The future success of organisations will require engaging the full spectrum of humans in systems. This requires triggering their creativity and problem solving skills [⁠7], which in turn requires utilising their natural abilities to recognise novelty in the same information everyone is exposed to. Those designing their organisations to fit the humans and trigger their inherent potential — rather than trying to fit the humans to the organisations — will be better positioned to win. Which path is your organisation taking?


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1 https://medium.com/@marcusguest/making-sense-of-uncertainty-e4c72d928070

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9rIjIaNlAY

3 Narrative Research. Snowden (2010)

4 The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world. C. F. Kurtz & D. J. Snowden (2003)

5 The Most Underrated Skill in Management. Repenning et al. MIT Sloan Management Review. Spring 2017

6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vi0meiActlU

7 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/

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