13 perspectives to help see things as they really are, not as we expect them to be

Markus Fietz
Nov 28, 2013 · 6 min read

We are conditioned to see what we expect or are primed to see, not what is really there. This is fast and efficient in situations that are stable and predictable — where the past is a good predictor of the future. But what if it they are unstable and unpredictable? What if our expectations and experience are only partially useful? The problem is that our expectations and experience are often deep within our subconscious mind. It is difficult to quieten them even if we consciously realize they may be inadequate or misleading in a given situation.

How then do we see things as they really are, not as our subconscious would like or expect them to be? One of the most effective things we can do is develop the ability to step through a variety of perspectives of the situation. In doing so we use our conscious brain to counter or supplement our subconscious expectations and biases.

In general, we need to adopt perspectives that allow us to be more empirical. That is, we need to focus on more extensive observation and data gathering before drawing conclusions. In most cases, we also need to recognize that our conclusions are only tentative and will require further testing and validation. We need to be open to revising, or even discarding, a tentative conclusion as we make more observations, collect further data or develop further insights.

I have categorized a range of perspectives we can take under four broad categories — spatial, structural, psychological and effectual.

Spatial perspectives

Get close to the action to see actual behavior and events rather than make assumptions based on past, prescribed or ‘normal’ behavior. This approach underpins the Genchi Genbutsu (“go and see”) principle of the Toyota Production System.

Move further away from the action so that you can see behavior and events in a wider context (draw wider system boundaries) and therefore consider more structural influences and factors. Moving further away is also likely to increase detachment and objectivity and therefore reduce any biases introduced by an emotional engagement to the situation. The movement need only be psychological (for example, by imagining you are in another city), not necessarily physical.

Divide the situation into a comprehensive set of segments and examine each of them separately and then the relationships between them. This approach reduces the risk that your focus quickly narrows on those aspects that you expect or assume to be the most salient. It ensures that all aspects get at least some focused attention. The segmentation basis could be physical, organisational or temporal (time based).

Examine the behavior at the boundaries of the system or within the system. New or changing influences and behaviors will often be first evident at the boundaries. This is either because new external influences first interact with system at the boundaries, or because the more diverse interactions that occur at the boundaries generate new ideas and options.

Structural perspective

Consider the network aspects of the system or situation. Are there any groupings or networks emerging? If so, what are the ‘attractors’ for the groupings, or what is driving the linkages for the network? Is there potential for these to be self-reinforcing, or are there likely to be fundamental constraints to their ongoing development? On the other hand, what are the established networks and groupings? Are they structured to facilitate or inhibit positive change?

Identify the constraints in the situation. The constraints may relate to physical boundaries, information, expertise, resources, awareness and expectations. If significant behavior consistently occurs at or near a constraint, the behavior is unlikely to change without first relaxing or modifying the constraint.

Look for any potentially significant decision points. Major decisions create ‘forks in the road’ that influence the future development of the system or situation. At the personal level, they include choice of a partner, a profession/career, a place to live, etc. At the organisational level, these decision points are numerous and diverse and may not seem particularly significant initially. However, they may stimulate or facilitate a self-reinforcing chain of events that eventually have game-changing impact.

Identify any emerging patterns of cause and effect. Even though the situation appears essentially unpredictable, repeatable cause and effect patterns may be emerging. Customers in a given segment may have begun to respond consistently to on-line promotions that were not targeted at them. Middle managers from one segment of the organisation may be exhibiting similar resistance to a change initiative and offering suggestions for improvement that have a common underlying theme. These emerging patterns provide early indications of what is working and what is not. They provide potential guideposts for future action.

Behavioral/psychological perspectives

Look at the situation through the eyes of the key participants. In other words, take a perspective of empathy. Aspects of the situation that may be clear and positive to you may be unclear, uncertain and therefore threatening to some of the participants. Benefits of a change initiative that you think are valuable may appear to be of marginal value when seen through the eyes of a stakeholder group.

Identify the dominant motivations and influences in the situation. Look for the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’? Where do the energy and driving forces for action come from? Are they derived from proactive aspirations or reactive defensiveness? Is the source local or broadly based? Is it likely to be enduring or short term? In emergent and unpredictable situations, the driving influences are potential sources of consistency and coherence. Although they will not enable future decisions and outcomes to be predicted with certainty, they will point to how they are likely to be biased.

Is the situation characterized by a few dominant emotions? Emotions have a fundamental influence on behavior and decision making. We may be able to bring some clarity to what appears to unpredictable and illogical behavior when we understand their emotional underpinning. Looking at a situation through a lens of emotions may provide insights that we may find it difficult to discover otherwise.

Effectual (effects and results) perspectives

Notice what seems to be working. Where are successes happening? What activities and behavior are being reinforced? Where are people making progress in spite of their constraints and context? What have they done to overcome the constraints? Is this repeatable and scalable? In unpredictable and emergent situations we cannot rely primarily on what has worked in the past or has worked somewhere else. We need to discover new principles for success.

Be alert to the surprising and the unusual. Often, much ‘information’ is found in the unexpected events, behaviors, relationships and achievements. These may be weak signals of the emergent direction of the situation, or they may be just random noise. If it is random noise, and the surprise is a positive one, can the random conditions be identified and repeated consistently? The earlier the small surprises can be identified, the more likely it is that they can be purposely enhanced if they are positive or suppressed if they are negative.

The 13 perspectives in action

You can see the 13 perspectives in action at CernQuest. CernQuest combines the collective experience of contributors and a 7 Lenses framework (for ease of use, we have aggregated the 13 perspectives down to 7 ‘lenses’) to give you a panorama of discerning questions for your complex situation.

So next time you are analyzing a problem or opportunity, first assess whether the situation has unpredictable and emergent aspects. If it does, beware your entrained biases and expectations and consider expanding your perspectives. And remember, in these situations, treat your conclusions as tentative only, open to be refined or changed as you learn more. These situations usually require an iterative, not single-pass, approach to solving the problem or realizing the opportunity.

If you would like to broaden your perspectives by drawing on the collective experience of others, feel free to post a summary of your situation on CernQuest.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia commons: Roger de La Fresnaye — Homme assis

    Markus Fietz

    Written by

    Complex systems thinker. Helping organizations develop agility and adaptive capacity. @markusfietz

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