Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 64! On Habit, Experience and Process Blindness...
Experience is an astonishing thing.
It is also a confounding thing.
By now we are familiar with experiments like the “Invisible Gorilla” experiment where participants are shown a video of people passing a basketball and they are asked to count the passes midway through the video a person in a large gorilla suit walks through the game, and when asked afterwards about the gorilla most people do not notice it.
There is a second gorilla experiment where radiologists were asked to look at CAT scans for cancerous abnormalities, in one of the scans was an image of a gorilla 48 times larger than the average cancer. 80% of the radiologists did not see the gorilla despite looking straight at it (confirmed by eye tracking software). This phenomenon is termed attentional blindness.
It does seem clear we do have a hard time sensing things that are out of the norm. This in itself should be concerning in regards to creativity and innovation for it means that we have a hard time seeing the new as new and therefore we most likely do not see the new. If this were fully the case we would never be able to intentionally develop anything new — and that would be a problem for innovation.
But the news is actually not that bad — 80% means that one in five participants could see the anomaly. In the radiology experiment, there were 24 participants, twenty did not see the gorilla — but four did. This is quite a significant number — 20% — and points to the importance of working collaboratively, highlighting outliers and divergent viewpoints, and putting in place practices and processes that support the continuous activation of the unintended in creative processes. (In Volume 62 of the newsletter we introduced some of these techniques for experimental processes).
In regards to experience and attentional blindness much of the attention has been focused on single moments — a gorilla walks across the field of view or shows up in one image. But this form of blindness is also part of longer experiences — we can be “blind” to whole processes — and this is a more significant issue for innovation.
When we do workshops on introducing new techniques for innovation (such as last week in Austria and Ireland) — specifically on how you can develop genuine novel outcomes without using the process of “Ideate, Plan and Make,” — we will get a very similar response as that with the gorilla experiment:
After participating in a team based highly iterative process that does not allow for the participants to begin with ideation and the carrying out of a plan — and where they end up with astonishing and radically novel results, we pause and reflect collectively on the experience.
“Could you have predicted this is where we would have ended up?”
Pretty much everyone will on reflection says “No.”
But then when we ask the teams to describe and diagram the process in a step by step manner, a good percentage will report that they began with ideation, then planning and finally carrying out that plan.
In fact, depending on the innovation processes and conceptual frameworks they are most experienced with, these will become the basis of their retrospective retelling of the experience — despite it being totally distinct.
At first when challenged — “did you really make a plan, carry it out, and this is the result?” They will respond yes. — It is only when we unpack the process in great detail that the participants begin to recognize how radically it deviated from how they are retrospectively understanding it. They are experiencing a form of process blindness or whole experience blindness — a gestalt blindness.
The process of being allowed to conceptualize experience freely and then deconstructing that experience to show the significant difference between what happened and how it is retrospectively understood is critical to the workshop. We need to experientially sense how we automatically inscribe our experiences in pre-existing narrative frameworks. It is only then that we can begin to individually take charge to develop the resources and skills needed to reconceptualize innovation processes outside of these problematic narrative models.
We also witness this phenomenon across our culture when many innovators tell the narrative of what their innovation process was — they default to utilizing the very classical narrative tropes of the solitary individual genius struggling, having a flash of ideational insight, then planning and finally carrying out the plan.
One of the most insightful studies into this process is the work of Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgard, who in an attempt to understand what actually happens in scientific laboratories during the process of innovation spent a year in the laboratory of Roger Guillermin at the Salk Institute in the late 1970’s. From this anthropological experience they wrote the book: Laboratory Life. The book details the process of what actually happens in the lab and how this diverges from the stories that the participants tell of what happened. What happened was a complex dance between a relation of practices, equipment, concepts, methods, experiments, and discourses — what later became Actor Network Theory (ANT— here is Latour giving an explanation of this approach) — one of the most important (then) new approaches to understanding the process of innovation.
But in strong contrast to what they actually did — which was complex, messy, highly relational and context reliant, the scientists speak of “having an idea” and of “discovering it”. They work highly effectively one way, but retrospectively talk about it in an entirely different manner. It is like the duck-rabbit illusion — they work in duck world and talk in rabbit world and the two are qualitatively different but also exactly the same…
There is much to be said about this work and the work of Latour in regards to innovation — but that is for other places (Latour just died in October and Woolgard writes a moving and insightful reflection on their work together for Nature, and Latour’s web site contains a fantastically rich universe of resources). What matters in this instance is that just like, but even more so than our sensing of single experiences — we remember what we did within habitual cultural patterns of narrativization to the detriment of what actually happened — especially if this is genuinely novel.
This is one of the challenges of developing a novel and effective innovation practice — we don’t actually at first even understand correctly what we did as a process!
Before we even get to the point of being in the midst of an experiment where novelty might emerge (and being faced with the gorilla dilemma), we are far too often busy unreflectively reproducing the wrong processes. In this way we are reproducing the very procedures that we have stepped away from in our innovation practice to do something new. This is a significant aspect of why the basic model of Ideate Plan and Make remains at the core of how so much innovation is taught and at least on paper is carried out.
Here the problem is twofold: on one hand we do not in general notice novel processes, and equally importantly we are using specific historical processes that do not lead to innovation. These problematic processes stem from a deep seated cultural legacy of focusing on the mind over the body, the individual over the collective, ideas over action, humans over environments and tools etc. A critical aspect of changing our practices is recognizing this second issue— it is not just about being blind to process. Taking on this second issue requires an understanding of our history — of getting philosophical — of uncovering debilitating myths and consciously recognizing how they shape what we all do and how we all conceptualize. Sadly, there is no shortcut to doing this — we need to go into history and philosophy and that takes time and effort. And jumping over this effort as a business or as innovators leads us back into reproducing what we are trying to leave behind…
Coming back to the question of the difficulty of recognizing novel processes for what they are — it is not all bad news. In fact, we see in all of this something very positive.
But, let's get there step by step.
First, how should we understand this experience — of seemingly getting our own experience so wrong?
Is it simply the case that “the brain is lazy” or experience is some form of illusion — with inaccurate representations of reality? And because of this we are destined to always get things “wrong”?
This model of understanding experience as an objective external reality separate from our representations of it is part of the problem. We are not separate from reality — enclosed within our skulls getting limited sensory reports from an outside that we then turn around and misrepresent.
We are embodied, embedded, extended and enactive beings. What we sense is brought forth by what we do within a particular environment. Our cognitive patterns emerge from our embodied practices:
“a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted and brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment” (Evan Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 13).
It is not really an issue of having the wrong representation, but of participating in a set of practices and environments that enact a world that is ineffective for innovation.
The answer is not to (simply) focus on the direct correction of what we sense (with the now standard answers of working in groups, giving a place to outliers, the careful deconstruction of experience and processes, etc.. ). While this is a useful and necessary short term answer, real change comes when we move towards enacting new sensory practices, habits, rituals, narratives and concepts. And this will happen by developing deliberately different collective practices, and environments for innovation and dwelling in these such that our senses shift. It is not enough to remind ourselves and others that we will make these errors so “be alert”. We need to set up very different processes: we need to make environments, practices, and procedures that shift the focus from ideation, individualism, and linearity to ones that favor emergent novelty.
What might these look like? We have detailed these in a number of previous articles:
For this week take a moment to closely deconstruct with others an innovation practice that you both experienced. It is hard. Perhaps you can bring in an observer — a Martian to observe your innovation practices. It will take some real effort and time — but you will begin to see that what you do and what you retrospectively say about it are two very different things…
What are the actual processes you are using? What are the actual participants? What role does the environment have? Where did things emerge? It is astonishingly fascinating and transformative to sense this gap. It profoundly changes you and your approach — as so many of the participants in these workshops noted. It is the beginning of actively co-creating an innovation process and practice that works for you and your context.
Have a wonderful critical and exploratory week!
Till Volume 65,
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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