CSI for Black Swans: This is how You can train your mind to deal with Unknown Unknowns

by Andy Kozlov (@KozlovAndy)

Over 22 hundred years before United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about unknown unknowns,  Ancient Greek inventor and scholar Archimedes took to the streets — so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress — crying “εὕρηκα!” (“I have found it!”).

A month and a half till 2015 AD, we find ourselves living through the era of Big Data. Climate change, growing inequality and increasing globalization go hand in hand with our attempt to make sense of the world and figure out, decipher, predict the unknown unknowns. For each futurist there is a Nassim Nicholas Taleb with his or her  theory of black swan events.

Our nature is such that we will keep looking and each time the international community fails to deliver on –or come up with more effective — development goals, a new set of goals will be on the table luring us to debate it.

While it is already clear that the millennials, the demographic cohort following Generation X,  are more internet savvy and can be energized more easily to rally behind global issues, it remains to be dicovered what kind of global projects will resonate with the future generations of movers and shakers more than anything else.

Will it be biodiversity? Bridging inequality by way of Big Data? Education and quality job creation by way of creative industries? True-cost valuation or eradicating poverty worldwide? Space exploration or maybe sustainable ocean?

All of us love the feel of that incredible light-bulb moment when you shift from bewilderment to perfect realisation. But preparing your mind to deal with the unknown unknowns by overcoming your routine behaviour can also be a source of that unique feeling of completeness.

One thing to remember for a prospective glocal leader — global as well as local at the same time — is the importance of challenging the routines that many people of strategic action are good at cherishing.

Choice under novelty is difficult.

These are seven challenges you meet on the way to innovative design thinking:

  • Awareness of novelty is hard. Human brain routinely filters novelty
  • Knowing how novelty affects you is hard.
    Some new ideas are sui generis: no existing
    ‘routines’ can process them
  • Selecting among many new ideas is hard
  • Open innovation and learning from outsiders
    is hard. The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when people place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.  ‘Not invented here’ ideas are routinely
  • Incentivizing novelty creation and innovation
    is hard. Status quo bias, conformity bias, loss aversion
  • Thinking about multiple novelties simultaneously is hard since portfolios are not a natural cognitive category
  • Getting cooperation for a new idea is hard. Myopia, imagination failures

..and here are seven heuristic methods that help you think clearly, think about the ways you think, attain knowledge from that analytical process and eventually come up with most innovative ways to invest your knowledge into most effective action:

#1 Focus your creative energy on a few topic areas that you genuinely care about. Work on these purposefully over an extended period of time.

Understanding follows experience.

#2 Given that you know what you want, make it a habit to purposefully pause and notice things. Write them down

Our automatic perception processes miss a great deal of what goes on around us. If you pause and notice, don’t look for anything in particular; you needn’t know how you will ultimately use the information, just be on the lookout for manifestations of the Unknown. It’s about experiencing new and different things, or old things in new ways .

#3 Avoid being too narrow when defining problems or areas for creative thought. Purposefully think in terms of broader definitions and see what insights you’ll gain from the perimeters. 

Maintain maximum space for maneuvering and for making novel connections. Explore the territory at the edges of thought.

#4 Come up with original and useful ideas by making novel associations with what you already know.

#5 Pause and carefully examine ideas that make you laugh when you hear them.

Resist moving away when someone suggests a radical concept or far-out ideas. Working with such ideas can be one of the most productive things you can do when looking for innovation.

#6 Recognize that streams of thought and patterns of judgment are not inherently right or wrong; they are just what you think now, based on patterns from your past. In another pattern those ideas may be perfectly logical. 

Mental processes and judgments are emotion-laden.

#7 Make a deliberate effort to implement at least a few of the ideas you generate.

Try your ideas. It is based on the important distinction between innovative thought and productive innovation. Creative ideas have little value until they are put into action.

Why problem solving fails, by Jennifer Briselli
Why problem solving fails, by Jennifer Briselli

Is fighting the Ebola virus something that the majority of NGOs still active in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — as well as government agencies in these Western African nations — should prioritize over education and delivering appropriate response to the WASH challenges — water, sanitation and hygiene? Should the millennials in Ukraine fully plunge themselves into the myriad of volunteer efforts to supply the Ukrainian army in Donabass and accommodate internally displaced persons as opposed to streamling e-governance campaigns and blowing whistles on rampant corruption in the Eastern European nation?

Let us know what you think and how you suggest future glocal leaders should think clearly about developing the world, setting and implementing priority projects. We’d like to hear from you!

The author can be reached on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

See related

Dummy’s guide to the role of earthquakes in creative trends

How to self-start your creative day

This is where disruptive ideas come from

The 10 Commandments of Development Communication

Both artisans and businesses: “Manifesto of Free Radicals” by Behance’s Scott Belsky

The most-used creativity test in the world

How culture contributes to development: an UNESCO indicator suite

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