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Planning for Unintended Consequences


NextStage: Predictive Intelligence, Persuasion Engineering, Interactive Analytics and Behavioral Metrics I hope readers will forgive the oxymoron in the title. How does one plan for something unintended?

Well, it’s easier than one might think. I’ve written about how to minimize unintended consequences and unexpected outcomes in Minimizing Mistakecule Probabilities and Addendum to “Minimizing Mistakecule Probabilities”. Both posts (I hope) explained the mathematics without having to get into the mathematics of how such is done.

Older, Wiser…How About Just “Other”?

There’s also a…well, I don’t know if simpler is the correct word…”other”, maybe?…another method of simply getting more eyes on the subject before making a decision. I wrote about one of my mentors, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry who wasn’t a chemist but a physicist, in From TheFutureOf: 27 Mar 08 Comment, 1. He started his Nobel acceptance speech with “I really don’t know why you’re giving me this. This problem would have been solved years ago if you had a physicist look at it.”

The leading post in this month’s outlay, Improving Safety By Taking More Risks: Lessons from High Consequence Industries, touches on the requirement for multi-disciplinary approaches when Brother Tom Bigda-Peyton writes about his work in SAHI, the Good Dr. Lent mentions the need to get all players around the table in Improving Safety, Quality and Productivity Together (his “…the consultant as ‘expert’ who diagnoses the problems and prescribes solutions for others to adopt. This later approach increases resistance and, at best, creates compliance but not true commitment to improvement.” statement is a testament to the unintended consequences that prevail when siloed knowledge is applied to modern problems) and Brother David Morf‘s Financial System Safety and Resilience Policy is both an evocative and emotive demonstration of how many disciplines one must draw upon to deal with what’s possibly the defining problem of our time.

Both my mentor’s and this month’s CAS offerings teach that people develop some incredible prejudices over time. You may not think of this as a prejudice and I offer that whenever one’s knowledge is essentially a silo — high expertise in a limited field — they’ve prejudiced themselves to other methods, other concepts, other possibilities. This is demonstrated in Dr. Lent’s piece.

Participants in some NextStage trainings (and definitely in our Anthro trainings) may well remember the figure on the right, “What you know” (the green circle), “What you know you don’t know” (yellow circle) and “What you don’t know you don’t know” (red circle). The sizes of the green and yellow circles are generous. Either that or the size of the red circle is trivialized.

One of the reasons NextStage’s technology is based on 120 disciplines is because all NextStageologists are well aware of the relative sizes of those circles in their lives. One of the reasons we continually study, confer with others in (seemingly) unrelated fields and definitely come up with some “out of left field” suggestions that work wonders is because we know no one person has the lock on anything and no one discipline, ditto.

When any one person or group believes they have a lock on anything you’re paving the way to unintended consequences.

Multi-Disciplinary Approaches

Notice the image on the right? It’s a Wenn diagram of a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. Given that the Unknowable (the red) is infinite in the truest sense, it is also true that each individual’s Known (green) involves some other individual’s Unknowable and mathematically provable that within a given cognitive model (hey, it’s me, Joseph. You knew Theory of Mind was going to get in here at some point, didn’t you?) the sum of the Known-to-be-Unknown (yellow) diminishes relative to the Known.

In other words, get enough people together and the amount of what is mutually known is amazing — that’s the true Wisdom of Crowds — and is actually larger than what the group Knows It Doesn’t Know. The Unknowable — believe it or not — actually increases far faster in these situations but there you go.

So, want to solve a truly wicked problem? Not only “wicked” as Brother David Morf uses the term but simply “wicked” as in “gosh this is nasty and it would be a blessing to put this one behind us” kind of way?

Get a group of diverse people — not even specialists, just diverse backgrounds, experience, educations, etc. — to work on it.

Serendipity playing its usual role in my life, totally unrelated to writing this post this morning I responded to a LinkedIn thread about Renaissance thinking with “Renaissance thinking comes from a core of (insatiable) curiousity and such curiousity is rarely satisfied by deep knowledge in a single field. Innovation usually comes from being able to bring (normally) divergent knowledge/information to a task at hand, hence I offer that Renaissance thinking and innovation go together.”

One person with a diverse background can solve a multitude of problems others find intractable. But that very diverse knowledge base only makes the yellow and red circles bigger. Using myself as an example, many people are amazed at how much I know and can do.

Oh…but if you had any idea of what I don’t know…

That Unintended Consequences Thing

Also provable is that the more eyes on the prize (as it were) the fewer unintended consequences result. This is an outcome of what’s described as the many-minds problem in social systems. The overlapping Knowns cover the overlapping Know-You-Don’t-Knows, unintended consequences are in the Know-You-Don’t-Knows and the Unknowable, hence all mutually recognized unintended consequences are negated.

There’s still those brand new unintended consequences living in the newly bordered Unknowable, though. That’s handled by solving problems at the core of the overlapping Knowns, the greens. The same mathematics that reduces the above to a trivial many-minds solution also demonstrates that by getting another, completely different group together and the two thusly formed groups may or may not intersect each other’s knowledge systems.

Not intersecting? They’re solving completely different problems. Intersecting? The center of Known shifts, as should the problem being solved.

Get enough people together, in other words, and everything is solvable. To define the Unknowable — what’s known as an unbounded problem — simply takes an infinite number of people.

It is the eve of the Nov 08 mid-term US elections as I write this. I can’t help but add that you may be able to get an infinite number of people together to solve a problem, getting them to agree is the true unbounded problem in the system.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rick Lent, Ph.D permalink
    2010/10/27 9:41 am


    No surprise that I agree with your argument here. However, you don’t mention the insecurity of not specializing. That is, we are often most comfortable when we know what we know and can think and act from that position. Many of us hate being judged as diletantes … which is perhaps how some see renaissance thinking. So getting a group of diverse people together to openly share their knowns and unknowns to solve a problem can be tricky, particularly when they begin to wonder if someone is acting on the edge of their yellow circle. And also particularly if there are role and status differences. Yet this is the only way to solve wicked problems …by extending the perspective and understanding to cover more of the whole system of consideration than any one person could encompass.

  2. 2010/11/24 9:17 pm

    I guess my challenge is that I find a lack of specialization a starting point of research, investigation, growth, knowledge gathering, … Another is that I don’t spend lots of time worrying about how people’s judgements of me and I recognize that such worrying can be an indication of psychologic problems.
    Such things noted, I remember what one of my mentors once told me about getting any problem solved by a group; the first thing you need to do is get everybody in the group to agree that the problem is the problem. Once you get synchronicity on the problem, getting everyone to contribute from their comfort zones is natural, getting people to reach out of their comfort zones to grasp the hands, minds, hearts and ideas of other people also reaching out of their comfort zones often comes naturally.
    Often, not always, and often enough to give me hope.
    And at this point we agree again — it requires more than any one person can encompass.


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