Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008 - the year of the paradox

Happy New Year.

Blogs, websites and news agencies have moved from their reviews of the year to predictions of what will be in vogue in 2008. I am not sure that I want to fall into the same trap of making predictions virtually all of which I (nor anyone else for that matter) have no real idea will come to fruition. The art of forecasting, predicting what will happen next is usually based on what we already know to the the case now. Largely these are based on research that is ongoing and have some trends already, trends that are happening now and are then projected. The front page of this months Focus magazine (the BBC science and technology magazine), for example has a very informative article and a prediction about the future for power based on a new breed of steam engines. We appear to be very good at pulling a series of not quite disconnected facts together and making an extrapolation to project. Now this is a very useful trick that allows us to have visions of the future and then work to make them so. Everything that we are all working on now is based on this ability. Our cognitive ability to perceive patterns, extrapolate and project them is part of what makes us, us and drives 'progress'.
On the other side of this fantastic ability is the problem that it also constrains our vision, makes us miss even the most obvious competing thoughts and ideas and frequently creates the conditions where we cancel out ambiguities. The idea that steam driven engines are about to come into their own for personal power, for example in cars, whilst an interesting intellectual exercise misses a few issues that at the moment makes this not the most practical solution to our growing energy crisis.

This isn’t a critique of an article on steam driven personal transport, it is intended however as a illustration of the opposite side of our abilities. One of the things that has struck me in the last year or so is how everything has an opposite and equal. This has become a bit of a theme. Now I admit this is not an original thought as I am discovering. The earliest known text dates back to 300 years before Christ and are usually attributable to Lao-tzu, (580-500 B.C.), it is believed to predate him by several centuries.

I bought a book for a friend for Christmas called ‘Change your thoughts, change your life’ by W.W. Dyer. Whilst the title didn’t do much for me I knew that she was ‘into this kind of stuff’. I am a little hooked and have stolen it back!

The book opens with a quote from George Bernard Shaw

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

Anyway, the first chapter introduces the Tao with the first few lines from the Tao Te Ching and “Lao-tzu tells us that the “Tao is both named and nameless.” This sounds paradoxical to our western intellect – and it is! (sic)”

He then goes on to describe how our western thinking highlights and maintains opposites as opposing thoughts and that the eastern Taoist thinking embraces such paradoxes as part of the same entity allowing both to exist side by side.

(These are my thoughts) It’s sort of dualist thinking (this or that) and holistic thinking (this and that). Dualism separates and makes one side oppose the other. If we think or see something it is usually to the exclusion of the opposite. Paradoxes become confusing and something to be resolved, preferably by working out which side of the paradox is right. This line of thinking come about because we think in ‘facts’ and facts have to be right or wrong (hence dualism, this OR that). The problem is that when exploring what the reality of a situation is this type of ‘factual’ thinking leads us to miss things as we only look for what fits.

I recently went to a (very expensive) workshop given by a consultant in complexity. Much of the workshop was spent hearing his opinion of what were good and what were bad theories, people, books and ideas. Whole books and ideas were dismissed with the wave of a hand because they weren't 'valid'. I was a little struck that when considering complexity, which I have written about in 'The Ambiguity Advantage' the idea of dismissing things because it doen't fit seems a little like buying an Ikea wardrobe, emptying all the bits on the floor from the box and throwing some of the bits away because they don't look right before waiting to see if you need them.

The eastern condition is this and that. Both are true at the same time. If this is true then that (the opposite) is true as well. What this means is that with such thinking exploring the reality of a situation we look for what fits and the opposite at the same time not only allowing both to exist but seeing what emerges from the existance of competing ideas. The central tenat of complexity theory is allowing things to be enough, without over managing them to find the natural emergent properties. It is these that give complexity practitioners the edge.

Many failures in decision making and problem solving occur not because there weren’t enough facts, if anything there are often too many (of one type), but rather because of the facts we were disallowing because that don’t fit or make sense.

How many of us, and I include me in this, have dismissed someone (some book, some article) and their thinking because they aren’t making sense? We make this decision before really hearing what it is they are trying to communicate. Logic is judged to be logical if we understand and agree with it, i.e. it fits with our system of logic. If it doesn’t fit with my / our system of logic then it is deemed to be illogical. The idea that only one can be true may just mean that we are missing something and narrowing our thinking.

2008 - embrace a paradox.

No comments: