Watchmen and Fixed Frames of Mind

22 Jun

The Graphic Novel, Watchmen, written by Allan Moore, placed in Time’s list of the 100 best novels published since 1923. There are two panels within the Watchmen which, and only in my opinion, exemplify why it is such outstanding piece of literature but also illustrates perfectly the pleasures and pain of a fixed frame of mind; the optimism of prediction and the tragedy of those anticipations falling short.

Within Watchmen is a character called Doctor Manhattan. Previously a scientist called Jon Osterman. True to genre form, an accident transformed a perfectly normal human being, Osterman, into something with god-like powers, Doctor Manhattan. During the course of the book we learn that Doctor Manhatten exists and perceives outside of time, simultaneously experiencing the past, present and future; we also learn that this is far from a gift. After an emotional incident (I think it was a visit to Ikea on a Saturday), Doctor Manhattan decides to leave the human race and their tangled, complicated lives behind, choosing instead to live in solitude on Mars. During his time alone Manhattan reflects on his life, as both human and god, and his reflections are portrayed to the reader in a way which reflects his perception “outside of time”.

There are several panels of illustration (drawn by Dave Gibbons) where Manhattan recalls meeting, while he was still human, his future girlfriend. They are in a bar, happy and enraptured with each other’s company. It is clear they are very much in love. Another cuts immediately to his girlfriend packing her bags in tears, their relationship over. The stark contrast to being so happy and carefree in one panel, and the pain of a bag packing break up in another panel, with nothing in between, is brutal. If it were possible to ask that couple, or a similar couple which actually exists, a couple who encapsulate the panel of happiness, what their predictions and hopes were for the future, I’m guessing we would encounter a fixed frame of mind.

I would gamble this couple would be focused, fixated on the positives, explaining away easily any potential threats to their happiness. And yet, they could easily find their way to the second panel, a painful break up. To see these two points only, together one minute, apart the next, with no events or transitions in between, leaves us nothing but our imagination to fill in the gaps. For things we are emotionally invested in, things in which performance counts and means something to us, we frequently fixed in our frame of mind. Unfortunately there is nobody to show us the outcome panel, we can only anticipate and hope, and so our imagination, our approach to uncertainty will contain a version of the future biased toward how easily we will fulfill our goals; overestimating something’s, underestimating others.

If we look at the outcome panel where the coupe break up, then what lessons would be drawn from that situation, the failure of high expectation, and the gathering of resources to move on? Would the frame of mind become fixed in another direction, seeing only risk and catastrophe in the future? Someone who ends up in this frame of mine could expand, beyond what is productive, the degree and severity of perceived risks appearing in the future and so they become risk averse and defensive. Alternatively, this failed relationship could result in hard but useful lessons, improving a person’s ability to adapt. If the failure of plans and anticipations is not used constructively, as a resource, then a rigid negativity can take hold. This the other side of fixation, holding onto risk aversion, digging in and defending, until the position is overrun by events which cannot be avoided.

And so a fixed frame of mind is like a coin, on either side of this coin we encounter two extremes in sense making- blind faith in the positive on one side and perceived certainty of catastrophe on the other side. Ideally, we don’t want to be on either side of the coin but frequently it’s inevitable, and sometimes it happens without us knowing, as the following comments from a senior technical expert within a company I worked with illustrate

“Eventually you have to re-invent yourself. Sooner or later your approach stops working but before that you think everyone else is being naive, jumping on the latest trend and not paying attention to what really counts. Then one day you realise you’ve become the problem, all that stuff that used to work, if I’m being honest about me, stopped working a while ago. I spent too long defending it, trying to force into the new order, but it wasn’t happening, and I’d become a problem. You might not think it now, but it’ll happen to you too one day, you’ll get stuck in your ways and think everyone else has got it wrong….just don’t make it a habit”.

The problem is, it’s a balancing act. The website, keeps track of start-up failures. One of the website founders, Niral Patel, told Business Insider “There are just so many people building things they don’t have a market for”. A start-up has elements of the panel from the Watchmen which represented the young lovers; enclosed in a happy, but fixated bubble, certain of their success and a happy ending. You have to have faith, conviction and take risks to launch a company and also advance an economy, but you should avoid being fixated. If failure does occur, the opportunity to learn is significantly diminished if the early frame of mind is fixed; progress resembles win\lose situations, which can result in further fixation, as opposed to frequent adaption.

So, there is the knife edge: – faith, conviction, confidence, risk are all essential for progress at all levels; personal, economic, and cultural. People, society and organisations would be stagnant without them. However, when these emotions and beliefs become rigid and defensive they become rigid and brittle, vulnerable to breaking any minute.

The following articles cover a fixed frame of mind. They are mostly based on the Spiral methodology, a process where thinking becomes so fixed and rigid, risks start appearing everywhere and uncertainty is intolerable. The Spiral began during an investigation into mental health and was adapted for use in organisations. Also is a return to another model I designed, The Beliefs, Barriers and Control (BBaC) model, a method for exploring how people make sense of change and new events.

Hopefully, the articles should highlight that no matter how good an organisational structure, strategy or plan is, they are still dependent on people to make them work. If a person, team, or organisation becomes fixed in their frame of mind then they become rigid and brittle. This rigid and brittle situation is ready to break and eventually an event will take a place, or the accumulation of events, and the break occurs, shattering into pieces. The articles demonstrate what can potentially happen when we are fixed-they focus on the break up panel in an attempt to help the reader imagine what could go wrong, no matter how good things seem today.

Overview of the Spiral Methodology

Moving the Spiral to more organisational applications

How we make sense of risk and the role of fixation

Applying the Spiral to strategy design

Organisational change as a fixation on….change!

Applying another model to change, the BBaC model, use it in assessing how fixed your world view could be

How people and organisations become fixed in their frame of mind

The role of imagination in avoiding that unthinkable second frame


Watchmen (1986) Moore, A. Gibbons, D. DC Comics. Titan

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