Going into and Coming out of a Closed Mind

23 Jun

In the previous article I discussed two panels from the graphic novel, Watchmen. In one of these panels we see two lovers, happy, carefree, potentially at the peak of their attraction, and in the second panel we see the outcome, a painful break up. The first panel sets the expectation, the second panel violates that expectation. The more naïve the initial forecast, the greater the damage when that forecast fails to manifest. In 1922, John Dewey wrote that life is interruptions and recoveries. It follows that if our forecasts and hopes for the future will, inevitably, be interrupted, then we can improve our recovery from these interruptions if we improve our ability to forecast. In the language of the last article this means avoiding and recovering from a fixed frame of mind.

The two panels from Watchmen provide a clue how to improve forecasting, how to temper our expectations of the future. When we achieve this, it improves not only “recovery from interruptions”, but our ability to improvise, adapt, innovate and develop tacit skills. Within the first panel (the two optimistic lovers) we have emotionally charged expectations and hopes for the future. Similar emotions appear at the start of a new project, company, strategy; the outlook is positive and anything which might challenge this brightly lit horizon is quickly explained away. Unless of course we had access to the second panel, the tragic end, a million miles and more from the expectations of the first panel, and we could see the outcome. This would present us with two bookends, one which anticipated an outcome we desired and the real outcome, a catastrophe. With these two bookends in place we would then need to use our imagination to fill in the history-what events could have brought such high hopes crashing down?

Challenges of all types we had not previously considered might appear as we are forced to look for items, potential events, flaws we had not considered during our anticipation stages. What is happening is we are being forced to look for what we haven’t seen; and what we haven’t seen or anticipated is what hurts us and our plans the most. When we are forced to imagine what led to a potential catastrophe, we are then being forced to plan for resilience, prepare for recovery and begin improvisation and innovation as a means of managing the unexpected.

What I have described above is prospective hindsight, or the pre-mortem exercise (Klein, 2004). Without the ability to see the actual future, we can instead draw ourselves that second panel from the Watchmen. We can create a scenario where the strategy we invested so much in, and feel so positive about, has been a catastrophe. This provides us our two bookends, one is our forecast, and the other is our forecast lying in ruins. All we need to do is fill in the history, focus on what we are not seeing. This exercise draws us out of potentially fixed frames of mind, makes us consider what we are prepared for and what we are not, opportunities to innovate, and what we need to let go of.

The following articles discuss how we get caught up in fixed frames of mind by being positive; this is very counter intuitive, asking someone to tone down enthusiasm and think about what could go wrong isn’t always well received in some group and organisational cultures. However, the articles also cover the other way too; people who believe they won’t be able to cope, when persuaded to think about how they might survive if the worst case scenario came true, are generally surprised by the resources available to them, both physical and mental. This never creases to amaze me when I do the pre-mortem or similar exercises with organisational groups- a general feeling of helplessness and gloom is quickly replaced by the location of exciting opportunities and tactics which had not been previously considered. This is the topic for a future collection, why movement, attempting something new, is so essential to personal and organisational success, but this is what you’ll find at the links below


This first article discusses Wilson and Gilbert’s (2003) work on affective forecasting. It explains how current emotional states influence our expectations of the future. Wilson et al also provide mechanisms for improving forecasting, which we might now say fit under the “second panel” genre.


A slant on the Scottish referendum, and the use of worst case scenarios


The relationship between insight and innovation when events don’t go according to plan


Linking emotion to uncertainty and then to recovery. This was a collaboration with my friend and colleague, Professor Marc Jones, where we used lab results carried out by Marc and his team to look at wider points regarding the management of uncertainty.


An organisational response to unexpected events can lead to a closed frame of mind in decision makers which produces- greater procedures and processes. In other words, all effort is focused on avoiding future mistakes. Avoiding mistakes is no bad thing, but placing procedures and processes at the front of priorities means the frame of reference is doomed to eventually be too narrow. When a non-routine event is encountered, in a culture which has a fixed frame of mind, the default setting is “follow procedures and processes”. This might avoid blame now, but be hiding a bigger problem for later (see the earlier article where Rudolph, 2003, studied clinical decision making). In other words, if an event doesn’t make sense there are two broad options. Firstly, investigate the limits of the procedures and processes in dealing with this non routine occurrence and then update the procedures and processes; in other words, treat the event as different. Or secondly, because the occurrence is “new” either consider the event as unimportant, a fluke, and then apply the procedures and processes. This second approach basically absorbs the novelty and explains it away, not advised, but sometimes a variety of pressures make it inevitable.


Letting go of a belief we are invested in can be incredibly difficult. This article discusses the benefits of going through that difficulty of letting go



Klein (2003) The Power of Intuition. Currency books.

Dewey, J. (1922\2002). Human Nature and Conduct. Mineola, NY: Dover

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

Rudolph, J. (2003) Into the Big Muddy and Out Again. Error Persistence and Crisis Management in the Operating Room. Dissertation, Boston College

Summary of the above can be found in

Klein, G (2009) Streetlights and Shadows. Bradford Books.

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