Tag Archives: Innovation

Expanding Horizons and Cognitive Computing

21 Nov

The cognitive computing software we are currently working with is methodologically based on systems thinking. A key influence was the work of ecologist and cybernetics expert, Frederick Vester. Vester argued (2007) that the failure of organisational systems occurs because only a single aspect of a problem is ever explored, a concept he referred to as “symptom bashing”.

An organisation, like any aspect of life, is a network of interlocking relationships, interdependencies and features, which can be referred to as nodes. The relationship which exists between the various nodes of a network is crucial to an improved understanding of a wider system. Vester observed that what seems to happen in organisational planning is an over emphasis on nodes, with very little attention paid to the relationships and arising interdependencies.

For example, in organisational change, a CEO needs to make the organisation more streamlined by reducing the number of management positions. Each management position is a node in a network, and can be identified clearly on a spread sheet.

From this spread sheet, the CEO can select which positions they wish to retain, restructure or remove. What is not fully known to the CEO is the relationship each of these nodes have with the organisation. The formal rationale for restructuring, presented as the symptoms of too many managers, too long decision making, and too much cost, makes sense, but the cost of change, which will only become apparent through time, is unknown.

In other words, the nodal management positions are known in theory (job descriptions, formal responsibilities etc.), but how this theory has been adapted to practice, and what relationships have been formed to the delivery of key business areas, could be fuzzy at best. What occurs is an initial saving followed only by the appearance of “unexpected events”, the latent effect of system neglect. Not all risk can be known by taking a systems approach, far from it, but the risks that change can bring can be better prepared for, creating a more resilient restructure.

A lot of system neglect is human nature. We, as human beings, have a natural bias to jump to conclusions, and then stick to these conclusions, explaining away any evidence or data which might contradict our initial assumptions (Kahneman, 2011 for excellent examples). High level expertise presents frequently as the ability to let go of conclusions and adapt quickly to new information (Klein, 2007). However, the conditions need to be supportive for “letting go” to occur (Klein, 2014).

A practical method of providing this support to improve strategic decision making, forecasts and analysis is to think about the system as opposed to the nodes, or put more simply, get a broader perspective. For example, affective forecasting (Wilson et al, 2003, Greening, 2014) discusses how forecasting about the outcome of an event or future state improves when the forecaster speaks to someone who has lived their future.

Forecasting and decision making in small groups can become overly focused on the perceived resources, abilities and knowledge of the team to achieve a goal, the inside perspective (Kahneman, 2011). However, this type of planning leads to over optimism and no consideration of what time and uncertainty will throw in their direction.

However, if the team speak to someone who has made and lived through a similar decision and faced the unexpected events, then the team is being exposed to the outside view. This takes their focus away from the nodes (the closed attributes) and broadens the perspective to the potential relationship of the nodes to the system, the outside perspective, through a period of time.

This is one of the aspects the cognitive computing software we are working with aims to achieve. It aims to collect a wide range of experiences, forecasts and anticipations from variety of decision makers and make these available to a user so they (the user) are able to view their environment more as a system and less as a series of nodes. The software is able to present information to a user in a time critical format, so the user is able to see the latent effect of decisions and the emergence of potential unintended consequences.

Viewing a decision as being part of an interconnected and changing system broadens the perspective. A broadening of perspective allows a decision maker to let go of initial assumptions and adapt to changes in a system. This can be achieved by accessing the knowledge and experience of people who have experienced the topic system through a period of time. For the CEO in the earlier example, this means a sharp analysis of the key relationships the managers have built up in their role. The result is discreet knowledge of what the CEO will be actually restructuring beyond spread sheet nodes, and the risks which that brings. For a user of cognitive computing software, this can mean exploring a topical system through the eyes of potentially thousands of people who have already lived a similar future.


Wilson, Timothy D.; Daniel T. Gilbert (2003). “Affective Forecasting”. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 35: 345–411

Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Gilbert, D (2013) (p.45) AFFECTIVE FORECASTING…OR…THE BIG WOMBASSA: WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING TO GET, AND WHAT YOU DON’T GET, WHEN YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT in John Brockman (Editor) (2013) Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction. Harper Collins

Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: the remarkable ways we gain insight. Public Affairs.

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

Vester, F. (2007) The Art of Interconnected Thinking: Tools and concepts for a new approach to tackling complexity. Malik Management (English language edition)

5 Golden Rules for Flexible Project Management

13 Jun

I previously wrote about methods to improve two aspects of project management

  1. Knowledge capture, and
  2. Communication

A focus on the importance of capturing knowledge and improved communication was inspired by a recent publication by Raconteur (Project Management, raconteur.net, #0376, 22\05\2016). Within this Raconteur publication was a piece entitled “The Five Golden Rules of Project Flexibility” (p.4), and provides the inspiration for this article.

Flexibility is essential for sustainable success, but for human beings, it can be very difficult to think and behave with flexibility. Below, I’ll outline some reasons behind this difficulty, before revealing Raconteur’s 5 Golden Rules.

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Why Instructions Rarely Get Followed

19 Apr

All situations involve change. Yet most instructions, plans and procedures are static, and bear little resemblance to how frontline workers actually perform and behave. This could be because most instructions, plans and procedures assume that frontline workers passively process data. Instead, frontline workers interact with data in dynamic ways which adapt plans and instructions to meet the challenges of specific situations. This can leave what actually works well in an organisation invisible.

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Getting Answers from Unusual Places

30 Mar

Sometimes the answer to a problem comes from an unusual place that is right in front of us. This article covers how we can potentially transfer expertise from one disciplinary subject to another.

Many organisations contain expertise which stretches across multiple disciplines. For example, construction, engineering, research and development all contain reservoirs of expertise particular to their discipline’s training, experience, and cultural sense making. All these disciplines apply their expertise to design, deliver and problem solve during the completion of tasks. Problem solving, and dealing with tough non routine cases, are generally the points where expertise becomes most active and innovation takes place (Taleb, 2012, Klein, 2014).

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Doing More With Less

28 Oct

Whenever you read a government strategy and economic outlook for companies across the West, there is a consistent underlying theme-we need to do more with less. This is particularly the case with health and social care within the UK, where competing priorities and “doing more with less” are leading to increased pressures in service delivery and the search for new ways of working. Any opportunities which may emerge from examining and testing how to do more with less will first be met with inevitable resistance, as the natural human process of loss aversion takes hold. Then there is the flip of loss aversion, over optimism, as a strategic idea is used to explain away contradictions, obstacles and difficulties; this can lead to view that doing more with less is going to be far easier than the reality will allow.  I’m going to take a brief look at a potential method of tackling loss aversion and over optimism whilst aiming to boost the improvisation required to “do more with less”.

Kahneman and Tversky (1992) identified a human bias toward preventing and feeling a loss as opposed to securing gains. This means that when a person has something removed from them (or the threat of removal), they will feel the loss more and fight harder to avoid the loss, than the person would over any gain. Therefore, the mere notion of “doing more with less” invokes a strong psychological reaction. The optimism bias, is associated with the more abstract task of strategic planning (see Kahneman and Tversky, 1979 for original research). The designers of plans have a potential bias to overestimate their ability (and the ability of their available resources) to complete a task, whilst underestimating the difficulties, both anticipated and unanticipated, in derailing a task.

As a result, human beings are demonstrably poor at forecasting (Tetlock and Gardner, 2015) consistently and significantly over weighting or under weighting the impact of future events. This can trap people into a cycle of emotional (as opposed to intuitive) decision making, predicting “less” will be relatively easy to cope with or “less” will be impossibly difficult. The reality may exist in a large space in between, and not remain in that space for very long.

Kahneman and Klein (2009) observe that forecasting improves if the future outcome is already known. In the absence of knowing the future the next best solution is to imagine one. However, the imagined future must take the form of catastrophe. For example, imagine you have been asked to do more with less, and it is now 6 months into the future. The request has resulted in a complete catastrophe. Now take 5 minutes to write down the history of that catastrophe. Then ask what could you do? What links could be made? What software, online resources could be levered? Which partners or colleagues could help? And what would you need to let go of? This exercise enables leverage points and cross links to be located. It also separates what is realistically less versus impossibly less.

The above can be carried out in teams and groups, and findings should be shared to highlight potential innovation and high risks. The exercise enables people to spot previously hidden risks and previously hidden opportunities, it also shares a lot of learning and ideas. This leaves a question- why focus on catastrophe, a worse-case scenario? Dealing with worst case scenarios are far from the average experience, as a result people draw from their most testing previous experiences and the reservoirs of their knowledge. The result should highlight both experience and creativity.


Kahneman, D. Tversky, A. (1992). “Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty”. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 5 (4): 297–323.

Tetlock, P. E. & Gardner, D. (2015). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. New York: Crown

Kahneman, D. Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree. American Psychologist, 80, 237–251

Kahneman, D, Tversky, A. (1979). “Intuitive prediction: biases and corrective procedures”. TIMS Studies in Management Science 12: 313–327

Linking Research and Evaluation To Decision Making and Planning

9 Oct

Making a decision is the sum of some form of analysis. Fast, slow, statistical, intuitive or any combination of factors leads a person to reach a conclusion and make a decision. Since making a decision means letting go of other options, it is a process which frequently becomes bottlenecked. Fear of letting go of the wrong option, of making a mistake, or simply trying to find the perfect answer can trap a person in permanent analysis, or even worse, permanent data collection. This situation can become particularly acute when a person or group that designs plans is separated from the people who deliver and receive the consequences of plans. The relative isolation reduces feedback loops with the environment and increases guess work, stress and uncertainty.

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The Benefits of Letting Go

4 Jun

Here is a thought which may or may not challenge. A lot of time, resource and effort is placed into managing change, but significantly less time, resource and effort is placed into the process of “letting go”. This is what I mean-

For decades research has been carried out on the confirmation bias (Kahneman, 2011 provides a good resource). The confirmation bias is about how once human beings reach a conclusion, form an opinion, create a plausible story they selectively search for information to prove the conclusion correct, whilst disregarding and explaining away any information which contradicts it. In other words, human beings have a tough time letting go.

Change management as a discipline and a subject is fraught with problems, many of which are based on resistance to change, of people (the followers) not being able to let go of a belief which forms a barrier. Change management is equally, maybe more significantly, fraught with leaders who couldn’t let go of an idea which was demonstrably bad, frequently in the face of overwhelming evidence.

You could examine the UK government’s Poll Tax proposal, you could examine New Coke, or you could examine the accounts of Enron for years before the fall. All of these examples have one thing in common-they all involved people unwilling to let go of something, both leaders and followers.

Gary Klein’s latest book, Seeing What Others Don’t (2014) suggests that one way people gain insight is to suddenly let go of a belief which they was holding them back. In other words, these people unlocked some form of the confirmation bias by removing something. The result is adaption, insight and innovation. For a company this could mean a more flexible approach to change and greater levels of innovation. It could also mean picking up risks faster and responding quickly.

A resource for learning how to let go is to examine people who operate on the edges of uncertainty. An example would be a climber. A climber has to start out with a plan, and this plan, because potentially their life is at stake, needs to be built around the question “what could go wrong”? This immediately focuses the mind and what needs to be let go.

Once the plan is executed, feedback is immediate; each action produces data on how well the plan is working. Because feedback is immediate, adjustments and adaptions can be made. These adjustments may deviate significantly from the original plan, but holding onto it in the light of contradictions would be fatal.

In certain professions, hobbies and activities the participants simply have to know how to let go in order to survive and succeed. By exploring the mental models these people use to frequently let go we can learn a lot about how to approach change, innovation, uncertainty and risk.


Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin
Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t. The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. Notable Books.

Innovation as Recovery

3 Mar

Innovation is potentially the most counter intuitive concept you come across. To me innovation is the ability to spot links between different domains and put them together, Nassim N Taleb (2014) provides the perfect example- taking wheels and putting them on suitcases. Klein’s (2014) recent work on insight narrows down three potential routes to innovation-
1- Making a connection between two different domains
2- Spotting a contradiction in a connection
3- Discarding a connection out of creative desperation

I’d like to focus on the third point, creative desperation. Creative desperation is illustrated by situations where following routine would have meant catastrophe, something different HAD to be tried. Weick (2003) discuss the Mann Gulch disaster where a wildfire became so out of control the attending firefighters had to run for their lives. The fire spread so fast that running was only delaying the inevitable. The firefighter foreman, Wager Dodge, stopped, set the ground around him on fire and lay in the ash; the fire blazed around him, but the escape fire worked, he survived, unburnt. The tragedy produced a new go to method for firefighters faced with an out of control wildfire which could not be out run.

The disruption of routine can produce incredible feats of improvisation and innovation, and this is the counter intuitive element of innovation. Threats to innovation are what most societies struggle for-stability, routine, degrees of certainty. It’s difficult to take the risks needed for innovation when everything is going to plan; it’s even more difficult to be bothered. But imagine a society where everything was stable and routine, or a society led to believe everything was stable and routine, and then suddenly it was hit by some unexpected event. This would be a society poorly set up to innovate out of trouble, to turn the disruption into something better.

Back in 1922, philosopher John Dewey defined life as “interruptions and recoveries”, and this is probably a better way for governments, organisations and individuals to measure success- not how long they can maintain faux stability but rather how well they recover from interruptions. Recovery is where innovation, the development of something better, can and should take place.

Taleb, N.N (2014) Anti Fragile- Things that Gain from Disorder. Penguin
Weick, K.E. (2003) Positive Organizing and Organizational Tragedy in Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. Dutton, R. and Quinn, J. (Eds) pp.66-80.
Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: the remarkable ways we gain insight. Public Affairs.

Echo Breaker-Innovation

7 Oct

Echo Breaker Innovation is about a single question-how does an academic idea add value to a business? It’s a question that’s tried to be answered with big ticket sales, marketing, networking events all with limited to no results. It’s a tough question to answer and Nassim Taleb (2013) has empirically demonstrated that no university, anywhere, has ever produced anything new or productive. However, we’re going to try and answer the question by a) taking on the risk commercially b) reframing the question as a problem which has already been answered before.

Ok, a) taking on the risk commercially- we’ve formed an R & D company, Echo Breaker Research and Analysis Ltd, whose future is going to be dependent on answering this question effectively; this site will chart the progress. B) Reframing the question- getting an academic idea to add value into a business isn’t a sales\ marketing issue, it’s a knowledge acquisition issue.

The field of natural decision making faces a central challenge- how does an expert perform so effortlessly yet finds it so hard to articulate how they do it? The reason is tacit and semi tacit knowledge-things people do without even thinking about, and things people do which they feel is barely worth mentioning. This knowledge is the ingredients of expert sense making but incredibly difficult to get at. Traditional methods like interviews and questionnaires can extract limited amounts of data, but don’t allow complete access to how experts make sense of situations-especially challenging, non-routine events.

You can imagine how this issue has caused a lot of headaches for software developers, products on which success can literally be life or death. As a result, a range of methods have been developed to illicit this knowledge from experts (see Crandell et al, 2006, Rugg et al, 2013).
Getting ideas from one domain effectively to another is innovation; I think Taleb’s (2012) example of wheels on suit cases is an excellent example. To achieve this, the structure of one domain must become transparent so cross links can be identified with the structure of another domain. The structure of a domain is culturally constructed meaning its messy and tacit\ semi tacit. Discovering the structure of a domain is essentially the same problem as trying to elicit tacit and semi tacit knowledge from an expert.

So, you have two domains, the domain of the academic idea (it’s creator, the institution, the subject discipline for example) and the domain of a potential commercial sector (it’s risks, culture, and how value gets added for example). To get the idea from the one domain to the other domain means identifying the relative structures and then making the cross links-literally, effectively translating the idea. This may change the idea significantly, but the change is aimed at adding genuine value not maintaining an abstract integrity.

This is the challenge- to apply knowledge acquisition research to solve innovation problems because they are essentially the problem. We’ll post our case studies here.



Taleb, N.N. (2013) Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Penguin

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, B. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. Bradford Books

Rugg, G. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us: How Finding a Solution to One of the World’s Greatest Mysteries. Harperone


Threat, Challenge and Risk- Practicing Uncertainty

23 Jun

I write this article in collaboration with the internationally renowned sports psychologist, Professor Marc Jones. The work of Marc and his team on framing stressful situations as challenges as oppose to threats extends far beyond the boundaries of sport. Here we integrate our research and thoughts to introduce the application of threat\ challenge to risk.

Heuristic- the references to lab work and CV are the work of Marc and his team.

Organisations vulnerability can be measured by its approach to risk. If the organisation is governed by rigid procedures and processes then breaks to routine methods caused by unforeseen events are far more likely to result in catastrophes and the breaking of an entire organisational system. The reason the system breaks is because the people and culture are not capable of improvising under stress and so incapable of adapting to rapid change. This is the opposite of resilience and is basically a dysfunctional response to risk.

No matter how much an organisation attempts to identify and minimise risks it can’t avoid the uncertainty of the future. Unfortunately the complexity and aesthetics of risk models, manifested in daily procedures and processes, create a false sense of security- the future is in the bag and adherence to routine minimises risk. This approach can work for long periods of time, but the moment something unexpected happens people are instinctively scratching around for a manual which does not exist, instead improvisation is required.

The ability and confidence to improvise under testing conditions is a pillar of reliance, and resilience can be generated by exposing people and organisations to non-routine tests. Conversely, constant adherence to routine generates too much certainty into how the future will play out- you’ll always have that job, you’ll always keep your best customer, that market is secure, and that warning system always work; and this blunts error detection (see Crandrall et al 2006, Klein, 2011, Taleb 2012, Rugg et al, 2013 for examples). Not exposing people and organisations to tests means that when these future expectancies eventually get violated (and they will) they become framed as threats, and framing situations as threats is not conducive to improvising- people simply don’t have the confidence and range of trials to draw from required to improvise.

How does an organisation transform its approach to risk as a means of building resilience? Firstly, uncertainty needs to be embraced, an acceptance that routines and procedures will eventually hit their limits, and improvisation, and the innovation which springs from it, will be needed. Risk doesn’t just need to be written in a file or modelled, it needs to be practiced. Practice can take the form of resilience training where people are exposed to extreme events (in scenarios for example) which require thinking beyond the formal, routine is obliterated and its fragility exposed. This training in itself can produce innovation and insight, as Nassim Taleb advises in Anti Fragile- if you want to innovate, first get yourself into trouble. However, it’s important to remember you’ll never master or fully anticipate risk; it is something which waits in the future not the empirical past (Taleb, 2013).

The psychological element is vital; moving outside of routine requires risks to be framed not as threats but as challenges. Identifying risk as a challenge (as opposed to a threat) provides the resilience to deal with the risk. In our research we see individuals responding to stressful events, such as something unexpected and potentially harmful, in a challenge state when they are confident, feel in control and have an approach focus, wherein they are focused on what can be achieved not what might go wrong.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. Collecting physiological data of this nature gives us an insight into to the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response the person is experiencing. When exposed to a stressor an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. When a person is threatened there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the stressor.

In our research CV reactivity to the psychological stress has consistently predicted performance in a range of cognitive and motor task with those exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state and performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013). In short how we approach unexpected, potentially harmful, events can determine our resilience. Being resilient, and displaying a challenge response to stress, does depend on our psychological characteristics and our past experience as mentioned. However our research also outlines how leaders in organisations can help develop resilience in their teams.

In our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to psychological stress by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, under review). Prior to a stressful task if we emphasise feelings of confidence, control and an approach focus, participants respond physically with a challenge state. As a leader in business, emphasising the qualities your team has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help develop resilience in use the face of unexpected, potentially damaging events.

The framing of shocks and unexpected events as challenges potentially goes beyond leadership in the context of organisational behaviour in two ways. Firstly, the ability to absorb unanticipated risks by adopting a mind-set which allows problem solving as oppose to re-consulting the procedures can drive innovation. Tidd et al (2014) observes that innovation happens in tough times (recession) and is most likely carried out by those who see adversity as a challenge as well as a necessity- post traumatic strengthening (Taleb, 2012). Within an organisation, ideally, risk should actually strengthen the organisation (ibid), producing novel and innovative ways of working.

Secondly, people and teams focused on overcoming challenges-let’s call it problem solving- may actually reduce the cognitive load on leaders during tough times. In addition to potential innovation, this could potentially free up the time of leaders to focus on strategy, morale (both internally and shareholders) and communication. In closing, let’s say that uncertainty can be practised and then unexpected events may actually be welcomed.

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. Bradford Books

Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.
Rugg, G. D’Agnese, J. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us. Harper One

Tidd, Joseph, Hopkins, Michael and Nightingale, Paul (2014) Positive and negative dynamics of open innovation. In: Open innovation research, management and practice. Imperial College Press, London, pp. 417-442

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Barker, J. B., & Coffee, P. (under review). Manipulating cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat using resource appraisals

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Slater, M. J., Barker, J. B., & Bell, J. B. (2013). Who Thrives Under Pressure? Predicting the Performance of Elite Academy Cricketers Using the Cardiovascular Indicators of Challenge and Threat States. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 387-397.

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., & Cross, S. L. (2012). Cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat states predict performance under stress in cognitive and motor tasks. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 86, 48-57.