The knowing-trap

The notion of Black swans has become an integral part of futurizing discussions, although few have read Nicholas Taleb’s original text. Black swans did exist all the time, but as we did not know of their existence, all swans were white. No need to look for alternatives, we knew! Right. So did we really know that nobody is so stupid that he starts a war in Europe? Or did we just not explore different possibilities that seemed undesirable or not probable to us? Ignorance, based on a false perception of knowing might have undesirable consequences.

One should not underestimate the complexity most organizations face, and the need to reduce complexity to create meaning and facilitate decision making. Strong leaders know, and they make decisions, if you allow some irony. In many cases this works, for incremental shorth term development of the organization, specially in stable environments. But what if the environment is turbulent? And if there is a particularly important universe of phenomena, relevant to the decision, that you have not explored because you think you know, although you know only a fraction of the relevant issues? Thinking that you know reduces the perceived risk, but de facto the actual risk you face is bigger although you do not recognize it.

Every organization is a system of power and political structures. This does impact every exploration into the not known. Strong cultures of “command and control” might foster single-loop learning processes, mainly achieving adaptation and correction goals. But what if you start to question the assumptions underlying many of your strategic beliefs, if you realize the boundaries in your mental models and start to up- and timeframe your thinking? In a double-loop learning process you might see something new coming at you in the future, not only another yesterday.

Is there a way to escape the knowing-trap and use a larger part of the universe to influence our way to think about futures, and options laying ahead for us? Our friend Christophe Kempkes from shiftN [1] in Belgium, helped to formulate a set of very helpful question:   

What if…..?

What if we knew less and learn more?

What if we knew less and imagine more?

What if we knew less and experience more?

These “what if” question can trigger a process leading to an expanded intellectual realm. Richard Normann in Reframing Business called the process “Knowing how to know”. Languaging, use of opening and catalysing artefacts, structural coupling etc. are key elements in such a process. The analytical and intellectual debate, “let disagreement be an asset”, were competing views of how futures might come at us is core to every successful futurizing, and scenario, endeavour. Turning this into an ongoing process, integrated in the organizational DNA, can create a platform for “knowing” less and learning more.

On our learning journey we might stumble upon black swans, which existence perhaps were clear and understandable to others. And we might have been able to understand that there are people stupid enough to start a war in Europe in 2020’s.

We invite you to join the escape from the knowing-trap.


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