Early on Wednesday morning, I found myself restless. Watching the US elections the night before, in all its fanfare, I was looking forward to some sense of certainty the next morning. After all, knowing the result – in whatever venture we are engaged in, makes us draw comfort from knowing, we feel more confident to build on our new-found sense of knowing, strengthen our perspective or just bask in ‘knowing what we already know’.
But on that very early Wednesday morning (it was VERY early, I must admit), something felt different. The results were far from being counted, and so I was alert for any signal of ‘progress’ in the counting process. Amid the fanfare, the flash-photography, the early tweets (you know from whom…) and the political pundits and pollsters who supposedly ‘knew’ upfront what might transpire, a single piece of information caught my eye. Exit polls were showing that US voters viewed the Pandemic, a once-in-a century event, a tragedy of untold proportions, a disease without a cure in sight – only 18% viewed this pandemic as the major election issue.
I was rather stunned. Is it possible that voters were perhaps dismissing the toll that the US (and many other countries) were experiencing? Are we perhaps experiencing psychological stress to such a degree that we develop a form of ‘herd immunity’, where the immediate economic pain blocks out any other signals? Or is it perhaps that denialism – of science, of facts, or human logic, that was playing out? Whatever it was, I was getting concerned.
In a world in need of adaptive strategy, the process of scanning is key to the success of any venture.
It involves looking for what are known as ‘weak signals’. Because they are weak, they seem to have little or no bearing on our ‘here and now’, they are often dismissed as not useful or not important enough. Our filter to determine how useful a new piece of information is, lies in the subconscious mind. If it were a conscious filter, we would be overwhelmed by new information and won’t be able to function. Hence, we take a mental shortcut and permit our sub-conscious mind to ‘take over’ this continuous scanning process.
This form of subconscious scanning does come at a price – of biases, of blind spots and of broad generalizations taking over the filtering process. And that can have disastrous consequences for organisations (and on that Wednesday morning – for societies, at large). If we are to improve the quality of our strategic thinking, if we are to better navigate new and unfamiliar terrains, grow in our ability to adapt and change, we must fight back and make scanning a deliberate and conscious act.
Here is why – in reviewing various patterns of transformational change, often accompanied by disruption, what is common (at least to the models I am familiar with) is that change emerges at the periphery of a system, not at the center. Over time, it can accelerate and grow in strength or it can weaken and perhaps disappear from sight. However, it always starts at the periphery. This is where our scanning should be focused. What is at the center, often termed ‘in the light’ has limited value. It is clearly seen by everyone, its implications often well understood and even the less-agile, the uncertain or the conflicted organisation, can still respond in time. We must resist looking into the light, however comforting that may feel, and shift our perspective to the edges…
The good news is that scanning the periphery is a learned skill and we have the systems and processes to make it a mainstream activity, in strategic thinking and in strategic doing. The key often lies within us, our curiosity that sparks a response to a new, weak signal, the inner voice that asks of us not to dismiss but to explore such signals and our willingness to stay in our discomfort, enlist others in our ‘theory’ and build a bridge from mainstream capabilities to these edges. You may surprise yourself at how many bridges are out there, for us to walk-through…
Watching that ‘18% signal’ was unnerving. I recognised it could shape the political climate in the days and weeks which follow. But it is no longer a lone data point at the fringe. It made me think about how we make key choices as a society, learn to understand unfamiliar terrains and learn deliberately what was before just an unfamiliar signal. And in this particular instance, about who we choose as the next leader of the western world.
Have a good weekend everyone!
Saar Ben-Attar (Chief Instigator)