The Three Illusions

February 3, 2009

The foundations for strategic leadership are based on two key elements, the capability to think outside the box and to envisage a different way of doing things and the practical capacity to do something about it. Strategic thinking needs to be both conceptual and practical because without both these aspects even the very best ideas, dreams and visions will not be translated into significant changes in the real world. Let’s look quickly at an everyday example, the issue of recycling.

Even a cursory visit to a recycling centre will illuminate the complex problems that arise when a solution is focused at a symptomatic level. Falling commodity prices means that a substantial element of recycled materials now ends up in ‘temporary’ landfill (and sometimes in warehouses!), some people drive considerable distances to recycle materials unaware of the negative consequences of the additional travel and there is considerable confusion (and misallocation) around which materials can be recycled and where.

Recycling does have a part to play in reducing our impact on the environment but eliminating the problem upstream is a much more viable long term viable solution. Good intentions, unfortunately, do not necessarily translate into effective action unless we learn to think at a deeper level. As Einstein said, ‘the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them’. If I make pizza for my family the only materials that I discard are two plastic wraps for the pizza bases. The other day, however, I was under severe time pressure so I bought four branded pizzas for convenience and had to deal with the recycling consequences – four sets of cardboard box, polystyrene base and individual plastic wraps.

In the practical world in which we live this is not always easy and there are particular challenges that we face as we try to broaden and deepen the way we think. Our first task is to take on what I call the ‘three illusions’, which are deeply ingrained patterns in our way of thinking. They are:

1.The illusion of independence – the idea that we, as human beings, are independent from the world around us, that the observer and the observed are separate. We need to recognise that we are all deeply connected within the web of life and that our notion of separateness is an illusion – the observer and the observed are in relationship!

2.The illusion of size – the idea that big is important and success can be measured in terms of size. This idea permeates all aspects of contemporary society, not only in terms of individual and organisational achievement but also in our ideas of economic growth and general well being. In fact, there is little correlation between what is truly important and size; in fact in many cases the correlation may be the very opposite to what we might expect.

3.The illusion of control – the idea that we can control the environment around us, based partly on the first illusion of independence. In reality, our relationship with the world around us is far more complex than we currently acknowledge and we need to recognise the natural limitations in our ability to control it and attune ourselves to the wealth of opportunity that flows from learning to live in relationship with it rather than in opposition to it.

I have found that just working with these ‘three illusions’ and being aware of the limitations that they bring to our thinking process can transform our awareness of opportunities and creative solutions that exist. It can also save a lot of unnecessary work and effort! And, maybe, less trips to the recycling centre.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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