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Don’t become comfortably numb: Sense, probe, reflect and respond

I have a question, is it possible to ‘sense’ a problem if you are numb to the pain?

Bear with me here.  You see, for a long time I took for granted the concept of ‘Probe – Sense – Respond’ as a way of dealing with organisational complexity and decision-making in that environment.  The idea that in order to develop dynamic, agile and adaptive capacity/capability there is a need to make sense of the environment, to probe it, to understand it.  Showing my age a bit here, I grew up playing Sid Meier’s ‘Civilisation’.  For those of you not familiar with the game, you basically start with one area, which is in immediate proximity to your one starting ‘person’, your ‘probe’.  Your starting view is limited, but full of detail, and the rest of the map is black.  You have no idea what is happening beyond that which you can see and so you develop probes in order to make sense of the world.  Stop probing and your senses quickly become ‘numb’, leaving you susceptible to nasty little things, like warring neighbours.  My argument, using the game as an example, is that there has to be a reason to ‘probe’ in the first place.  At first, it is a need to expand your border, knowing that if you don’t you will become surrounded, starved and ultimately lose the game.  Later, it can take the sense of dwindling economic returns from one of your established cities, which is the result of an opposing  spy destroying food stocks, but there is always a ‘sense’ first.

Moving this forward, we as  people react to pain.  We sense it, probe for the cause, reflect, based on our experience, on how severe/critical it is and develop a response (if the pain falls outside the limits of our experience we try to gain understanding…going to see a doctor or turning into internet doctors ourselves…always dangerous).  The point I am trying to make here is that ‘Probe – Sense – Respond’ is perhaps incomplete or limited as a method for understanding complexity.

We, as people, exist as a complex system.  We engage with our environment via our senses, but our complex system, our mechanism for moving and interacting in this world of ours, our body, is generally taken for granted beyond basic maintenance; only warranting attention when a warning signal is received and interpreted by our brains. My argument is that it doesn’t start with a probe, it starts with a trigger, a need, a sense of pain.  From there it progresses to the idea of a ‘probe’, the signals from which are reconciled via reflection, based on our experiences.  It is only then that we are able to formulate a response.  We build systems and regulating models in our own image.  We design feedback loops, sensors that alert us to trouble (car engines running low on oil), and we know that without those feedback loops that we are ‘numb’ to the pain that could potentially kill us.  My other problem with ‘Probe’ over ‘Sense’ as a starting point is that in today’s organisational environment the need for resilience through enhanced dynamic, agile and adaptive capability is a strong message, and one that I totally subscribe to, but , organisations are also low on resources and the idea of probing the environment for the sake of it just doesn’t wash.  For most organisations it is about pain, strategic or operational, that requires a response.  They are already sensing something, something real, and that is the starting point.

An interesting perspective comes from two very different sources.  In the first, Niall Ferguson (Complex Adaptive Systems:  A new blueprint to analyse imperial collapse) suggests that dictatorships are doomed to fail because they are too tightly coupled to a command and control structure that often deprives them of the sensory triggers and structures that would allow them to adapt; his argument being that they are not adaptive and that, outliers accepted, all dictatorships will fall.  This is juxtaposed by William Dobson, in his book ‘The Dictators Learning Curve‘.  Dobson gives a good example of how modern-day Russia is creating ‘senses’ in order to feel ‘pain’.  Dobson proposes that Russia has learned the lessons of its past and is finding new ways to fire its previously numbed synapses.  For example, Putin created the ‘Public Chamber’ as a way to allow a contrast of ideas, a gamed opposition, in a controlled environment, a way to create artificial variety as a way to evolve existing strategies/operations.  In addition, the government recognised the  feeling of ‘numbness’ in reports coming in from municipal powers, where bad news, pain, was not being reported.  In this case the numbness was a signal of pain, based on previous experiences, not only from within Russia, but the failings of other dictatorships and their sensory systems, such as Chile and Project Cybersyn.   As a result the government put into place a synapses network via the Centre For Analysis, an invasive function designed to ensure the reporting of reality, to ensure that the pain signals were being received by the ‘brain’.

And so, back to my opening question, is this about ‘Probe – Sense – Respond’ or is this about ‘Sense – Probe – Reflect – Respond’?  For me, it is very much the latter.

11 comments on “Don’t become comfortably numb: Sense, probe, reflect and respond

  1. Dave Snowden
    August 19, 2012

    Its worth remembering that probe-sense-respond should reflect multiple parallel safe-to-fail probes and that reflection (at an appropriate level) is really imbedded in all three stages. It could be a mistake to pick it out in other than single flow linear processes (such as those you describe). The parallelism is key and constant reflection especially during the probe and respond stages is vital.

    • David Griffiths
      August 20, 2012

      Hi Dave, noted and in the main I don’t have an argument with what you are saying.

      However, I do believe that ‘reflection’ deserves greater prominence in the ‘Probe-Sense-Respond’ approach. The other question I have is whether reflection can only be surfaced in this way in a ‘single flow linear process’. If so, people like Kolb (experiential learning cycle) have been getting it wrong. Not only Kolb, but Swanson et al. (andragogy and the learning cycle) and Kahneman (reflection as a way to regulate system 1 thinking). All these people have developed non-linear models and I would argue that their work would be diminished if ‘reflection’ was removed from the scope of their models. Going further, I would argue that the approach within their models would be weakened and the models themselves would be rendered incomplete.

      • Dave Snowden
        August 24, 2012

        I think you weaken (or atomise) the idea of reflection by separating it, its an integral part of each stage. As to the other models, I have not sure they are non-linear to be honest, but I need to check back before being too assertive on that. I also think system 1/2 while interesting, is experimental observation. Ideas of autonomic and novelty receptive aspects of the brain account for the observations in a more consistent (and scientific way). That said they are good examples but I don’t think ‘reflection’ is central to them

  2. Scott Geans
    August 20, 2012

    Very good post. Helps me have a better perspective on the lens through which I study our organization.

  3. keabotsa
    September 12, 2012

    How can numb signal pain? By arriving at a point where you become numb that means you have out grown the pain and now have settled in your situation.
    How ever this is a very informing article both from a personal and wider perspective.

    If i may ask what do you think can be the causes of people and/organisation becoming comfortably numb?

  4. percy
    September 21, 2012

    This is an interesting article, i have come to realise that one has to expand the borders in order to gain more knowledge that dwelling in the culture of an organisation. This article can also build one’s peronal life.

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