Uncertainty, handled with equanimity. Now!

Mikael Sköld

Simon Bennett’s talk at From Business to Buttons and his pre-conference workshop took us from complexity and uncertainty to mindfulness via the cingulate cortex and the Toyota Production System.

It is more important to be able to unmake bad decisions than the ability to make the right decision in the first place.

You may think that the past, the present and the future are three different things, but according to Simon Bennett the brain uses just two different systems when thinking about time: Now and Not Now.

The Now system is used for perceiving, thinking and planning while the Not Now system is concerned with either remembering the past or dreaming of the future.

The Not Now system acts as a kind of autopilot searching for similarities to old patterns so it can apply already tried solutions. It works well on ordered domains, where the Best practices or at least Current Good Practices are applicable. But it is really bad at handling uncertainty in unordered domains, where new, untried solutions are needed.

The trick is to understand which situation is at hand. To visualize this, Bennett discussed the Cynefin framework, an interesting sense-making model that provides a topology of uncertainty and what strategies to use in different situations.

I found the model fascinating. It gave me a couple of hints on why designers and project managers sometimes clash over strategies and expectations on outcomes from past design projects. We probably lacked a shared understanding of the problem.

Being wrong

It is really hard to admit you are wrong and change strategy. Especially in the autopilot thinking of Not Now. To make better decisions we must bypass the autopilot and activate the Now system. One way of doing that is practicing mindfulness and compassion. To strive for equanimity, a lack of emotional attachment to a particular outcome. To avoid the default reaction of judging. Instead to pause and sense; “hmm that’s interesting…”

– You can’t solve a complex problem for someone; you have to solve it with them, says Simon Bennett.

Throughout the day Bennett referred to neuroscience, it seems I need to refresh my cognitive science knowledge. For example: in complex situations, it seems the brains of the team are physically changed as part of the learning process.

This may be a clue to why you need to lead a client through the process not just presenting the final design solution. Or preferably involve them in the design process. They need their brains changed a little too!

More emotions

Bennett spent some time proving that emotions are needed in decision-making. Often the body knows before we have made a conscious decision. And some biases occur when we suppress emotions. For examples: google Hindsight bias, Self-serving Bias and Ambiguity bias.

That said, we are not supposed to be emotional when making decisions. Instead, recognizing emotions is a way of being more mindful and making sense of the situation. And then we need to work on lowering the attachment.

At the end of the day Bennett tied it all to The Toyota Kata, a book by Mike Rother and specifically the Improvement Kata, which is a lean way of handling uncertainty.

For complex situations (which I think most interesting design problems are):

  1. get the direction
  2. grasp the current situation
  3. establish your next target condition
  4. conduct experiments to get there

They even strive to create uncertainty and unstable situations to maximize learning. Done right it fosters a “I can deal with anything”-mindset.

So after spending a day giving us tools to grasp the situation, Bennetts advice for our next target condition would be: Be non-judgmental, develop an emotional spider sense and strive for compassion. Now it is up to us to continue conducting experiments (or practice) to get there.

A nice touch was to finish the day with a short meditation. Refreshing after a full day,  and I left the workshop with a sense of mindfulness, and hopefully, with compassion and equanimity.

And speaking about equanimity: Based on the title of the workshop I was originally expecting a lot more talk about lean processes, but hmmm, what I got instead was really interesting!

Don't miss Simon Bennetts talk from the conference on April 15:


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