In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo recommends changing the way we look at things. He suggests that our global financial crisis resulted from our tendency in the West to try to take things apart to figure them out or look at individual parts of a problem. For instance, a viewpoint that isolates mortgages from insurance fails to see the interconnections that brought the whole system down. Instead, he recommends taking in everything at once instead of fixating on pieces. He likens complex systems to a sandpile, where every grain is dependent on the others. It has an inherent instability and very little predictability. The way to anticipate change in a complex situation is to look around the edges, in unexpected places.

Ramo tells of a study where 100 graduate students were tested to track their eye movements. Half were American-born, and half were Chinese-born. The Americans fixed their eyes on the main object in the foreground, to the extreme that they sometimes didn’t recognize that the background image changed. Ramo goes as far as saying, “When it came to the environment, Americans were almost completely “change blind.” In other words, they stared.

The Chinese students kept their eyes moving, searching the background for additional context. They didn’t stop with a tiger in the woods. Instead, they looked for threats, clues to location, tensions, etc. that might influence the tiger. In fact, some spent so much time on context that when a new picture came up with the same background and a different foreground object, they thought they had seen the image before. His conclusion was that Americans typically stare at a small handful of data points while high-context cultures believe that the environment contains clues to what will happen next.

More than anything, what you want to know is when change is going to begin. In Chinese philosophy this sense is known as a mastery of incipience, and the skill is often praised as the highest form of wisdom.

Ramo’s point is that today’s world requires a different way of looking. Those who will be successful in the present and future are not those who narrow their gaze, looking for specific data points. He’s seen it in foreign affairs, venture capital and intelligence: those who can take in a broad range of data and infer conclusions are more successful. Ramo’s conclusion:

The chance for real brilliance or flair is usually best seen out of the corner of the eye.

So, how’s your eyesight as a leader? If you have a distinctly western view of the world, this is a great argument for diversity. Surround yourself with people who see the world differently than you do, and you might do well to bring in people who from birth have been trained to look at the edges of the paintings — to look at the whole to gauge what’s just around the corner.

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