They’re all around us: on the side of the road, in the coffee shop, living room, library, art gallery, theater, on our wrist, on the cornea of our eyes and attached to our heart (for some)…. This very blog post is being typed on one; podcasts recorded using them. Human artifacts extend and augment our natural capacities, giving us leverage to achieve unnatural accomplishments and unimaginable destruction. Our ability to create and improve artifacts is just one of the reasons humans are unique. (Anyone seen a squirrel make a tool to crack a nut? How about an injured animal cauterizing its wound?) Even if a prehistoric squirrel could have dreamt of flying someday, his best hope would be to evolve wings over many, many, many generations. The Wright brothers, on the other hand, accomplished the same feat in one lifetime, by creating artifacts. There is, however, one possible human artifact almost entirely overlooked as such: intuition. In this post we’ll take a brief look at intuition as a possible artifact, its role in human society, and what it means for problem solving and knowledge management.
Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan was known for his polarizing views on the “electric age.” As one of the most influential figures in media ecology, he foresaw many of the technological developments we have witnessed since his death in 1980. He coined the term “global village” before there was an internet, and predicted an electronic, personalized delivery of literature long before the Kindle or Nook were even considered possible. It was in his Understanding Media
that he made his most famous insight: “the medium is the message.” That is media, extensions of man, define the way the message will be received and understood. These “extensions” are sometimes called artifacts.We usually think of artifacts as tools or weapons made by some ancient civilization and removed with the delicate brush strokes of an archaeologist in some remote desert. The fact is, we are more dependant on artifact today than at any other point in history. The word “artifact” comes from the Latin ars=art and factum=something made. In this one word is found both art and craft; an ability to – at one and the same time – self-actualize and provide. While our earliest artifacts were designed to meet basic needs for hunting, cutting, building and cooking, there were also some made purely for aesthetic expression. A month ago Geoffrey West, of the Santa Fe Institute, gave a talk at the Techonomy Conference entitled “Secrets of Scale: Growth and Sustainability from cells to cities and corporations.” This title is an excellent summary of his lecture, in which he discussed the scale of mammals, from the shrew that fits on the palm of your hand to a blue whale as big as a building. He then went on to compare this scaling to human society, from a mitochondria within a single cell to a huge city. A shrew might look very different than a human or elephant, but “are we just scaled up versions of one another?” asked West. Though he never said it in his lecture, what he was talking about was the scalability of human artifacts. Humans have the ability to go beyond the natural limits of scale to become bigger and more powerful than nature ever intended (if, in fact, nature “intends”). One of Wests main points was that “all life is governed by networks.” He claimed our ability to build houses, companies and cities is a result of our interacting with each other, highlighting the fractal nature of networks (from cell structure to lungs to cities). In other words, our ability to innovate, when it comes to upscaling artifacts, is only limited by our ability to network effectively.
Innovation is a fascinating topic, but is not what we often assume it to be: an individual having a “eureka moment.” As romantic as that idea may be, the reality is that great discoveries are more often than not accidents (Saccharin, Pacemakers, Radioactivity, Penicillin…). West is right: to have scalable innovation we need networks. Acting alone we can do very little. That does not, however, mean that the individual is not important. Individuals can provide a more accurate sense of an organization than groups ever could, using intuition.
“Intuition is nothing special,” claimed Dave Snowden in his KM speech last week, “it’s just compressed experience.” Other variations of the same quote end “… just well-digested experience.” Snowden explained that there’s no replacement for ritualized, human interaction. That it’s the “micro-narrative” heard around the water cooler that tells an organization’s story best. Going to conventions will always be better than teleconferencing. Cognitive science tells us there is something about face-to-face human interaction that beats the chat room every time.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about ESP or supernatural abilities in this discussion of intuition. The definition we’ll use is “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.” What we’re exploring here has more to do with the work of Karl Weick in the 1970′s, who developed what he called “sense-making” to address uncertainty within organizations. Because of it’s focus on narrative and outliers (also known as Black Swan events), Snowden and other complexity scientists are now using this idea of employing fragmented stories to give meaning to experience.
If intuition is not a supernatural phenomena, we can ask a couple of questions about it…
Is intuition an artifact? It’s certainly not a physical artifact. No future archaeologist will ever excavate it. But if it is truly “well-digested experience,” then one could make the argument that it is something created by humans for either a practical or aesthetic purpose. Granted, it is not a tangible thing, but it is in a sense a utility just as much as a bowl or a knife. It is an extension of ourself as it helps us make quick decisions, perceive danger and understand others. Also, as an experience-based utility it remains with an organization long after the originator is gone.
[Think] of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place . . . Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.
Grand’s insight can be seen as a metaphor for the way intuition is passed on in the life of an organization.
Is it scalable? Referring to West, the answer is it depends on the network. Most systems in nature show a fractal quality. To quote Mandelbrot: “A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” Why wouldn’t the same be true of intuition? As an artifact, intuition’s ability to scale is only limited by the strength of the network. With a strong network, intuition should be able to be developed and improved just like any tool or piece of equipment.
Does intuition have something to do with the way we make decisions? According to Simon Sinek, it has everything to do with the way we make decisions. In the following TEDx video Sinek explains how our brains are made to make decisions, not based on rational thought, but on an older part of our brain:
In upcoming posts we’ll be looking at the practical implications for intuition as an artifacts within human complex adaptive systems. We’ll explore ways intuition can be developed and improved as a scalable resource. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comment section below, so we can learn from each other.