Image: Andrew Bossi, Flickr
I’m finishing up Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant journey of a book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, looking for (and finding!) implications for futures studies and foresight. (I have a forthcoming article exploring the “I” of the beholder in relation to our discipline). But more on that later.
What I wanted to share here is that at one point the author reminded me of the now-famous experiment on selective attention in which a group of people are asked to observe a basketball game between two teams, one wearing black T-shirts and other white. The assignment is to track how many times the players in white pass the ball amongst each other. (Watch the video here – and unless you do right now, I’ve ruined it for you!)
The diligent respondents, fixated on their task, pay such enormous attention to the back and forth between the players that they fail to see how a new figure enters the terrain – a person dressed as a gorilla – who not only walks nonchalantly across the scene but also comes to the fore, raises a fist, beats his chest, does a little jiggle, and exits. Few students from the study noticed the gorilla! (Simons & Chabris, http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/)
As you can imagine, the implications of this research are quite profound no matter the field. But from my perspective in terms of the work we do, I think there are two fundamental insights:
1) Much of the real economic value in the world today is created by people who make things happen by sharpening their attention to what’s at hand – today’s work requires intensity of focus and clarity of purpose for creating tangible results. However, our best intentions are often dampened by the unexpected. As futurists, our value is to complement clients (decision-makers, innovators, strategists, entrepreneurs, policymakers) do their jobs even better by helping them navigate terrains fraught with gorillas – not only in the foreground of attention, but especially at the background, the fringe. This is why it is imperative that we engage in a co-creative process that brings out the best of both worlds. Futurists are there to help you explore the unforeseen, without denying or minimizing your expert knowledge. Your focus and expertise are essential when teamed up with the breadth, depth and temporal dimension of futurists (who are not trying to replace focused expert knowledge in your domain). It is the process by which you get both the score right (in the fictitious basketball game, and in the world of results), and also see the gorillas (benevolent or otherwise).
2) My second insight is closer to home – why is this study important for futurists. We need to resist the siren call for content specialization. Our particular economic value doesn’t stem in replicating our clients’ expertise – we have to remain distanced enough (not too much, not too little – just enough) to be able to notice gorillas. Of course we all have our preferences in topic domains but we ought to stay true to our calling of ‘generalists’ – pattern finders, masters of ‘betweenness’, of relationship amongst things. This is why we get trained in ‘liking’ sources we normally wouldn’t read or watch (and yes, that’s often insurmountable entirely as individuals but also the reason why we offer ourselves in teams – and be sure that hell breaks loose when we don’t agree –thankfully, our clients don’t witness our internal processes); embracing otherness and the unknown, staying with them long enough to acknowledge and understand a different point of view; carry lenses that don’t necessarily feel comfortable or welcome. It is how it should be for value’s sake. Full detachment is neither possible nor encouraged – it wouldn’t serve anyone well, neither clients nor us – all we can hope for is to develop a tad of empathy for otherness, aka alterity. Finding and acknowledging what is beyond. It’s why I’m proud to call myself a futurist.