Seven sins – 6: The Reality Risk

Enterprise-architecture, strategy, or just about everything, really: they all depend on discipline and rigour – disciplined thinking, disciplined sensemaking and decision-making.

But what happens when that discipline is lost? What are the ‘sins’ that can cause that discipline to be lost? How can we know that it’s been lost? And what can we do to recover?

This is part of a brief series on metadiscipline for sensemaking via the ‘swamp-metaphor‘, and on ‘seven sins of dubious discipline’ – common errors that can cause sensemaking-discipline to fail or falter:

And this time it’s Sin #6, the weird warnings of the Reality Risk:

This one is a bit more complex, because it starts from a sensemaking ‘error’ that we actually do need to do in order to effect real change. As we’ll see later, we sort of trick ourselves into thinking something is possible when, at the start, it isn’t, but once we’ve done it, it is. Kinda magic, in an almost literal sense.

In essence, the trick depends on extending  the Meaning Mistake in a rather different and more useful direction, but also in some ways an even more dangerous one. To make it work, successfully, reliably, safely, it demands a lot of very real discipline. If that discipline fails, we can hit serious problems – and that’s when it becomes a genuine ‘sin’.

The trick, and the problem, arises from what at first seems an innocuous question: “is it real or imaginary?” But the question in itself indicates a misunderstanding about what’s going on here. In the subjective space – in pretty much any space, really – it’s not a question of ‘real or imaginary’, but ‘real and imaginary’ – always both, always together. That strange, somewhat subtle, yet inherent ambiguity is a crucially-important enabler for change – something we can use, to real advantage, in almost any context. Yet the way some people approach this issue is a health-and-safety hazard akin to playing with matches in a firework factory… a sin indeed…

(Let’s use a basic visualisation-exercise to illustrate why that simplistic split of ‘real’ versus ‘imaginary’ is nothing like as straightforward as it seems.

Go into subjective space for a while and imagine an orange. A nice, big, juicy orange.

(You can see it, right? And notice how you ‘see’ it – as an image, as words, as an overall impression, or whatever.)

Heft it in your hand: you can feel its weight, its texture, the slight ‘give’ as you squeeze it.

Notice its subtle scent, and the even more subtle sound it makes as you squeeze it gently in your palm.

Dig your fingers into the surface: as you break through the peel, notice the slight mist of juice, the suddenly much stronger scent.

Strip away the peel, noticing the slight sense of acid-attack on fingernail and cuticle as you do so.

Pull out just one imaginary segment, and put it in your mouth. Notice its papery texture on your tongue, the shape, the promise.

Now bite into it – note the shock of flavour, sour, sweet, both, the swirl of saliva in your mouth.

All of that you can feel right now, remember now, know now. True, yes?

And yet it’s entirely imaginary.

And yet the saliva is real enough; likewise the overall impressions. And were we to measure such things, the sensory sections in your brain would be registering something real – though exactly what, it might perhaps not be quite so sure…

All imaginary. And real. Not one or the other, but both. Together.

So although that ‘and’ can get a bit complicated at times, there is no ‘or’ here. Everything is real, and imaginary, all at the same time.)

The key point is that whilst this is is very useful, it’s also very much a double-edged sword – with all of the risks that that implies.

The ‘good’ side of the Reality Risk – the ‘good’ side of imagining-to-make-real – is well described in JK Rowling’s 2008 Commencement address at Harvard, on ‘the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination‘:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared. […]
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. […]
We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

Hence, for example, we use this side of the Reality Risk whenever we:

  • tell ourselves “I can do this!” when learning some new skill
  • plot out a business-model for a startup
  • use affirmations, affirmative-prayer or or suchlike to change personal habits and behaviours
  • set out a new organisational vision or mission
  • set out to understand someone else’s world, through true-empathy

Pretty much anything we can imagine, we can make real – yet it isn’t real when we start. So to make it possible, we take a risk: we temporarily shut down the Scientist-mode’s reality-checks, that we would otherwise use to ensure that what we do seems safe and certain. (Or certain enough, anyway.) But it also means that whilst the Scientist-mode is shut down, we’re no longer operating solely within real-world checks-and-balances – or within the real-world at all.

So the dangerous side of the Reality Risk – the ‘bad’ side of imagining-to-make-real – is that whatever we can imagine can come back to bite us, by becoming real, whether or not we intended it to do so. Look back at that description of the imaginary-orange above: it’s entirely imaginary, yet it has real physiological and psychological effects – and through us, potential real-world effects too. Stop and think for a while about what that really means – and why, yes, the Reality Risk is all too real…

For example, we get hit by this side of the Reality Risk whenever:

  • a nightmare kicks us awake with pounding heart and fear in our eyes
  • we get hung up on some fear about the future
  • we get caught up in the glamour of the Golden-Age Game
  • we build our startup’s business-model on the basis of some imagined market need

There’s a huge hazard here – and like every other hazard, we can’t evade it simply by pretending that it isn’t there.

Just to give one example, time and again in the New Age space I would see people playing a bizarre yet potentially lethal game, invoking supposed ‘energies’, getting wildly excited about them in classic Hype Hubris and Newage Nuisance style – and then walking away, without doing any kind of ‘tidying up’, on the assumption that it’s perfectly safe to do so because those energies are “only imaginary”. That it’s nothing like as simple as that is illustrated by the fact that many of the would-be ‘earth-healers’ I’d known have died relatively young, often from some very nasty form of cancer. Not A Good Idea…

For a more mainstream example, consider how easy it is for paranoia to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or how easy it is for a startup to emulate the infamous fiasco of the Sinclair C5 – a product supposedly so ‘revolutionary’ that its promoter lobbied government to get road rules changed to suit it, but ended up as “one of the great marketing bombs of postwar British industry”. Sorry, folks, but the Reality Risk is not a New Age game: and the sooner we wake up to this fact, the better for all…

I perhaps again need to hammer this point home: if we imagine something, it’s ‘real’ – with all of the risks and hazards that that implies.

(Don’t allow yourself to get too distracted by notions of ‘fact’ here – “is it real or not?” – because fact hardly comes into the ‘imagination’ part of the picture at all. In that part of the context, it’s all the Artist or the Technologist: the two ‘truth’ modes – the Scientist and the Believer – can’t help us much here, because they don’t have any imagination, and hence have no clue what to do with it. In other contexts and tasks, yes, that lack of imagination is a real strength: here it’s not. Much, anyway.)

At the personal level, we’ll see some of the same concerns as in the Possession Problem: people thinking they possess some idea, some imagining, but end up becoming ‘possessed’ by it, allowing it to drive their life without (or sometimes, powerless, with) conscious awareness of what’s going on. We need tactics to warn us of this – and to help us break free from that ‘possession’, too.

A simple example would be the actor who takes on a character, Method-style, and then can’t get out of character at the end of the play. Again, the theatre tradition has its own tactics for dealing with this: Keith Johnstone‘s book Impro is a useful reference here, particularly the section on Masks and trance.

One of Johnstone’s key points, for example, is that it’s essential not to treat a Mask as an inanimate object: each will have its own ‘vocabulary’ of move­ments and styles and actions which will tend to be taken on by any actor who wears it. In that sense, to work with a Mask, we have to enter into relationship with it – and recognise that in that rel­ation­ship the Mask has (metaphoric) choices too.

Yet almost everything is a Mask, a ‘per-sona’ – literally ‘that through which I sound’. Some everyday business-examples would include:

  • work-uniforms and vehicle-liveries – “I represent the company”
  • brands and advertising – “I symbolise the company”
  • roles, role-labels and ranks – “I am my job”
  • positions within work-hierarchies – “I am the boss of…”
  • positioning relative to other organisations – “I speak for the company”

Likewise every place is a Mask, with its own vocabulary, its own expressions, its own choices: and sometimes we can take on those characteristics without being aware that we’re doing so.

(To illustrate this, consider the weirdness that ensues when we meet up with work-colleagues at a family-gathering, or bring our children to work. In those contexts, we’re almost literally trying to wear two Masks at the same time, and speak – or be spoken? – through both at once: no wonder it gets a bit weird!)

In traditional contexts, legends and the like will often warn us of potential risks at a place: we need to be aware of this, respect it, and take appropriate action or apply appropriate protection where necessary. The exact same applies in business-contexts – especially where there’s a risk of misplaced Masks. As enterprise-architects especially, we should also make use of those ‘side-feelings’ from the Artist-mode – the subtle hints of fingerspitzengefühl – to warn us of risks arising whilst we’re working: if we get a sudden sense that we should stop what we’re doing, it’s best to do so, and quickly. For the same reason, it’s wise to take advice from the old magician’s way of working – or the storyteller’s, for that matter – and formally ‘open’ and ‘close’ before and after each session; or, to quote an old science joke, “please leave this decontamination room as you would wish to find it!”

In this kind of context, ‘sins’ such as the Hype Hubris, the Golden-Age Game and the Newage Nuisance are not just a problem: they can be downright dangerous for everyone concerned. On the one side, we become so deluded in our own self-importance that we can be blithely unaware of the respective risks; on the other, there can be a fall back to uncontrolled panic when reality finally breaks through. It’s not a pretty picture: once again, as with every other skill in a hazard-laden space, this is not a place where childish minds can safely be let loose to play…

Perhaps the wisest – if strangest – approach here would be a Fortean one. Way back at the turn of the previous century, Charles Fort was a journalist who collected information about events that didn’t fit with anyone’s theories – ‘the book of the damned‘, he called it. Present-day Forteans follow a similar line, yet extend it with a demanding discipline: they document every description of each incident of ‘the damned’ – fairies, flying saucers, showers of frogs and fishes, you name it – exactly at face-value; but they don’t interpret. In other words, they keep it strictly in the Artist and Technologist modes, applying it through the Believer; the Scientist-mode may well need to come in later, but it doesn’t belong at all in that early exploratory stage. In that sense, Forteans work with the weird intersection of the imaginary and the real, accepting it for what it is – and reduce the risks accordingly. There’s much in enterprise-architecture that we could learn from that kind of discipline.

Whichever way we look at it, the real is imaginary; the imaginary is real. If we ever forget that fact, we may be putting ourselves – and others – at very real risk. Yep, it’s yet another You Have Been Warned item, folks…

Mapping to ‘swamp-metaphor’ disciplines

To map the above to the set of disciplines for sensemaking and decision-making from the ‘swamp-metaphor‘:

And in turn cross-mapped to the SCAN framework for sensemaking and decision-making:

In the Reality Risk, the trick and the danger alike depend on one key sensemaking-error: to make something imaginary seem ‘real’, and thus realisable, we bypass and suppress the Scientist-mode’s reality-checks.

There are several ways that that sensemaking / decision-making / action loop can go, but most often it’d be something like this:

  • we first lull the Scientist-mode to sleep, with some kind of delicate sleight-of-hand, something suitably credible, a suitable simulation of ‘truth’
  • we then imagine something, in the Artist and/or Technologist-mode, and find a way to frame it as if ‘real’
  • with the Scientist-mode ‘asleep’, we pass the imagined-reality direct to the Believer-mode, which believes it without question (because, to the Believer, it is ‘real’)
  • the Believer acts on that belief as ‘real’
  • the real-world interacts with and responds to the action as ‘real’
  • the Artist and/or Technologist tune the imagining and belief towards the desired outcome

Note that we do need to re-engage the Scientist-mode at some point, to bring us back to reality again – but it’s a real juggling-act, a real ‘It depends‘ and ‘Just enough detail‘, to choose when that point should be.

(Another well-known approach to the same overall challenge is Edward de Bono‘s model of Six Thinking Hats. In that model, the equivalent of the Scientist-mode is the Black Hat, or ‘Discernment’. As with all of the ‘Thinking Hats’, the Black Hat has its own distinct role, and is not allowed to over-dominate the exploration. Neither does it make the final decision – that task usually falls to Red Hat, or ‘Emotion’.)

To keep in balance on the tightrope, and not fall off either side into the depths of the Reality Risk, the crucial task is to be aware at all times of the distinction between ‘as-if’ and ‘is’, and keep each in their proper place. On the one side, the Believer-mode can only work well with the certainty of ‘is’: we must not let it fall into the uncertainty of ‘as-if‘, or the whole illusion that we’re trying to set up here will fail. On other side, it’s essential not to allow the Believer-mode to dominate the other modes: we need to keep the Artist- and Technologist-modes aware that they’re working only with an ‘as-if‘, a fictional ‘reality’, not an ‘is’. And we have to do all of that with a light hand, a delicate, subtle, background directing of the action – because if the imposition of the ‘as-if‘ is too heavy-handed, the Scientist-mode is likely to wake from its slumbers again, and butt in to blow the illusion.

It’s not an easy balance to maintain: it’s one that demands a lot of skill and discipline, in its own right. In a sense, the Reality Risk itself is not the ‘sin’ as such: it’s a risk that we accept, a normal and necessary risk to support the process of change. Instead, the real ‘sin’ is more a failure to maintain the discipline needed to keep the risks of that process at bay.

And yes, it’s a juggling-act – mental, emotional and more – and an often difficult juggling-act at that. But then so is so much else in enterprise-architecture, after all. It’s just one more occupational-hazard for enterprise-architects, in parallel with others such as:

  • the need to be thin-skinned to sense out what’s really happening any context, yet also thick-skinned to take the emotional blows when others who are still stuck on one or other of the ‘sins’ realise that we do know what’s really happening
  • the need to accept anything at face-value, yet also be discerning
  • the need to be able to build excitement about new possibilities, yet also keep aware of realities and real-world checks-and-balances
  • the need to balance across multiple domains at once, each with their own inconsistent paradigms, worldviews and values

The Reality Risk is a ‘sin’ that – as with all the other ‘sins’ described in this series – anyone can fall into: and that ‘anyone’ includes us. The difference here is that the Reality Risk is often one that we will deliberately take on, on others’ behalf – such as when we have to set up some kind ofchange by stealth‘. The catch, of course, is that we take on that risk – which makes it our problem, even more than others’. It’s all doable: it’s just that it calls for perhaps more care than many EA-folks may realise…

To summarise:

— we accept and use the Reality Risk to support the process of movement towards desired change – development of new skills, behaviours, capabilities, services, products and more

— failure to manage the risks of the Reality Risk typically arises from:

  • failure to manage the distinctions between ‘as-if’ and ‘is’
  • failure to grasp the deeper complexities – and dangers – of the subjective space

— to resolve and mitigate the Reality Risk:

  • reduce the risk with a Fortean approach, recognising that everything is real and imaginary at the same time
  • recognise the hazards, and use safety-procedures such as the ‘can I? may I? am I ready?’ checklist, or the magical-tradition ritual of formally opening and closing the circle to create safe space for change, within which ‘different rules’ can apply
  • when sensing in the Artist-mode, use the fingerspitzengefühl ‘side-feelings’ to warn of potential dangers, or changes that imply that something may be at risk

Enough on the Reality Risk for now, anyway: let’s move on the last of the ‘sins’ in this series – Sin #7, Lost in the Learning Labyrinth.

(Note: This series is adapted in part from my 2008 book The Disciplines of Dowsing, co-authored with archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska.)

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