A baffling problem

Last week I was invited to engage with a baffling problem. It left engineers and managers of the power plant baffled for the last four months.

Instead of writing the technical details of the problem, which might not be of much interest to non-technical people I would instead write about my approach to solving baffling problems along with the principles involved. This is because we often wrongly interpret problems as technical, non technical, financial, social, etc. Essentially all problems are problems of the human mind. Invariably they always originate and live in the human mind. However, problems, as a rule, are always solved or resolved through enlightened (understanding, wisdom) consciousness.

The process, which I intend to highlight below, may be used to successfully solve both personal and professional problems or quickly adapt when a baffling problem (or a black swan) strikes.

The seven steps of the integrated process are as follows:

1. Look at the event as perceived in the present and the events that went before it.

a) See all, sit still, breathe deep, care for the ill.
b) When drinking water think of its source.

2. Examine the responses of human beings to a problem. Spot the responses that emanated from stored memories (usually collective).

a) Buddha is a toilet stick.
b) The gateway is found only after a long search and the long search is a spiral going inward.

3. Check implementation of the responses for assumptions, acceptance of imperfections, ignorance of facts and avoidance of details.

a) See the whole universe in a glass of wine.
b) Can you see the cloud in the book?

4. Scan the various perspectives people have about a problem, i.e. how individuals feel about the problem. Identify the blind spots.

a) No question; no answer
b) Cut the grass; pull the roots. 
c) Pine cones look at different directions but do they?

5. Listen intently to what they say and what they don’t say about the issue.

a) Noise of the unsayable, unspeakable and unsaid is music.
b) Go up the mountain to meet the sage, know that it is you, come down to mix with the lakes and rivers.
c) A ruler and a worthy person who don’t connect, a musician and a listener who don’t find each other, or two potential friends who never meet; all lose.

6. Gain deep insight about the problem.

a) Don’t catch the snake by its tail.                          
b) Birds are not afraid of directions.
c) Question, test and use every sense you have and believe that dawn would come.
d) Imaginary lines between stars guide us to new harbors.

7. Form understanding of the problem. Formulate viable solutions for minimal intervention. Exchange the understanding in the simplest possible terms as logically as possible to change collective consciousness. Leave it there.                                         

a) No question; no answer.
b) Spirit is wrapped in reason and reason is wrapped in spirit.
c) One raindrop creates thousand ripples.
d) Don’t wish for spring; spring gives life to wish.

Chances are that baffling problems would no longer appear baffling and would soon be solved/resolved by people.

Perception, Sense-making, Enlightened Action

Right Perception and RIght Sense making are the fundamental outcomes of our cognitive ability that enable effective leaders take enlightened action. 

Possibly, most problems that we create through our actions are a result of wrong perception and wrong sense-making.

To me, Perceiving, Sense-making and Enlightened Action in life is something like this:

“Any real life System about which we care to perceive, make sense and take enlightened action, comprises of a meaningful set of ever changing and self transforming objects, diverse in form, complexity, state and function, interacting in periodic and aperiodic manner with each other and inter-related through multiple network of interdependencies through mutual feedbacks and signals thereby generating variable amplitudes of energy exchanged/transferred within variable/flexible space(s), mostly operating far from its equilibrium conditions; not only exchanging energy and matter with its environment but also generating internal entropy to undergo discrete transformation triggered by the Arrow of Time forcing it to behave in a dissipative but self organizing manner to either self destruct itself in a wide variety of ways moving towards void or create new possibilities in performance and/or behaviour from the void of creative potential owing to presence of ‘attractors’ and ‘appearance of bi-furcations’; thereby making it impossible to predict the future behavior of the system in the long term or trace the previous states of the system with any high degree of accuracy other than express it in terms of probabilities or possibilities since only the present state of the system might be observable to a certain extent and only a probabilistic understanding may be formulated as to how a system has arrived at its present state and what would keep it going, change or destroyed thus triggering creative human responses through right insights (not grossly based on emotions or thinking or memory) to manage, maintain and enhance system conditions, functions and purposes with minimal intervention to create superior systems of the future through enhancement of self organized interactions within and without the system interfaced with other connected, unconnected and overlapping systems operating within larger envelopes of human activity.”

Such a representation of an Perception, Sense-making and Enlightened Action looks quite involved.

Perhaps it might be stated in a much simpler ways but I would not attempt to do so since it would make it more complex that it should be.

Perhaps more can be said about resilience, agility, etc but I would not do so since those are really superfluous.

Perhaps more can be said about Black Swans and not so ‘black swans’ and predictions but I would care less to say so since saying more would be ‘redundant’.

The whole gamut of Perception, Sense-making and Enlightened Action takes place within five envelopes of human cognition, which are as follows:

1. Physical envelope

2. Energy envelope

3. Mental envelope

4. Wisdom envelope

5. Enlightened Action envelope


However, the crux of the matter is

1) how we ‘see’ reality (Darshan/Notice)?

2) how do we understand what the system is telling us (Sadhana/Engage)?

3) how do we create and choose our responses (Bhavana/Mull)?

4) how do we develop the necessary intention to implement our choices to life and living (Shankalpa/Exchange)?



1. Darshan, Sadhana, Bhavana and Shankalpa are Sanskrit words

2. The above post is an excerpt from or notes of a forth coming book “Leadership – The Nemetics Way!”

Predicting Black Swans – Part II

In the earlier post we dealt with the concept of predicting a ‘black swan‘.

In this post, I intend to explore the concept a bit more: what exactly we monitor to notice a ‘black swan’ in time?

In doing so we would be forced to consider the natural response of a system.

The starting point of our exploration would be to understand how any system, as a whole, whether natural or engineered, would disturbed by a ‘black swan’.  A system is disturbed in three possible ways, which are as follows:

a) A system loses energy till it reaches a tipping point

b) A system gains more and more energy till it crosses the point of system resilience

c) A part of a system emits more energy than it is normally supposed to, that is going beyond the linear response of the part. 

So the natural way to watch a system to expect a ‘black swan’ in time, is to keep a tab on the ‘energy’ of a system in the following ways:

a) Monitor the entropy of a system. As a system functions the entropy of a system gradually rises till it hits a threshold limit indicating the appearance of a ‘black swan’ or an outlier. 

b) Monitor the energy gain of a system till it crosses the ‘resilience’ point to give birth to a ‘black swan’, outlier or a ‘wicked problem’. 

c) Monitor critical parts of a system for excess emission of energy till it goes beyond the linear response of a part. 

It is useful to remember that energy is transferred in ‘quanta‘ or in packets of energy. Therefore, it is natural to expect jumps of energy levels as we record by capturing the different manifestation of energy levels on monitoring trend charts. So when a ‘jump’ is big enough to cross a threshold limit or resilience point or linear response level indicated by its presence outside the Gaussian distribution range  we can be quite sure that a ‘black swan’ or an outlier or a ‘wicked problem’ would soon arrive on the scene. We call such an indicator as a signal.

Therefore, the central idea is to capture such signals in time, just before a ‘black swan’ makes it way to appear on the scene to dominate and change the system.

However, the question is how early can we detect that signal to effectively deal with the inherent ‘black swan’ in a system, which is yet to appear on the scene?

That would be explored in the next post.

Predicting BlacK SwaNs

As we know now, the world is full of complex systems. However much we wish, we can’t avoid them.  We see them in our organizations. They are there in our societies.  They can be experienced in ‘cloud bursts’ and in flash floods. We even find them in our families.

They are nagging and they are wicked at times. Wicked in the sense that it often leaves us baffled preventing us from acting skillfully.

The question is how do we deal with them?

It is easy to deal with any complex system if we are able to predict their behavior over time.

However, the idea of prediction is a bit different from our usual idea of prediction. Our usual idea about prediction is, if we know sufficiently about the behavior at any point of time, we would be able to predict the behavior of a system any time in the future.

But that is not what bothers us about understanding and dealing with complex systems. And it is fair to say that such predictions are absolutely impossible with complex systems. Therefore, with any complex system all we are interested about is to detect the appearance of a ‘black swan‘.  A black swan is some sudden unexpected change in the behavior of a system that disrupts the system and brings it crashing to the floor. The crash of 2008 provides an extreme example of a black swan. But such examples are rather common in our lives. Our careers crash. Organizations crash. Our health suddenly crashes. A ‘cloud bursts’. Or for that matter any system is likely to be disrupted any time by the sudden appearance of black swans.

So what might we do about it? Does it help if we notice the change in behavior of each agent or individuals that form the part of the system? For example, does it help if we watch individual behavior of employees in an organization? Or for instance, does it help if we monitor individual performance of school or college students? We know that such methods hardly help improve the system though we are enslaved by such methods by ‘blind faith’. A complex system would keep doing  what it does. That is its role or purpose.

The good news is that the behavior of any complex system can be monitored and predicted for black swans, a little in advance, before it strikes us with full force to bring the system to its knees.

In order to predict black swans we need to know of one very peculiar phenomenon of any complex system. That is a complex system behaves linearly for most of its time when it is free from a black swan or an outlier. Then as a black swan slowly creeps into the system the system suddenly behaves non-linearly. When it behaves linearly it gives us a false sense of security. We feel everything is fine and hunky dory and would stay like that forever. We take pride in our design.

Lulled by our false sense of security, we then forget that non-linearity is just waiting to strike us. And when it strikes we are so much confounded that we rush like headless chickens to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’. And believing in our superior intelligence, we keep ourselves busy ‘fixing’ problem after problem till we drop dead from such heroic efforts.

Mathematically speaking, while linear behavior of any complex system follows Gaussian distribution; the nonlinear behavior follows some sort of power law. So, it is the mix of the two, never one thing or the other.

By understanding this phenomenon clearly, we can ‘predict’ a black swan or an outlier very easily. It is deceptively simple. Simpler than what we perceive it to be.

It is liberating too. Once the presence of a black swan is detected, much before it actually happens, we are left with enough time on our hands to deal with it effectively and skillfully. It also leaves us with the possibility to dramatically improve the system big time.

The truth is there is no ‘randomness’ anywhere. The concept of  ‘randomness’ is a big illusion at best.

So, then, what are we waiting for to improve our lives?