According to David Lane, sometimes we need to make decisions in a condition that he calls of ontological uncertainty. That means we have no means of painting an exhaustive picture of the situation and of the full range of moves we can possibly make; and certainly we are unable to foresee the consequences of the few moves we can imagine. In a famous article, David asks us to consider the situaton of a Bosnian diplomat trying to bring an end to the bloodshed in his country in early September 1995:
It is very difficult to decide who are his friends and who his foes. First he fights against the Croats, then with them. His army struggles against an army composed of Bosnian Serbs, but his cousin and other Muslim dissidents fight alongside them. What can he expect from the UN securiy forces, from the NATO bombers, from Western politicians, from Belgrade and Zagreb, from Moscow? Who matters and what do they want? On whom can he rely, for what? He doesn’t know – and when he thinks he does, the next day it changes.
How to make decisions in such a situation? Answer: by telling yourself stories. Humans are good at storytelling: if you recognize yourself as the hero of a story, he will inspire your course of action, just like Don Quixote changed his life to model it in on medieval chivalry epics.
Innovation often happens in ontological uncertainty conditions. It is certainly possible to have a well defined goal in terms of producing an artefact, but the market system that depends on what people will use that artifact for – is always emergent. Movable type printing was a well-defined R&D project, but Gutenberg could not have forseen Aldus Manutius’s portable book and and the Umanesimo movement in Italy in the Renaissance; Henry Ford rationalized car production, but he could not have foreseen bedroom communities and mass commuting. To build and bring to market an innovation means acting in a changing context, like that of our Bosnian diplomat. And that requires storytelling.
Nadia El-Imam has come up with the idea to help people to tell stories about themselves and what they are doing with technology. She uses a special deck of tarot cards she designed herself (in lieu of the Hermit and the Magician she has arcana like the Server, the Developer and the Interface). Dressed up as a gypsy fortune teller, she offered to divine the future of the various geeks gathered at Mozilla Drumbeat in Barcelona. It was a roaring success, with a permanent queue of people waiting to interrogate her tarot. Among them, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Joi Ito (in the video). Engaging with Nadia and the cards, innovators make sense of what they are doing, and look for a way to complete their quests.
In their own unusual way, Nadia’s techno tarot are a platform, that lends itself to be used for collecting ethnographic data on innovation, for technology counseling and who knows for what else. I am quite curious to see how it all evolves.
For a contrarian view on storytelling and complexity you might be interested in checking out Dave Snowden’s blog http://www.cognitive-edge.com/blogs/dave/2010/12/the_aging_workforce_part_2.php
Giulio, thanks! I’ve read it. I don’t think it’s a contrarian view at all, it’s more orthogonal. I am well acquainted with the notion of tacit knowledge, proposed in Italy by Giacomo Becattini in the 70s and developed by the batch of economists from Cambridge who studied industrial organization in the so-called industrial district. My late mentor, Sebastiano Brusco, was prominent among them.
Knowledge transfer is great (and very difficult), but it has not necessarily got anything to do with innovation or ontological uncertainty. Indeed, if useful tacit knowledge about any given issue is available, you might argue that rules out ontological uncertainty.