#WorkingOutLoud – The False Comfort of Category Errors

Sharing the outputs from another early stage writing session around the Dynamic Response Framework: it’s a piece of more academic writing i’m doing for the IITSEC Conference for a paper entitled ‘Black Swans and the Limits of Hierarchy’. The premise is this: formal systems (in particular military systems) face challenges for which conditioned responses (those in Known Frames and governed by Conditioned Responses) fall short. Unknown Scripts and Asymmetric Power both challenge traditional ‘diagnose, act, review’ approaches. Instead, we need more dynamic modes of reaction, which keep the problem space open and definable for longer, whilst still responding fast: in other words, we need adaptive thinking, supported by highly coherent teams.

Category Errors and Dynamic Response

Traditional Diagnose/Act/Review cycles of problem solving can be blinded by their very efficiency, especially through the influence of category errors in Black Swan type events. A category error is a semantic failure, whereby something is prematurely and inaccurately ‘made safe’.

Or, to put it another way, premature categorisation of Unknown Scripts operating in Unknown Frames may be the enemy of agility: in this case, making it safe may be self delusional.

Once a challenge is framed, we tend to trigger kinetic systems to react in defined ways, according to formal scripts, under formal authority, within known frames. Which may be precisely the wrong thing to do.

As an example: the sight of a man running, clutching a bag, whilst a woman screams triggers a categorisation of ‘robbery in progress’. The categorisation is triggered by a known script (known maybe through drama and news reports, if not through lived experience: social conditioning), within a known frame (men mug women more often than women mug men).

Replay the same situation with a women running, screaming, from a man, where she is holding the bag as she runs. Typically we are triggered into a reading of the situation that the man has assaulted her and she is escaping. In both cases, the bag is leaving the scene of the original encounter, but the context provided by scripts leads directly to our reading of the situation.

Both situation can easily trigger a kinetic response from a highly effective formal system (police chase the man) or social system (bystanders chase the man).

And this is a relatively simple system to categorise: what if the scripts are complex or chaotic? Overlapped and long duration? Then add in the distorting effects of perspective and cropping: if, from my perspective, i can see the man running to a police car, i may recategorised him as ‘undercover’. If you can’t see the car, you have an incomplete picture.

Most of the time, we have incomplete pictures.

The dilemma is this: how do we avoid categorisation mistakes, keeping the problem space undefined for longer, and yet retain ability to react decisively? And how do we do that in a way that lets us respond to complex and potentially unknowable situations? Then, how do we train for this?

I would argue that there are two factors to consider here: firstly, understanding the validity by which those decisions are made (the interplay of formal hierarchy and tacit knowledge: we can see the output from a decision making system, but do we fully understand how the decision came to be made?) and, secondly, the mechanisms by which we can act whilst simultaneously reframing (in other words, how we can use a framework to actively keep the problem space open for longer, to provide wider perspective and greater time to access and utilise ‘sense making’ capability within our network).

So: shared in the spirit of #WorkingOutLoud. Some way to go on this still.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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6 Responses to #WorkingOutLoud – The False Comfort of Category Errors

  1. Pingback: Mugged in Madrid: Black Swans, Scripts and Power | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: #WorkingOutLoud – How Formal Systems Fail | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  3. Pingback: Narrative Loops: Disruptive Power | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  4. Pingback: The Limits of Hierarchy: Brittle Systems | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  5. Pingback: A Failure of Foresight: Foundations of Failure | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  6. Pingback: ‘Safety Making’ – 9 routes to failure | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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