Wicked Problems: Peripheral Vision

Ability One: Peripheral Vision 

(This post is a follow-on to my posting over at CPH127 about wicked problems, take a look at that first to set the context. This is the first of several postings on capabilities and states of mind that companies need to have to address wicked problems. )

eyechart.gifBill Bradley is today known primarily as a politician in the US, but in his youth he was an outstanding basketball player. Among several notable abilities, he had a natural gift: his eyesight. Specifically, he had abnormally good peripheral vision. Whereas normal peripheral vision covers a horizontal field of 180 degrees, his covered 192 degrees - he could literally see behind himself. Vertically, most people can see 47 degrees upward while looking straight ahead. Bradley could see 72 degrees, meaning he could see the basket even when looking at the ground. These factors gave him an ability to see things on the court that others could not, and detect threats and opportunities earlier than others players. (For a nice essay about Bill Bradley, see this book by John McPhee.)

Peripheral vision is an interesting thing: it provides much less detail but much more sensitivity to movement than our central cone of vision (which is only about 7 degrees in diameter). Peripheral vision is essential when you’re in the jungle or on the savannah, spotting movement at the edges that indicate danger. But our medical tests for eyesight pretty much ignore peripheral vision, focusing instead on how much small detail you can resolve in your central cone.

Business analysis is often the same way. Movements at the edges that are ill-defined are ignored, and all tools and attention are focused on what we can see clearly with great detail that's right in front of us. But it’s the movements at the edges that can both be the most threatening, but also represent the new opportunities. This is where the disruptive innovations that Clayton Christensen talks about come from. By the time you can prove their existence in detail, it’s too late.

Wicked problems are very difficult to understand by staring straight into them and looking for clear detail, however. They need to be approached from the edges, sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle where you find the edge pieces first. Having peripheral vision that is trained to be sensitive to the edges is a key capability (this applies both to product teams and to business units - wherever wicked problems occur). 

So encourage staff and managers to pay attention to and nurture their peripheral vision - meeting with their “whacky” customers who push your products to the limit, talk to people who aren’t your customers any more and find out why, and pay close attention to disruptive innovators making cheap and “poor” products that your traditional customers wouldn’t touch. And if you think you're facing a wicked problem, don't expect hard numbers on it; by the time you've got solid data, it's probably too late.

Next up: Pattern Experience