Are we humans all just agents in a model?

Metaphysics and Models

agentdef700x400I was struck this week by the diagram shown on the left in the image here, which comes from an Argonne National Laboratory document about agent-based models. These computer models apply complexity science by setting up a virtual environment populated by autonomous entities programmed to follow certain decision-making rules. Unlike simple probabilistic models, agent-based models can produce emergent phenomena (e.g., Arab Spring) that were not anticipated even by the people who set up the model.

This particular diagram defines an “agent” as distinct from a “function” or an “object.” A function, like taking the square root of something, is just a force in the world that acts upon anything it encounters. When it acts in one place it is indistinguishable from the same function enacted in some other place. For example, the square root function, whenever and wherever it encounters the number 4, produces a result of 2.

But what if a function has memory? What if it can retain knowledge of the specific interactions it has had in the past? Then it becomes an object—a bounded entity with a past, present, and future rather than simply a ubiquitous force in the world. But its behavior still follows the single function, or set of functions, it contains.

What makes an agent different from an object, then, is that it has autonomy.

A world that doesn’t need poverty

For many of us, there’s a real tension between the mess that the world has become and the world that we see as possible. To understand what’s going on, and to figure out what to do next, we need to “zoom out” and look at what is happening over a much longer period of time.

The graph below shows human population going back to the year 0 AD. If you want to go back further, just extend the straight line to the left for another 10,000 years or so. The graph looks pretty scary, with population skyrocketing for the last hundred years, and it has prompted many people to worry that the population will increase indefinitely.

But when you look more closely at this curve, as shown below, you see that it’s actually an S-curve. Current United Nations projections have human population leveling off sometime after 2100 somewhere between 11 and 12 billion. Not so bad after all!

VIDEO: Reinventing education

This video includes excerpts from an interview I did for a very exciting education project in which I’m involved. I explain key concepts from my friend Frederic Laloux’s ground-breaking book, Reinventing Organizations, and I discuss the book’s implications for education systems. At the end, I suggest that it’s time for our education systems to shift their focus from creating human doers to human beings.

Using scenarios to plan for a growing older adult population

I was honored on Friday to be a panelist on a webinar hosted by N4A (the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging) to discuss the scenarios I developed last year for the Howard County (Maryland) Department of Citizen Services to support their community-wide master planning process. The webinar was entitled “Creating a Livable Community Using a Scenario-Based Approach: Howard County’s Master Plan for Aging.” The video recording can be viewed here.

On the webinar, I talked about the benefits to area agencies on aging (AAAs) of using a scenario approach to plan for the future, particularly given the certainties (e.g., massive demographic change) and uncertainties (e.g., political, social, and technological change) they face today.

Did your meeting work? A litmus test

Humans think in logical frameworks. We divide things into categories, we describe how the categories relate to one another, and we take the actions suggested by those relationships. Thus, to transform action you must first transform thinking, which means you need to shift to a new framework. This suggests a simple litmus test for determining if a meeting you’ve held recently actually promoted transformation: Did the framework change?

Most meetings use some kind of framework as an initial structure to get people talking. It could be a methodology, a set of distinct aspects of a problem, or a list of organizational priorities. However, throughout the discussion a new framework often emerges as participants identify the key priorities for future action, which may or may not have been anticipated by the thinking of the past.

When this happens, the group needs to shift its focus from the old framework to the new one, and they need a facilitator with the presence and authenticity to do this effectively.

Unlearning to be a better leader

Being a leader in the 21st century requires a fair amount of unlearning. As a point of departure for this unlearning journey, the Whole Mind Strategy framework I have developed from multiple sourcesprincipally Doug Krug, Julio Olalla, and J. Krishnamurtidistinguishes among three domains of the human mind:

  • I define thought as the application of a learned logic to break things down, define constructs, and map the relationships among them.
  • I define emotions as the bodily experience of feelings that predispose a person toward a certain attitudinal or behavioral response.
  • I define intuition as the capacity for awareness of the whole of a situation and of the actions that are precisely appropriate to that situation.

We typically spend our time in the domain of thoughte.g., trying to be “data-driven” and “evidence-based,” learning from “experts” and following “best practice.” This has generally been the focus of leadership development activities over the last couple decades.

But thought is inherently from the past. It may offer useful tools for navigating situations you have seen before, but it cannot take you somewhere you have never been. So leaders must be able to step outside the domain of thought, particularly in a world that is changing as fast as ours.

Soothsaying at Points of Light

I had the honor and pleasure earlier this week of speaking to a largely corporate audience at the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service in Houston, Texas. I was slated to speak on the future of corporate volunteering programs, which range from short service activities during lunch breaks to focused community engagement aligned with corporate strategy to giving employees paid time off to volunteer for causes of their own choosing.

Attending several sessions before my own speech, I noted what I considered an excessive focus on impact—making it, measuring it, communicating it. So in my speech, I started by pointing out that I’m actually on record saying that I think our focus on impact goes too far. Assertions of impact are often just ego projections that falsely assume that the most meaningful actions we could take in response to social challenges would yield measurable results over a short period of time. I added that “impact” is a construct of Newtonian determinism, so in a complex-adaptive human system are we even sure that impact should be the goal?

I told the audience that if I’m not so focused on impact, then it seemed like I needed to say where I thought the focus should be. For me, I think it comes down to healing. Impact is the difference you make in the outside world. Healing is the difference you make inside yourself.

What is an “older adult” anyway?

In their twilight years, the G.I. generation wanted to be called “senior citizens,” in part because in their youth they had been called “junior citizens.” But the Baby Boomers who increasingly make up society’s older cohort are having none of it. It seems that they prefer—or are believed to prefer—to be called “older adults,” which has become the standard term in the field of aging. But what exactly is an “older adult”? When will I become one?

The ambiguity of the term speaks to a larger confusion about who should be the beneficiaries of aging programs and services, which I noted in a keynote to the Missouri Association of Area Agencies on Aging. I have subsequently identified four different dynamics that contribute to this confusion.

Is passion a good thing for employees to have?

Recently I’ve been helping a friend with some cover letters, and of course this always involves saying what one is “passionate” about. Employers place great emphasis on this, and it’s probably very difficult to get a job with a company unless you are passionate about what they do or can convince them that you are.

The Latin root of the word “passion” is pati, to suffer, but we’ll get back to that later. For now, let’s just use the more contemporary meaning of “strong and barely controllable emotion.” What is so great about being motivated by strong and barely controllable emotions?

From an employer’s perspective, this is actually quite desirable. Passion emerged as a criterion for employment at a time when there were only two recognized domains of the human mind: thought and emotion. (Juxtaposed as “Thinking” and “Feeling” in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.)

Not “cross-functional,” but “post-functional”

I recently blogged part of a presentation I gave at a Conference Board conference on global risk, integrity, and reputation management. This was a great conference, and it has prompted my thinking on a number of issues.

One point that several people made was that “risk management is everyone’s job.” It occurred to me that similar statements are probably made at a lot of other conferences, and rightly so. Marketing is everyone’s job. And so is financial management. And communications. And customer relations. In short, everything is everyone’s job.

So why do we still pretend it isn’t? Why do we organize people into functional siloes, only to have them expend considerable effort convincing people outside their silo to take responsibility for their function? It doesn’t make any sense.

I think we’re just stuck in the industrial-era way of organizing human effort.

Girl, interrupted?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a Conference Board conference on global risk, integrity, and reputation in New York City. My presentation was entitled “Redefining Risk, Integrity, and Reputation for the Post-Industrial Era.” The crux of the talk was that the words we use are embedded with meaning from the past. When you enter into an era that is qualitatively different in many respects, you must redefine the terms you’re using to fit the new times. Otherwise you can implicitly persist in activities that will actually work against you. I suspected this was likely the case with respect to these three terms.

My presentation was at 2:00 PM, but I was able to attend the presentations throughout the morning. I noted that the story of Justine Sacco was consistently held up as a success story for reputation management. Ms. Sacco is the 30 year old communications executive who in December 2013 tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” while boarding a plane to Cape Town, South Africa, and then found out upon her arrival that she had been fired. Folks at the conference lauded her company for being aware of the growing firestorm over her ill-advised tweet, and for taking immediate action to terminate her employment.

I found that analysis of events—and the praise of Ms. Sacco’s employer—somewhat unsatisfying. Sure, it’s a pretty stupid thing to tweet. Whether it’s “racist” or not is probably an open question. But in any event, is rapid firing of employees really the high-point of reputation management in the age of social media?

Change is easy

Organizational change often seems difficult because organizations are not having the type of conversation that actually leads to change. In a recent talk at the MITRE Corporation, I discussed how change occurs in relation to three domains of the human mind:

  • Thought, which applies a learned logic to break things down into their component parts, define constructs to describe them, and map causal or correlative relationships among them;
  • Intuition, which provides an awareness of the whole and suggests precisely appropriate actions in new or unfamiliar situations; and
  • Emotion, which is the experience of feelings resident in the body that predispose us toward certain attitudinal or behavioral responses that may or may not be appropriate to the situation.

Organizational change becomes difficult only to the extent that people stay lodged within the domain of thought. All thought is from the past: it applies by rote the logical processes that we have internalized throughout our upbringing and education, and it does so within the constraints of a belief system that constitutes the “reality” in which we live. This belief system is something that thought itself has constructed in order to keep at bay one or more emotions that we do not want to feel.

A call for emotional equity

By the door to an elementary school in a small town in Mississippi hangs a sign that reads:


A few years ago, the district of which this school is a part received a failing grade from the state and was consolidated with another district. As the consolidation began, members of the community held a meeting to discuss what they should do. Emotions ran high, particularly among those who had worked for so many years to improve the school. The conversation was pitched, punctuated only by the occasional eruption of an even more pitched silence. During one such eruption, a woman from a nonprofit working in the community spoke softly into the void, “Do you think it’s time to take down the sign?” After a few moments, community members looked up at her and asked, “What sign?”

The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in the attention given to issues of justice. One now hears frequent calls for social justice, economic justice, environmental justice, racial justice, and health equity. These calls all address inequities in the systems in which we live. For example, racial justice means an end to racial discrimination by people and institutions. Social justice means that policies are inclusive of once-marginalized groups. Economic justice implies a more equitable distribution of wealth and income. Environmental justice means that the burden of ecological damage will be shared evenly. Health equity means the elimination of health disparities resulting from inadequate access to nutritious food, safe neighborhoods, quality health care, etc.

I think there is another kind of justice that is at least as important as anything I have mentioned thus far, and that we have not yet even begun to talk about. It addresses not the current injustices of the systems in which we live, but rather the past injustices that people carry around in their hearts. Thus, it affects people’s ability to participate fully in the other forms of justice that may be created around them.

Calling black men “sir”

In a recent blog post, I’m Sorry for Slavery, I said that I would adopt the practice of calling black men “sir.” I noted that ever since I was an adult there have been black men who called me “sir,” even if they were much older than I was. So this seemed like a quick and easy way to create a little more racial equity in my own life. And for me, the practice has been both illuminating and empowering.

I’ve developed a few rules as I’ve gone along, just to avoid any really awkward situations.  Specifically, I only call a black man “sir” if:

  1. I assess him to be at least 18 years old. I think calling someone under 18 “sir” is just weird, and would be viewed as such.
  2. I have a reasonable expectation that he would hear me. For example, I don’t do it to someone wearing headphones.
  3. He’s not someone with whom I’m likely to end up in a long-term acquaintance, like the father of one of my daughter’s classmates in ballet.

Those exceptions aside, I’ve had the opportunity to call quite a few black men “sir” since I wrote that post. So what happens?

I’m sorry for slavery

I’m sorry for slavery. Slavery is a horror I cannot even imagine. It is so gruesome that I can only engage with it through history books and documentaries, and I rarely do. To think of slavery as something that actually occurred in some people’s lives is unbearable.

So I’m sorry for slavery. Now I’ve learned in marriage that saying “I’m sorry” is not always a direct function of being at fault. And it certainly doesn’t require malice. With my wife, I have said “I’m sorry” for any number of things that were not my fault, and even for some things in which I played absolutely no role whatsoever. And yet I’m genuinely sorry. I’m sorry because we are connected, and because we are all connected, and because there is a part of me in everything that happens, and vice versa.

I’m also sorry because the act of being sorry creates the space in which another person can express their hurt and be healed. African-Americans who suffered under slavery – and African-Americans who continue to suffer in its aftermath – will likely have an easier time moving on with their lives if they hear the words “I’m sorry.” We all do. The words “I’m sorry” validate a person’s assessment that a wrong has occurred; it tells them that another human being sees what happened as wrong. It tells them that it’s OK to feel the way they feel.

Face what is

Many leaders who are grappling with poverty, injustice, illness, and despair become cynical after a time because they do not see their efforts translating into a sufficient level of impact. They may wonder, just how long exactly do we have to wait for the moral arc of the universe to bend?!

At the same time, they may become increasingly attached to the methods, constructs, tools, and approaches that they have been using to address those challenges. Their desire to do good morphs into a belief that they have done good, which produces frustration with the world around them that “just doesn’t get it.”

What they may be missing is that every one of today’s challenges is an escalator that one can take all the way down to the deepest source of power, creativity, and meaning. But you have to be willing to take the ride. You can’t jump off a couple floors down because you think you’ve found just the trick to make the problem go away.

Being present to poverty

Originally published on The Stanford Social Innovation Review on October 6, 2014.

How eager we are to solve our problems! How insistently we search for an answer, a way out, a remedy! We never consider the problem itself, but with agitation and anxiety grope for an answer [that] is invariably self-projected. Though the problem is self-created, we try to find an answer away from it. To look for an answer is to avoid the problem … The solution is not separate from the problem; the answer is in the problem, not away from it.—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Commentaries on Living

We all have an experience of poverty. For some of us it is a recent memory, or even our current state. We may lack a place to live, food to eat, or money to pay for other things we need. We may be dealing with the consequences of having lacked these things earlier in our lives. Or we may be poor only in a relative sense, missing out on resources or opportunities that seem to come easily to others we know. In any case, it is unlikely we would have to reach very far back into our families’ pasts to find forbears whose poverty was absolute and acute.

On a practical level, however, for most of us perhaps the most tangible experience of poverty we have is a face-to-face interaction with someone who is poor. We stop at a traffic light, and a man approaches us carrying a cardboard sign and asking for money. Or as we leave a grocery store, a woman asks us for spare change so that her children can eat.

Let go of the past

So many organizations get stuck by their leaders’ need to tie together the organization’s past, present, and future. They want to see the flow of logic from what they have done in the past to what they will do in the future. As a result, they limit what their future could be.

As Jesus of Nazareth said, “No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” (Matt. 9:16-17, KJV)

The most disturbing case of this is organizations that define their strategy around the problems they want to solve. As my dear friend Doug Krug likes to say, there are two parts of the human mind: the “intuitive mind” and the “analytical mind.” The “intuitive mind” speaks in images, sees possibilities, and is capable of quantum leaps into the future. The “analytical mind” speaks linearly and follows a cause-and-effect logic that ensures continuity across past, present, and future.

But here’s the rub. “Problems” are logical constructs from which their solutions must logically follow. To the extent that you define strategy around problem-solving, you blind yourself to the quantum leaps into the future that may be possible. In effect you illegitimize any reframing of the situation in which the problem no longer exists.

Vision or purpose?

It is time for a major rethink of the process used by organizations to create their vision. This process is quite well established, in part through influential books like Jim Collins’ Good to Great. In fact, helping organizations define their vision has been a large part of my work as a futurist. So what’s wrong with vision?

A vision essentially projects an organization’s core values out in time to define a desired future state. This vision then guides the organization’s strategy development, so that the strategies it comes up with should – if implemented properly – create the desired future state.

The problem with this is two-fold:

  • First, this kind of vision is a projection of the organization’s identity (ego) on to the future. As spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote, “Seeking a result is the continuation of self-projection; result, however lofty, is the projection of desire.”
  • Second, a vision defines a desired future state based on what is known today. Thus, a vision may actually work against an organization if over time it limits strategic action to that which could have been anticipated in the past.

So what’s an organization to do?