Svyatoslav Biryulin
Future thinking bias
Why is it so hard to think strategically?
The Watergate scandal, the Boston Globe investigation of the Catholic Church, the Panama papers, and other publications of that kind are often called "shocking." Commenters say that they "shake the world." But what makes them shocking for people not personally involved in the issue? Why do citizens of a country often feel upset if they learn that their president is corrupt? Why do people who are not Catholic Church parishioners and who don't have small children feel deeply sad when they read articles on the cases of sexual abuse in the church?

Imagine you accidentally found out that your life partner secretly had another romantic affair or that your father was a criminal. What feelings would you feel? Of course, there would be several different feelings, but you would most likely feel that your "world is ruined" by the news. And this is not only a metaphor.

Mental models

The world is too large and complex, and no one can know everything about it. Even if you live one hundred years, there will be plenty of "white spots," things and notions you don't have a clue about. But even if we believe we know something, our knowledge is often superficial. For example, you have definitely heard something about electricity, but can you explain how it works in detail?

But, even having such sketchy, fragmentary, incomprehensive knowledge about the world around us, we can survive. You can effectively interact with the world, even though you know a little about it. Humans can do it using "mental models," simplified versions of reality. They have no more in common with the universe than a school globe with our planet or a computer game with the real world. Mental models are streamlined theories about the universe, but they are plausible enough to help us live in such a complex world.
In a typical citizen's mental model, a president is a person who serves a country and its people, priests are kind people, and your partner and father are decent, loyal, and honest. (Some too suspicious people see only enemies, con artists, and conspiracy theories around them, but I wouldn't envy them, their lives are a nightmare). But when we suddenly realize that our mental models are too simple or that they show us the world through rose-colored glasses (the world in which people are kind are presidents are honest), we go through painful, even traumatic but useful experiences. Sometimes it is called "cognitive dissonance." Our old mental models are destroyed, but new ones, more sophisticated and comprehensive, appear. We call it "to learn from experience."

Mental models and business strategy, or Metal models dye hard

We stick to our mental models until we face a smoking gun, compelling evidence that they are wrong because it is a ground for our self-esteem. We must believe that we "know the world," that we are well-qualified human beings able to analyze the surrounding circumstances and make the right decisions. Every time our lives prove this belief wrong, it destroys our self-confidence, so we try to avoid such situations as much as possible.

But when we think long-term and formulate a long-term strategy, we need to bear the thought that the future world will be different from now, even if we subconsciously would love to keep it as it is. And it is also painful. The mental model is not only about friendly people and fair presidents but also about our current strategies, products, and business models. The more successful they are, the deeper they are rooted in our mental models. They make us prosperous, making us less able to give them up in favor of new products and strategies.

Trying to keep the world around us as stable and predictable as possible (or, at least, believing it is) is a part of our nature. As Mark Twain said, "the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper." If you conduct a strategic meeting or a workshop and see that your team can propose nothing but minor incremental changes while you wait for disruptive ideas, don't rush to blame them. They are humans, after all.
If a building becomes architecture, then it is art
That's why I prefer playing games to brainstorming. Games help free participants' minds and unleash their creativity. When we play a foresight game, we look into the distant future – ten years ahead, and it helps to overcome this fear. But then, using the so-called "back-casting method," we go back to today's world. Backcasting starts with defining a desirable future and then works backward to identify events that will connect that specified future to the present. It helps accept inevitable changes easier.

While devising a strategy with a client's team, we also play games. For instance, one part of a team plays for customers, and another part tries to identify their needs and persuade them to buy their ideas. Of course, we don't use the outcomes of these games only to formulate a strategy; we employ market research, trend analysis, and so on. But games may be exceptionally helpful regarding idea generation and decision-making. If you have similar tasks and don't know what to do, drop me a line, and maybe I will help.

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