Random finds (2016, week 21) — On asking pivotal questions, the predictive power of dreams, and The Brutal World

Mark Storm
9 min readMay 30, 2016


From The Brutal World, Phaidon Press

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

The power of asking pivotal questions

The questions leaders pose sometimes get in the way of solving the right problem or seeing more innovative solutions. They are often too narrow, overly protective of the current business, or assume that the old habits, business models and regulations will remain largely intact. At Google Inc., CEO Larry Page challenges leaders to anticipate the future better by not just asking what is or likely will be true, but what might be true, even if unexpected. The matter of ‘what is the right question’ should be much more central when leaders tackle complex and important decisions, especially in an era of profound change.

In The Power of Asking Pivotal Questions, Paul J.H. Shoemaker and Steven Krupp, authors of Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future, examine questions they see as pivotal. One of these questions is: “Do you deploy multiple lenses to connect dots from diverse sources and stakeholders, and do you delve deep to see important connections that others miss?”

Schoemaker and Krupp explain how the then-CEO of DuPont, Charles O. Holliday Jr. picked up several weak signals in the fall of 2008 that helped him prepare his company for the deep recession that followed.

“While visiting a major Japanese customer, Holliday learned that the CEO had instructed his staff to conserve cash, an indication that the company was seeing or expecting a decline in profitability. That got Holliday’s attention, both in terms of the potential for weaker economic conditions and specific fears about DuPont’s own cash position. Upon his return, Holliday sought to get a fix on DuPont’s financial resilience. The leadership team found that the initial signs of weakness were spreading to the broader economy and beginning to affect DuPont’s business across the board.”

Leaders are often limited by selective perception and seek information that confirms what they wish to believe. Most don’t ask tough questions because they filter out weak signals that don’t fit their mental models.

“What was impressive about Holliday was his ability to amplify discrete data points, connect them and take decisive action. Combining seasoned intuition with vigilant questions, Holliday figured out that his company was about to hit a wall. To test his fears, he engaged his team and asked for candid feedback. His team put a plan in place so DuPont would be ready if financial markets hit rock bottom.”

Leaders are often limited by selective perception and seek information that confirms what they wish to believe, and so become victims of ‘confirmation bias.’ Unlike Holliday, most don’t ask tough questions because they filter out weak signals that don’t fit their mental models. A famous example is Alan Greenspan, from 1987 to 2006 Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, who, when the chairman of the House Oversight Committee asked if he had been wrong, replied he had been “shocked because I [Alan Greenspan] had been going for 40 years or so with considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.” What he had found was “a flaw in the model” he had “perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”

When faced with complex issues and conflicting information, it is easy to fool yourself: If you torture the data hard enough, it will confess to almost anything! At Eastman Kodak Co., for example, leaders failed to ask the right questions soon enough to fully understand and act effectively on the signs that photography was rapidly moving to digital. This misperception reflected middle management’s belief that digital technology was inferior to film and top executives’ belief that the demands of Kodak’s shareholders mattered more than those of its consumers and engineers. These flawed assumptions allowed Kodak to continue deluding itself about the urgency for change for much too long.

[Note: We have all heard the story about Kodak and how they missed out on digital photography many times, but Willy Shih sheds a somewhat different light on the ‘myth’ in his The Real Lessons From Kodak’s Decline: “Eastman Kodak is often mischaracterized as a company whose managers didn’t recognize soon enough that digital technology would decimate its traditional business. However, what really happened at Kodak is much more complicated — and instructive.”]

Schoemaker and Krupp give several tips and pointers. First of all, look for competing explanations to challenge your observations. Engage a wide range of stakeholders, customers and strategic partners to weigh in. When stuck trying to recognize patterns or interpret complex data, step away, get some distance and then try again. Sleep on the data, since the mind continues to process information when resting. Each time DuPont’s Holliday took a break [Why You Do Your Best Thinking In The Shower], and then reengaged, he got a deeper understanding and asked better questions. And finally, use visual graphs or flowcharts to juxtapose the larger picture with the individual puzzle pieces. Pattern recognition is easier when all the information is clearly laid out and presented in different ways. Try to leverage the power of visual thinking.

The best strategic thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs distinguish themselves by how they frame decisions, the kinds of questions they ask and their mode of inquiry.

According to Shoemaker and Krupp, we don’t judge leaders on the quality of their questions, nor do we design our educational systems or corporate training to develop this crucial skill. On the contrary, we do the opposite. Having ‘all the answers’ may “win you a million dollars on a TV game show or yield good grades in school, but it won’t necessarily make you successful in today’s complex business world. In changing environments, the big prizes go to those who ask better questions and learn faster. In organizations, this comes down to leaders teaching and coaching others to think more strategically and ask deeper questions. If you think like everyone else, you are likely to be average. The best strategic thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs distinguish themselves by how they frame decisions, the kinds of questions they ask and their mode of inquiry.”

More on asking questions in Random finds (2016, week 6) and Random finds (2016, week 12).

Are dreams predictions?

“Dreams might not be omens or prophecies in a mystical sense, but they do have a distinct psychological predictive power,” Sue Llewellyn writes in her essay Are dreams predictions?

Le rêve, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).

A few quotes from this highly interesting essay…

“While awake, we are good at spotting logical, deterministic patterns. We tend to suppose that we need to be awake to function, but this is not the case. In every 24-hour period, there is another state when our brains are just as active, some researchers think more active. This state is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams occur. During REM, we are better at spotting the less obvious or ‘remote’ associations that predict probabilistic events.”

“Based on all this, I argue that we are better at making non-obvious word-based associations after REM sleep because our brains are primed during that sleep — by our dreams — to spot non-obvious, probabilistic patterns of experience and events. This means that if someone wanted to predict whether I would be at the university on any particular day, they would have a higher chance of success soon after having a dream.”

Much of my behavior when awake might be determined by unconscious associations created and expressed in dreams I cannot recall.

“But prediction is difficult because the behavior of animals and humans is based on probabilities, not certainties. Predictions depend on being able to discern probabilistic patterns in past experience. Anticipating when predators, competitors and mates will be at the waterhole is not that dissimilar to predicting when I will be at the university.”

“But our ability to identify probabilistic patterns in past experiences during REM dreaming is still quite useful, because we still face uncertainties. The ‘hidden’ code helps us act intuitively and rapidly to navigate them. Does it help to try to decipher a hidden dream code? Yes, particularly if a hidden code is making you fearful in situations that are not actually dangerous. Like me being afraid when alone in a house. You might think you know yourself, but you will have more insight still if you understand yourself through your dreams.”

A bit more …

In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tuscan, does a remarkable job of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life, namely that the things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It’s exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (love), Indignation (moral righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which “bless and bedevil us,” as he puts it.

“In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint.” — Joseph Tuscan

On Curiosity: Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.”

Read on Farnam Street: https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2016/05/civilization-and-its-passions.

Phaidon’s new book This Brutal World is a photographic ode to one of the most polarizing modern architectural movements.

“‘It’s hard to love a brute,’ mused the podcast 99Percent Invisible in an episode that aired last year. The sentiment certainly rings true as Brutalist buildings are among the most polarizing and misunderstood structures built in the last century. Praised by architects — and often lambasted by the public — they’re the architectural equivalent of an acquired taste.”

From This Brutal World, Phaidon Press.

Read on CoDesign: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3059463/exposure/the-real-story-behind-brutalism?utm_content=buffer982e1&utm_medium=social&utm_source=linkedin.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

Urban planning is full of ‘what ifs’: designs for future cities that never materialized. In the latest installment of a series by TheLong+Short, Christopher Beanland looks at Frank Lloyd Wright’s fusion of high rises, ramps, cars and greenery.

“Did he [Frank Lloyd Wright] hate the city? Probably. He certainly wanted to live out in the sun and the peace of Arizona, and his most famous building, Fallingwater, a house in the middle of nowhere, seems to effortlessly blend concrete with conifers, ribbed steel with rivers. He, like many Americans at that time, believed in the suburbs as the future and the car as the vehicle for that monumental social change.”

Wright’s conflicts bubble to the surface: like in many of his visions there was a rooftop park, yet there was also roaring car traffic

“All these contradictions and complexities came to a head in Wright’s most startling unrealized vision: an enormous civic centre for downtown Pittsburgh, a rough-and-ready steelmaking city.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept for redevelopment of the Point, 1947 (Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh).

Read on TheLong+Short: http://thelongandshort.org/cities/frank-lloyd-wright-point-pittsburgh.

Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda presents a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media.

Watch the 6-minute video here: http://hyper-reality.co.

Along with transforming everyday life, as can be seen in Keiichi Matsuda’s Hyper-Reality, a virtual reality revolution could fundamentally change how we understand and define what is real. In this video, the renowned Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers considers how VR is reframing and shedding new light on some of philosophy’s most enduring questions about cognition, epistemology and the nature of reality.

Watch on Aeon: https://aeon.co/videos/new-realities-are-imminent-how-vr-reframes-big-questions-in-philosophy.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought