Middle Ground

rock formation beside sea under white sky
Photo by Henrique Craveiro on Unsplash

When ideas and opinions push to the extreme finding where the middle ground is becomes an innovation challenge.

Darling I don’t know why I got to extremes
Too high or too low there ain’t no in-betweens
And if I stand or I fall
It’s all or nothing at all
Darling I don’t know why I got to extremes

The late British historian Eric Hobsbawn called the period between 1914 and 1991 the Age of Extremes. Crisis can foster chaos and chaos can create extreme positions as a means to escape it and create order.

One of the reasons we are poor at understanding positions and our relative place within them is our perception from the outset — something that comes when we create dichotomies and ignore complexity.

As Billy Joel sings above, sometimes we go to extremes and that can present significant problems for measurement and how we change.

Measurement and Position of the Middle

Humans have difficulty assessing position relative to one another; the Ebbinghaus illusion (below) is one such example.

Ask yourself this: Which of the two orange circles is larger – the one on the right or the left?

The answer is: neitherthey are both the same size. (Yes, you can measure them if you need to, but take my word for it that they are the same size)

The circle on the right appears to be larger to us because of its relative position to what is around it. When the relative weights are reversed, that same circle on the right seems much smaller.

We can see this with social position, too. What might be considered a moderate position in one situation could be seen as extreme in another because of something that social psychologists have identified as relative deprivation. What has been found is that our relative position determines much of how we see things versus a more objective measure of advantage. For example, if you are making $15/hour and get a raise to $20/hour you might be thrilled unless you learn that your colleague who does the same job makes $25/hour.

This is a measurement challenge because on any strategic position we are stuck trying to assess where people see themselves relative to one another. It’s why benchmarks matter.

Benchmarks matter

A benchmark is our set standard for comparison. Any effort to promote change involves some benchmark — even if it’s just out of convenience. Your ability to feel full and satisfied after a meal is measured against the benchmark of feeling hungry beforehand to provide a simple example.

What creates confusion and problems is that we can be lured to use poor benchmarks. For example, if we use last years sales numbers as a benchmark that might work if the context between last year and this year remains reasonably stable on the factors that influence our sales. The global pandemic of 2020 has upended so many supply chains, policy decisions, and structural settings within markets that the comparison fails to make sense anymore. We need new benchmarks. One reason is that last year — and this year — both serve as extremes given the context. So what would the right benchmark be — splitting the difference?

That doesn’t make sense.

Consider the following timeline that mirrors much of what we’ve seen in the pandemic – yet this kind of segmentation could be a stand-in for any major crisis:

  1. Months 1-2: Absolute shut-down. No employees can enter premises. Law doesn’t allow opening and even if it did, there would be no customers who want to come. All fixed costs continue.
  2. Months 3-4: Transition business model to something modified from the original (e.g., online, delivery, curbside, new service offerings). Skeleton staffing due to lower demand and partly to subsidies or tax incentives that allow modification of the plan. Many other staff are furloughed. Some competitors close up for good.
  3. Months 5-6: Slow reopening of programs, businesses, and seasonal change allows adaptations to hold with some return to pre-event business. Some staff can be rehired. New ‘norms’ are settling in, for now. More businesses close for good, but the rate of change has stabilized.
  4. Months 7-8: Renewed threats affecting business, new ‘norms’ are changing again, and fear of return to pre-event times and the end of subsidies and benefits that supported the transition coming.
  5. Months 9-10: Threat amplified, mixed messaging from policy leaders, less certainty about whether original, hybrid or some other model will work. Rate of closures begins to rise again.
  6. Months 11-12: ?

In each of these six contexts, the benchmark for success changes. As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses and sectors are slipping into the thinking that in Months 7-10 the pre-COVID metrics — “business as usual” might be possible while others are operating as if it is Month 3 or 4 during the same period.

Smallest Visible Systems

A different approach is to use relative benchmarks in a dynamic manner. It’s more complicated, but far more realistic. The Smallest Visible System is one approach where we look as far as we can to where we can directly influence. This approach means looking to the things nearest to your business – physically, structurally, and emotionally — and look to what kind of actions and interactions that can be made, evaluating (gathering and processing data and engaging in regular sensemaking) relentlessly.

The more data we gather, the more sense we can make of what is going on now, the more we can act and react in a continuous manner to make change happen and pursue our goals intelligently. This is a developmental approach to innovation and change and one that involves a mindset tied less to extremes and more to grades and spectrums of change in our design of what is to come .

We might know why we go to extremes, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept that in shaping how we measure our ability to get away from it.

Things are only extreme if we allow them to be.

Determining position and setting course in times of great upheaval, massive change, and complexity is a challenge for every organization. If you need help meeting this challenge, contact me: I might be able to help you.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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