February 5, 2017

Schrodinger's Cat and the Value of Uncertainty in a Continuously Connected World

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger suggested the following thought-experiment. A cat, a flask of poison, a radioactive source and a monitor are placed in a sealed box. If the monitor detects a single atom of radioactive decay, the flask is broken open, releasing the poison which kills the cat. You have no idea when the radioactive source is going to decay and therefore at any point in time you have no idea if the cat is dead or alive because everything is contained in a sealed box.

According to Wikipedia, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that, after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead, not alive or dead, alive and dead. This is the notion of quantum superposition, where both states exist simultaneously…until, when the box is opened, the events are observed, at which point the multiple states collapse and you observe a live cat or a dead cat.

The cat gets all the press, but honestly, the cat is just a prop. The star of the show is the box because it's the box that puts the observer in a state of “not knowing,” which creates the superposition.

OK, great, superposition, parallel universes, observer-influenced outcomes…why would anyone care other than the Sheldon character on the TV show The Big Bang Theory?

Let’s take the thought experiment a little further. What happens when Schrödinger opens the box? Yes, he either finds a live cat or a dead cat. But what also probably happens is that some judgement forms about the state he finds the cat in. If it was his cat, he might think it’s a really good thing that the cat is still alive. Or it might have been a neighbor’s cat, which had been killing the birds in his yard, and therefore he might think it is a good thing that the cat is now dead.

But imagine the following scenario. Let’s say the cat was Schrödinger's and when he opens the box he finds his cat is dead from the release of the poison. Schrödinger thinks this is horrible and he and the whole family are sad for weeks. So he goes and gets a dog to assuage everyone’s grief. Six weeks later there is a fire in the house and the dog’s barking wakes everyone up so the whole family escapes safely. Now Schrödinger might have a different view of the cat’s death and think, at the end of the day, it was not such a bad thing after all.

There is of course nothing wrong with being really sad and then really relieved aside from being a little whipsawed by ones reactions. This well known story suggests another approach. 

There was a farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "This is such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful this is," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors exclaimed “What great news this is. You’re so lucky.” "Maybe," said the farmer.

Now many of course know this story but the insight here might be to see the farmer's reaction in the context of superposition.  In the story, the farmer’s neutral assessment… his “maybe”…creates a kind of superposition about an event and its implications which allows the farmer to maintain more equanimity and avoid all the ups and downs his neighbors go through.

In a different vein, there are even examples of the utility of superposition in the problem solving and creativity literature. In a study published 30 years ago, participants were either introduced to new objects conditionally (e.g., this could be an X) or unconditionally (e.g., this is an X), and the objects used were either unfamiliar or familiar.

For example, in the course of the experiment, participants might be told they had made a mistake with a pencil while there were several different objects, like a rubber band, sitting on the table in front of them. When they were told beforehand, “This is a rubber band,” only 3 percent realized it could also be used as an eraser. When they had been told beforehand “This could be a rubber band,” 40 percent figured out that the rubber band could erase their mistake.

Just like the farmer’s maybe, the experimenters’ could be framing creates a kind of superposition that allowed the participants to see other possibilities and find creative solutions. (Langer, E. & Piper, A. (1987) The Prevention of Mindlessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

Every time something happens to us, we get to decide what that event means and whether we want to try to get more of it or whether it is something we want to avoid. Deciding an event that just occurred unequivocally means X and then riding the wave of emotional reaction…positive or negative…that accompanies X creates an observer effect that collapses a broader palette of reactions, options, and outcomes.

This is not to say you don’t respond. If the sales numbers that come in are below expectation, it is likely that action needs to be taken.

Here is one scenario for doing something: fists pounding the table, exclamations that “this is a disaster and drastic changes are coming,” and a concomitant sense of panic and dread all around.

Here is another: “Well this is not where we thought we would be at this point. Is the root cause in our assumptions or in our execution or both? Should we cut our losses and redirect resources or double down or are there other options we should be considering?

Under which scenario are you likely to find the team cooperatively coming together to address the issue? Under which scenario are you more likely to find people engaged in inquiry and exploration?  Under which scenario are you likely to find more creative solutions? Under which scenario are you likely to find a higher sense of employee engagement with the work and with the people they work with?

Mary Beth O’Neill said in Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: “When other people become reactive to the situation…the system loses the flexibility to deal with the challenging situation. It freezes and locks up …The leader’s own resilience is suppressed." For Ms O’Neill, job #1 for coaches working with executives is to help them face their own reactions so they can get quickly back to their creative center.

So give this a try: no matter what happens this week, do whatever you need to do to deal with it, but don’t put a definitive label on what happened. Say it could be good or it could be not so good, or “maybe” like the farmer and then just deal. See how that affects the way you and those around frame the issue, the slate of options you consider, and the way you take action.

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