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Seeing the value of the unseen

April 11, 2013

By Mark Hannum

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage’s own Mark Hannum. He admits that the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts useful in ways you wouldn’t expect. Click here to start reading at the beginning of the series.—Ed.

Albert Einstein had a sign hanging in his office at Princeton University that said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” It’s so easy to see Einstein’s fascination with the mind of God in this simple sign. The older he got, the more mystical he became about what was important and what was just details. And knowing the mind of God—the unknowable and uncountable—eventually became the primary focus of his research and his science.

Einstein’s sign reminds me of a small passage from “Alice in Wonderland” where Alice says to the King accompanying her on her magical journey, “I see nobody on the road.” And the King responds, “I only wish I had such eyes. To be able to see nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light.” The King and Alice are really saying we all need to look closely at the world because sometimes, the unseen may be more important than what we can see.

Take the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion back in 1986 for instance. In that case, the scientists and engineers approved the launch based on data they could see, feel, and touch. It gave them security about their decision. It gave them confidence in their expertise and the “correctness” of their beliefs and mental models. You could say that the scientists were asked to prove that failure would occur. They couldn’t. But they also failed to look at the opposing question: What was the probability of success in the given conditions? That question would have had them look at a completely different set of data—data they had, but didn’t look at—and if they had, they’d have come to a very different conclusion.

Systems thinking teaches us that both presence and absence—what’s there and what’s not, who’s there and who’s not, what’s said and what’s not, what’s started and what’s not, what’s real and what’s possibility, what’s allowed and what’s only implicitly allowed, what’s unsaid and what’s been squelched, what the adult sees and what the child sees, what problems are solvable and which are unsolvable—are equally important.

I’m constantly reminded of how bad I (the expert consultant) can be about asking questions about the invisible, the not present but important, the not done, the ignored, the unusual, the forgotten, the impossible, the misunderstood, and the magical loopholes that can exist in many organizations. This motivates me to always be asking about the unseen and to be listening for the “undiscussed” in the answer. That’s often where the answer lies.

Isn’t it true that we often miss the simple and beautiful of the everyday by being so easily distracted by the more visceral and visible aspects of life? Haven’t we all discounted and forgoten the important, though often unseen, workers who clean our offices and remove snow from our sidewalks and streets? In some organizations, these invisible services enable the revenue making functions to work smoothly. In a hospital for instance, these invisible services are vital—they eliminate sources of disease and other serious outcomes.

I’m also reminded that profit and revenue is often all that counts in our financially minded world, but not always.

One of the organizations I am honored to be able to work with is Jeppesen based in Denver, Colorado. The company provides aviation mapping to commercial, military, and general aviation pilots. They have commanding market share. They have enviable levels of profit. They are an ethical organization. These are things that we can count and measure. But what if they stopped existing as of today. The skies would become unsafe. Pilots would get lost and end up crashing somewhere. Multiple types of resources would go to waste or be used very inefficiently. It’s impossible to measure what problems they prevent. We cannot measure their true meaning and value to us. The value they provide goes beyond the market capitalization. It’s more than financial.

Thinking more about the unmeasurable is what systems thinking challenges us to do.

So, take a moment and think: What if your company didn’t exist anymore? What would become visible that is invisible today?

More about Mark
Mark Hannum has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions.



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