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Decision-making is more manageable when you embrace the unknown

Leaders willing to embrace the unknown will be the first to seize new business opportunities.

Photo: © G. Gallardo/ATLAS CERN

Many business executives struggle making decisions when things around them are unpredictable. “Uncertainty and the unknown can be overwhelming for some,” says Markus Nordberg, Head of Resources Development and Manager of IdeaSquare at CERN.

For 12 years, Nordberg was in charge of coordinating the resources of the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Working together with thousands of physicists from around the world, he is motivated to achieve the same goal: embrace the unknown to explore the secrets of the universe.

Every year, at CERN’s IdeaSquare test facility, Nordberg and his research colleagues provide an immersive experience for organisations and selected executives to think about the unknown and be inspired by the scientific method that helped them discover the Higgs boson.

Do Better: How do you help business executives think about the unknown?

Markus Nordberg: Business executives – at least the ones we have met – are quite interested in the things that we don’t always ask ourselves, such as how we physicists work, or how we unravel the complexity of things which they think are almost impossible to factorise.

My impression is that managers are offered all sorts of off-the-shelf tools to solve specific strategic problems – and there are plenty. Instead, we go one level down to the fundamentals. Where does the complexity arise and how can you describe it with some simple laws? Metaphorically speaking, we show how to disentangle complexity into simpler parameters.

Markus Nordberg
Nordberg during one of the group sessions about the unknown at CERN (Photo: Esade)

How can you make something that is overwhelmingly complex less complex?

You can start with a wild and transformative idea. For instance, questioning yourself about how the universe began. This is not the type of question that fits on a spreadsheet. You need to find a different way of approaching it and ask very clear questions, which may reveal something about the fundamental mechanisms that govern Mother Nature, like finding the Higgs boson. In the beginning, complex problems can seem overwhelming because you start with huge amounts of data that may not make sense to you. But you need to have confidence and keep a cool head.

Dreaming is a non-linear thinking process

Managers in decision-making processes can run into false positives...

If you are sloppy or try to find a shortcut you will most likely fall into a trap and wrongly believe that you have found the answer. You need to triple check everything. Another important aspect in complex decision-making processes is competition – collaborative mechanisms can make you better.

It is true that collaboration also makes your competitors better, but if you are interested in breakthrough innovation then you need to cannibalise yourself a bit. This is what Steve Jobs did. He had no problem in cannibalising his products. And for that you need determination if you really want to make a difference. You might need to cannibalise your existing products, but if you are the first to do that, it will take you and your game to a new level and you will gain market advantage.

Why do you think some executives fear cannibalisation?

I can only offer my personal opinion. Cannibalisation is a very big issue when you are working in incremental markets where the rules of the game are established and the players are already positioned. In these environments, the fear of cannibalisation is understandable because sharing a percentage of the market (even if it's only 1%) is at the expense of others.

If you want to adopt a mindset of breakthrough innovation, you need to practice non-linear thinking

But when you are pursuing breakthrough innovation, when you are trying to capture 100% of a new emerging market opportunity, at that point you are changing the rules of the game. If you want to make a leap of orders of magnitude, then you have to dream and let yourself go. And you need to be aware that dreaming is a non-linear thinking process.

What can businesses learn from the scientific method?

This is another personal observation, but what I have seen while interacting with business executives is that when they talk about new product developments or new service concepts, they approach the challenge in a binary way. That is, it will either be a success or not. If the idea doesn't work as planned it means they failed. There is nothing in between.

We would never ever set up an experiment or a project in a binary way. What you do in science is frame the challenge in a way that is beneficial either way. That is, it will not be a failure if it doesn’t yield (all) the things you hoped for. But then, at least, you will know why!

When you work in high-risk domains, you need to learn to feel comfortable with not being comfortable

If you want to adopt a mindset of breakthrough innovation, you need to practice non-linear thinking and try to understand the underlying foundations of apparent complexity.

How can managers avoid linear thinking?

You have to learn to think in terms of orders of magnitude. For instance, if you saw a dinosaur, how would you know if it is complex or not? The human mind would tend to think it's complex simply because it is big. But is it really complex in functional terms simply because it’s huge? The point is that if you see something big, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s complex. There are plenty of other parameters than just size.

Our mind needs to have some kind of reference point. But when you work in high-risk domains, you need to learn to feel comfortable with not being comfortable.

Managers, like scientists, also need to measure, cope and interact with concepts that they cannot see

How?

The way we do this at CERN is by taking calculated risks and setting specific measurement goals. For example, let’s say we want to build a device that could discover the Higgs or extra dimensions. In this room, as we speak, there are hundreds of particles that go through our fingertips per second. These are particles coming from stars that have exploded. But we can’t see them with our naked eyes. Some neurobiologists even consider that they make us age because our body cells just can’t take this cosmic beating.

But these seemingly invisible particles are there for real and we can demonstrate it. Typically, a business concept is not too visible either. Managers, like scientists, also need to measure, cope and interact with concepts that they cannot see to make visible the invisible. Business executives shouldn't be afraid if they cannot immediately see things. They just need to construct a way to make them visible. This is what we do here at CERN. This is why CERN is such a fantastic place!

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