whoever shapes concepts will win



“Whoever supplies memory, shapes concepts, and interprets the past will win the future.”

Professor Dr. Michael Stürmer


“The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flushes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface of consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.”

Arthur Koestler


Thinking conceptually almost demands living a little dangerously. I say that because concepts, well-conceived, stretch minds and institutional boundaries – especially if linked to emergent situations. Concepts, by nature, are nonlinear, non-tidy and non-optimal-looking if measured against the status quo.

Conceptual thinking is the antimatter to the natural organizational matter of holding onto things past their use date. Or, as Peter Drucker said ,“People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.”

Concepts are different than initiatives in that initiatives are based on desired productive objectives and conceptual thinking is based on emergent context and optimizing that context. The truth is that adoption of a series of initiatives simply means you are always behind. As soon as you implement one in the series it is obsolete so that by the time you have completed the series you have simply transformed to an obsolete model. The only way to insure not becoming obsolete is to embrace conceptual thinking.

Why do I say that?

Conceptual thinking is a cognitive process of abstraction wherein one takes the vague outline of patterns to shape an opportunity in the future. Today is simply a building block, or launching pad, not a constraint.

It was Arthur Koestler, in his book The Act of Creation 1964, who identified something called “bisociation of matrices” or how one creatively identifies patterns or connections.

** note: (Koestler) The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.”

Conceptual thinking is grounded in a “bisociation of matrices” or, as Robert Kegan, Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, 1994) stated ‘the process of development as an effort to resolve the tension between a desire for differentiation and an equally powerful desire to be immersed in one’s surroundings’.

“evolution of consciousness, the personal unfolding of ways of organizing experience that are not simply replaced as we grow but subsumed into more complex systems of mind” (Kegan)

Kegan also introduced an idea called of the “holding environment” which has two key aspects within Conceptual thinking — the Socialized Mind and the Self Authoring Mind:

Order 3: Socialized Mind. Cross-categorical thinking-the ability to relate one durable category to another-is evident in the third order of consciousness. As a result, thinking is more abstract, individuals are aware of their feelings and the internal processes associated with them, and they can make commitments to communities of people and ideas (Kegan, 1994).

The ability to scan about for cross functional, cross categorical, cross institutional, thinking is at the core of sense making.

Order 4: Self-Authoring Mind. Cross-categorical constructing-the ability to generalize across abstractions, which could also be labeled systems thinking-is evident in the fourth order of consciousness (Kegan, 1994). In this order, self-authorship is the focus. Individuals “have the capacity to take responsibility for and ownership of their internal authority” (Kegan & others, 2001, p. 5) and establish their own sets of values and ideologies (Kegan, 1994). Relationships become a part of one’s world rather than the reason for one’s existence.

Successful Conceptual thinking is an individual and community effort to be successful as well as an institutional and ‘cloud brain’ connected effort, in other words, concepts are self-authored AND socialized in a Conceptual Age organization so that the vision, idea and implementation are aligned to the benefit of the concept AND the business.

** Note:

Conceptual thinking is the practice of connecting abstract, disparate ideas to deepen understanding, create new ideas and reflect on past decisions. Conceptual thinkers can understand abstract concepts, like the function of a complicated business or a non-linear digital process

Conceptual thinking is involved in discovering new relationships. Analytical thinking is involved in examining known relationships. Something must be conceived before it can be analyzed. The two are intertwined in creative thinking and both are necessary.

Create Dangerously

Which leads me to what was buried on page 400 of Tom Peters’ book, Thriving on Chaos”, a small section called “Create Dangerously” (an idea offered by Bennis & Nanus in their book “Leaders”). I attach this idea to Goldratt’s “continuous improvement” in that an emergent organization will inevitably create “dangerous concepts” as well as iterative concepts. I put them all under the heading of continuous improvement in that the business is always continuously trying to create something new or build upon what has been done. It is a continuous process of improvement in the work. In an ideal world everything that is done, and creates, would be better than the last thing, developing new skills from what was previous, and avoiding errors committed in the past. The reality is old errors are simply replaced by a whole set of new errors, and the constant urge to try and do something different brings with it a new range of failures. In other words, as someone else has said, ‘experience doesn’t eliminate errors it simply better prepares you to deal with errors’.

Continuous improvement, while a combination of dangerous creation and iterative small creation, is inevitably about organizational attitude. Emergent Conceptual thinking, by definition, should mean constantly creating new worlds for the business to thrive in thereby destroying at least parts of the existing world (either in actual business or in actual ways of doing the business). It is also a belief that creation begets meaning (substantive doing fulfills individual purpose thereby meaning emerges). That said. This is not chaos. it’s about risk, or, let’s say thoughtful recklessness.


Continuous improvement 101:

Fallacy of small experiments: once completed, already outdated.

Most ‘little’ are not actually scalable (yet everyone always tries to scale a small success)


Selective thoughtful recklessness

Selective thoughtful recklessness.” Yeah. I am not really sure something exactly like that exists but, whether it has a name or not, it is a characteristic of successful conceptual thinkers as well as a characteristic of everyday schmucks like me who want to do the right thing, desire some everlasting fame as in ‘known for doing good shit the right way’ and am willing to work hard for it. This may sound a little crazy, but I do believe if you are dedicated to doing the right thing and doing good shit you have to be comfortable assuming some risk.

“There is the risk you cannot afford to take, and there is the risk you cannot afford to not take. “

Peter Drucker

Now. I get some shit for my ‘comfort with assuming risk’ <I believe security is, if not an illusion, mostly a superstition keeping people scared of shit>, my attitude in general with regard to risk. But. I came up with my own phrase – selective thoughtful recklessness. This combination seems to me to be better than simply being rash or foolhardy in behavior. It is better because I have a full respect for consequences and hold consequences of any decision, risky or not, in high regard.

To be clear. There is never any absence of forethought <which is where I typically find ‘instinct’ fails miserably>. I certainly have extreme care and concern with respect to not only other people’s welfare, but my own. Sure, yes, there may be a bit of daredevil in the attitude, but without the flair and debonair style associated with a daredevil.

What is there is a certain defiance to odds once a decision has been made and a complete “In for a penny, in for a pound” attitude.

** note: Cambridge Dictionary <in for a penny, in for a pound>: something you say that means that since you have started something or are involved in it, you should complete the work although it has become more difficult or complicated than you had expected .

This is not courage or courageous, it’s an attitude, it is a choice that simply requires some mental resilience. You feel doubt, resistances to choice and even outright disagreement but someone who embraces the selective thoughtful recklessness remains mentally resilient towards anything that attempts to stop you from doing what you believe, and maybe even know, is right.

And maybe that is where the thoughtful daredevilishness steps in with conceptual thinking.

In order to find glory <in this case I believe glory is ‘doing what is right’ and not some fame or accolades> you have to first & foremost reframe the story of what is and what is possible. I am not suggesting some alternative universe nor am I suggesting fooling yourself into believing something truly impossible is possible. This is more along the lines of the traditional disruptor definition — seeing the conventional in unconventional ways. By reframing the story, the boundaries & limits in the original concept become new & different boundaries & limits. Rarely do they align with the old ones and it is within these differences that the ‘thoughtful reckless’ wander. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I just reframed Koestler’s thinking, and conceptual thinking, in an incredibly simplistic way.

Conversations and Concepts

Which leads me to one of the best unsourced quotes for business: “a conversation is the smallest unit of change.”

Conceptual thinking organizations demand conversations. Concepts are uneasy things created from some uneasy conversations.

Natalie Mendes does a fabulous job of pointing out that if a business’s teams are making bad decisions the culprit is most likely bad conversations.

“By having healthier conversations, you can expect your team to unlock amazing ideas that no one had thought of before, feel the momentum of coming to a shared understanding and decision, and empower everyone to own the work of the team and believe in it for themselves.”

Natalie Mendes

While not oft discussed, conversations are risky even dangerous. They are risky to an individual (their ideas get criticized discussed and egos can be bruised) and dangerous (poorly articulated, flawed logic, great ideas can die quickly).  But concepts, and conceptual thinking, demand conversations. I could argue converstaions are actually the second most important factor to the success of a Conceptual Age organization (the first being an indivudal open to learning and thinking conceptually with constant flow of Information Based Software input).

Conversations address two basic components of successful conceptual thinking:

  • Augmentation is fundamentally a matter of organization
  • Past wisdom must not be a constraint.
  • Situational awareness

Why are these important? Because all push back on what I call “institutional debt” (this is the organizational version of what software industry calls “technical debt” where sub-optimal software is created by less-than-well crafted coding is added to software infrastructure not created to optimize the add-ons. Institutions struggle to “see forward.” In other words, one part of their institutional debt is a disproportional blindness to emergent aspects to blinkered vision on current situation. The organizational has to be organized to constantly augment its situational awareness so that institutional wisdom is not a constraint and incoming wisdom increases the value of the existing parameters.

In the end. The essence of business is risk. The essence of effective concepts always contains some risk. The day business ceases to take risks is the day it ceases to be a business and ceases to develop effective concepts.

Quests and Creating Dangerously

 Back to Chaos. Just a reminder that chaos, in business, is freedom within a construct. Uncertainty is simply doing with lack of clarity (in which you do the best you can on the task at hand hoping it stays within some construct). However, it goes beyond hoping by embedding vision. While more often than not we envision visions as static unmoving beautifully constructed edifices we should most likely think of them as useful heuristics in a Conceptual Organization. Not only is the vision, in some way, embedded within every concept it is also embedded within each decision. This ensures coherency between the ideas, the people, the decisions and the ‘doing.’ All in all, when linked in this way, the business itself remains true to the vision while often looking inconsistent in actual action. Everything simply is an iterative extension of a growing enterprise with intentions.

I love a good vision but most businesses suck at creating a vision. They either make it so general it loses any meaning or so specific it cages the ‘meaning potential’ of the business. The truth is that a great vision does have some vague outline, which is horizon inspirational, and yet offers the substance to be a lighthouse in the storms all businesses inevitably have to endure. This is why I often seek out the intentions of a business. If everyone in the organization understands the intentions, works with intent to meet those intentions, the actual decision can be right or wrong but the overall progress will never be wrong. Intentions insure everyone in the organization is aligned in the pursuit of the vision quest.

This business model, implemented well, conceptually creates the conditions of an environment that encourages certain behavior (collaboration, ‘create dangerously’ attitude, uneven improvement, etc.) and discourages competitive behavior (which tends to be a zero-sum game condition). As information gets disseminated the autonomous coalesces into shared interest communities, groups or teams. It becomes a self-sustaining collection of ideas in which anyone can grab the idea and run with it. The terrain in which the business competes is irrelevant because the organization, and systems, are malleable to whatever environment it enters, or, the system recognizes incompatible environments and avoids them. The intentions of the organization keep everyone pointed in the right direction(s) and the vision is embedded in all concepts, thinking and behavior so, in the end, the vision emerges as opportunities emerge.

Now. This does not mean a Conceptual Organization will not be messy. It will. At least on occasion it will. Concepts should destroy existing barriers (internally and externally). This constant reapplication of resources and growth/progress is messy. But. This organic messiness is different than Ackoff’s “messiness” which has to do with complexity and complications of systems. And, yes, systems messes will occur depending on the speed, velocity and scale of any emergence (albeit I will suggest with intentions and vision embedded the ‘messes’ are less messy).

“Faced with a maze of causal influences, unable to trace all their interactions, the most we can do is focus on those that seem most revealing for our purpose and recognize the distortion implicit in that choice.”

Alvin Toffler


What a Conceptual Organization DOES have to worry about is the natural inclination of most business people is to tidy up any messiness. The typical way to do so is to build in checks & balances. Or in the ‘industrial age’ organization they added in layers. Paradoxically, by responding in this way the business actually increases messiness (although, conceptually, it appears neater and orderly)  and, worse, increases complications. I am not suggesting a bossless organization, but I am stating conceptual thinking needs freedom, not more management.

Beautiful Imperfection


I think most people will agree that business as a smooth-running machine is a myth (unless you are a train or fully automated) and attempting to make a business a smooth-running machine a fool’s errand. Emergence is imperfect usually addressed in an imperfect way by imperfect humans. I would argue that a Conceptual Age Organization, run well, will be imperfectly great.

I would be remiss if I did not remind everyone that employees are greatest advocates for what they believe in and the holy grail of the ‘future of work’ is having employees (people) believe in themselves and believe they offer value every day. What I believe is a Conceptual Age Organization does that in a thinking dimension (the concepts themselves) and doing dimension (implementing the concepts to the success of the business). It may look like chaos and creating dangerously can feel risky and the vision may feel a little vague on occasion, but a group of people thinking conceptually, acting in a coherent fashion, grounded in similar intent, and intentions, will certainly be a happier organization and while I am not a “work should be happy” person I don’t think it is a great leap to suggest a happier organization is a healthier organization.

Conceptual thinking is an imperfect science, but a dynamic marketplace is also imperfect. This may sound a little dangerous, but business, in general, is a dangerous world where one of the most dangerous things to do is, well, nothing – no choices, no risk, no adventure.

In the end.

I opened with Koestler and will close with Vladimir Nabokov: “Genius is finding the invisible link between things.” Everything has to do with everything else.  Your business, and Life and, yes, Concepts are made up of a succession of events that link with each other — whether we want them to or not. You must see the invisible to control your destiny. And this is where AI, or an Information Based Software (IBS), helps. It can bring the invisible into the visible world to imperfect people thinking dangerously to the benefit of the business. In other words, those who can shape the concepts, thinking and in articulation, will win the future.

Written by Bruce