Seeing What I Actually Know

I know what I know.  Right?  Two authors I have been reading summarize research showing that we typically are not very good at knowing what we know now or recalling what we think we knew before.

In his 1976 classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Columbia University professor Robert Jervis summarizes research that shows, “People often not only have a limited understanding of the workings of others’ arguments, they also do not know the structure of their own belief systems—what values are most important, how some beliefs are derived from others, and what evidence would contradict their views.  Particularly dangerous is the tendency to take the most important questions for granted…This often involves..failing to scrutinize basic assumptions” (410-411).

Highlighting a vast amount of recent research into the neuroscience of memory in his 2015 book The Brain, Stanford University professor David Eagleman writes, “Although we don’t always realize it, the memory is not as rich as you might have expected…The enemy..isn’t time; it’s other memories.  Each new event needs to establish new relationships among a finite number of neurons.  The surprise is that a faded memory doesn’s seem faded to you…Our past is not a faithful record.  Instead it’s a reconstruction” (23-26).  “Our picture of the external world isn’t necessarily an accurate representation.  Our perception of reality has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain” (38).

If we are not good at knowing what we know or remembering accurately, then what can we do?  These same lines of research highlight two human strengths: (1) our partial perspectives and (2) our error-correcting ability to calibrate.

Our partial perspectives.  We each perceive a rich world of sensations, inputs that we each are uniquely able to perceive and process.  Combining a set of rich perspectives different individuals have about an experience can lead to a more nuanced, multi-dimensional understanding of a given phenomenon.  This integrated set can then be tested against evidence: how the system actually behaves.  Systemic, multi-stakeholder processes, like the ones we have tested and developed, at the Institute for Strategic Clarity, are one method for capturing, integrating, and validating this kind of richness.

Our error-correcting ability to calibrate.  Our brains seem to focus on correcting errors in the mental representation it already has of the world.  The brain is calibrating.  “Instead of using your senses to constantly rebuild your reality from scratch every moment, you’re compaing sensory information with a model the brain has already constructed: updating it, refining it, correcting it” (53 The Brain).  ”The brain generates its own reality, even before it receives information coming in from the eyes and the other senses…(For example, the) thalamus simply reports on differences between what the eyes are reporting, and what the brain’s internal model has predicted…what gets sent back to the visual cortex is what fell short in the expectation” (51-52 The Brain).  This act of calibration is a strength.  Using evidence-based mapping, we can see what actually exists more rigorously and use that mapping to calibrate our individual mental representations, the mental models we use all day long to make decisions.

To apply these concepts of partial perspectives, weak memory accuracy, and calibration to complex social issues like human agreements, we need rigorous frameworks for integrating and validating what we know.  Especially since we also know that human agreements can be very hard to see, tools like Agreements Evidence Mapping are ever more critical for (1) capturing and validating partial perspectives, (2) integrating them into one whole, strategic representation that can be validated, around (3) often hidden agreements we have unconsciously accepted, that (4) we agree to shift.  Maybe I do not know what I know, most of the time, but I can.

Is Your Strategic Framework Useful?: CRISP Criteria

As originally defined, the CRISP model[1] establishes criteria that a strategic process must meet to provide the intended “strategists” with the clarity they require to make efficient, effective decisions in a complex, self-organizing system.  While the criteria are easiest to remember as CRISP, their logical order is purposeful, comprehensive, integrative, rigorous, and simple.

  • Purposeful. Why we do this
  • Comprehensive. What elements we include
  • Integrative. How we relate the elements
  • Rigorous. How we test this
  • Simple. How we understand this



The purposeful criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be clear why we are doing this process – the organizing essence of what we are trying to realize together. This is also known as the essential property of the system – the reason for which it exists, for which it self-organizes.


The comprehensive criteron of CRISP requires that the strategic process provide a clear understanding of the boundaries of what is included as relevant and what is not included.


The integrative criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process make explicit the relationships among the different dimensions, perspectives, elements, and processes.


The rigorous criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be observable in reality, and reproducible.


The simple criterion of CRISP requires that the strategic process be simple enough to be understood.  This means that it must align with the rich complexity the human being is capable of understanding, not under or overwhelming them by dumbing down, oversimplifying, or overcomplicating the strategic process.

The CRISP criteria assess the degree to which a strategic framework supports the strategist in understanding what the system intends to achieve and how it works.


[1] Ritchie-Dunham, James L.  2008.  A Collaborative-Systemic Strategy Addressing the Dynamics of Poverty in Guatemala:  Converting Seeming Impossibilities into Strategic Probabilities. In Alleviating Poverty through Business Strategy, edited by C. Wankel. New York: Palgrave, 73-98. Macmillan.  Ritchie-Dunham, James L., and Luz Maria Puente. 2008.  Strategic Clarity: Actions for Identifying and Correcting Gaps in Mental Models, Long Range Planning 41(5), 509-529.

Guest post — A Vermont Case Study: Getting to 80% renewable energy by 2030

Guest post by Jennifer BermanContributing Fellow at The Institute for Strategic Clarity

[Jennifer Berman is the former Executive Director of the Maverick Lloyd Foundation and was the coordinator of EAN from 2009-2012. This case study was written in December 2012.]

In 2008, the Maverick Lloyd Foundation stepped back from ten years of philanthropic giving to explore how the foundation could be a more effective driver for change. Despite a significant investment of resources, the trustees knew that their giving strategies were not creating the impact they knew was possible—and necessary—if the state of Vermont was to address the urgent reality of climate change.

Inspired by the success of RE-AMP, a network of 144 non-profits and foundations working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in eight mid-western states, the foundation began to envision a social change process that could help catalyze large-scale coordinated action around a bold new vision for Vermont. The result of that early vision is Energy Action Network (EAN)—a powerful network of business, government and non-profit leaders who are aligned around the goal of meeting 80% of Vermont’s 2030 energy needs from renewable energy and increased efficiency.

Read the case study of the project (click here, revised 19March2017).

Comment by Jim Ritchie-Dunham.  Jenn Berman and I worked together on the EAN project through 2010 with our colleagues at GEP.  You can read more about the EAN project from an Ecosynomics perspective in the book Ecosynomics.

A Framework for Achieving Clarity for You and Your Organization

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James. 2004. A Framework for Achieving Clarity for You and Your Organization, The Systems Thinker, 15(7), September, 7-8.

One of the keys to to being effective is to understand the complexity of your organization, what it seeks to achieve, and how you can contribute to that objective.  Through a series of exercises, you can gain clarity about these elements.  With an integrated understanding of what values drive the system’s behavior, how the parts of the system function, and how the values and parts relate, you will be much clearer in how your day-to-day actions will help you achieve the desired results for your area and organization.

Strategic Clarity: Actions for Identifying and Correcting Gaps in Mental Models

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James L. and Luz María Puente. 2008. Strategic Clarity: Actions for Identifying and Correcting Gaps in Mental Models, Long Range Planning, 41(5) 509-52.

Whether you are making quick resource-allocation decisions alone or collaborating with your executive team to set organizational strategy, what you see, what you advocate, and what you ultimately decide are influenced by the map of the world you carry around inside your head. In some ways, this map or mental model is unique to you, as it was formed through your specific experiences and ways of engaging with the world. This article is based on a decade of research and fieldwork and is illustrated with multiple references to both large and small European and American organizations in the for-profit, non-profit, and governmental sectors. It presents five guiding questions that can help identify and correct gaps in managers’ mental models of their organizations. This approach enables managers to be clear about how to move their organizations in the desired direction, in order to achieve their goals. While useful for professional managers of complex systems, these questions are particularly applicable for leaders of civil society, governmental, and entrepreneurial for-profit organizations. The main contribution of this article is a framework of exercises based on the five questions that integrates traditional strategic dimensions and allows leaders to identify gaps in their mental models, resulting in more effective leadership and improved performance.