The Science: Seeing the Invisible

The "Nazca lines" are  giant drawings etched across thirty miles of desert on Peru’s southern coast.

The patterns are only visible at a distance of three hundred or so feet in the air. Below that, they look like strange paths or roads to nowhere. Just as we cannot see these lines without the proper perspective, people who master Sun Tzu's strategic concepts can suddenly recognize situations that were invisible to them before. The most recent scientific research explains why people cannot see these patterns without developing their  decision-making expertise.1

The mental models used by experts give them what experts in cognition call "situation awareness."

This situation awareness isn't just vague theory. Recent research shows that it can be measured in a variety of ways

.2 We now know that untrained people fall victim to a flow of confusing information because they don't know where its pieces fit. Those trained in strategic cognition plug this stream of information quickly and easily into a bigger picture, transforming the skeleton's provided by Sun Tzu's system into a functioning machine

. Each piece of information has a place in that picture. As the information comes in, it fills in the picture, like pieces of a puzzle.

The ability to see a bigger picture allows experts in strategy to see what is invisible to most people in a number of ways. They include:

  • People trained in strategic cognition--recognition-primed decision-making--see patterns that others do not.

  • Trained people

    can spot anomalies, things that should happen but don't.

  • Trained people

    are in touch with changes in the environment within appropriate time horizons.

  • Trained people

    recognize patterns under extreme time pressure.

One of the most surprising discoveries from this research is that those who know procedures alone have a more difficult time recognizing patterns than novices. An interesting study3 examined the different recognitions skills of three groups of people 1) experts,  2) novices, and 3) trainers who taught the standard procedures. The three groups were asked to pick out an expert from a group novices in a series of videos showing them performing a decision-making task, in this case, CPR. Experts were able to recognize the expert 90% of the time. Novices recognized the expert 50% of the time. The shocking fact was that trainers performed much worse that the novices, recognizing the expert only 30% of the time.

Why do those who know procedures well fail to see what the experts usually see and even novices often see? Because, as research into mental simulations has shown, those with only a procedural model fit everything into that model and ignore elements that don't fit. In the above experiment, interviews with the trainers indicated that they assumed that the experts would always follow the procedural model. In real life, experts adapt to situations where unique conditions often trump procedure. Adapting to the situation rather than following set procedures is a central focus Sun Tzu's form of strategic cognition.

People trained to recognize the bigger picture beyond procedures also recognize when expected elements are missing from the picture. This anomalies or, what the cognition experts

4 describe as "negative cues" are invisible to novices and to those trained

only in procedure. Without sense of the bigger pattern, people are focused too narrowly on the problem at hand. The "dog that didn't bark" from the Sherlock Holmes story, "Silver Blaze," is the most famous example of a negative cue. Only those working from a larger non-procedural framework can expect certain things to happen and notice when they don't.

The ability to see what is missing also comes from the expectations generated by the mental model. Process-oriented models have the expectation of one step following another, but situation-recognition models create their expectations from signals in the environment.


5 into the time horizons of decision-makers shows that different time scales are at work. People at the highest level of organizations must look a year or two down the road, using strategic models that work in that timeframe, doing strategic planning.  Decision-makes on the front-lines, however, have to react within minutes or even seconds to changes in their situation, working from their strategic reflexes. The biggest danger is that p

eople get so wrapped up in a process that they lose contact with their environment.

Extreme time pressure is what distinguishes front-line decision-making from strategic planners. One of the biggest discoveries in cognitive research

6 is that trained people do much better in seeing their situation instantly and making the correct decisions under time pressure. Researchers found virtually no difference between the decisions that experts made under time pressure when comparing them to decisions made without time pressure. That research also finds that those with less experience and training made dramatically worse decisions when they were put under time pressure.

The central argument for training our strategic reflexes is that our situation results, not from chance or luck, but from the instant decisions that that we all make every day. Our position is the sum of these decisions. If we cannot make the right decisions on the spot, when they are needed, our plans usually come to nothing. This is why we describe training people's strategic reflexes as helping them do at first what the average person will do at last.

The success people experience seeing what is invisible to others is dramatic. To learn more about how the strategic reflexes we teach differ from what can be planned, read about the contrast between planning and reflexes here. As our many students report, the success Sun Tzu's system makes pos

sible is remarkable.

1 Chi, Glaser, & Farr, 1988, The Nature of Expertise, Erlbaum
2 Endsley & Garland, Analysis and Measurement of Situation Awareness
3 Klein & Klein, 1981, "Perceptual/Cognitive Analysis of proficient CPR Performance", Midwestern Psychological Association Meeting, Chicago.
4 Dr. David Noble, Evidence Based Research, Inc. In Gary Klein, Sources of Power, 1999
5 Jacobs & Jaques, 1991, "Executive Leadership". In Gal & Mangelsdofs (eds.), Handbook of Military Psychology, Wiley
Calder, Klein, Crandall,1988, "Time Pressure, Skill, and Move Quality in Chess". American Journal of Psychology, 101:481-493

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