Chapter 4 Sensory Templates: Solving unsolvable managerial problems

4.1 Sensory Templates

In the previous chapter, we learned that our understanding is largely metaphorical in nature and that we understand more abstract phenomena, including social situations, by seeing them as analogue to more concrete sensorimotor experiences. In other words, we use sensorimotor experiences as templates upon which we build our understanding of abstract phenomena. In the rest of this book, I will call sensorimotor experiences used in this manner: Sensory templates.

So what does it mean for our understanding of learning and how to facilitate learning that our abstract phenomena are grounded in sensory templates?

In short, it suggests that double-loop learning has to involve change in sensory templates and that the difficulties related to double-loop learning described in chapter two can be seen as emerging from trying to change the theories-in-use without directly addressing the sensory templates in which these theories-in-use are grounded. As long as a manager unconsciously represents “conflict resolution” through the sensorimotor experience of “pushing aside physical obstacles”, then she will comprehend theories about open dialogue, multiple stakeholder platforms, emancipation of suppressed voices and shared decision-making processes as (nicely worded) means to push aside whatever she happens to see as obstacles. As long as a manager unconsciously represents “leadership” through the sensorimotor experience of “dragging objects”, then he will relate to theories about servant leadership, appreciative leadership, coaching leadership, visionary leadership, etc. as (rhetorically pleasing) means of dragging his employees. It is fully possible to adopt the politically correct language without changing the sensory templates, which govern one’s behavior.

The split between espoused theories and theories-in-use can be seen as the result of managers adopting descriptions of theories of action without changing their sensory templates accordingly. Thus, assumptions about what sensorimotor experiences different organizational phenomena are analogue to are both some of the least explored and possibly some of the most influential assumptions managers base their thinking and decision-making on.

To illustrate how sensory templates work and the great effect our choice of sensory templates can have, I will relate a famous story from the world of physics. It is the story of how Einstein in 1905 explained the photoelectric effect by proposing that light, at least in some situations, is analogue to particles rather than to waves. Thus, in the words of this book, Einstein solved the problem of the photoelectric effect by proposing a shift in the sensory template physicists used to understand the phenomenon of light.

In 1887, Heinrich Hertz discovered the photoelectric effect. If you have two pieces of metal with a small gap between them one of which is charged with an excess of electrons, the excess electrons will every now and then jump from the charged to the uncharged piece of metal. This is seen as a spark – or a mini lightning. When you shine light on the pieces of metal, you get more sparks, i.e. more electrons make the jump – this is the photoelectric effect.

In 1887, light was understood as analogue to waves. That is, the experience of waves, like the ones we see in water, was used as the sensory template upon which physicists modeled their understanding of light. Using this sensory template, the photoelectric effect was explained as a matter of the light waves hitting and pushing the electrons, giving them the energy needed to make the jump.

However, it was later noticed that shining very dim ultraviolet light on the metal would have a much larger effect than shining very bright red light on the metal. Using the wave analogy could not explain this. Bright red light corresponds to very tall waves (brightness) where wave tops are relatively far apart (color red). Dim ultraviolet light corresponds to very small waves (dimness) where the tops of the waves are closer together (color ultraviolet). It seems that the tall waves should be able to push more electrons than the small waves, regardless of color. Surfers let all the small waves pass by and all of them are moved when the big wave comes. However, experiments showed the opposite.

Einstein solved this problem by assuming that light was not analogue to waves but rather analogue to particles. He changed the sensory template used to model our understanding of light. Using the particle analogy, bright red light corresponds to many (bright) particles of light weight (red color). One can think of Ping-Pong balls. Similarly, dim ultraviolet light corresponds to few (dimness) particles of heavy weight (ultraviolet color). One can think of golf balls. Using the particle analogue we can explain the photoelectric effect. You then think of the excess electrons in the charged piece of metal as tin cans. Throwing 10.000 Ping-Pong balls will not push over a lot of tin cans, but throwing just a few golf balls will push over at least one tin can per golf ball (if your aim is good).

Understanding light using one sensory template (waves) made the photoelectric effect appear as something unexplainable. Using a different sensory template (particles) made it possible to give a simple explanation of what was observed. Einstein’s genius was that he questioned the fundamental assumption that light is analogue to waves. This shift of sensory template is what won Einstein the Nobel Prize and it was a significant contribution to the foundation of quantum mechanics.

This story can inspire managers to ask the question: How many seemingly unsolvable organizational problems could be solved through a similar shift of the sensory templates used to understand various elements of the problematic situation?

When listening to managers speak, it is often possible to hear what sensory templates they use. A manager may speak about “negotiations” as analogue to tug-of-war or analogue to laying a puzzle. Managers may speak about “motivating employees” as analogue to carrying a heavy object or analogue to removing obstacles blocking the flow of a river. Managers may speak about “decision-making” as analogue to making many objects move in the same direction or analogue to the act of cutting through something. Managers may speak about “administrative tasks” as analogue to physical structures restricting his or her physical movements or analogue to physical structures supporting his or her bodyweight. Managers may speak about “the team of employees” as analogue either to a united wall they need to push against or analogue to a collection of objects with individual properties.

These ways of speaking are, as we saw in chapter 3, not merely poetic adornments, but rather they reveal the managers’ core assumptions about analogy between various organizational phenomena and sensorimotor experiences. That is, they reveal the managers sensory templates. These sensory templates greatly influence how managers perceive various organizational phenomena and what sets of actions managers are able to imagine.