The Gray Area

Mt. Sopris 

The scene below is of Mount Sopris, a prominent feature of the Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness in western Colorado.  We’re here, you and I, because we’re doing a little reconnaissance for a flight in an altitude-limited light plane that will take us past that peak tomorrow morning.

Mt. Sopris

It’s a gorgeous day and getting here was an easy hike.  We find ourselves in a benign, rather soft and idyllic scene:  green, rolling hills, open woodlands; it’s sunny and the warm air has amped up the smell of the pines.  We’re sitting here, taking in the mountain, brilliant in its cover of fresh snow.  Springtime in the Rockies.

On the left side of the mountain we can see a ridge comprised of three segments of climbable, successively milder inclines.  It looks like after moving up the ridge, climbers could then traverse over to the other ridge near the center and follow it up to the top.  Even in this season it would be a winter climb because of the snow and ice.  Avalanches?  Quite possible.

But we’re not here to brave the mountain.  We’re here to sketch a plan to fly around it.

What else can we see?  We can see a gray area on the right – a cloud – that obscures that part of the mountain and beyond.  It’s feeding the streamer cloud that’s flying off the top of the peak and moving at high velocity off to its left.  Beneath the streamer we can see some of the range behind the peak.

But the top of the peak itself is clearly in view, shaped pretty much like any peak, roughly conical with the usual complement of erosion-carved ridges.  So the smart thing would be to stay away from that streamer on the left, clear the peak by flying to the right and behind it, say by half a mile, and stay out of trouble.

With our approach in our pocket, we can take our time on the hike back, and enjoy the warm day before getting some rest and taking off in the morning.

Fortunately, this little vignette was just written to make a point.  As it happens, Mt. Sopris is actually a double-peaked mountain.  We can’t see it in our view, but the second peak’s top is just a half mile to the right and behind the one we can see, and it’s the very same height:  12,965 feet.

Welcome to The Gray Area.  Had we flown into it we would have flown into something else as well.

With today’s technology (GPS, Google Maps, digital topos and satellite imagery), we would of course have done our reconnaissance differently, and discovered the 2nd peak.  But the point is that in all strategizing worth the name, there’s always some gap between what we know and don’t know – some gray area to deal with, and making assumptions about what’s behind it can be a “problem”.

Gray areas obscure things and create uncertainty about what could or should be done.  Buy or sell?  Fight or flight?

In a way, the Gray Area is a strange idea.  It’s a way of expressing that there’s usually something between us and what we need to perceive – something obscuring potentially important things.  But another part of the idea is that this masking is so commonplace that we tune it out and act as if it isn’t there, interfering.

But it is there, and it’s there in several forms, interfering with our efforts to get the information we need for the elements of our strategies.  So let’s review some of the forms of gray area, with strategy in mind.

In our story, the gray area was an inanimate physical cloud that was between us and what we needed to see.  That’s a relatively easy kind of gray area to deal with, because we can recognize it, and readily do something about it – like walk around it or wait until it dissipates.


Another familiar kind of gray area is noise.  It’s one thing to look for an arrowhead in a clear, open area.  It’s an altogether different thing to do it in an area that’s cluttered with gravel and small rocks.   The clutter is noise that obscures the signal from an arrowhead (shape, texture, color).  This sort of low signal-to-noise gray area is seen in the classic image of the hidden cow, often found in psychology text books.

Hidden Cow

There’s plenty of information in the picture, just not enough that differentiates the cow from the din of background noise.  Once you’ve recognized the pattern of the cow, it’s easy to see it again.

Our friend Voy (a.k.a. Robert), once a photographer, now a painter (susquehanna studio), has always centered his work around an understanding of human perception and cognition.  He used to make his own photographic emulsions, and processed his photos in the stream that ran past our cabin.   He made what he called two-minute, two-hour, two-day and two-week photographs.  That’s how long he predicted viewers would take to recognize the image they saw in the print.  I remember that in one case, my wife Barbara and I were astonished to discover after a couple of weeks that a print we had up on the wall was a photo of us!  Sometimes you just have to register the info and let your wiring do the rest.

Through a glass darkly

There are other kinds of gray area that are more difficult to dispel.  One of these is the area of our own sensory and cognitive processes.

I’m speaking of internal factors such as hidden assumptions, expectations, blind spots, biases of many kinds, inexperience, fears, wishful thinking, preoccupations, diversions, obsessions, over-simplification, under-thinking, over-thinking, ego, faulty memory, unnecessary opinions, limited attention span, hope & fear, ignorance, conditioning, credulity, being not fully present, tendency to reinforce beliefs, tuning out, selective seeing, selective hearing, belief that current trends will continue, and impatience – to mention a few.

With sources of gray areas like these, veiling the situations we’re in, it’s amazing that we can devise workable strategies or get by at all.  We all carry these factors of confusion around with us.  And they combine in different ways in different individuals. We’re walking carriers of these distorting influences.  As my favorite poet, Rumi, says:  “We all have our struggles”.  And dealing with these characteristics is a constant if not obvious struggle for us all.

For example, not being fully present can easily result in missing the obvious – and maybe something very important.  From quite an early age, our son Jack took to the hills with me on back pack trips.  On one occasion we had climbed up to a shelf above Wolverine Basin in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, and tented for the night.  The next morning he got up ahead of me (I take awhile to come on line), and while I was emerging from the tent, he spotted a large black bear, lumbering by, fairly close to our tent.  He began shouting at me about the bear, but at first I couldn’t see the thing.  Eventually I saw it.  But Jack, always with acute perception, had seen it straight away, and was amazed that I hadn’t.  He was so amazed, in fact, that he memorialized the event in a “This-Is-What-I-Did-on-My-Vacation” drawing in his art class, depicting himself pointing at the bear, and my just sitting there, not seeing it.  My family and friends all thought this was very funny (Hey, give me some slack, people – I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet!).

But in spite of many perceptual and cognitive problems, somehow, amazingly, we usually manage to muddle through.  How can this be?

Probably for at least a few important reasons.  First, because we have intuitions that, if given a chance, will sense that something important may be at hand.  Second, because – even if unconsciously – we use critical thinking to test, correct for, and peel away the effects of at least some of those distorting factors we’ve been talking about – a little like the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Third, as pointed out in the post Strategy Facts of Life, we’re wired to devise strategies.  So if we take on board a useful amount of relatively unbiased information pertinent to our strategy, and have the grace to give ourselves a little time to allow that wiring to do its job, something like a useful strategy will come out the other end of the pipe.  If we don’t do that, chances are high that the gray area will nail us.  Reality has a way of asserting itself.  Sooner or later.  Fukushima.


But wait. There’s another kind of gray area that’s even more of a problem than the others.  We just had a little discussion about our own distorted perceptions.  Now let’s talk about how what we’re trying to perceive is often being actively distorted by other parties, to deceive yet other parties, sometimes including us.

A phenomenal amount of energy in living things goes into the project of surrounding themselves with gray areas.  Their gray areas make surviving long enough to reproduce – and in the case of higher animals, survive comfortably – much more efficient and possible at all.

How do they do this?  Deception:  by exploiting limitations in the perceptual and/or cognitive abilities of other parties (plant or animal) they’re likely to encounter.  This forces those other parties to expend an even more phenomenal amount of energy to navigate their way through those gray areas.

We’ve seen almost countless varieties of this in nature documentaries.

  • Camouflage, allowing an organism to be avoid being taken out by a predator, and/or allowing the same organism to be a successful predator, itself.  E.g.
  • Mimicry, acting like some other dangerous or distasteful organism to be avoided, like a deadly coral snake or angry bee, etc., etc.
  • Staying under the threshold of perception, like a mosquito that injects an anesthetic at the same moment it inserts its proboscis to suck blood.

And more.  On and on.  All living things are actively creating and dealing with gray areas in a variety of ways that interfere with our ability to know what’s actually going on.

And humans.  With all this brain power, we haven’t missed out on the gray area creation festival.

We’ve seen a bit of this in previous posts:  fake reviews, Nuvolari staying under Varzi’s radar, the villagers of Monsanto reinforcing the fears of their besiegers, Thatch confusing the Zero pilots, Sherman masking his intentions, etc.

But this doesn’t just happen in special cases.  It happens with almost everything we deal with every day.  Any advertisement we see.  Any news article.  Any political position we hear.  And yes, here goes – any blog post.  People present things to each other; they frame things to have a desired effect, based on some sense of the viewer’s/listener’s perceptual and cognitive characteristics.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking it.  Some deception can be very positive.  It is often used to protect good and important things.  Like lives.  And it’s often used to create much-needed harmony.  A little blarney (an Irish invention best defined as “the varnished truth”) is much better for relations than the unvarnished truth, whether interpersonal or international.

But our environment is filled with it, positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful, and that makes the problem of getting needed information to devise effective strategies much more difficult – and often more interesting.

The toughest gray area of them all

The kinds of gray area discussed so far can be easy or very difficult to penetrate.  But there’s another class that can’t be directly penetrated at all.  I’m thinking of things that are generally outside our grasp.

An example is very complex systems.  We really can’t understand them.  So in an effort to

Math Model

penetrate the gray area, we build computer models of them that we can understand. But the models only predict the systems’ behavior in special cases, using assumptions that have an all-too-short half-life.  Like computer models of the global economy, created over many person-years by highly-paid economist-wizards, that crash and burn with each economic meltdown.  Like large-scale war-gaming models that have to be re-designed after each war (resulting in fighting the next one as if it were the previous one).

We forget that the people creating the models, bright though they may be, are subject to all the perceptual and cognitive limitations listed earlier in this post.  They, too, see through a glass darkly.  And we rely on their models.  Nearly as dangerous as flying into the Mt. Sopris gray area.


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Photo credit:  Mt. Sopris, from Bruce Wampler, 2010 Weaver WordPress theme header photo (the Real Strategy blog site is privileged to use this theme)

Photo credit:  math model, from gnotalex.  See gnotalex’s photostream at

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4 Responses to The Gray Area

  1. Sonja Hecker says:

    I’m STILL looking for that cow, dern it!

  2. Sonja Hecker says:

    Found it! That would make this a two-day image, if it had been taken by Voy of susquehanna studio…

  3. Gene says:

    Found this Gray Area via a link posted in this week’s edition of The Future. I share Sonja’s frustration over the cow photo, but then I encountered it just this evening. Would enjoy seeing further Real Strategy posts. Thanks.

    And I just scrolled down (trying to find a way to send my comment) when I noticed your credit to the designer. Give him my compliments.

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