How To Think About Thinking To Think More Clearly


I confused things with their names: that is belief. – Jean-Paul Sartre

I dashed off a quick paper today about the nature of thinking and the topic is still keeping me occupied.

As you will probably have guessed from the nature of this blog, I think that drawing is a good way to understand what’s happening around us.

The term handcrafted insight might be a clue to where it’s going.

My approach is rooted in a methodology called Soft Systems, developed by Peter Checkland, that captures the overall idea really rather well.

But it’s also pretty complicated to get across to people sometimes – and I have to remind myself of the ideas to check that I understand them myself.

And so, this post might help.

Here’s the basic idea.

There is a world around us – what we call reality – that is full of complex and hard to understand things.

Right now, for example, there is a pandemic on the loose.

What does it mean for you, for your family, for the world?

How should we react, respond, prepare?

People tend to take an approach that’s rooted in thinking from the fifties – what you might call a hard systems approach.

This approach takes the view that the world is full of systems that we can control.

We can stop travel, close schools, require people to self-isolate.

If you had a clever model with lots of variables you could predict how the infection would spread through a population.

Taking a simpler example – one perhaps less vital to the entire world – your own career can be engineered, as can a marketing campaign or a management restructure.

The language of engineering – of designs, plans, change management – is all based on the idea that there are systems in the world and you can understand and fix them.

Most quantitative approaches depend on this being true – your AI engine expects to be able to predict the future based on historical data and take appropriate action.

The small problem with rational, engineering models is that they tend to break down when confronted with the way people actually behave in situations.

And that’s mostly because people aren’t machines – they act with purpose and that inserts an unpredictability you don’t get with something that relies on ones and zeros to operate.

If you really want to change something, to make a difference, you probably have to start by understanding the way people think.

Now how they think in general, but how they think in this specific situation, with their particular perspective.

You see, reality is one thing that’s out there.

Another thing is the perspective, the thing in a person’s head as they look at and live in that reality.

Understanding that reality is one thing and the ideas in people’s heads are a different thing is the first step to tearing yourself away from a rational, engineering based approach to fixing the situation.

When you listen to someone, really listen deeply, they will tell you lots of things.

And those things will have patterns, shapes, fall into groupings.

These patterns can often be represented with nodes and links – a thought that leads to something else that leads to something else.

What you create when you do this is a model of their perspective – something that describes what they’re seeing out there in the world.

People often name this a system – the system they see.

And then they confuse the named system with reality – and think the two are one and the same.

At that point they stop being rational and start to sidle over to the part of the room reserved for those who believe in that particular point of view.

It would be better, Checkland argued, to call those models “holons”, things that are used to structure how we think about reality rather than models of reality themselves.

This is the hard bit to grasp.

When I draw a model, like the one you see in the picture above, it shows you a particular way of thinking about things.

It’s not reality but it’s a tool to ask questions of reality – with a view to learning more and, in the process, finding ways to improve what you’re doing.

For example, if I were to spend some time listening to you talk through a situation that you, for some reason, consider problematical – I would draw it up and create a model that you would debate and change and eventually agree sufficiently represents how you see your situation.

That’s one level of discussion.

Now we could go deeper into your thinking, drilling down into the model.

Or we could widen our view and see how this approach fits with others.

All the time, we’re thinking systemically, rigorously, but about what you think and see and how else you might see it and how others might see it.

And we do this because if we can create a model that works for you we can then compare it to reality and ask questions like does this thing exist? In what way? How could we make it happen?

These questions start to give us a way to discuss and debate possible changes – and come to an accommodation about a way forward that works for the people in the situation and improves it.

You’ve probably heard something on the lines of “If you can’t change your situation, change your mind.”

If you can understand how you and others see your situation, then you might be in a position to ask better questions about how you can change your situation.

Because you’ll be thinking more clearly.

And perhaps the first step to thinking more clearly is figuring out the difference between what’s in your mind and what’s really happening in the situation out there.

Then, you really might start to change reality.


Karthik Suresh

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