The Value Of Making Questions Specific

contraints-for-creativity.png

Sunday, 8.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. – Igor Stravinsky

Terry Pratchett wrote that if time equals money then money must also equal time. One thing consumes the other – and what matters is who or what is doing the consuming and who or what is being consumed. For instance, if you hire a professional that’s paid by the hour, like a lawyer or consultant, don’t be surprised if they try and spend as much time as possible on your project. Their time consumes money. On the other hand, if you want something done fast you can offer an incentive for it – double the amount to get it done when you want it done, buying in the extra person-hours needed. In this situation money consumes time.

Work, creative or otherwise, has the same ability to consume time, as does entertainment. We’re constantly making decisions on how to allocate time and others are constantly constructing situations designed to consume our time.

This is where constraints start to help us.

Imagine you’re on a road and you come to a fork. One way narrows, taking you down a single path. The other widens, allowing you to go anywhere you choose, in any way you want. In both cases you will end up spending time travelling, but what’s the destination going to look like? In the first instance you’re going to get somewhere. With the other you’d do well to remember the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”

Good questions act like constraints. Your choice of tools create constraints. The combination of the two make your path for you.

Let’s digress for a minute. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and wrote 21 lessons for the 21st century. I’ve only just started the book but one idea jumped out at me. Harari says that three big ideas competed for hearts and minds during the last century. You had fascism, which believed that one group was superior to another and should rule by force. You had communism that believed that workers should be in control. And you had liberalism, which believed in the freedom of people, ideas and trade in things. Fascism lost early on, communism hangs on and liberalism took the lead.

Harari’s point is that the communist-liberal conflict has to do with labour and exploitation. A group fighting for workers has as its aim their protection and welfare. But what happens in a society where labour becomes not a question of exploitation but is increasingly irrelevant. Harari asks whether it’s worse to be exploited or to be ignored – deemed unnecessary?

Many people are coming to terms that the world doesn’t need what they do. Who would join a profession where they’re treated as a bridging solution to eventual automation? Jobs imply specialisation in the service of a larger entity, but what if that entity is in the business of getting rid of jobs. What do you do then?

You have to ask good questions. Questions like what sort of jobs are going to be needed in the future. We have an idea already. We need high skilled, high technology workers that can engineer the systems of tomorrow and we need dexterous manual workers that can do the things that robots can’t do well.

Of course, this isn’t the case everywhere in the world. Labour is still cheap and machines are expensive and break down quickly and spare parts are hard to find in some places. History matters – it has created the conditions for the present after all. Wherever you are you have choices – good ones or bad ones, but ones constrained by your history and present. You can choose what to do, what skills to work towards, what tools to use. But how do you decide, make that choice about the path to go down?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer – just nudges. But it comes down to time. What kind of skills and technologies will help you get more out of time. If you trade your time now for knowledge that means you can do more with your time later, that sounds like a good exchange. If you do less but that helps you work faster that’s a tradeoff that may be worth taking too. It’s like a craftsperson making a jig that lets them do a frequent task faster.

Perhaps the one thing to keep in mind is that once upon a time the constraints were put upon you – by your employer, your circumstances, your history. Your job today is to select the constraints that will help you achieve what’s best for you.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Get Others To Do Things The Way You Want

notebook-easy-to-use.png

Friday, 8.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

For quality procedures to be effective, they must be simple and practical enough to be used every day by the people doing the work. – Jeffrey Liker

I’ve been reading a few papers on how there is a plethora of methods in Soft Operational Research but they don’t get used very often by people other than the originators. This is a problem that’s not limited just to the OR field. Every time someone invents a new approach – a machine, a software program, a procedure – its success is measured by how many people go on to use it. So what makes the difference between success and failure?

One theory is set out in the quote that starts this post. If you want people to use a method or do something in a particular way make it simple to do – design it so they can use it every day. The canonical example of this in knowledge work is the notebook and a pen. If you have a notebook you can get to work – that’s what you need to get started.

This does lead to a paradox. There are often better ways of doing something but you end up doing things less effectively because of the skills that people have. This is acutely obvious with software. Most people don’t know how to use software well – they are given their computers, only allowed to use certain products and don’t have the skills needed to get the most out of their machines. Computers can help you be more productive but for many people they prevent you from getting work done.

What this suggests is that success is not merely a matter of numbers. Just because everyone uses it doesn’t mean it’s good. You need to get clear on what you want. The author Robert Kiyosaki told a story of how he was once questioned by a reporter who was annoyed at how successful his books were despite their lack of literary quality. Kiyosaki pointed out that his book covers said “best-selling author”, not “best-writing author”.

The other thing we have to remember is that successful things teach us very little about success. We don’t know how much luck was involved in the process. Timing is often everything when it comes to a product. Unless it isn’t. You might argue that YouTube was lucky and created a video sharing service at a time when the Internet was ready for one rather than a few years previously when it might have been victim to the dot com boom. But you could equally well argue that Steve Jobs’ perfectionism led to the creation of a handheld computing device that he had been working towards for decades – a device that changed everything and brought us the smartphone centered world of today.

Things that catch on are things that people want to use. Many of us like using paper and pen. Many of us like the way Apple’s computers work. Some of us are fans of GNU/Linux. Many of us will try recommendations – from diet plans to daily routines. We’re an open, experimental species. But we don’t like being told what to do, or having to follow complicated rituals that don’t seem to make sense.

Let’s bring this back to tools – and specifically thinking tools. Why do tools like Mind Maps, invented by Tony Buzan, take off while other tools like Concept Maps are relatively unheard of in most organisations? Why are tools like SWOT so popular while others that are perhaps more useful are never used? Why did the Business Model Canvas get worldwide attention while hundreds of other models languish in the literature?

As I think about this I realize don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s good marketing. It’s certainly all about good timing. Maybe its about charisma. It’s quite possible that there is no formula you can follow other than to follow Einstein’s dictum: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Think About Approaching A Problem

problem-approach.png

Wednesday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them. – Paul Hawken

You cannot solve all the problems out there. In fact, by the time you’re aware there is a problem by, for example, seeing it on the news, it’s too late to do anything about it. The people that did know saw it building up weeks, months before and they either did something or failed to convince people with power that they had to do something.

Of course, if they did something and everything was fine you wouldn’t have seen it on the news anyway. It’s the failures that pop up and get everyone’s attention. But we digress.

The point is that there are problems that you understand and that you’re in a position to deal with. So how should you go about doing that?

You could start by thinking about what’s going on along two axes – the nature of the situation and the nature of your approach to the problem.

First, what kind of situation are you facing? Is it simple or complex? A simple situation is one where there is only one decision maker, there’s no power and politics involved and you need to figure out what to do one way or another. A complex situation is one that involves more people, has power relationships and the inevitable politics that come with those and twisted, interdependent decision pathways.

Second, what sort of approach are you going to take. Is it a simple one or a complicated one? A complicated one is easier to explain, oddly enough. A complicated solution involves lots of elements – many parts. You have many pieces that you need to juggle. A simple solution is a complete solution – a whole – even if it’s made up of parts.

This needs to be unpacked a little bit.

Say you have a simple situation – you’re sitting an exam in three weeks. What kind of approach are you going to take? A complicated approach may involve various elements: doing some cramming; taking some brain pills; trying to get notes off others; seeing if you can buy the questions from the underground market; or seeing if you can get out of it by being sick.

A simple approach would be to get into a routine. Set a time each day for a couple of hours and work through the material. And prepare for the exam. The simple approach will get you there. The complicated one may work, but you’ll be praying it does when the time comes around to put pen to paper.

How do these approaches work when you enter a complex situation? The complicated approach is the one that most people seemed doomed to follow. Take any project you’ve been part of. You might have had to work with engineers, with finance, with sales, with marketing, with operations – and they all have their own little bits of the organisation and their own ways of working – and somehow all of that gets the job done but also creates a great deal of stress. It never seems like the job is done right – customers keep complaining. Yes we get stuff out of the door and shipped but the boss is shouting and everyone is under pressure.

The thing that’s missing is how the pieces are connected together to work as a whole. That’s hard to do in organisations that are designed to work in pieces. The thing we need to remember is that the reason organisations are designed the way they are is because it’s more efficient to do things in that way – it makes sense for some people to focus on finance and some people to focus on engineering. But for the organisation to work the finance people and the engineering people have to figure out how to work together. And this isn’t simple – it’s complex. And you need to connect things up so that they can cope with this complexity. This relates to something called requisite variety – the ability to have a working structure that is able to match the complexity of the situation – so you can deliver what needs to be done without the stress that comes with the complicated but disconnected approach.

So how do you create an organisation that works that way – that has requisite variety? And the answer is that it’s difficult – it needs skills and practice and expertise. That’s why most organisations are and will remain complicated ways to deal with complex situations. Which is a bit of a shame.

Maybe someone should write a book on how to do better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Understanding Methodology and Method In Creative Work

old-man-with-beard.png

Sunday, 7.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My methodology is not knowing what I’m doing and making that work for me. – Stone Gossard

All work, arguably, is creative. The process of putting together flat-pack furniture, we are reminded by Robert Pirsig, has its roots in the art of sculpture separated by a few centuries of intellectual wrong turns.

Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club explains his approach to writing in Consider this: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different. The books is full of suggestions and pointers and ideas that you have to read again and again to get. But there are two images, both borrowed, that stuck with me.

As artists – and I include writers and programmers and business people and everyone else who wants to do good work in that category – we are obsessed by method. We like to know how successful people did their work so that we can try their way and see if it works for us as well. Roald Dahl wrote on yellow legal pads with yellow Tixon Diconderoga #2 pencils. Neil Gaiman writes with a fountain pen in a bound notebook. And you will find hundreds of websites listing the habits and routines of famous people. And more than a few books.

Palahnuik is told a story by another writer about a man with a very long beard. Nothing bothers him until one day someone asks him whether he sleeps with his beard above the covers or below them. He’s never thought about this before – and that night he tries it above and tries it below and nothing works. And he never sleeps again.

Sometimes the breaking down of something, looking for process and method destroys the thing itself that you’re looking for. Mark Twain wrote about this – about how once he had learned how to pilot the Mississippi he lost the ability to see its beauty. But still we try because we hope that there is a secret that will get us to the end faster – something that means we don’t need to put in the work.

To do good work, unfortunately, there is no shortcut. Because you aren’t really working on the work – you’re working on yourself and until you’re ready the work isn’t ready. That’s why, if you’re lucky, you’ll find what you want to do early in life. Because it’s going to take you decades to develop yourself – ten years to learn your craft and another ten to master yourself. And there aren’t enough lifetimes to do it all so you have to decide what you want to do and get on with doing it.

The other point Palanhuik remembers is about a Buddhist monk who says, “If you cannot be happy doing the dishes, you cannot be happy.” Many people write about how some of the unhappiest people they know are also the wealthiest. There’s a book I never finished called Affluenza that starts with this premise. It’s like the phrase “first you own stuff, and then stuff owns you.”

Still, even with all that, we will still remain fascinated with how other people work. We jump at the chance to look behind the curtain and see what goes on. And if doing that helps you work out your own process and start to create your own work – perhaps that’s good too.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Is This The Most Important Mental Model For Success?

what-do-you-need-for-an-outcome.png

Saturday, 8.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus. – Alexander Graham Bell

An old proverb tells us that if we chase two hares we will catch neither one. Your efforts have to be focused on one thing at a time if you want to succeed.

My PhD supervisor described the process of working towards an award like this. You probably have a large wardrobe with lots of clothes – different wear for different weather, shoes and boots and trainers. Shorts and jeans, jumpers and jackets.

If you’re packing for a trip, however, you don’t take the whole wardrobe with you. You pack a small suitcase with just what you need. The things that are right for the place you’re going to. And that’s what a PhD is. You select from the collection of research and interests that you have a small, specific problem where you can make a contribution and write that up.

This is a model that works well for life in general, especially now. Most of us don’t have simple goals. If you’re a sportsperson the aim is simple – get to number one in whatever you’re doing. But outside of that narrow space where competition is everything and you have clear winners and losers life is more complicated. There is no dream job, great promotion or wildly successful startup model that is going to work if you just apply yourself and work hard. You need a different approach.

Take starting a business, for example. If you want to go from zero to one the most important thing is to create a customer. You have to do something or make something that people want. You don’t need a product range or a massive list of services when you’re starting out. You need a small suitcase filled with the essential elements with which you create value. In a consulting business, for example, you can go far with just a spreadsheet and office software. For the first five to ten years you can do everything from sales prospecting, proposal writing, project delivery and invoicing with very few tools. But you can’t do anything without a product or service that obviously creates value for a customer, making or saving them money.

So, there’s more to focus when you want to achieve something than having a goal and a daily routine. It’s more like getting to a particular point, a milestone. Making a journey to a particular place. That’s the way to think about the next decision in your life. Where could you go – what are the options – one, two and three? What are the outcomes, what could happen – and knowing that, what direction are you going to take? And finally, what do you need for the journey – what are the essentials you are going to pack for this trip – leaving the rest behind for another time?

The secret to success, then, is thinking small. Small steps, one after the other, will get you anywhere.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Learning About Writing Good Description

drawing-a-map.png

The advantage of writing from experience is that it often provides you with details that you would never think of yourself, no matter how rich your imagination. And specificity in description is something every writer should strive for. – Christopher Paolini

Geography is a subject I never connected with at school, although you could say that for most of my other subjects as well. Memorize the text, ace the test was my approach. And then forget it all.

I do remember drawing on and colouring in a sheet of paper with a border and symbols that represented things. Trees, roads, rivers, bridges. And contours – those lines that said you had come across a slope and the closer the lines the steeper the scramble.

Maps seem important to people. A book on the war in Burma described how a General would draw a map by hand of the terrain so he could understand where things were. O.G.S Crawford, in his book Said and done: The autobiography of an archaeologist writes about how “maps are an alternative mode of expression, a method of conveying information that cannot be conveyed by any other means.” In our world of global positioning we rarely use maps as they were intended – when did you buy your last map?

Perhaps having a map helps you find your way but making a map helps you see. I started reading the Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S Beagle which, if you recall, was published in 1846 by Charles Darwin.

Have a read of the following extract:

“The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires of a past age, and the scorching heat of a tropical sun, have in most places rendered the soil unfit for vegetation. The country rises in successive steps of table-land, interspersed with some truncate conical hills, and the horizon is bounded by an irregular chain of more lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest if, indeed, a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

That is a map in words, and Darwin’s descriptions continue, intricate and detailed, using the right word in the right place to the right effect. Reading Darwin, one wonders whether modern writing will ever read this way – it’s hard to imagine anyone dedicating the time that’s needed to describe what they see to this level of detail.

They don’t need to, you might think. In those days all that people had were the words they put down and the drawings they made. Now we have photographs and video and everything is recorded. But although we have it this media we also have nothing at all. If you stood where Darwin stood on the 16th of January 1832 and took a picture of Porto Praya would anything in that picture have conjured up the image that the extract above brought to mind? Do we need the description, the map, to really see what is in front of us? Do we need to draw it for ourselves to really pay attention?

Good description is about attention. About seeing what is really there rather than what you assume is there. I walked up my road the other day and looked around and up and realized I had no words to describe the things I saw. There were gates – but what kind of gate, what sort of design, and what do you call those spiky spear like things they have? There are trees, but what kind of trees.

Of course, you don’t need to know. Google will tell you that pickets are the vertical rods, and finial tips are the spear points on the top. And there’s an app to find out what that plant is. But is being able to find out anything the same as seeing what’s around you and really appreciating it? Is the capacity to do something enough? Don’t you need the experience as well?

Learning how to describe what is around you is a process that starts with just looking and collecting data – noting down what you see, making sketches. No tools or devices other than pen and paper. And perhaps one should start even without that – just with what I’ve heard called a Mk I Eyeball. And from there it’s a matter of drawing, map making and vocabulary building. Draw what you see, draw maps that relate the features you observe and write word pictures. This skill is not just for explorers but for all of us in our daily lives.

Living is an exploration. Learning how to see what’s around you will help in the journey.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?

creative-mental-processes.png

Wednesday, 8.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way. – Twyla Tharp

Do you remember what it was like seeing something for the first time as a child? Perhaps it’s easier to remember seeing a child see something. There’s a sense of wonder, something fresh and exciting and living. We were like that too. At one time, we see what is there – and then as we grow up and know more we start to see what we expect to see. And that changes everything.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have time – we do everything so quickly these days and want to get everything so fast that we miss out on the value of being slow, about immersing ourselves in the experiences, the detail, the richness of reality.

Let’s take a step back. What are the mental processes that go into being creative? What can we learn from, for example, the way in which children create.

In the book, Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson [1, p154], the writers quote Johnson-Laird as suggesting that there are three things that go into being creative. You work with a set of building blocks, you work within a set of constraints or a genre and you surprise yourself, finding something novel. The last point is especially important. Creativity is NOT like pulling a rabbit out of a hat – the rabbit was in the hat all along and you knew that. It’s discovering something new that you didn’t know before and that’s where the value lies.

This idea makes a lot of sense and helps explain the way in which different disciplines work the way they do. It also explains why they find it hard to talk to each other.

In her book, Analyzing Children’s Art, Rhoda Kellogg says that she finds “a person responds to my findings according the implications they hold for his profession”. An artist is interested in her view that basic artistic talent is innate, a psychologist looks at her idea of a whole or Gestalt while a Jungian psychologist is attracted to the concept of pre-existing patterns or archetypes. We look at things for what they mean to us.

Children do that too. They make meaning through their art, engaging with the medium and material and making something happen. Splodges and shapes and lines may mean nothing to you but they tell an intricate and interwoven story to the creator.

This is what makes it hard when you look at a child’s work and ask them questions. Suddenly they stop doing what they do and have to think about your asking them about what they do. And it appears that they often answer in the way they think you want to be answered – the act of observing and questioning them doing something changes the doing and telling of what is done.

In other words the act of observing something has an effect on the observed thing – unless you are very careful. In Lynda Barry’s classes, as set out in her book Syllabus, one of the rules is that “we don’t give advice or opinions on the work of our classmates.”

What does that mean for creativity, then? Margaret Donaldson knew that “human beings, no matter what their ages, respond to the world according to how they define the situation in which they find themselves” [1. ix]. You’re in a place, a space, with conventions and rules and preferences. You have tools – the building blocks you need. And then you have to make, spend time making things and looking at them and wondering what you’ve done and making some more. Maybe breaking some of the rules, the conventions. If you have the opportunity you can go into other spaces and see how they do things there and bring that back into your own practice.

If you want to be creative you must be ready to not-know and to just do – where you are and with what you have. Just get on with it.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

  1. Grieve, R and Hughes, M. (Editors), 1990, “Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson”, Blackwell.
  2. Kellog, R., 1969, “Analyzing Children’s Art”, National Press Books

The FRAME Model As A Thinking Tool

frame-model.png

Tuesday, 8.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I tend to approach things from a physics framework. And physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. – Elon Musk

How do you make something useful – something relevant – something that’s so interesting it grips your reader or customer and draws them in irresistibly?

You do that by understanding them inside out – by learning and discovering exactly what they want and need and then giving them that. But how do you go about doing that? The FRAME model may help.

There are five elements, one for each letter of the word. You can start anywhere, but you need to have all of these in place to make progress.

Start by thinking about your Frame. Work out what’s in and out, what matters and what doesn’t. The tighter the frame around what you’re interested in the more focused you’re going to be – and the easier it will be to figure out what you need to do. Sometimes you can make the frame too small, and you don’t see enough of the picture. Getting the balance right is key. Think of it like taking a picture of your family – you need enough background to know where you are and what the context is but you need to be tight enough to see them in enough detail. There’s an art to framing – and that’s why it’s important.

The next two elements go together and that’s Actors and Relationships. Actors can be human or not – you might have a person in a role, a robot carrying out a function or an algorithm processing a data set. Actors do something – they play a part in the frame you’ve created. The way they interact with other Actors is shown by drawing the Relationships between them. These connections are what make things happen.

The next element is Meta – the helicopter view. Take a ride up and look down at the frame you’ve drawn, the actors you’ve placed in that frame and the relationships between them. Have you included everything you need to include? Is the level of detail right? Can you see the main features – the natural ones and the artificial ones? The Meta element is about seeing the big picture – knowing why the terrain below is set out the way it is.

The last element is Empathy. See your creation through the eyes of your user or customer – one of the human actors that’s living in your frame. You’re building this thing for them, so what do they experience, what do they go through and does it work for them? Does it deliver for them? Does it delight them? Does it delight you as you see the world you’ve created through their eyes?

Does this model work in practice? Apply it to a company you know – something like Amazon? Amazon does retail – it helps “consumers find, discover and buy anything”. It’s build a formidable logistics network, with a group of human and non-human actors bonded together with relationships in a remarkable display of engineering. If you take a helicopter view they’ve spread out across the landscape doing things ranging from technology to warehousing. And in the middle of all that they aim to be the “Earth’s most customer centric company” – they empathise with their customer’s need to get what they want, fast. And they deliver on that.

Is this model complete? No – it can’t be. Real life is too complex and we can’t capture everything. Is it useful? Try it for yourself and see.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Strategic Decisions Are Made

strategic-decision-characteristics.png

Wednesday, 7.47pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Control is the source of strategic power. – Noam Chomsky

Some decisions are strategic ones – the kind of decision where you don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s important you make the right choice.

Decisions like whether to go to university or straight into work, to let your kids choose what they study or encourage them to do a safe role, to stick it out at your job or start your own business. Strategic decisions are hard so it’s worth knowing what they look like [1] when they appear in front of you.

Strategic decisions have a high degree of uncertainty. You have to pick a road without knowing whether you’ll reach your destination or be lost on the way. You won’t know whether you’ve chosen wisely until you reach the end.

Strategic decisions have high stakes. The choice to stay at home and find a job with a local company rather than moving to the metropolis could mean the difference between being a CEO or staying in middle management.

Strategic decisions have long-term consequences. Money in the bank, health in your body, happiness in your heart – do you have them, are they compounding over time or are your balances declining or even negative?

Strategic decisions involve interconnected options. A decision may depend on another one which in turn depends on the first. Should you pick a school in one location or wait to see if your offer goes through in another? Do you quit and then look for a job or do you accept one and then leave the first? You may be unable to do anything until something resolves itself.

Strategic decisions involve resource allocation. You have to invest time and money into doing one thing or another or both or neither. Whatever decision you make there are opportunity costs – you will have to give up the chance to do something else.

Strategic decisions involve people who come together to talk about a situation and come to a negotiated agreement on the way to go forward. This is hard to do. Psychological and social constructivism is the idea that we create the culture we live in – finding meaning and creating things that reinforce and support the way things are done where we are.

Decisions we make on our own are difficult but not often strategic. Deciding your daily routine or what time you get up are important decisions – but they’re easy to make. You just need to have a chat with yourself and decide what you want to do. Strategic decisions involve other people and that’s where it gets complicated. You need to be able to work with others to get things done.

As the old proverb goes, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

References

  1. Montibeller, G. and Franco, A. (2010). “Multi-criteria decision analysis for strategic decision making”, Handbook of multicriteria analysis.

How To Discuss A Difference Of Opinion With Another Professional

knowledge-arguments.png

Tuesday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. – Ruth Benedict

At a meeting a few years ago a speaker described how a particular software development method, Agile, did not work. It was meaningless, a collection of rituals and there was no evidence that it improved the process of software development. An audience member challenged this statement, saying that the approach the speaker had presented, a customer centered way of delivering high-quality services was in fact the Agile way – others must simply be doing it wrong. This little vignette is played out daily in different fields and with different professionals as they try to figure out who is right or wrong, which is better or worse. Why does this happen and is there anything we can do to improve the situation?

The place to start is by redefining what we think of as “knowledge”. There’s only a small portion of knowledge that’s objectively true for everyone – and it’s limited to the natural sciences. Physics works the same way for you and me. The further you get from physics the less certainty you have about whatever you’re looking at. At the other extreme is religion – a belief in something that has no existence that we can confirm. People who believe in a religion instead have a set of ideas they hold, usually written down in a book. “Knowledge”, to them, is what’s in the book.

As we head from religion to the day-to-day work that we do we see the pattern of belief playing out again. A group of professionals or practitioners will point to a collection of books, a canon, that contain the set of ideas they consider as authoritative [1]. You have to know what’s in these books to be knowledgeable in that field. And the professionalisation of a field is done by centering its practice on a set of books – a “distinct knowledge base” [2].

This means you cannot have a discussion with someone else unless you acknowledge that what they think of as true is what’s in their books. You can’t come up with a new book and say, “Look here, this tells you why you’re wrong.” They’ll just point to their book and say, “No I’m not, and this is why.”

A wholesale shift from one point of view to another, then, is like asking someone of one religion to change to another. It’s not an easy thing to do. Evangelism is a full-time job for some.

Since we’re not talking about religion, however, but about professional practice there is a little more hope that better methods will carry the day. If you can show something is better then people will often listen.

In fact people are asking for “applications papers” [3]. What they want is information about ways that work, ways that are based on careful observation and underpinned by good-quality models and rigorous thinking.

But if you come up with a way that works how do you approach a group that thinks in a certain way? How do you make your case?

This is where you need to watch Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago who talks about the way in which you enter a group and make your case. You have to first know the field, read their books and understand the way they see knowledge. Then you can say something like, “There’s a lot of good stuff here and I’m really impressed with the work. But have you thought about this one point here?” When you write in that way then people will listen, because you flatter them and then suggest something that they should consider. That’s the simple secret of getting new ideas into an existing group.

But of course you need to decide whether it’s worth the effort. Not all groups are worth entering. You can waste a lot of time learning stuff that is just wrong. But if you’re a professional you’re probably not in that kind of situation. You probably want to do better work. And that means balancing your approach – knowing your stuff from your books but being open to learning new things from your practice and also from other fields.

The takeaway is this. Before you argue with anyone take the time to read the books that have put their ideas in their heads. If you can’t be bothered to do that then just walk away.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

  1. Bazerman, C. (2012), “The orders of documents, the orders of activity, and the orders of information”, Archival Science.
  2. McLeod, J (1999), “Practitioner Research in Counselling”, Sage publications.
  3. Miser, H.J (1998), “The easy chair: What kinds of papers will contribute to a well-rounded view of the conditions and craft of OR/MS practice?”, Interfaces.