I love this executive summaries section at the end of the paper version of the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if it has been running for years or just started, but it’s very useful in helping decide — do I want to give these X,000 words my attention?
They should put it up front really, to make it even more useful.
During those terrible days after 9/ 11, when the whole country was being whipsawed by emotion, or the weeks between September 19 and October 10, 2008, when the Dow fell 3,600 points, there were times I felt like hugging our computers. They kept their cool no matter what. This combination of man and machine is wonderful. The process of man’s mind working with technology is what elevates us—it’s what has taken us from an economy where most people dig in the dirt to today’s Information Age. It’s for that reason that people who have common sense, imagination, and determination, who know what they value and what they want, and who also use computers, math, and game theory, are the best decision makers there are. At Bridgewater, we use our systems much as a driver uses a GPS in a car: not to substitute for our navigational abilities but to supplement them.
Dalio treats principles as decision-making algorithms. He writes down what he thinks works as a decision-making process, then compares the results.
He’s also built a company culture that is all about finding the best information in order to make the best decisions – something he calls an idea meritocracy. So developing processes that allow people to make decisions in tandem with machines has been a natural extension of his approach.
It reminds me of Gary Kasparov’s “advanced chess” – also known more exotically as centaur chess – in which humans play alongside a machine. Players have likened it to moving from running to Formula One racing – it makes chess high speed, with ideas and approaches quickly tested with machines, or new angles the human polayer hasn’t considered suddenly presented as possibilities by the machine.
Ray Dalio described his ideas meritocracy model in a TED Talk.
I talked about Kasparov and “bicycles for the mind” a few years ago at the Inspiration conference.
“Threshold concepts” is a term from higher education theory, meaning an idea or a piece of knowledge which, once understood, is transformative – it changes how you look at a subject, what you think is possible.
My friend Jim Byford introduced me to the idea of threshold concepts and I’ve been using it ever since (neatly, it is of course, in its own way, a threshold concept).
• transformative but also potentially troublesome,
• irreversible, that is, difficult to unlearn,
• Integrative – revealing previously hidden knowledge,
• Re-constitutive – effecting a change in the learner’s subjectivity,
• Bounded – leading to new conceptual terrain,
• Discursive – changed, and
• possessing liminality – a space to be crossed, a shift in identity, that may be uncomfortable.
Powerful, dangerous things these threshold concepts, aren’t they?
Part of digital transformation is crossing through difficult terrain – personally and as organisations. Transformation’s not something you simply decide to do and flip a switch – it is a period when we realise that you what we do not understand and are struggling to understand. You decide to make yourself confused and uncomfortable for a while, effectively, as it is the only way to get to the breakthroughs you need.
A related concept is “liminality”, which I’ve discussed here before. Liminality is something that needs to be explained before you can start to learn. The same conference paper discusses it like this:
Unsettling the learning takes students, once they have penetrated the boundaries of former thinking and practices, to a new space, the liminal space where new ways of speaking can be manifest. Recognising and re-naming ideas in relation to the new space can be transformative and moves the learning forward, “it makes the theory ‘sticky’”. All the same, as Erik cautioned, there needs to be an awareness of the range of participants “being squeezed into the liminal space” and what this can mean.
I find this description reassuring. Talking about some threshold concepts – for instance exponential growth – evokes really strange responses from people sometimes – defensive, aggressive and essentially grief-like at times.
On a lighter note, it’s not all journeys through the valley of darkness and confusion – playfulness has a role too…
It was suggested that playfulness can allow a retreat from the perceived constraints of the given discipline and that “playing on the thresholds of the discipline can be a way of escaping the discipline” or as a way of navigating a changing world.
But working with these concepts is not easy, they say, and possibly not for everyone:
Unsettling ideas can result in a form of disequilibrium. While there was some advocacy for “being comfortable in one’s own skin” it was also clear that adopting TCs was not for the faint-hearted.
The area I’ve been working with threshold concepts on is a kind of digital literacy for leaders – the skills, knowledge, models and threshold concepts that leaders need to gain in order to be successful, by leading organisations in a digital age (acknowledging that some schools of thought say that organisations will need to be leaderless or full of leaders). Call it digital leadership. I’ll write more about that soon, here and on the Brilliant Noise blog – for now I just wanted to think out loud about threshold concepts.
Threshold concepts offer advanced ideas and tools for those with resilience and leadership potential. There is also a requirement for us to understand what digital literacy will look like for people with other needs and capabilities in organisations, but leaders are a good place to start.
Outliners were one of the first writing tools available on computers and they continue to be very important. Ford defines it as…
…a kind of mental tree. Say level 1 is a line of text. Then level 1.1 would be subordinate to 1, and 1.1.1 subordinate to 1.1; 1.2, like 1.1, is subordinate to the first line. And so forth.
Personally, I use Omnioutliner Pro, CarbonFin’s excellent Outliner app for IOS, as well the outlining functions in Evernote and Curio on occasion. I picked up the practice from Jim Byford and my now business-partner Jason Ryan, who conjures major projects, intricate strategies and complex plans on a screen, turning an interesting conversation into an action plan and the beginning of a briefing document or proposal.
I like mindmaps, but outliners suit my needs more often. Sometimes an idea will be developed in a mindmap and then be transferred (as an OPML file – Curio does this automatically very well) to an outline and later that outline will turn into a Google Doc, Pages or Word file that can be made more beautiful and complicated and ready for sharing with the world outside the project team.
It’s a case of the right tool for the way you need to think in a given situation. But also, the right tool in chain of tools that can become a workflow that means you move from idea, to concept, to model, to prototype to plan in smooth transitions, with as little friction and cognitive costs between each step as possible.
If there is one online tool that I would recommend anyone who thinks for a living, it’s Diigo.
The new version of Diigo, launched a month or so ago is absolutely amazing. It’s worth noting the ways you can find value in it I think of these into levels. So I thought I’d write some thoughts and tips about this most important of my personal online tools…
Ways of thinking about Diigo (and Diigo-like tools)
Here are three themes I’ve been mulling about Diigo…
1. Immediate and emergent benefits: The way explain the value of online bookmarking services is to say they have enough immediate value to get you hooked long enough to appreciate the deeper or emergent value you can find in them. The immediate value is all about never having to lose or misplace a favorite or bookmark again. I have a record of all the websites, posts and articles I have found interesting about anything since about 2004.
2. Outsourcing memory: In Smarter Than You Think (which I highly recommend by the way) Clive Thompson talks about how humans have always outsourced memory to lighten their personal cognitive load:
In a sense, this is an ancient story. The “extended mind” theory of cognition argues that the reason humans are so intellectually dominant is that we’ve always outsourced bits of cognition, using tools to scaffold our thinking into ever-more-rarefied realms. Printed books amplified our memory.
Partners remember things for each other, groups rely on experts on topics to remember things, we have used notebooks, diaries and then mobile phones to remember dates, telephone numbers and other bits. These days we rely on Google to remember things a lot, but increasingly we want our personal databases to store stuff in – Evernote is of course amazing for this, but Diigo (and other bookmarking sites) allow us to remember in public. We can search our memory, our record of good information sources, then people who are interested in the same things.
3. Creating latent knowledge: When I wrote about social networks in Me and My Web Shadow, I wrote about the people further out in our social circles, people we may not have much to do with day to day but we are connected to on LinkedIn or Twitter as our latent contacts. We can call upon one another when there is a possible shared interest, because the social network has remembered the connection for us and made it easy to pick up the relationship again. The things I store in Diigo aren’t my knowledge – I’ve not read and re-read the information to make it mine yet, but I’m keeping it available, in my reachable network of relevant facts, data, connections, resources.
Useful things to do with Diigo
All my colleagues at Brilliant Noise now use Diigo to store and share useful links. We have started using it with some clients too – both as a practical tool and as a way of introducing concepts like digital and network literacy. This has made my own use more sophisticated, as I’m reminded of some of the service’s features.
Here’s some things I recommend trying…
Sharing research or noteworthy links in a group: People emailing each other interesting stories and links is nice, but an inefficient way of sharing. It adds to the email deluge and can mean that useful reading gets missed as it is culled along with other non-urgent messages. I recommend this: set up a group in Diigo, get everyone to save relevant links there and people can request a daily or weekly digest email of all the useful reading.
Browser extensions: When you are using a desktop browser, most will have an extension or app you can install so that a Diigo window will appear for saving, adding notes and tags. Makes it really fast and easy to save things you might want to refer to again some day.
The iOS browser. There’s a dedicated Diigo web browser for iPads which is kind of useful for bookmarking and reviewing (although with some fiddling you can add a bookmarklet to Safari or Chrome. (There’s an Android one too.)
Emailing in your bookmarks: Actually most mobile browsers are good for Diigo, but a new feature may be even easier – you can email links and tags to your library. Really simple and fast – which is how I like my reading/bookmarking workflows.
Highlighting. The feature that really sets Diigo apart from other services for me is the ability to highlight text. This makes reviewing research, even just for a blog post easier, as you can see all the bits you found most interesting without going into the original article again. (NB: there is a limit of 1000 free highlights per year, then you need to go Premium.)
Syncing with Delicious. I keep my Delicious account active, partly for sentimental reasons and partly just in case it gets good again. This used to be simple and straightforward, but then someone at Yahoo! cut the API cord and I have IFTTT automatically cross-post there for me. (Here’s my IFTTT recipe if you want to copy it for yourself).
Syncing with an Evernote Notebook. Another IFTTT trick I use is to assign a certain hashtag to a folder in my Evernote. This is useful for research projects – for instance I was preparing a weekly trends briefing on the retail sector for a client for a few months. Since I read a lot in my feeds and on Twitter that will be relevant for something like this I just add a tag specific to that project and when report writing day rolled around I simply opened up the folder and started pulling out the highlights and stories – I’d distributed the research part of the workflow across the whole week and was able to go straight into analysis mode when the time came. Here’s the IFTTT recipe for that too, if you want to try it and amend it to your own nefarious purposes…
The premium option. It has become clear in the slightly darker, post-Web 2.0 world, that if you really love something, it is a good idea to pay for it. So I’ve gone premium on Diigo, in part to support them but also to access a really cool feature – page caching. Diigo will cache pages that you bookmark so that if they are deleted or the links broken you will still have the useful information you wanted to keep handy. It’s $40 a year – which when it is as valuable to me as Diigo is, is amazing value
By the way – my Diigo profile is here if you want to have a look at what I’ve been reading. Let me know if you have any tips to share and add to those here.
Opinions taking shape. For instance, just because a system like digital advertising is corrupted doesn’t mean it won’t be with us for decades to come.
I may come back to the third and pot it out in the nursery of ideas here on this blog, with a media agency-proof fence around it to give it a fair chance of developing or not, but for now I’ve got a chance to right the first two examples in one post.
This week, I had a lovely conversation with John Willshire, who developed the Artefact Cards product, about how I have been working with them. You can listen to the whole thing here as John recorded it with a very snazzy microphone and iPad Mini set-up.
Artefact Cards are a really simple tool. Playing card size bits of card, white on one side and coloured on the other. You draw words and pictures on them with a Sharpie pen and them lay them out, re-arrange them and in this way organise thoughts and ideas.
As we talked, we got onto the subject of the liminal state in the creative thinking process (which for my money includes developing strategy). My friend Jim Byford introduced me to this immensely useful concept.
In the context of creative and strategic thinking, the liminal state is what you find yourself in just before you have a breakthrough, or just before you fully understand something, make it yours. For instance, if you can recall trying to learn your lines for a play, the liminal state is where you are just before the words settle and take up residence in your memory – and then you can start using them, adding your inflections and emotions, making them your own.
I’ve very often found the thinking at this point in the creative process intensely uncomfortable. Whether writing a book or a plan or a pitch – it’s a kind of temporary agony, a dark tunnel I pass through where I think you know nothing and will never have another good idea again, and then it passes and there’s the the idea I need, the answer that fits.
Knowing that this is something called a “liminal state”, it makes it easier to handle. In psychology / neuroscience, this is an example of “affect labelling“. If you can name the feeling you have, you can put yourself slightly outside it, understand what is happening to you and that it will pass.
The other thing that understanding the liminal state does is help you to stop trying to “jump to the answer”, as Jim put it to me. Because liminality feels uncomfortable, you want out – to end the feeling and go with the first idea, the obvious one, the easy one. The danger here is that your creative/strategic solution will be mundane, run-of-the-mill and doomed.
You have to go through the confusion, live with it for a little while, sit still while the ideas and thoughts, disconnected and jagged, whiz around your head.
Then they settle. Then you see it: what it is all about.
It’s simple, it was there all along… as Duncan Watts points out, it feels obvious once you it is something that you understand. You pitch it to yourself: it works. You pitch it to a colleague: they don’t hate it, maybe even like it. With each airing the idea gains coherence, legitimacy – becomes more eloquently and credibly articulated as you and others breathe belief into the thing.
Speaking with John Willshire about how I had been using his Artefact Cards, I realised that I like them because they are a good tool for helping that settling process, of working steadily through the seemingly nonsensical maze of thoughts, ideas and concepts and helping some kind of order emerge. Much like throwing down ideas on a white-board, scribbling out mind-maps or any other visual thinking method – but they feel slightly more agile – you can move ideas around, try them in different shapes more rapidly.
In the example I talk about, it’s not even that I reached the solution – the outline of an ebook in this case, but I was able to move on to that only after I had made sense of all of the ideas. Seen their shape laid out in this way. That’s something John says is a recurring theme in people’s use of the cards – seeing the “shape of ideas”.
Artefact Cards are another tool in the box for thinking, perfect sometimes for working through those liminal states. Worth a spin with the trial pack, I reckon.
One thing I have learned from listening to and spending time with experts is that a lot of expertise is not articulated explicitly. Their mental models, short-cuts (heuristics as Kahenman describes them) can be buried deep in their behaviours. They don’t necessarily talk about them or even realise they are happening. They are second nature, the outcome of thousands of hours tackling the same problems again and again.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman uses chess Grandmasters as an example. Grandmasters look at a chess game and don’t see a series of moves that could be taken – they see patterns of play, shapes and model options for the players to win in a few moves. They have a kind of cognitive short-cut for each, sometimes a name for them – they don’t see a set of moves, they see a pattern that they have seen before.
Theysee the problem differently to non-experts as a result of their thousands of hours of practice. Myself, I would see a set of options for the next move and then struggle to hold those options in my mind (in my pre-frontal cortex, to be exact) and then try in turn to see implications for the responses and next moves from the player). The Grandmaster thinks X numbers of moves ahead because they have those series of moves stored in their memory as shapes – they may well have names for the different shapes.
Sometimes they are just a case of emphasis. Where the focus is when a task or challenge is undertaken, how a problem is framed.
Two examples, one from recent experience and one from recent reading, will help to explain what I mean.
Recently, I went on Kevin Meredith’s – aka Lomokev – Hot Shots photography course. It felt like live-action version of his book, which is also excellent and also called Hot Shots. An interesting experience, at once laid back and – in retrospect – intense, Hot Shots was two days of taking and talking about photography. This felt like, and was, an indulgence – but learning was happening thick and fast. It sometimes just takes a little while to realise what you have taken from an adventure like this.
Afterwards, I understood that Kevin thinks about taking a photograph differently to the way I do (or have done up until now). When I see a beautiful sunset, or a collection of interesting objects, or group of people that would make a nice composition I think something such as “Wow – I’d love to capture that in a picture!”
Kevin didn’t talk about capturing; he talked about things making a nice image – not just the subject: the choice of camera, the settings and the film, the angle and background, the direction that light is coming from, the way it might be cropped and improved after it is developed or downloaded. In his mind, he is thinking about the outcome he wants and then the process to get there.
The physical process of seeing, deciding to take a photograph and then processing it is the same in my old method and Kevin’s, the difference is in where we put the emphasis, the focus. How we frame the method, how we think and then act.
The other example of framing a process that I’ve been thinking about is more literal (and literary). It comes from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (which I am reading slowly, as seems apt for the subject matter).
Francine makes the point that even more important than who is telling the story is who to whom the story is being told.
…I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to a close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend.
This telling a story within a story is literally called “framing”, but it unblocks the writing process with a simple model, a question: who is the narrator talking to? Talking to a single person makes it easier than talking than imagined audience. All parts of questions about time and emphasis and pace aw resolved.
For me, writing framed stories not only answered all those troubling questions about the narrator’s audience, but also neatly integrated the answers into the narrative itself. I knew not only who was speaking, but who was being spoken to, where the speaker and the listener were, and when and why the event – that is, the telling of the story – was occurring.
The framing of a process, the question of where to put the emphasis, what the right question to be asked is, is something to uncover examples. It is also worth asking yourself, of the things you do well – what is the question you ask? Where do you put the emphasis. Those are likely to be the insights to compare and pass on to colleagues and people you are coaching or teaching a skill.
In endurance swimming, I found out this week, you slipstream* just like cyclists do in a peloton. My wife, a sea swimmer, told me that swimming close to the person in front – right up by their kicking legs, off to one side – saves about 30% of the energy.
When you are swimming for a mile or more in the sea, energy efficiency is the basis of everything. A 30% reduction is a big deal.
The brain also consumes energy and we are interested in efficiencies there. For instance, we learn things through repetition, which makes them automatic, saving us from using the energy-hungry pre-frontal cortex. There are a whole load of other strategies and tricks we use without necessarily thinking about them, to save us from doing mental heavy-lifting too often.
Explaining one of my online working habits to Neil Perkin earlier this week, I realised that what I was doing was a kind of cognitive slipstreaming, using bookmarking. To be exact, using other people’s bookmarks.
In my one of my top folders in Google Reader, one that I read a lot, I don’t just have feeds from blogs. Using the RSS feed from Delicious, I follow the bookmark streams of a few people who are reading and working on things that closely match my current interests.
As they read and bookmark things, I see them. It doesn’t save me all of the effort of reading them and highlighting and bookmarking for myself and making connections and putting them in context and writing about them. It saves me the search though, it saves me the effort, the joules of energy that would take, to decide that this – and not the other 25 things that have passed through my reader or Twitter stream in the past ten minutes – is worth bookmarking for reference.
Amazon Kindle’s public notes and highlights provide a similar kind of opportunity to slipstream other people’s cognitive exertions, their brains’ hard work, although I don’t use that as often as following the bookmarks of fellow travellers.
Slipstreaming in endurance sports is a collaborative endeavour. Like cyclists, endurance swimmers in a small group take turns swimming at the front, they develop a rhythm of moving up to take on the burden of pushing through the waves first, then falling back to an easier position. Even though they may be competing to get to the finish line first, the pack and the peleton move together, sharing the load.
The parallel with knowledge work suggests that we should share more than we do, even if some of it helps our competitors at times. It is the final manifestation of our work, the product shipping, the report’s publishing, the pitch being pitched where we compete in an all or nothing sprint. Up until those moments, everyone is smarter if they slipstream.
* My wife’s pointed out that it is usually called “drafting” rather than “slipstreaming” in her swimming group.
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.