Thursday, December 31, 2009

Teaching and Selling, Learning and Buying

Set aside for a moment any unpleasant experiences you may have had buying a used car, dealing with cold calls from stock brokers, or fending off pushy door-to-door "witnesses." Think about the best buying experiences you have ever had. Now, among those experiences, think about the ones in which you were buying something that involved some type of technical functioning that you were initially less familiar with. Your memory might in fact be a car purchase. Or, if you are like me, it might be a cell phone or crackberry (no brand names in this blog). That person selling to you - whether called a consultant, advisor, expert, or, yes, salesperson - what did he or she do that was memorable in a positive sense?

I'm going to hazard a guess about some of the behaviors of that "advisor" that made the experience positive for you:
-Listening to you
-Asking you questions related to what you needed and wanted
-Taking the trouble to clarify what you meant
-Asking more questions and listening some more
-Pointing out how particular products (or services) specifically addressed what you said you needed
-Waiting patiently, and listening attentively to your comments and questions as you examined the product or service
-Helping to make the purchase itself easy for you

Granted, you may not have that kind of experience every day. But when you have had it, how many of the following experiences occured after you bought?

-A feeling of satisfaction with the buying decision
-A willingness to return to the same place for the next purchase - even if it was a different item
-A desire to seek out the same salesperson to assist with another purchase - even if it was for a completely different item.

So, if you haven't guessed it from the title of this blog post, I'm going to suggest that the salesperson or advisor involved was engaged in as much teaching as selling. I'm also going to suggest that the interaction which occured captured aspects of a buying experience that overlap aspects of an optimal learning experience. And in some future post, I'm going to suggest (as you may have already guessed) that a similar analysis of a positive learning experience looks suspiciously like an optimal buying experience. Then, finally, I'm going to suggest that both salespeople and teachers who reflect on these ideas will see some immediately useful ideas for enhancing the results they get everyday. Please stay tuned in 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Crowbar Just Opens the Crate...

In this blog, I have made a lot of the power of leverage, of the ability of the crowbar to use leverage to open the crate. It's an analogy that carries a lot of currency in an environment in which problems seem so large, so overwhelming, so difficult to get a handle on. Some of us welcome the simplicity of the humble crowbar that just pries the lid off of that crate.

Of course, getting the crate open is a big deal. Like thinking through the traffic jam to see the real problem, and like getting the right people to sit down to work out an agreement, getting the crate open is more than just a starting point - it's a prerequisite to progress. Until that crate is open, you just don't know what you're going to find inside, so you just don't know what the real problem is. That's the gift of the crowbar.

On the other hand, getting the crate open means seeing what's inside - seeing the problem for what it really is. If you were avoiding the problem, you may not see the crowbar as your friend. Because now (to mix metaphors) you're going to see that body bleeding on the table, and you're going to face that proverbial elephant in the middle of the room.

I can only speak for myself, but I know that I used to avoid that moment of truth -- until I learned the hard way that the problem didn't go away. Sooner or later, I was going to have to get out the more specific tools (say, hammer, wrench and screwdriver?) and start to attack the real problem that was hiding inside the crate.

Using those specific tools, though, is what we learned in school. They are the mathematical formulas to apply, the critical steps in the diagnosis, the analytical assessments that we have practiced, mastered, gotten certified in using. Now that we can see the problem, we can start using those familiar, precise tools and leveraging our subject matter expertise.

We don't need to overuse the crowbar. We just need it to get the crate open.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rhetorical Question?

Thank the Web for this one. As long as you are there, you are visible. As long as you aren't too outrageous, you are credible.

Today, where we say it, and how we say it may become more important that what we say. It is the age of the flower blooming unnoticed and the manure in the road.

Why is it more important to be on Facebook than to be on target?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The MN History Center and Pink's Empathy

My son and I walk up the ramp into what looks like the side entrance to a World War II paratroop plane. Inside, I push the start button, and we take seats on the bench opposite what appears to be the inside wall of the plane.

A media presentation appears on the wall with a black and white photo from the 1940s - the soldier, with his family. He tells his story of enlisting, choosing to be a paratrooper, going to war.

Then the lights dim, the media presentation goes away, and we hear and feel the sound of jet engines below us revving, rumbling, taking us aloft. Opposite our seats, a dim light in the windows reveals the ocean below us, with signs of a few boats at a distance. The pilot's voice comes on.

It is June 6, 1944, D-Day, and he tells us we are approaching the Normandy coast. The red light is on at the side hatch. He reminds us that when it turns green, we will be clear to jump...

There are flashes in the window. We are hit. The plane is going down.

The entire ride is less than eight minutes, and yet, for the first time in my more than five decades of being alive, I have the visceral sense of the nature of the sacrifices that my parents and their generation made for me. The books never did it; the movies never did it; I had to have some small bit of the experience myself.

The simulation is a part of the Minnesota History Center's current exhibit "Minnesota's Greatest Generation." It is one of many recorded personal stories that fill this exhibit, one that will stick with me.

Its power, it seems to me, comes from the use of at least two of the "right-directed senses" outlined in Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind - story, and empathy. As my son pointed out, we will probably never really understand how it feels to go to war without having had the experience. But at least now I understand that, and can empathize more deeply.

In his chapter on empathy, Pink quotes William Butler Yeats: "People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational expression end by starving the best part of the mind." And in the chapter on story, he quotes Roger Schank: "Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories."

As I reflect on my immediate few moments of realization after leaving the simulator, I am struck by the truth of both quotes.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Fablunged Ballad and Daniel Pink's New Mind

Early in my senior year in high school, I took an uncharacteristic risk in writing a structured composition for my English class. The exercise, as I recall, was to write a short essay which involved what I would now call the exposition of a hierarchy, or a description of a classification. Old folkie that I was, I chose ballads as my topic.

As I recall, there were two kinds of ballads that we had studied: the epic ballad, a narrative describing an historical event, and the lyrical ballad, more of a poetic expression of an emotion around some type of narrative. I had been a good French student, and I knew, as we all did in those days, that “La Gaule est divisee en trois parties;” that is, that any good essay had not two examples, but three. Ah, what to do? I wanted to write about ballads, but I knew of only two kinds.

So I made one up. I drew on another tradition – my erstwhile recollection of one of my favorite Yiddish words from my Brooklyn childhood: fablunged (pronounced fa-blun-jed), meaning totally, hopelessly lost. I listed the three types of ballads, and described each. When I got to the third type, I fabricated the utterly whimsical notion of a ballad that had no known origin, an unclear message, and a text that was partially obscured – in other words, a song that was totally fablunged.

My recollection was that, amazingly, I got an A on the essay, and my content was unquestioned by a teacher who normally had the probative power of an all-star district attorney. But what I remember best was that nobody laughed. No one got my joke. Even my mom, from whom I had learned most of my broken Yiddish, only chuckled slightly and went on to something else. I wasn’t sure what to do with that revelation – that I could create such an obvious fabrication and others would miss the significant and ingenious humor involved. That may have been the beginning of my tendency toward ever more outrageous jokes, most of which are still highly un- or under-appreciated by those around me.

And what does this have to do, you ask, with Non-Random Thoughts About Thinking? Do you sense another long-way-around-the-barn explanation?

Yes, that’s what’s coming. During the past few days, I have finally begun reading a hardback book I bought on sale a couple of years ago because of its interesting title – A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. Chances are good that you are familiar with this book if you are reading this blog. I just finished the first few chapters, focusing on the reasons that the R-Directed Mind is, according to Pink, going to be dominating the world shortly.

In my own humble way, I want to take credit for listening to that R-Direction years ago when I let myself create that pseudo-erudite third category of ballads. Up to this point in this blog, my mentions of the analytical skills have emphasized the L-Directed side – the ability to clearly and precisely determine categories based on common characteristics and structures based on part-whole relationships. This brilliant spontaneity from my youth provides an example of how the analytical can become the basis for the synthetic – in this case, by creating a new category out of thin air.

Granted, there must be better examples. But one of the more subtle points that Pink makes is that the right and the left hemisphere capabilities don’t normally act in isolation – they work together. One can start by following the standard categories, and then diverge – just by remaining open to the possibilities of a category that might exist, that might even be credible – if only we can find the right Yiddish name for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Visual Cognition

Linda and I awoke this morning with two guests at our feet at the far end of the bed - energy on the right and thoughtfulness on the left, embodied in our cats Karma and Tina. Karma is an athletic, short-haired black kitten with strategic white spots who experiences no discernable synapse between a visual stimulus and her pounce. Tina, a few years older, with long gray hair that makes her appear much bigger than she is, is the thoughtful one, the one who looks, sniffs, and lightly paws at the world before taking any action. It was Karma who caught my attention this morning, and whose pouncing on my right hand stimulated the topic of this post.

Visual cognition is a topic that is long overdue for this blog. Here I have been blogging about thinking and cognitive skills for two months, and have never once used the word visual. Didn't I read somewhere that the optic nerve is the only sensory receptor that has a direct pathway into the neocortex? (My apologies to neurologists everywhere if I've got that jumbled a bit.)

But the point is that there is a vividness and immediacy about visual stimuli that is markedly different from our other senses. Perhaps it's really just the speed at which cognition occurs from a visual stimulus, that immediate recognition that enables us to slam on the brakes to avoid a crash, that enables Brett Favre to spot an open receiver in time to drill the ball into his arms. Maybe that's why TV and films engage us so quickly, when sound, touch, smell, or taste alone each take a few more seconds to process.

One of my avocational interests for many years has been the potential of visual organizers for enhancing communication and learning processes. My first real awareness came from meeting Tony Buzan during one of his trips to the United States in the mid-1980s, participating in a 3-day workshop he conducted for the Department of Education. His invention of mind-mapping still strikes me as perhaps the purest form of visual-verbal cognitive organization, if only because of its flexibility to support both structured and unstructured content.

Working with Tony and his books engaged me with an entire realm of tools that my verbally-centered background had kept from me. If this subject is of interest to you, here are some starting points:

Writing the Natural Way, by Gabrielle Rico, published in the eighties as well, using visuals specifically to organize and develop thoughts for writing.

Group Graphics Guide, by David Sibbet, also published initially in the eighties. David's incredibly accessible work focuses on using graphic recording to support group facilitiation. His gentle teaching in a seminar I attended reversed 30 years of conditioning for me: he actually made me realize that I could draw a bit.

VizThink, a west coast organization devoted to sharing and promoting the use of visuals of all kinds for thinking. Their conferences and seminars bring the work of people like David Sibbet to larger audiences.

Thinking Maps, Inc., a company based in Cary, NC that trains elementary and secondary school teachers using David Hyerle's invention of cognitive maps to support the six thinking skills described in this blog.

Just yesterday, our local chapter of the American Society for Training and Development published a short article by David Amdur, a teacher and member of the chapter. David highlighted a graphic organizer called VUE, developed at Tufts University, flexible open source software for creating visuals for communication, presentation, and learning. Here's the reference from David's article:
"For information, demos, and a free download of VUE, go to:"

Did it again. As Click and Clack would say, just helped myself (and you, if you've read this far) waste a perfectly beautiful Minnesota morning, missing the experience of the earliest snow in St. Paul in 60 years. Look out the window!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cognitive skills are critical, but often invisible

So, you might be saying, this stuff is really interesting. But what difference does it make?

The way cognitive skills drive your everyday thinking is similar to the way in which an experienced driver handles a car. On a dry road, and a clear day, an experienced driver may go on "autopilot." But let the road get icy, or the visibility get limited, and that same driver will feel the need to consciously focus on the simplest processes.

When your cognitive skills are well developed and maintained, you think in a focused and competent way. When you run into a difficult challenge - a tougher problem than usual, or perhaps an emotional crisis, you may need to become conscious and deliberate about your thinking.

A conscious understanding of cognitive skills and how they work can provide the extra bit of leverage that is needed in these more difficult situations.
- In business and in sports, that leverage can provide a competitive advantage.
- In everyday life, that leverage provides better problem solving, decision-making, and planning.
- For someone trying to learn something new, the conscious and effective use of this leverage can make the difference between rote memorization and content mastery.

Those are some ways in which the conscious development of cognitive skills can make a difference.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Last (and the First) Thinking Skill

Wouldn't it be great if you could always know exactly what you are dealing with, what you are up against? That is the province of the thinking skill we have not yet looked at: Thing-making.

What a weird name. That was my reaction some 30 years ago when I first heard it, and, to be honest, it was a long time before I finally found myself comfortable with that name.

On the other hand, what could be simpler? You look at that round, colorful plastic object bouncing between kids on the playground, and you name it: a ball. That's it. Your mind has named the thing. In psychological parlance, you have cognized or re-cognized (recognized) the object. You have mentally made a thing: Thing-making.

Sometimes it's harder. Think about optical games like the classic picture that is either an old lady with her chin down or a young woman looking away from you. Which is it? And can you see it both ways?

Sometimes the "thing" is more abstract, like capitalism, or loyalty. Abstract "things" involve much more than sensory input, but they still require a concept to be created in your mind. That feeling you get when an abstraction is hazy is a pretty good indication that your mind is trying to thing-make, but not quite "getting the handle."

Sometimes the words or labels used to describe a concept are just vague enough that we are left with sufficient leeway to allow them to mean what we want, whether my meaning is consistent with yours or not:
- a world safe for democracy
- no child left behind
- no new taxes
- yes, we can

With this thinking skill, we have now looked at each of the six cognitive skills in the model based on the work of Dr. Albert Upton:
The definition skills: Thing-making, and Qualification
The analytical skills: Classification, Structure, and Operation Analysis.
The transfer skill: Seeing Analogies.

This model is deceptively simple; so much so, that we may easily relegate it to a "basic skills" approach. I think it is more than that. These mental processes underlie most of our verbal abilities, for instance. Understanding how we use these skills can greatly enhance our ability to function in an increasingly complex world.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What comes next? When sequence matters...

Sometimes, order counts:

Step one: Buckle your seat belt.
Step two: Turn the key.
Step three: Shift to DRIVE.
Step four: Release the emergency brake.
Step five: (Slowly) depress the gas pedal to move forward.

What might happen if you executed step three just before step two? I know - because my daughter did that when she was first learning to drive. Just once. It was enough.

When we recognize that we are dealing with a sequence, and that order is important, we are using our thinking skill of operation analysis.

There are some sequences that strike us as simple: A, B, C, D, ... and 0, 1, 2, 3, ... come to mind.

Some may seem more complex. See if you can find the missing terms:

2, 5, 9, __, 20

4, 3, 2, ___, Nicollet (Hint: a trick question for Minneapolis residents)

apple, orange, pear, ______, orange

Some can get particularly complex - like the fishbone diagrams used to determine contributing and causal factors in quality management projects, or the IRS instructions for calculating Alternative Minimum Tax.

In the posts on classification, we looked at sorters - the characteristics used to group things into categories. With operation analysis, we look at orders - the logic of the sequence involved. In one of the examples above, the order is strictly mathematical. In another, the order is a sequence of physical items on a map. In the third, the order is a repeating pattern.

Just as the skill of classification analysis enables us to create and analyze categorization and hierarchies, and the skill of structure analysis helps us to create and analyze part-whole relationships, the skill of operation analysis helps us to create and analyze sequential relationships.

One special note here: Causation. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that something that comes earlier causes something that comes later. (There's even a Latin name for that logical fallacy.) Obvious, right? When we think about it, it certainly can be. One of the lessons of cognitive awareness, though, is that we often don't think about it; we just see an apparent connection and jump to an unproven conclusion. Detecting the causal link is more complicated than spotting the sequential pattern. More on this in a later post.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two Ways of Analyzing

Just as there are at least two ways of seeing (things and qualities - see the post from September 2), there are at least two ways of analyzing, based on the nature of the relationship or the purpose that you have in mind.

For example, if I am interested in figuring out what kind of place I want to move to, the characteristics of the place are probably what I need to think about first. Do I want something that is close to downtown? Secure? Full of light? So I focus on these qualities, and I analyze alternatives by the extent to which they share the qualities I want.

On the other hand, if I want to provide some basic furntiture for the place where I already live, I may focus a lot more on things - and particularly, how those things fit together to make a larger thing. In that case, I may be more interested in the relationships of the parts to the whole.

This may seem like I am making an intellectual distinction, and I suppose you could look at it that way. I don't see it that way. If I want to get better at using my thinking skills to solve a problem, then I have to pay attention to what my mind is doing. To help us do that together, let's focus on a couple of ideas about these two types of analysis.

1. Different mental skills are involved.

The last three posts on this blog explored the skill of classification analysis - of grouping and sorting things according to shared qualities or characteristics. The last two posts looked specifically at applications of classification in marketing and in basic accounting. What about this part-whole skill?

I'm going to refer to this skill as "structure analysis," using the term developed by Albert Upton and his students. When we use our thinking skill of structure analysis, we really do focus on the "thing" itself. We define things, we count them, we figure out how they fit together - we pay attention to the relationship between the parts and the whole.

In the example mentioned above, we might start figuring out what furniture is needed for the eating area by listing parts: table, chairs, buffet. Then we might count those parts - 1 table, 4 chairs, 1 buffet. The counting is one of the ways in which structure analysis differs from classification analysis. Structure analysis is quantitative. When we are analyzing the relationship of the parts to the whole thing, quantities matter.

2. The "best" skill to use in a given situation is determined by your purpose.

If I am a college student analyzing the furniture I need, structure analysis is probably the critical skill. I'm interested in making sure I have the parts needed to function - chair, desk, bed (for some - refrigerator, sound system...). On the other hand, if I am a designer helping a successful couple furnish their new home, the pieces of furniture involved (the "parts") may be a given. My job may be much more focused on the qualities of the environment - the "look and feel" - and I may be more successful by attending to a classification of my clients' desires related to these areas.

This may be the most important part of developing and refining thinking skills for learning and solving problems - the need to be aware of, and focused on, the purpose involved. Our cognitive skills provide a robust and flexible set of tools for accomplishing intellectual tasks. Becoming more successful at using these tools means becoming increasingly better attuned to purpose.

If you have been thinking that there are others ways to analyze, then I agree with you. In fact, one cognitive skill not yet addressed provides a set of tools for addressing another dimension - time. A classification is an abstraction, and timeless. A structure, however, is more concrete, and structures have a tendency to change over time. More to the point, we have problems we must solve that involve changing structures over time, which suggests another type of analysis, and another cognitive skill - which means another post.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Analytical Leverage, Part 2a: Another Application

Money. Now, there's a good application - sorters and classification in finance. Actually, I haven't seen the stats, but I'll bet there are fewer people in the US who classify their expenses and income than who don't.
Yes - that would be the basic use we're talking about. First, do you keep track of your expenses - either in a computer, or a checkbook, or some other method? And when you spend money, do you keep track of how you spend it?
One way to use the sorter with money - the skill of classification - is to somehow categorize where your money goes. We all have to do some of that for tax purposes, anyway. But then, some of us get carried away. Charitable contributions, volunteer expenses, car repair, ... need I say more?
My point: you are already using the skill of classification analysis. No one has to teach you the skill. The step I would add is the awareness of HOW you are using it.

I really think this is enough on classification. I'm going to skip the diatribe on business uses - how classification of assets and liabilities makes financial analysis more productive - and end this post. Next time, we'll head on to another thinking skill.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Analytical Leverage, Part 2: Applications

Let's explore the problem-solving value of the sorter that was introduced in the previous post (Analytical Leverage, Part 1). This may be a longer post than usual, but bear with me - it should make sense.

Here's the question: how can something simple like a "sorter" make a difference in serious thinking and problem-solving?

Market Segmentation
Rule #1, from Marketing 101, is "Find a need and fill it." Rule #2, specifically for the bottom line marketer, is "Find the kinds of people who are most likely to have that need." The idea behind this is that advertising, promotion, and other kinds of marketing efforts have a cost - even when done on the internet and the cost is mostly labor. The way to make that cost pay off is to find ways to focus efforts on the right prospects. So serious marketers end up spending lots of time attempting to identify people (or organizations) who are most likely to have particular needs, then finding ways to reach those people more effectively with a more carefully tailored message.

Some of the marketer's work may be calling out the obvious. If your company sells tools for use in gardens, you need to find the people who own (or work in) gardens. For most serious marketers, though, that's not enough; they need to learn more about their "target market." For example:
1. Who actually buys the tools, and are they the same as the people who use the tools?
2. Where and when do they look when they are shopping for tools? What characteristics of tools appeal to what kinds of shoppers?
3. What are the current alternatives to my tools (competition) and how do my tools (and my company, and my prices) compare with theirs?

So marketers ask these questions of a variety of people and gather data on their interests, likes and dislikes. They get demographic data from every respondent in order to be able to correlate responses to the types of people who provided them. At this stage, the object is not so much to find individual customers as it is to find the patterns. For example, males between 55 and 70 who live in rural areas like to buy their tools in person. (Just an example - I have no idea if that's true.)

Do you see the sorters emerging? There are several in that hypothetical result - gender, age, location of residence. Opening a store is expensive. You need to figure out how to get your best prospects to come into your store. If you can get a sense of who wants what you have to offer, you can use your advertising and marketing dollars more effectively. So, in the hypothetical example here, if you have a tool store, and the market research tells you what was suggested in the last paragraph, it might be worth offering some kind of incentive to males 55 to 70 in rural areas to get them to come into your store.

Skill with sorters - with the cognitive skill of classification analysis - underlies your ability to become a more effective marketer by enabling you to be more thorough, more precise, and perhaps more creative in market segmentation. (I'll save the "perhaps more creative" for a later post - this one is already pretty long.)

I plan to provide some examples of the use of classification and sorters in other fields. For now, you might ask yourself: In your work today, where are the problems for which your solution involves using the skill of classification analysis?

Analytical Leverage, Part 1

Wow - pretentious title, huh?

The idea behind it is pretty simple. Language tools can provide a starting point for analyzing - even for analyzing things we don't know much about. The best part is that you are probably already using at least some of those tools, perhaps without an awareness of how powerful they can be.

One of those familiar tools is what I call the "sorter," a quality or characteristic that is shared by multiple "things." Like most good tools, the sorter is much easier to use than it is to describe. So try this little exercise:

What characteristic do each of these people have in common?

Michael Bloomberg, Eli Wallach, Donald Trump, Peter Stuyvesant.

You probably ruled out occupations pretty quickly, even if you didn't recognize one or more of the names. You probably also identified that they are or were all males - if only by their first names. You may have also said that they were famous or prominent. And if you are from New York City, you may also recognize them as people who lived there for some important part of their lives. Maybe you know more about these guys than I do - so you might have come up with something else they have in common.

Each of the common characteristics you named may be called a sorter, a verbal label that enables you to quickly determine who's in, and who's out of a category. So, for example, I could have added Anne Meara (actress & comedienne) to the list. As a long-time NYC resident, she still fits the residency sorter. You might consider her well-known enough to fit the "fame" sorter, but she clearly wouldn't fit on the basis of gender. On the other hand, the only characteristic that say, Britney Spears shares with the group is fame.

Not exactly rocket science, right? Well.... Let me point out a few of the less obvious aspects of what was going on in your mind as you followed my admittedly simple-minded example.

First, you didn't need a lot of instruction to understand the mental process involved. Classification Analysis - grouping and sorting things according to shared charactristics - is a mental process that your mind does so readily that you (probably) don't even think about it. I'll say that again - you don't even think about it. Consciously. That's the point. What could you do with this tool if you did think about it consciously, especially in helping you understand subjects that are unfamiliar to you right now?

If you've been following this blog, you may recall an earlier post (September 2) that mentioned the work done by Dr. Albert Upton 60 years ago. The type of relationship defined by shared characteristics - what I'm calling classification analysis - is one of the types of semantic growth that Upton identified. Semantic growth is the power behind what I'm calling "analytic leverage," your ability to understand your universe by deliberately using this capability as a tool.

If you are interested in learning more about the concept of "semantic growth," the best source is probably Upton's classic Design for Thinking. Another source (I hope) will be future posts on this blog.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Two Ways of Seeing

There are at least two when it comes to how the brain processes with language. We can see things and we can see qualities of things. So I can see an apple, and I can see redness and roundness. We can see that both are there, but I think at any given instant, we attend to one or the other.

I spot my wife coming across the parking lot, headed toward the car, so I start the engine and prepare to pick her up. Then I see her face, and for an instant, I am struck by not so much that she is Linda, but that she is very happy - smiling broadly, right through her eyes. "Guess who I just ran into," she says. I don't lose the sense of who she is for that moment, but I am focused on how she is feeling - a quality of her expression.

These two ways of seeing, captured in language in nouns and adjectives (for all of you English majors out there), are basic to much of our cognitive problem-solving capability. (I would say they are the only 2 ways, but I don't have a PhD.) In solving problems, in communicating, in making decisions, I deal with both kinds of entities - things (people are included in this category) and their characteristics. Much of what I do when I analyze, synthesize, or evaluate starts with my understanding of what "things" I am working with and what characteristics are relevant to the process involved.

Sixty some years ago, Albert Upton, Professor of English and Director of General Studies at Whittier College in California (he did have a PhD, btw) formulated a model for conscious, purposeful thinking based on the way the mind processes language. He called his book Design for Thinking (now out of print) "A First Book in Semantics." Humble as he must have been (I never met him in person), Upton hesitated to conclude that he completely understood the human neurological processes involved in thinking. But he did find that he could enable college students to grow in their problem-solving abilities by helping them see how their minds could use language as an aid to solving problems. No one, at the time, had anywhere near the knowledge we have today about how the brain actually functions, so Upton was probably wise not to claim too much. But with the most recent neurological research (see my 8/9/09 post "So what might a cognitive lever look like?"), a model of brain functioning is emerging that, curiously, seems to underscore the value of Upton's work.

That whole last paragraph (thing) probably seemed tangential (quality) to what this post (thing) is about. It isn't, although it would be difficult for me to make the case that I've provided my readers with any direct connections. For now, let's just say that the cognition of a "thing" and the perception of a "quality" are two of the types of semantic growth that Dr. Upton identified in his work. Then let's think of this post as structured like those movies and novels that tell two stories at once, weaving back and forth, until the two plot lines converge.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Rant of the Crowbar

I have spent entirely too much time this week reading rants on blogs all over the 'net. As Ernie (Golden Retriever) and I rounded the corner a block away, I reflected on the growth and maturity that my 19-year-old daughter has demonstrated over the past few months, and I heard my own rant formulating in my mind:

Learning is not mechanization and discipline. This is not so much the rant part; I believe in self-discipline, and I believe in helping others achieve it for themselves. Mechanization is not a bad thing for low-level detail and things that make sense to automate. But here is the rant part: Learning is not one of those things.

Learning is not memorization. Or, at least, the memorization part of learning is not the learning. It's not. Memorization done to remember specific bits of information is a process that is best automated or mechanized, using mnemonics or other tricks of association. Yes, they work. No, they are not learning.

Learning is not about agreeing with authority. Yes, some of you will have a hard time with this one, especially if you view the teacher as the ultimate authority whose years (or degrees, or awards, or publications, or honors.....), or other indicators of wisdom, suggest to you a guru at whose feet a student should worship. I'm not ranting on religion, faith, belief, or even leadership. I'm talking about learning. And agreeing with authority only because it is authority IS NOT LEARNING.

Enough ranting? Maybe. So what is learning?

For me, learning is a process of cognition, connection, expansion, and realization. It is the creation of new connections initiated in the neo-cortex of the human brain. It is the opening of possibilties.

In the age of the Internet, we don't need teachers to point us to data or even information. All of that is (for good or ill) already available, unmediated, for the price of the ability to spell a word that approximates the question you want an answer to.

Learning is about meaning. We need teachers to ask the questions, structure the experiences, reflect back to us our reactions, faclitate the the process that creates the connections. And as teachers, we need to start making learners' independence of us the primary goal of our "instruction."

End of rant. If you read this far - bless you, and forgive me.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seeing analogies: the brain's most powerful lever

Generally speaking, leverage is the ability to gain powerful results when applying only a moderate amount of energy. Mental leverage, more specifically, might refer to our ability to gain powerful thinking results by applying the brain's built-in capabilities.

So it is time to talk about what might be the most powerful lever built into our brains. It is powerful because it is easy for us - child's play for our neo-cortexes (or, depending on how literally you take Piaget, at least adolescent's play). It is the default tool for all learning - the ability to see similarities between relationships, the ability to see analogies.

If you are reading this blog, chances are good that you already know who Alex Osborn was. But if by some chance you are wondering if he might be related to Ozzy Osborn, then I have an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leverage I'm talking about. Supposing I told you that Ray Kroc (founder of MacDonald's) was related to fast food franchising in the same way that Alex Osborn was related to the process of brainstorming? Your mind might immediately jump to a guess about my friend Alex - that he originated brainstorming, that he popularized brainstorming, that he made a fortune in brainstorming.... And for the most part, you would be on target. Alex Osborn, author of Applied Imagination, 1953, was the advertising executive generally credited with both inventing and popularizing the method known as brainstorming. His book provided what he referred to as "the principles and procedures of creative problem-solving."

So here's my question: Assuming you were not familiar with Alex Osborn before, how did you arrive at your guess of what he might have done? Essentially, your brain reasoned from something you knew (the relationship of Ray Kroc to fast food franchising) to something that was unfamiliar (the relationship of Alex Osborn to brainstorming). Your reasoning was based on the similarity between the relationships. Ray Kroc himself may not have had anything in common with Alex. Finding some commonality between brainstorming and fast food franchising is a stretch at best. But the relationship between (on the one hand) Ray and what he originated with McDonald's and (on the other hand) Alex and what he did with brainstorming is similar - some would say "parallel."

What I find remarkable about this capability of "seeing analogies" is that no one had to teach it to you. By the time your brain could reason abstractly, it had probably developed this particular skill. Maybe you have only used it to talk about Oprah Winfrey as "the Michael Jordan of the talk show." Maybe you have used it to describe the relationship of necessity and invention ("motherhood"?). Or maybe you have used it to understand the historic relationship of the Soviet republics to the Soviet Union ("satellites"). In each of these examples, the same cognitive skill is at work: your brain is seeing a similarity between relationships.

There's a lot more to talk about here. If you are an educator, you're probably thinking about how much faster a student might learn a new subject if someone could just provide the right analogies. If you are a marketer, you may be thinking about how convincing a well-chosen analogy can be. If you are a scientist or a politician, you may be getting ready to protest this post, to assert how powerfully misleading an analogy can be when one is seeking to slant the facts. Baby boomers may recall, for example, the "domino theory" that was applied in the 1960s to justify the American presence in Vietnam.

All of these uses and misuses, of course, are exactly the point. I'm not necessarily suggesting that we need to use more analogies. Astute observers can easily make the case that our media and politicians are already guilty of overuse. I'm suggesting that gaining powerful thinking results requires understanding this capability of seeing analogies - so that we know how to understand an analogy, how to analyze its meaning and implications, and what to examine to determine whether it is apt. There's plenty more to talk about on the subject.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Leveraging a 3000-mile car trip

Actually, it was a 2800-mile car trip, but round numbers are better in titles. The thing about a car trip with your life partner is that you are together - really together. Every decision is a joint decision, even the option to make a restroom stop. I imagine that this kind of togetherness could lead to some conflicts. For us, it led to the increased commitment to invest in our relationship.

Of course, it wasn't just a car trip; it was occasioned by a major change in my life. One does not lose one's job every day, particularly in one's 50s, and particularly after 12 years of varying responsibilities for the same company. This could also be an occasion for adding stress to a family relationship.

But this was something that the two of us decided we actually wanted to do - to get away from the house, the kids, her job (she still has hers), and to hit the road. To help me (adopted Minnesotan that I am) re-connect with family, friends, and professional contacts from the East Coast. To see some places we had never seen before. To have some protected time together. In this situation, the decision to stop at a lock of the C&O canal is an important decision. A decision to spend 2 hours at a husband's alma mater that he has not visited in over 30 years is an important decision. A decision to kick back for an evening, drink wine, and watch the sunset (you guessed it) is an important decision.

This is a whole different kind of leverage. It is living one's life, and sharing with a partner. Even after 20 years together, we could still appreciate that sunset.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Leveraging space and time

As a temporary diversion from the topic of leveraging thinking processes, it may be time to think about leveraging time and space. Time and space? How do you leverage abstractions over which you have no control?

I started this post well over a week ago, still working at my desk in the den at home. Then my wife and I started a driving trip to the East Coast, and I realized what I had imagined: you leverage time and space by using it - by getting outside the daily box, by breaking up the routine, by hitting the road. And the destination does not have to be earth-shaking - a visit to your folks, dinner with friends, perhaps a stop at someplace you've always wanted to see (like Fallingwater in PA). That may be all it takes. Restorative for personal perspective, if not for the soul. Highly recommended.

We now return you to the regularly scheduled blog...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

So what might a cognitive lever look like?

What if we could lean on the operating strength of our brains just as the crowbar leans on the solid strength of the side of the box whose lid is being pried? Would it be possible to get that same kind of leverage, that multiplier effect, working mentally for us? (I already regret the use of the word mentally, but I'm struggling to come up with a better choice.) What might that mean, anyway?

With the physical crowbar, we can gain leverage by positioning the claws at just the right spot - a solid spot, where they will be able to push against a flat, strong surface area and support the force that will be exerted on the other end. If we can rely on the strength of that area to hold as we push, then the force we apply at the other end will be multiplied by a factor related to the length and strength of the crowbar (the lever). How do we find that same kind of leverage in our brains?

With the crowbar, the key was finding the right spot, the right position. I'm thinking that with the brain, the key is understanding the natural functions that the brain is optimally wired to handle, and taking advantage of the way they already work. In other words, leveraging existing functions. So what are the most powerful existing functions?

We didn't know much about brain functions 100 years ago, and precious little even into the mid-twentieth century. But the explosion of new medical technologies and research over the last 50 years has provided us with a wealth of insight into how the brain works. While few researchers in the field are likely to believe that we have brain functioning nailed (ouch - painful choice of metaphors), discoveries have increasingly led to a variety of applications, some commercialized, some not, and some perhaps commercialized prematurely.

Sticking with those "yet to be commercialized," I want to put in a plug for one of my favorite practitioners/researchers/authors (yes, he is all of those) - Elkhonon Goldberg. His first two books, The Executive Brain and The Wisdom Paradox are masterpieces of making complex research understandable to lay people (like me). There is plenty to mine in these books, plenty to apply, far too much to do justice to in a blog. So I'll just highlight one piece of his findings that has stuck with me and helped me understand why some good learning and thinking tools work - even how they work.

In the second book, The Wisdom Paradox, Goldberg explains a bit about the physiological differences found between the two hemispheres of the neo-cortex, and how these differences make it possible for us to recognize and remember patterns. (NO! Don't zone out - this is good stuff!!! I'm going to attempt to summarize, just so that you get the idea. But if you're interested, don't rely on my summary - check out his book. I may not have gotten it completely right.)

It seems that the right hemisphere is built mainly with neurons that are long and skinny - very long. The connections in the right hemisphere are often relatively "long distance" connections, enabling the neo-cortex to communicate with areas all over the brain very rapidly. His theory is that this structure enhances the ability of the cell groups in the right neo-cortex to quickly make "sense" of new sensory data.

The cells in the left neocortex, on the other hand, tend to be shorter, denser, more heavily "myellinated." Myellin is formed when the same cell pathways are activated over and over. The theory is that a pattern is getting strengthened when the myellin is forming.

So here's how it works: You see, hear, feel, etc. something new. The cells in the right hemisphere of your thinking brain (neo-cortex) pick up that sensory input and very rapidly send signals all over the brain, looking for the "meaning" of this new input. (I know - Dr. Goldberg might not like that word meaning.) Somewhere in the brain there is a match, or a fit, and a message goes back to the neo-cortex that this input has been recognized (re-cognized). It fits a pattern. This instance, if it is significant enough, may now get stored as another instance of that pattern - maybe another tiny, tiny spec of a sheet of myelin.

Too minutely mechanical for you? If that's the case, here's the point: I now have a pretty good idea of how pattern recognition might work in my brain. I understand that it's OK (maybe even preferred) for me to let my mind wander in multiple directions when I'm faced with some new stimulus - sensory or otherwise. I understand that my brain will automatically want to bring me candidates for matching patterns. Maybe most important, I understand that my job is to get clear on what the new stimulus really is, so that I give my brain the chance to identify the right candidates for a matching pattern.

Still too mechanical? OK, what do you imagine is going on in your mind when you look at the faces in a picture from your 25th, or 30th, or (gulp) 35th graduating class reunion? I think I'm experiencing a recognition power unleashed between my ears that makes a simple crowbar look like a Neanderthal's tool. Unless, of course, I don't recognize any faces....

A classic concrete lever

Years ago, when I first thought about the idea of starting my own enterprise, I got as far as a core idea: leverage is the reason that people buy. People spend money on goods and services because they can get what they want faster, better, or cheaper that way than by building it from scratch. No, it's not a terribly revolutionary idea - just an evolutionary personal revelation for me.

Those of us with a sales and marketing background are familiar with multiple models for "buyers' motivations." It dawned on me that all of these models boil down to one insight: that the basic buying decision is some version of the "build versus buy" question. I don't have time to cook, but I am hungry now, so I find a restaurant. Take it further back - I love to cook, but I don't have a farm, garden, or hunting capabilities, so I go to the grocery store. In both cases, I choose to use my time doing the part I want to do, and outsource the component needs to a specialist. You could call it the Dell Computer model of life. The core idea is finding the lever that increases the value of all of the other components.

Too abstract? OK, let's get really concrete, and take a look at the classic lever:

Yes, it's a crowbar. Nothing special about it - except that it's the one I bought two decades ago when the importance of leverage first found its way into my conscious mind. The educator in me couldn't resist taking this recent picture using a common flipchart as the background - more fodder for a future post. I called this shot, taken with my low-end cell phone camera, "Crowbar on White."

The crowbar is my symbol for this personal evolutionary revelation about leverage, the value that each of us adds with our own special sauce. When all else fails, that is what each of us needs to stand on - the way in which our contribution provides leverage, value, for someone else. We put our crowbars to work opening boxes and crates for others, or, even more powerfully, we act as a crowbar in their hands. My crowbar is a concrete symbol of the value of the leverage I can provide.

Think about a crowbar for a minute. It is a simple, elegant machine. Its shape and strength are optimized to multiply the force that one can exert through probing and prying, especially prying. As a former teacher, I recognize prying as a metaphor for self-directed research. Am I going too far afield?

What is your crowbar? And how can you use it to help someone today?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The power of a lever

Some dictionary definitions really say it all, giving you exactly the inspiration you need in an official quote to take on the world. Others may leave you a bit disappointed, like this one, from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, copyright 1978 (that happens to be the one on my shelf):

"Lever, n. 1. a simple machine consisting of a rigid body, typically a metal bar, pivoted on a fixed fulcrum. 2. a projecting handle used to adjust or operate a mechanism. 3. a means of accomplishment."

Why did they stop with #3? I get the importance of the concreteness of the first two definitions - if I see the physical lever, I have a better understanding of how it might work. But it's the third one that really interests me. To be fair to American Heritage, there is a neat little diagram in the margin, too, that shows how the weights and forces work in three types of levers. And, I will admit, the definition a few words down for leverage gets closer to what I'm looking for: "Positional advantage; power to act effectively." And, I guess I have to also admit that the primary mission of the dictionary is probably not to provide catchy quotes for a consultant's blog. Granted, all of the above. But let's get to the point.

The power of a lever starts with this concept of "positional advantage." Very concretely, where you place the lever does determine its effectiveness. That's true.

I'd also like to suggest that in today's all-at-once, everywhere, global-everything society, that advantage has been de-coupled from physical position. In other words, you can get the power of a lever, or at least, power analogous to the way a lever works ("leverage") in lots of different ways. Physical position is only one of them.

As soon as you can conceive of a "position" that is not physical, you can take this discussion of leverage in lots of different directions. Without even checking the Oxford English Dictionary, we can guess that the use of position as a verb might have started at least by the first quarter of the last century, when sports of all types became livelihoods, and people were hired to position the players (among other things). In marketing, for example (one of the fields in which I have some work experience), position became a metaphor a couple of decades ago, thanks to Al Ries and Jack Trout. And a discussion of leverage in business can easily become a seminar series.

But I'm calling this blog "non-random," so I probably ought to stick to the point. The purpose of this oddly named blog is to explore mental leverage; specifically, what it might mean to leverage the built-in power of the human brain. That's where we're headed (pun intended).