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.