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.

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