"See with their eyes, instead of their mind."

John Maeta and Diego Rodriguez have an interesting conversation about simplicity, hosted by the fellows at 37 Signals.  A comment that John makes is a valid insight about learning.

I’m trying to reduce what I teach. I used to try to mix computation and visual art. I realize now that MIT students get enough computation for their entire lifetime. I’m trying to simplify things by just teaching them "how to see."

Learning to see is an important skill in leadership. It is a kin to learning to listen.

Last weekend, our scout troop went camping as we do every month.  One of the things that we try to instill in the scouts are the skills that can help them survive in a time of crisis. This weekend we worked on observation skills.  Ever tried to describe the difference between a maple and an oak leaf.  Not as easy as it seems. 

We played a game called Kim's Game, named after Rudyard Kipling's Kim.  Each patrol was given a limited amount of time depending on their size to look at a collection of objects placed on a mat.  Then they had to hike 100 yards back up a hill, and write them down.  Three patrols.  Eleven objects. One patrol got 10 of the 11.  No one. No one, except the two scouts who put the game together, new the precise number of objects. 

We then talked about how observation, using one's eyes, is important in knowing whether one is on the right trail or lost.  Observation for a hiker means that even without a map and compass, you can figure out where you are. Just be observing the attitude of the sun in relation to your shadow can provide enough information to know where you are.

Michael Polanyi in his book Personal Knowledge has a chapter on Objectivity. What he says there is that theories help to objectify our subjective experiences.  A theory is like a map. It could be wrong or it could be right, but it isn't something subject to the heighten emotions of fear at being lost.  Theories, like maps, like categories of observation provide a way for us to know where we are. And the simpler it is without being simplistic enables us to have confidence about the direction we must take.

After we played our observation games, we went hiking.  At a juncture in the trail, we talked about what they observed, and some of them realized that this was a trail that they had passed the day before, just coming at it from a different direction.

The point I believe John Maeta is making is that our minds can construct a picture of reality that is not necessarily accurate. It requires testing by observation and based on his first rule of simplicity thoughtful reduction.  There is at work a contiuum between the abstract world of ideas and the concrete world of sense experience.  And the only way to make sense of them is to work at the testing of ideas through practice and observation. 

I know this all seems a bit theoretical, but not if you find yourself a mile and a half down the wrong trail at 7 in the evening and at least 5 miles from your expectation destination. Then the practice of applying theory - map and compass - to observation - "Where the heck am I?" will make more sense.  Believe me I know.

Ideas, Narrative and Practice

Tony Quinlan makes an excellent point in a comment here
Here's his comment followed by my reflections.

You make a good point about the difficulty with abstract thought and ideas in relation to practice. One of the techniques that I've seen used very effectively, and Steve Denning talks about in The Springboard, is that of examples of similar ideas in action elsewhere.
Using stories from other organisations (and, sometimes, ones that aren't immediately obvious in their relationship to current internal issues) avoids the standard traps of "oh, but they can do it over there" and all the other excuses we come up with for other people's successes when we're not succeeding ourselves.
But, crucially, listening to examples triggers people's thought processes. They get the abstract idea and start to look at possible practice immediately.
The difficulty then becomes, how do we collect and spot those stories?  And that's another problem altogether for leaders!

Tony Quinlan
Narrate Consulting

Here are my thoughts on Tony's comment.

Here's what I've found that adds a third level to what you describe.

An abstract idea that is described without a real world context, ie. in a narrative or story, is difficult for many people to understand. The criticism is that we are being too theoretical, too intellectual or too unclear.  A story helps to place the idea in a context that is understandable, so that they can see the value of it.

What I've discovered is that there is still a gap between seeing the practical value of an idea and knowing how to do something with it. What I have learned to do is take people through a process of discovery by asking questions.  For example:

What about this story makes sense to you?
What is most appealing?
If you were to try this, what do you think would be your first step?

I find then they begin to learn to apply an idea, and not merely be inspired by it.

Real learning comes through practice. Tacit knowledge should be the key goal for learning.  Yet our educational systems are really organized around learning ideas and their values, rather than learning the utility of ideas in practice.  Part of the reason for this I've concluded is that there really is no consequence to knowing an idea and not practicing.  Only those situation where we really need to have our skills sharpe do we learn to translate abstract ideas into action.

Let me illustrate this with a story.  At lunch today, I was talking with a friend who is a commerical contractor.  One of my sons worked for him this summer.  We were talking about a range of topics, one being the quality of the workers that he hires and how difficult it is to find sub-contractors who can do really techincal work. He made the comment that we try to educate too many people to be English majors, instead of training people in the trades.

The philosopher Aristotle wrote about learning as the mastering of a discipline. He saw in the importance of mentorship as the means to help people acquire the knowledge to perform well ones skills.  In this respect, we learn to translate ideas into action by practicing with someone who has had the same training and experience.  Too much of our educational focus is on the mastering of ideas, not the mastering of the practice of ideas.

So, from my perspective, storytelling is one of the mentors tools for helping people learn to translate ideas into action.  And for those of us who are in the consulting business, I think this is one of the most important and enjoyable aspects of what we do.  As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime."

Not All Who Wander are Lost, Yet Some Are

The other day I had an appointment in the Bank of America Tower in Charlotte. Its the tallest of the buildings seen from Grandfather Mountain 87 miles away in Avery County.

Not having ever been in the building, and never in the maze of shops that connected a number of buildings together, I was lost. Twice I went to the wrong building, even talked my way up to the 47th floor of the wrong building. I finally found my appointment, and we had a good laugh.

Signage ... no signage. In the artificial human environment of urban skyscrapers where one can move from building to building without leaving with Elvis, signage is an important consideration. Turns out that no only was I lost, but I parked in the wrong lot. So, there you go. Wandering and lost.

What are the signs that leaders should see to tell them that they are wandering, lacking direction and perspective. And does not seeing the signs, and continuing to search for the right, without asking for directions, mean that we are lost in the isolation of our own humiliation?

The other lesson I gained from my foray around the downtown Charlotte Overstreet Malll is that if you don't ask for directions life, you have a good chance of getting lost. And if you make the wrong assumptions, you may find yourself in the wrong building. So, when in doubt ask.

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Mentoring, Consulting and Learning

Brad Respess has two compelling posts on mentoring and consulting.  In the first - Mentor Lost, Mentor Gained? - he celebrates the work of a consultant, Bas Hofland, as “possibly the most brilliant mind and best critical thinker in the industry.”  High praise, indeed. 

Every consultant would love to have a client as celebratory as Brad.  Of course, every client would love to have a consultant the quality of Bas.  It is great to see the perfect marriage of client need and consultant expertise. 

In the second posting - Mentoring Ain't Easy - he writes about the importance of mentoring.  He describes the difference between the Greek and Hebrew learning models as he learned in a Sunday school class.  While I am supportive of the point Brad is making, the distinctions made by his Sunday school teacher are historically inaccurate. 

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