Wednesday, July 3, 2013

All You Need to Do

I'm continually amazed at the lengths to which people will go to avoid thinking.

By "thinking", I mean the synthesis of ideas and solutions versus the acquisition or regurgitation of ideas and solutions.

People will spend hours googling answers, thousands of dollars hiring others, and years ignoring an ongoing problem rather than simply stopping to think of an answer.

By "thinking", I mean, figuring out.

The availability of Internet search engines, downloadable books and manuals, youtube how-to videos and a generally inexhaustible supply of information has only served to exacerbate the phenomenon; statistically speaking, people no longer think.

By "thinking", I mean, being resourceful.

The phenomenon seems to know no racial or ethnic boundaries. It affects young and old alike. However, it does seem to skew towards those with advanced degrees, i.e., the more advanced the degree, the more likely one is to not think.

By "thinking", I mean, translating something you read into a visual representation.

It's this last example of thinking I find most telling. I work frequently with university professors who've received grants to conduct research projects using computers and mobile devices. The grant proposals always lack the specificity to design or develop what is required, so we'll get together and talk about what it is they really want to do.

I'll ask the professor what exactly she wants to do and invariably she'll answer with an unstructured brain-dump of miscellany that provides no additional clarity or insight. The lack of structure will be multidimensional with no sense of priorities, no sense of timing, no common threads of reasoning or motivation. So, I'll ask questions.

The problem is that questions can take a long time, a very long time, at least longer than the time we've scheduled. So, I'll suggest that it might be useful for the professor to sketch a storyboard of how he wants his application to flow. What happens first? Who's involved? What is required of each involved person? What does each person do?

Storyboarding or sketching a sequence is one of the best methods I know for creating clarity and structure, and driving to specificity. It is something that we all learn to do as children, something that comes quite naturally. It's something that's easy when you know what you're talking about (e.g., retelling a past experience) and something that can be quite difficult when you don't (e.g., feigning to retell a past experience).  Storyboarding is something with which principal investigators (PIs) on well funded research projects often struggle.

So what do I do? I offer to help her with her storyboard, i.e., I offer to be her outsourced thinker.

Now you'd think that anyone who thinks (specially anyone whose job is thinking) would insist on doing the thinking himself, that he might even be offended by the suggestion that he outsource thinking to me (specially considering that I'm not an expert on his subject matter).

You'd think that.

So, I'll organize and structure the experiment. I'll make priority calls. I'll determine the data that can be gleaned and the insights it might yield.

Every once in a while, I'll have a question along the way. If the answer involves information that can be found in the literature, then the professor responds quickly and easily. If the answer involves mental processing (i.e., thought), she'll defer to someone on her team (e.g., her statistician).

I find the idea of a "scientist" deferring to a statistician to be particularly disconcerting. The idea that a scientist would require a statistician to do his work is like that of a policeman requiring a bodyguard to do his. One cannot claim to be a scientist and yet require a statistician to understand one's own research project. Sigh...

All said, professors or principal investigators will go to great lengths to avoid thinking. They'll go to even greater lengths to convince others that they do in fact, think. This wouldn't be all that great a problem save for one thing; it's these same professors who are ostensibly teaching the best and the brightest to think.

System-ness
My speciality in computer science is systems. I love to conceive, design and develop large-scale systems. I've built many over the years and have learned a lot about them.

One of the things about systems that people frequently fail to understand is how systems fail. The great thing about a good system is that it provides you leverage; a little effort yields a big result. The problem is that the leverage is unbiased. It can yield a big result that is good; it can yield a big result that is bad. As such, when systems fail, they don't "kind of fail", they fail completely.

If you catch the failure early enough, you can correct for it. If you don't, if the failure passes the tipping point, then there's no solution. You simply replace or reboot the system.

In corporations, the tipping point occurs when the poor employees become the ones doing the hiring. In education, the tipping point occurs when people who avoid thought become the ones doing the teaching.

The solution is easy, at least on an individual basis. All you have to do is to avoid not-thinking, to spend time contemplating rather than googling, to take the first crack at the repair rather than hiring the repairman, to visualize how it works rather than watching a video, to hear the notes in your head before you play the keys.

The solution is also easy on a general basis; when systems fail, they fail big. It just that it generally takes more time.

Specifically, the timing is up to you.

To what lengths do you go to avoid thinking? To what lengths do you go to avoid not-thinking?

Happy Wednesday,
Teflon

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