Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

If intentional collaboration is the productive exchange of big ideas, then philosophy is an important foundation. From Socrates to Aristotle to Kant to Kuhn to Senge (and a host of others in between) there is a rich heritage of thought on the pursuit of understanding, with a host of cognitive models to help us work on the hardest problems.

For those willing to do the work – and it truly is work, no silver bullets to be found here – improving how we search for knowledge is central to all manners of collaborative solutions, framed alternatively as innovation (in the commercial context), or emergent outcomes (in the context of complexity). That puts intentional collaboration on the critical path to solving virtually all critical social, commercial and public sector issues.

The stakes are high.

Ultimately it comes down to a decision: are we willing to embrace and foster the hard work of critical thinking?

I’m neither philosopher, nor academic. But if Socrates, arguably the father of critical thought, were to give a guest lecture at a local college, I’d be on the front row with my laptop, taking notes.

At some level, I think I’ve always had a hunger to understand.

But even with a healthy bias for learning, it’s easy to lapse into a mode of passive acceptance. We’re deluged with so much information, it seems increasingly natural to tune much of it out. But where do we draw the line? Are we losing our intellectual edge? What legacy are we leaving for future generations?

Critical thinking may be our last line of defense. We need to unpack it and understand it, and frankly, we need to get better at it.

Let me offer a working definition:

“Critical thinking is the skill set we use to challenge our initial, surface observations of a topic or insight, enabling a rigorous understanding of root causes, relationships and meaning.”

The rigor that goes into critical thinking is among the main reasons we struggle with it so. It’s hard work. And it takes more time. Deep learning requires more than just surface observation or memorization of fact, which has implications in many important areas, ranging from business to education.

Let’s recap some subject domains – past and present – where critical thinking plays a key role. This list will serve as a guide for subsequent posts, as I did in my 2010 culture series. I’ll update this outline and add links as we go in the months ahead.

  1. Philosophy (posted 5/21). How we think. Our rational minds use principals of logic every day to solve problems, but we pay little heed to the dynamics of reason, and the role our mental filters play. Tracing the heritage through Socrates, Aristotle, .. (ok, it’s a long list).
  2. Language (posted 8/16). How we communicate. Language is the essential foundation for framing our inquiries and our proposed solutions. Our words matter greatly, but we give them so little thought. Foundations in Wittgenstein.
  3. Metaphor (posted 8/31). How we find common ground. The power of metaphor in story and discourse has been central to our social learning process since we began to converse with our parents. Are we trained in the art of story telling? Is the intentional use of metaphor a lost art? A look at Lakoff on an important topic.
  4. Knowledge Frameworks (10/31). How we attack ‘the problem of knowledge’. This post will trace two evolutionary threads over the last 2500 years. Both are rooted in antiquity, but their most recognizable branches are empirical science and rationalist philosophy. The two roads diverged some time ago. Can we contemplate the paths coming back together?
  5. 21st Century Kant: Complexity (1/22). How we adapt. We’ve learned some behaviors of complex systems, but how can critical thinkers make sense of what seem to be increasingly unsolvable problems?  Can a new semantic analysis of Kan’t Categorical Framework provide any insight?
  6. Public Education. How we learn. This is doubtless the most fertile ground for this discussion in the modern day. Few argue the importance of teaching critical thinking, but to what degree are teachers able to foster it? What level of command should high school graduates possess?
  7. Business. How we innovate. There’s a raft of challenges in the commercial space, where inertia from our past successes has led to an endemic lack of critical thinking. What skills must executives employ to get ahead of the curve? (I’ve expanded on approaches for workplace at Talent Culture, and found a useful innovation frame started by Pat Lefler at Blogging Innovation).
  8. Thought Leadership. How we inspire. From academia to corporate enterprise to the political realm, our leaders want us to follow them. But do their messages makes sense to us at a cognitive level, or are we simply responding to emotional appeals?
  9. Collaboration. How we engage. We need to unlock new ways to interact in teams, bringing the potential of networked critical thinkers to bear on difficult problems. How do we get there? (see also Design Thinking)

No wonder there’s energy on critical thinking from all sides. There’s enough research in this framing for the balance of 2011. At this point, we will definitely spill over into 2012.

As we explore the depths and the many dimensions of this topic, we’ll need care to navigate the chasm between keeping it simple (aka accessible) versus the demands of academic rigor. Both are important.

Challenge me to strike the right balance.

As always, your comments and tweets will help expand and enrich the conversation. I look forward to them.

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Collaborative Culture: Peter Senge on the Foundations of Organizational Learning

CHARLOTTE, NC. January 2011, by

On the road to unlocking collaboration, our culture series has taken us through a review of Schein’s many layers, Handy’s four structural models, and Kotter’s eight steps for change – lots of ways to slice and dice the cultural barriers.

To me, it was important progress and worth the deep dive, tapping dozens upon dozens of insightful comments, for which I remain grateful.

Looking back, I’m increasingly convinced:

Cultures can, over time, be intentionally shaped and directed by visionary and resilient leaders. But the complexity of organizations, markets and other social ecosystems invariably worsens with scale, raising the bar for mitigation ever higher.

We need some breakthrough thinking. How can we foster collaboration and cultures that encourage it?

Where do we turn now?

Peter Senge, in his 1990 watershed work The Fifth Discipline (latest ed. 2006), laid an important foundation for Learning Organizations that still resonates today. As we look to frame the core dynamics of effective collaboration and the many challenges of the necessary culture change, I think we need to go back to the source.

While Senge advocated 5 critical disciplines for the modern organization, I struck gold on several foundational takeaways, each resonating with my views on collaborative innovation. Not all of them qualify as ‘disciplines’ as he defined them, but they all seem to have strong relevance to the challenges at hand.

Let’s look at them:

  1. the power of dialog to weave new insights on broader, divergent ways, in his words “open to the flow of a larger intelligence” and “taking us in directions we could never have imagined.” (is it just me, or does that sound a lot like Twitter?)
  2. exposing the vital role of context as the critical lens through which our ideas relate to the world, to each other, and to potential innovations
  3. understanding our social ecosystems, with a nod to “systems thinking”, exposing relationships across parts of the whole; this was an important stake in the ground for interdisciplinary thinking, concepts at the core of the collaborative model and Senge’s view of organizational learning
  4. recognizing that cultures can and must promote learning through deeper inquiry, encouraging us to challenge the rigor of our thinking; ‘critical thinking’ has lost focus in the commercial space and across western society, creating a fundamental problem in education priorities (but that’s another stream!).
  5. harnessing heuristics and paradigms to capture the mental power of abstraction, which he called “mental models;” these help us frame ideas, solutions, and (eco)system relationships in visual, more intuitive terms
  6. importance of the study of nature’s patterns, many holding secrets to how our world and our problems relate, with key messages for ecosystem sustainability and a means to understand complexity around us.

Senge looked to future organizations to master these challenges, becoming increasingly skilled at complex problem solving, and increasingly motivated to take on harder problems, adapting to handle more complex environments and challenges. Successful organizations, he hoped, would demonstrate resilience, and an expanding, repeatable capacity for learning.

Like many visionaries, Senge challenged future leaders to pick up the cause and drive these conceptual ideas into practice. Where are those leaders when we need them?

Some of them may be staring back at us in the mirror.

As we depart from Senge (with much to mull over!) let me direct your attention to the work of Marcia Conner, who has produced a series of books that lay out much of the work ahead in crafting a viable, sustainable learning organization.

Perhaps you’ve connected with her at #lrnchat, on Twitter?

Read up, and listen in.

Ultimately, we must promote cultures that value both learning and collaboration. That’s where innovation and great ideas come from.

We’re at a crossroads, of sorts, and here’s why:

Talking around notions of collaborative cultures is easy, in the same way people banter about collaborative innovation. Small wonder there’s such a buzz about it. But fostering cultures that spawn collaborative behaviors is hard work. I wonder: do we have the resolve to take it on?

Ahead: I’ll provide more specifics on the mechanics of effective collaboration. The journey continues, and we’re picking up the pace.

Here’s some additional dialog just posted on Quora, based on this thread.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Parent Engagement: Exploring Key Roles in the K12 Ecosystem

From my experience, parents want their kids to have a great education, and most are willing to pitch in.

On a good day, it might mean helping them study for a killer algebra test. On a bad day, it’s a more thankless task: helping them reevaluate priorities, prying fingers from the high tech keypads, smartphones and controllers stashed under every pillow.

Education is a complex topic, which deserves and is getting much discussion. But as a parent, I think understanding our stake in the process is an increasingly critical conversation, one that doesn’t always get air time.

I’d like to frame the question like this:

With school districts grappling with troublesome finances and even more troublesome test scores, what roles can and should parents play in the education process?

K12 Education today functions like an ‘ecosystem’. Most of the many interdependent stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, administrators, legislators, policy makers, text book companies) work diligently, but not always in tandem. No one entity has full control of the process. Across the diverse stakeholder groups are multiple, often conflicting objectives. Each depends on the others in the food chain for the system to function, but there is little optimization taking place.

Across the education ecosystem, too often it’s become a challenge of survival.

You may have seen “Waiting for Superman” and learned that across the nation, drop out rates are accelerating. Or maybe you saw “Race to Nowhere” about the pressure schools and parents are together putting on children, and how we must reevaluate how to define success. A more extreme example is the “Parent Trigger” where states allow parent-led coalitions to takeover problem schools.

While education leaders have much to do in sorting this out, parents have an important voice. We often forget that kids acquire language, behavior, and foundational learning skills before they set foot in a public school. Approaches will vary, but parents have the first crack at making learning a priority, and must work ever harder to sustain that. Schools, in turn, must understand what the family is experiencing, to effectively participate in an open collaboration.

Let’s tee up a few discussion topics to help us get at the core challenges of Parent Engagement.

Q1. What is the ideal role of parents in the education process?

Q2. How could we, as parents, help in a meaningful way? Here are some starter ideas, to get you thinking (do these resonate?)

  1. quality time on foundational skills (especially pre-K)
  2. finding creative ways and times to teach (story, play)
  3. fostering respect for knowledge and learning
  4. focus on resilience
  5. focus on mastery (deep learning) over performance (test scores)
  6. focus on critical thinking
  7. making innovation in education a priority

Q3. Who helps parents navigate these challenges, and should schools play a role in supporting them?

Q4. Can parents and teachers find the quality time required?

Education is undergoing some much needed transformation. From multiple sources, we can see innovative schools working diligently on new approaches. But time is short. And that’s an issue on many levels.

I sense that kids today start kindergarten well behind the power curve, leaving parents with few choices and many frustrations, and often no sense of what they could be doing to help.

No silver bullets here. But that’s all the more reason for the conversation.

We’ll tee this up at our weekly #ECOSYS chat on WEDS 1/5 at 9pET. This opens our 2011 Education Topic Agenda, on our wiki, under “T1 Parent Engagement”.

As always, please share your thoughts as comments, I’d love to discuss your perspective.

Election 2010 and Social Media: What are impacts to campaigns, results, and the future of politics?

As election 2010 winds down at the polls, analysts on all the networks are scurrying to forecast results, identify trends, and discuss what it all means.

It’s difficult not to speculate: is social media playing a role in 2010?

SM gained considerable attention in Obama’s successful 2008 Presidential bid, in much the same way that television made a big splash in politics in 1960. Any communication channel that reaches the masses in new ways almost certainly has some impact, potentially even changing the rules. And the general consensus is that the impact extends beyond the U.S. to other corners of the globe.

With that said, what is the nature of the impact? Is it lasting, or a flash in pan?

On WEDS 11/3 at 1pET, #SMCHAT will explore these questions with some rigor, to get at the underlying dynamics. We will discuss the nature of SM impact to date and ask ourselves what may happen in the future.

By way of framing, here are the questions for our next live chat:

  1. To what degree can campaigns expect to reach additional and/or undecided voters?
  2. Can the younger demographics of Facebook drive material differences in election results?
  3. Realistically, can voters be swayed by sites, blog posts or tweets?
  4. Do non-profits share a politician’s goals of fund-raising, community building and focused messaging? (looking for synergies, lessons learned)
  5. As Government 2.0 and the Open Government initiatives move to reshape government collaboration and accountability, will there be a ‘pull through’ effect that drives more online, interactive campaign strategies?
  6. Will voter engagement via SM be a long-term game changer for politics?

If you have opinions, insight or additional questions, please post that here, or on Twitter. You can join the live conversation using Tweetchat at the appointed hour.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts and have the chance to discuss them.

Hope to see you at #SMCHAT.

Catalysts for Social Change: Tapping Christensen’s Insights on Public Education

Thought Leaders, by definition, play a valuable role in helping to shape our perspectives. It’s not that they have all the answers. But they can serve as a catalyst for new thinking. The very best ones will challenge our world view, reframing our old paradigms and giving us new tools to attack long-standing problems.

As Ecosys continues to explore the many challenges of our Education ecosystem, we see value in “checking-in” to those insights.

Our discussions can’t help but be enriched and further informed.

Tonight, WEDS 10/6 at 9pET, we will look to the work of Clay Christensen in “Disrupting Class” (2008) to discuss his deep and thought provoking insights on social innovation, in the specific context of public education.

Click here to join the conversation.

It’s worth noting that Christensen’s heavily circulated work on ‘disruptive innovation’ (which we’ll discuss) is not limited to education, but also areas like healthcare. This is significant, because our foundational ecosys framing shares a similar broad base. The thought process? Large, complex, interdependent ecosystems of people and organizations have trouble working resolving conflict. The larger and more mature the ecosystem, the more deeply the traditional beliefs and paradigms are held. Environments and social realities change, but often, the ‘system’ struggles to keep pace.

We can’t do justice to “Disrupting Class” or disruptive innovation in one 2 hour chat. But let’s try to get our arms around the following main points.

Q1 Learning Intelligences & Custom Learning (ch. 1)

  • Is there consensus on different learning styles & intelligences per Howard Gardner (80’s)?
  • To what degree are the benefits/advantages of custom learning embraced?

Q2 The “Factory Model” of Public Education (ch. 1)

  • Want to discuss foundations of the standards movement in historical context, fueled by rapidly expanding populations. Over the ensuing decades, what has scaled? And what hasn’t?

Q3 Textbooks & the Establishment (ch. 5, 7)

  • It seems important that uncovering prevailing paradigms & understand resistance to change, per Kuhn (60’s)
  • Is there an appetite for evolving how teachers teach (“coaches”, “content architects”), and how students learn?

Q4 Disruptive Innovation (ch. 3, 4)

  • Christensen suggests local innovation focus where there is no prevailing competition. Do his target examples resonate? (Pre-K, home school, tutoring, AP, credit recovery, special needs)
  • Is “student-centered” learning viable and what is the potential of technology to enable this?

Q5 Framing Success (p. 185-190)

  • Engagement is critical, because “where people are plotting change, they are often talking past each other”. Agree? How do we get there?
  • Need common solution language, so we must “negotiate” and use diverse change tools – to coerce, guide & inspire (as appropriate)

Do Christensen’s perspectives resonate with your experience?

We’ll spend 20 minutes framing and discussing each of the above 5 topics tonight, and will capture what can be captured in our wiki. There will certainly be more to come after that.

RESULTS OF THIS CHAT ARE POSTED ON THE ECOSYS WIKI, HERE.

While this is just the inception of our Thought Leader series, you can probably tell from our framing how much work lies ahead.

As always, we’re up to the challenge.

We hope you’ll join our conversation.

Pathways for change in the K12 Ecosystem

It’s easy to toss aside the notion of meaningful social change. For starters, you’d have lots of company. But let’s take a look at an area with mounting problems and the highest of stakes:

Un-packing the Challenges of K12 Education

By any measure, our western culture and economy – and within that universe, our education systems – have grown so large and intertwined that we quickly scoff at the notion of doing something to improve them. Countless well-intended efforts have failed. Or they succeed for a bit locally, but then can’t scale. Frustrations mount. Those inside the hardened silos of our aging institutions are just as trapped by their realities as those on the outside.

It’s not a lack of passion or desire. It’s just that, as a society, we’ve become overwhelmed by ‘the system’. It’s been going on for a long time – by most accounts, over 100 years. Quite simply, it feels like we’ve lost control, and in some important ways, we have.

What if we changed the rules?

The problem with social, cultural and economic forces – the complex result of human interaction – is that the outcomes don’t align with our intentions. Most of us were reared in a simple (linear, Newtonian) world of ’cause and effect’, and we expect a simple answer to every problem.

Why can’t we just fix schools? Or healthcare? Or the economy?

What we’re learning is that complex systems – especially the human variety – work and behave very differently. We must focus on actors, motivators, outcomes and patterns.

We must attack these problems in a different way.

EcoSys is a social innovation group that started in August 2009. The goal of the group has been to apply a new science – the study of complexity in social ecosystems – to the hardened problems we face as a society.

Intriguing? Ambitious? Yes, on both counts. But open your mind for a moment.

Can you imagine the potential of global thought leaders discovering a focused problem-solving dialog, adding to it, and ultimately building a shared knowledge base of solutions?

Can you imagine an objective exchange of ideas and concerns, shared publicly in the spirit of collaboration, subordinating agendas and special interests in favor of meaningful, scalable innovations?

Can you see social media – Twitter, in fact – as an engine for change, with the connections of each contributor serving as pathways to deeper insight and focused action?

That work is underway, and we’ve posted some K12 progress here.

We’ve still got some work to do on it, as we continue to refine our issue framing.

Are you ready to Engage?  Join us each MONDAY at 9pET using hashtag #ecosys. You can use TweetChat  (try this link), TweetDeck, TweetGrid or HootSuite to join us. Just be sure the #ecosys hashtag is in each tweet, and search on that tag.  Bring your insights and an open mind. It’s free, unaffiliated, and destined to make a difference.

How do we know?

Because 3 years in and some +40,000 tweets later, our topics are gaining traction and spontaneous conversations are starting to break out. We call that momentum. And we’re working to take a step to the next level.

Stay tuned. And welcome to the K12 ecosys.

Original framing blog
Full process
EcoDNA (our first emergent innovation)
EcoSYS founders

The DNA of Collaboration: Unlocking the Potential of 21st Century Teams (where Ecosys is a case study)

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Kotter’s 8-Steps: Leading Change in the 21st Century Organization

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2010, by

Is there a good way to attack change in organizations? To influence (and maybe even ‘fix’) the complex org cultures that drive the collective behavior of their members?

That’s the focus of this post, the 5th in my series on culture change.

John Kotter gave us perhaps the best-circulated approach for change in his HBR paper that turned into the classic: Leading Change (1996). With the caveat that there are no silver bullets I believe Kotter provides a strong, intuitive and timeless approach to grappling with change.

Unfortunately, too many have given up along the way.

Organization change and, more specifically, changing an organization’s culture, share a common scope and scale. They are, in many ways, intertwined. That means Kotter can take us in the right direction. Let me recap his 8-point outline here, providing some 21st century insight and ‘solution language’ of my own to update his framing.

  1. Urgency. Per Kotter, one of the biggest enemies is complacency. Why change? Keeping things the way they are is easier. That may be. But the path to major improvements of any kind will be held hostage with this mindset. Low standards or segmented (silo’d) accountabilities can create a false sense that eveything is okay. Change requires everyone to get beyond that comfort zone, to “step up” for something new, different, and better.
  2. Coalition. Inspiring and sponsoring change is the work of leaders, so it’s critical that they engage. That means an oversight group that includes respected leaders is key. Without it, the organization will sense management’s lack of investment and will fail to participate.
  3. Vision. The organization needs to know where it is being asked to go. Having a strong, unambiguous statement that frames the future state is the only way for the organization to focus on it. A well-written vision is motivating, inspiring the organization to come together.
  4. Communication. Many change efforts fail because they don’t reach far enough into the organization. An effective communication program makes the work of the change initiative part of the organization’s daily affairs, embedding messages in as many artifacts and venues as possible. Think ‘saturation’ and you’ll be on the right track. But it needs to be simple and actionable, to retain people’s attention.
  5. Empowerment. Employees often don’t feel they can influence the vision. If they feel disconnected and removed from the issues, they will feel ineffective and powerless, and will not to want to waste their time. The key is to establish a link between how specific employee and departmental actions can realize the vision. Barriers must be removed. And management must start letting go of their unilateral decisions, trusting larger cross-functional teams to work things out. There is less control and predictability in this mode, but empowerment creates the conditions where new ideas can spark and flourish.
  6. Momentum. Major change takes time, and there will be detractors. Kotter notes that posting interim gains drives credibility when it is most needed – on the long road toward implementation. Focus here also puts energy to fine tuning the vision, applying lessons learned along the way.
  7. Integration. I love Kotter’s quote “resistance always waits to reassert itself,” so ‘consolidating gains’ is important. If change initiatives have structures that sit outside of daily operations, we must weave the new programs, policies, people and structures back in. If change remains outside the mainstream for too long, it can seem foreign to the rest of the organization.
  8. Anchoring. The organizations culture must reflect the new changes if they are to survive long-term. Organizations tend to have long memories, and if the leadership changes or the initiative is called into question, there will be many who offer the “old way” as an alternative solution to all the change. That is why bringing the culture forward to align with the change is critical.

Kotter says “human beings are emotional creatures, and we ignore that at our peril.” I agree. I put it like this:

It is not enough to make the case in facts and figures. People have to believe in the change, own it, and live it. Ensuring organization culture incorporates the change elements is the only way to ensure long-term viability.

Again, it would be a mistake to simply follow these steps (or others like them) and expect change to result directly. As we’ve discussed at each post in this series, the many dimensions, structures, and complexities in organizations create challenges at every turn. Leaders recognize this, and adapt their approach over the life of the change effort.

At the core of it, is a commitment. They can’t ever lose faith. To lose forward momentum is to accept defeat.

We started talking in January on barriers to ‘2.0’, with the idea that ‘social media’ integration and, more broadly, ‘innovation’ itself faced many cultural barriers. Leading coordinated change initiatives (vs. traditional ‘change management’) appears to be the only truly viable path forward. It is truly ‘no small task’. But that’s not to say it’s impossible. It’s simply hard work.

Call me old fashioned, but the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be done. I say (again): let’s get going.