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Navigating Context: Why Focus is critical for solving 21st-century problems

soulofmedium-1

“Where does a system start and end?” asked the bird outside the cage.

CHARLOTTE, NC – May 2020.  With the global spread of COVID, I’ve been thinking about the many factors that influence social ecosystems large and small, and our (in)ability to affect outcomes, at least to the degree we’d prefer. We just want it to stop. But it’s not that simple.

There are some important stories to unpack.

Unlike the structured, linear, mechanized world that we’ve spent a century learning to control, we’re now realizing that the vast majority of the world’s social ecosystems, and all of it’s natural ones – including humans, and unfortunately, viruses – are guided by unstructured, dynamic modes of interaction. It’s the organic, adaptive approach of complex systems.  It’s a place of uncertain outcomes, but significant implications.  It’s how plants and animals – and pandemics – evolve according to diverse environmental factors.

We can’t know with certainty how these systems will evolve. There are simply too many variables.

We can, however, learn to better anticipate trends and patterns, and perhaps even have some influence on things. Economists and meteorologists – good working examples of what I call “mainstream complexity” – can report some forecasting improvements over the last few decades, fueled by data, tools and experience. We still can’t stop tornados and hurricanes, but we better understand them. And now, living a global pandemic, we’re consumed in learning how to “flatten the curve” via social distancing, which is proving a critical (but still evolving) mission.

Getting our heads around complex systems is not easy, especially in social spaces like teams, where work needs to get done.

This is where context enters the narrative.

A DIALOG ON ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS

I was part of a fascinating conversation in July 2018 among several thinkers in the compexity space, related to systems thinking.  The pop-up discussion was on the challange of multiple system layers, as they interact in shifting contexts. To paraphrase the thread, it’s very hard to visualize all the layers of a complex system interacting with all the external variables, in one coherent view.

Our sense-making abilities and mental models, while powerful, have practical limits.

I’ve always loved Twitter because insightful conversations can “pop-up” around useful hashtags. Here’s one on the topic of systems:

Jan Höglund – @janhoglund – 3:40 AM – Jul 11, 2018 – “Not only is everything radically connected, but it is all moving, and with every move the nature and impact of the interrelationships can change. Worse yet, the rate of movement is random and differential.”  ~Harrison Owen, Wave Rider, p.49 #quote #systemsthinking
Maz Iqbal – @maz_iqbal 3:52 AM – Jul 11, 2018Deep assumption that is worth challenging: that there is the context, and there is the system, and the two are distinct or can be treated as distinct. @NoraBateson what do you say?
Nora Bateson@NoraBateson – 4:34 AM – Jul 11, 2018It depends on where you draw the edges of the context or system. There are contexts within contexts & systems within systems. And—For many the notion of context is another word for system. Interestingly people are more inclined to think about system change than context change.

 

My takeaway on this?  When thinking about complexity in layers of systems, its easy to “max out” due to the number of variables and interactions. Our mental models of the moment essentially crash. We need a way to manage this.

When we’re sense-making, we need simplifying assumptions.  Our mental models can help us. All models seek to approximate what’s really happening in front of us, and a useful model needs to allow enough clarity to make sense of what’s going on, at a level that makes sense for the problem at hand. We can’t “let all the complexity in” at once, or we drown in information. So in the above example, we must simplify things, by saying to ourselves, usually subconsciously “I’m in a reasonably trusting group that needs my input; let me focus on the question.”  Anything short of that personal investment finds us in another useless meeting, with limited value and virtually no collaboration.

Holding context – think of it as focus – is especially important for complex adaptive systems, that learn – like humans – where it is essential to hold most variable and external factors constant, so that mental faculties can stay focused on a specific problem, in a specific context. Both individuals and groups can do this for short periods. Some individuals and most larger groups will struggle. And I’ve found the duration for holding context, for true focus, must be limited, working inside the classic psycho-physiological ‘time box’ – no more than 60 to 90 minutes.

Ultimately, this is how we achieve results in a team setting, moving beyond idle thoughts to useful actions and purposeful work. We try to focus our energies like this every day.

Often, we struggle.

It is the process of complex adaptive (human) systems functioning in the world, not only surviving, but learning and creating, which means navigating context is a core (if not subconscious) element of our creative process. And all of it, ultimately, is fueled and driven by our individual and collective ability to make sense of what matters in the moment.

The key is setting and holding context while we make sense of what’s happening. When we have an idea, a few theories, something to work from, only then we can shift that context, and let in more or less data, to further refine our thinking. The lens can zoom in, or back out. It can expose more details of a system, and it’s subsystems, or less. Neither are right or wrong to the sense-maker – only more or less useful, in the moment.

And (this is also key) we must capture takeaways. We need contextual stakes in the ground, to inform and spark follow-up, the critical, final learning step that most philosophers called “synthesis” – but that’s another thread.

Much to process. But more and more, I see it like this:

Navigating context is our principal tool for understanding complexity. To the deep thinker, it takes a flexible process and some mental gymnastics to learn how to hold and ultimately shift context on demand.

Doing it a group is harder still. Harder. But not impossible.

I’ve laid out some of these core, interdependent dynamics in my book on collaboration.  As we speak, I’m mulling ideas for two additional books, and a 2nd edition of the first.  The journey of deeper learning starts with looking around, and asking better questions.

Join me for conversation here, on Medium, Linked-in and/or on Twitter

We have much to discuss.

Chris Jones | Charlotte

Learning in the Moment: Navigation Strategies for the Flow (or Flood?) of Insight

Can learners improve their skills at navigating in the sea of insights?

How can we learn when the flow of information seems overwhelming?

 

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2014, by 

While common core standards draw the spotlight & ire of educators and parents alike, perhaps we are looking past a more practical and useful question:

“How might we improve our ability to learn in the moment?”

The human brain is a complex place, and there are many ways it processes new information. If we look beyond the “talking head” classroom model, we can already find a raft of alternative learning experiences, ranging from visual learning, team/design models used heavily for project-based scenarios, as well as situational and immersive learning offered by some public systems, GT programs and specialty schools.

What is common in all of these alternative models?

I believe they require .. and build .. competency in real-time processing of information. Quite simply they help us to focus, to interpret, and evaluate new inputs in the moment, using a variety of senses and external stimuli.  People.  Images.  Crossover concepts.  In the sea of information that is cable TV and the internet, that is no small achievement.  In fact,

“Building competency for real-time learning is increasingly critical. Students (of all ages) need to recognize, evaluate and prioritize new insights in the moment, pulling value and meaning from the tidal waves of information flowing past us.”

What does this imply in a practical sense?  I think it’s a significant change of thinking.  It could challenge our pre-conceived notions of how we, as individuals, learn best in 21st century conditions of information overload.

More and more, facts and dates seem less important than the causes of things, their trends, and emerging patterns.  Sure, facts and dates are key inputs.  Together, they can tell a story.  But without the ability to interpret them and apply them in context, we are simplify left with a sea of facts and dates.

In a combined #cdna and #ecosys this MONDAY 4/14 at 8pm ET, let’s explore the notion of “learning in the moment” and we’ll use the metaphor of splashing in water as our metaphor of choice.  Why?  Few would argue that information is crashing constantly around us.  It’s an endless flow, a frothing sea that many perceive to be overwhelming.  It’s time 21st century learners .. which is all of us .. become better at discernment and learning in real-time.

  • Q1. What factors have you seen block learning in real-time?
  • Q2. What limitiations does structured knowledge-based learning (facts, dates) place on us that critical thinking does not?
  • Q3. How should we define critical thinking (in this context?)
  • Q4. What value does a fluid insight have over fully-matured facts, data, or other crystallized knowledge artifacts, and why?
  • Q5. How can we make “learning in the moment” more immediate, accessible, and top of mind?

I hope you will join our real-time conversation using combined hashtags #cdna and #ecosys on MON 4/14 at 8pm ET. Twitter is one of my favorite immersive mediums for learning.  Depending on who you choose to follow, out twitter streams (!?) themselves can provide a steady flow of powerful insights.

You might just say we’re learning all the time.

We try to meet in this same time slot, every second Wednesday at 8pm ET.  We’ll be diving into the deep end (!!).  Bring your favorite flotation device.

See you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov


Additional reading

  • Anderson, Lorin W. et al. “Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching & Assessing: Revisions of Bloom” (2001)
  • Dweck, Carol S. PhD. “Mindset: The New Pscyhology of Success” (2006); provides foundational thinking re: “growth” vs. “fixed” learning mindset, I think a key factor here
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. “Blink” (2005)
  • Herbert, Wray. “On Second Thought” (2010); provides excellent insights on Mental Heuristics, a key aspect of this discussion
  • Jones, Chris. “The DNA of Collaboration” (2012); this post expands on my thinking re: collaborative and social learning; for more on these ideas, see Ch.6 on Metaphor, Ch.8 on Listening, Ch.9 on Mental Heuristics, and Ch.20 on Critical Thinking; see also related posts on the book’s website, http://collaborationdna.com
  • Kahneman, Daniel. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011)
  • Lewin, Kurt. “Action Research” article, Journal of Social Issues 2(4) (1946)

Building Social Capital (the series): Taking on Community Engagement

Are u building Social Capital? (c) 2013 Amberwood Media Group

CHARLOTTE, NC. June 2013, by

As builders start building again and we resume the race to keep up with the 21st century, I’m compelled to ask:  how long has it been since we’ve felt truly connected with our communities?  Many I know are reporting gaps .. whether it be with their church, gym, PTA, or even the local neighborhood association.  Oh sure, we may still be there physically.  But ..

To what extent are we participating?  How many of the people around us do we actually know?  Are we in the crowd going through the motions, obsessively checking our smart phones, but not engaged?

Chances are we know the answer to that one.  Here’s another key question:

If and when we DO engage in our communities, what are our motivations?

If we answered the second question:  to “survive”,  “fit in” or “claim our rightful share” I’d argue that we’ve lost touch with what’s important.  Where once we knew our neighbors well and we knew what we stood for .. ok, I may be going back a few decades .. now it seems we find ourselves more and more isolated, cut off from the deep and nurturing social connections that humans thrive on.  Our consumer and work-saturated culture seems to have trumped our core values, and the path to a better place is less than clear.  We’re in a bit of a pickle.

A Clarion Call for Leadership.  We need a new vision, to me that’s clear.  But leadership in the societal (not using “social” here on purpose) space is tricky.  For community leadership to work, the energy must come from the rank and file .. from the inside out and the bottom up.  Seth Godin in “Tribes” builds strong arguments around the need for leadership from the inside .. getting people who are used to not leading to start leading .. sometimes, by creating spaces and situations and cultures that empower.

No small task, that.  But one that holds significant possibilities.

Why?  Because it’s an approach that can scale.

But that means some of the leaders, if not the vast majority, will be folks like you and me.  Working types.  And for many of us, leadership is not something we’re  used to.  Can we play?  I say yes.

Social Possibilities.  Communities offer a broad landscape of opportunity, really.  I’d argue that we need to invest our time and energy before we find our social systems past a point of no return.  Cynics have declared that we’re too late.  But ..

I believe we are just now starting to mobilize our thinking. We’re learning to focus our energies, and .. this is important ..  connecting people in ways that literally unlock their creative potential.

It’s time for us to stop being alone with our televisions  and to start engaging in our communities again.  The applies both offline (in real life) and online (virtual).  It’s not so hard.  We learned how to do it on the playground.  If our kids are out their having fun, taking chances, building sand castles, and making new friends, why can’t we?

When we engage in a real way, we’re building social capital .. putting together the skills, resources and networks that can help us learn, in turn helping us to help others.

As that happens, we start raising the water level of what’s possible.

Ultimately, we can change the game.

Get Started Getting Social.  This post starts a new blog series on social capital.  In coming posts we’ll take the notions apart so we can rebuild them into something that we’ll find practical and useful.  And we’ll tap some of the approaches in my book, helping us to take inventory of the barriers and enablers we’ll need to master along the way ..

I’ll post links to subsequent posts here, as well as in the sidebar Editorial Calendar.

In the meantime?  No waiting around.  Connect.  Engage.  Get social. We’ve lost ground, and some precious time.  If you have to, ask your kids how they do it !!  [ .. on that note? .. cue Angela Maiers and her Sandbox Manifesto .. ]

I hope you’ll stop back in.  We’ve got work to do.

Keeping Up with the Flow: Why Feedly Changes the Game

CHARLOTTE, NC. March 2013, by

As you may know, I’ve been exploring the flow of insights across organizations for years. It’s at the core of effective collaboration. As I’ve shared at conferencesblogs and now in softcover, more often than not, that critical flow of insight is blocked.

On the Web we have the opposite problem. Here we have the freedom to read and write any content we like. Insights can flow rapidly. But in terms of content like blog posts, it can be incredibly difficult to keep track of it all. The deluge of insight overflows the levies of our day to day attention spans.

There is  too much content, and it never stops coming.

Haw River, NC - feedly in the flow of insights

Haw River, NC – feedly in the flow (of insights)

Feedly changes the game because it recognizes the problem. It knows our time is limited. So it helps us move past the okay stuff so we can get to the good stuff. And if all the content is good? Feedly lets us quickly get to the next level, identifying the good stuff that’s most relevant. To me, that’s a game changer. Here are the Feedly features that made me sit up and take notice:

  • Rapid and seamless integration with Google Reader. Since I was already signed-in to chrome and G+, I simply had to tell Feedly to sync with Reader and it happened in a matter of minutes.
  • Rapid update of feeds. Quickly add or drop the content you want to receive. All you need is the blog URL.
  • While mobile, a “swipe” browses and/or marks posts as read. Beautifully mirroring the turn of a magazine page, we can scan headlines, drill down to read an article, or move on .. quickly.
  • Dynamic categories (for tracking relevance). This is where power surfing begins to leave paper magazines behind. With tools like Feedly we can bookmark and tag on the fly, helping us connect new ideas with our own, using categories to index what’s important to us, even as what’s important evolves.
  • Save for later. Let’s us flag posts that need another read, a share on Twitter or G+, or a response.
  • Multiple-device sync. Feedly on the browser and mobile work together.
  • Valuable content: anytime, anywhere (aka, another “win” for mobility). Where once our idle moments (elevators, subways, concert lines) were venues for checking Facebook or our Twitter feed, now we can read deep and important content on the go as well, all of it real time.

In a world where everyone pushes content, it’s time to focus on context, finding and adopting more powerful tools (like Feedly) for tracking what’s important. Who decides what’s important? Look in the mirror. With these tools in hand, it’s easier to filter and to focus, connecting related ideas with our own, unlocking opportunties for more engagement which can ultimately lead to new thinking.

For anyone that takes learning and the learning organization seriously, that’s a huge step forward. The critical feedback loop can now be closed.

Insights flow "like leaves on a river" - David Bohm

Insights flow “like leaves on a river” – David Bohm

Organizations will continue to grapple with their collaborative barriers. Often they must settle for little more than a trickle of insight. Meantime, out in the open spaces, we’re getting better at flood control.

Props to Mack Collier and crew for the Feedly tip at #blogchat.

So go ahead, blogosphere. Let the insights flow. Now, at long last, I’m ready for you.

Collaborative Learning 2013: In Search of Common Ground

In my last post on Collaborative Learning, I pondered synergies among practice areas that had traditionally been hallmarks for how we learn. Public Education quickly came to mind.  So did Higher Learning. But what about the commercial space?  Organizational Development (OD) and Knowledge Management (KM) have staked claims to learning too.  And don’t all entrepreneurs, especially in social change spaces, seek to discover ‘what is possible’?

I’ve been in at least 4 Twitter chats on this topic since that original post in December, and had a highly energized conversation every time. We’ve answered the question at a high-level:  YES, there should be synergies across practices.  The many comments on the previous post supported this, and provided numerous sources and examples from personal experience. Thank you Blake Melnick, Jon Husband, Bas Reus and Kira Campo for those contributions.

There’s something to be said about how we, as learners, can learn differently (and perhaps better) in groups with other people, as opposed to learning alone.  A solo effort might involve a book, a teacher, or a computer screen, but in all cases, the learner is generally on their own to discern the material, with only an instructor and visual content (words, pictures) to guide their learning.

Collaborative learning means learning in groups or teams, deriving deeper insights from discussion, alternative perspectives, and open dialog.

Call it social learning if you like.  That’s an interesting frame all it’s own, with important implications for social media, many of them covered in an excellent book, The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.  In fact, by reading this blog post, you and I are using social media to connect the dots on this thinking, with the potential of further engaging in collaborative research ..

But as you will see in our framework, many more factors will influence our success, extending beyond social technology.  Areas like intention, culture, and our ability to think deeply in a variety of modes come into view.  We’re not just talking left-brain vs. right-brain here (though that enters in .. see Iain McGilchrist on RSA for a fascinating update).  We’re talking about critical thinking, empirical thinking, and design thinking, 21st Century frames from the 3 high-order Learning Dimensions in Bloom/Anderson.

From ECODNA 2009 - a discovery thread (detail)

From ECODNA 2009 – a discovery thread (detail)

In our 2/18 #CDNA chat, the group weighed-in in favor of a “spiral” path, not following rows or columns.  Is this possible?  How would be able to keep our bearings?  We’ll be discussing it at hashtag #CDNA on 2/25 at 8pET.  Watch for the transcript.

To get you thinking, the image at left is an excerpt from ECODNA, a reference framework which evolved via Twitter chat in October 2009, part of the genesis of #ECOSYS.

I hope and believe we can bring new energy on “learning to learn” in every direction possible .. the workplace, the classroom, and our daily lives.  We solve problems every day. That means we tap our ability to summon the right solution, or to call up the right set of factors to determine a new solution.  Are we successful?  Sometimes.  But I contend our ability to make sense of the 21st Century is going to be ever more difficult.  The problems are more complex and intertwined.  We will need both the rigor and depth that comes with “learning to learn” at a new level.

The commercial and education implications are significant.

In 2013 at hashtag #cdna we’re going to fill in the blanks on this framework.  At hashtag #ecosys (explained in the ECOSYS blog) we’re exploring Learning Models.

No high stakes testing or forced curricula in sight, folks.  We’re using collaboration to get to the next level of results.  Would love your thoughts as comments here or online using Twitter.  For a deeper dialog, stop by our new Collaborative Learning community at G+.

Don’t look now.  We’re learning to learn as we speak.

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Learning to Learn: Can KM, OD and Education Find Synergies that Change What is Possible?

These days, the ability to achieve deep, meaningful learning seems more and more of a challenge.  Hamstrung as we are by an ever growing mountain of content, dwindling attention spans, fewer available hours of focused energy, and pressure to prove results, it’s a wonder anyone can truly learn anything anymore.

Some say we can’t, and that increasingly .. we aren’t.

Rather than piling more fuel on the pyre of discontent, I’ve begun to focus my energy on new ideas in the learning space.  For most of the last 4 years I have been reading, researching, and discussing the challenges.  Much of that has happened over at the #k12 #ecosys, where deep & insightful discussions continue.

The result?  It certainly remains a work in progress.  But I’ve begun to put increasing stock on how to drive a synthesis across professional practices that claim much of the high ground on what it means to learn:  KM, OD and Education in particular.  Here’s a discussion framework that has emerged out of these conversations.

What do I mean by these?  I’ll offer a working definition of each, in the context of “learning how to learn”:

  • KM – Knowledge management, a business practice from the 90’s that seeks to  define, capture, and reuse knowledge across an organization, helping its members to share and ultimately learn from past achievements
  • OD – Organizational development, a business discipline most commonly in HR (human resources) that seeks to increase the productive capacity of the people and teams within the organizations walls
  • Education – the immensely broad ecosystem of teaching professionals across K12, colleges and universities, deeply immersed in the art and science (mostly science) of helping our young people learn

Challenge me here. Is this a good foundation?

Assuming so, would cross-pollination of experts like this be unthinkable?  It seems daunting on the surface.  Getting experts working together is hard work, as I’ve explored throughout The DNA of Collaboration.  But to me, crossing these boundaries is precisely the challenge.  We must work together to redefine the problems in solvable ways.  It means changing the stakes so that all the generations around us .. Boomers,  X, Y, Z and beyond .. can embrace new ways to learn how to learn.

In the face of increasing pressures for results, seemingly ‘soft’ initiatives like these are often scaled back, reducing our capacity to learn and to innovate at precisely the wrong moment.

What are some of the requirements in gaining cross-disciplinary cooperation and teamwork?

  • Intention and focus – to define what it means to learn deeply, and to establish new benchmarks for what is possible and achievable
  • Cultures that evolve – fostering new levels of trust, risk-taking and collaboration, so they might earn a more venerable status: ‘cultures of learning’
  • Solution language – that help insights and ideas emerge and converge into fundamentally new possibilities
  • Releasing the flow of insight – surrendering structure to more organic and adaptive methods of exchange

Working across professional disciplines exposes visible fault lines.  Many are deeply entrenched in decades of research and practice, convinced that the only path to success is the one they learned in grad school.  For some, their deeply held convictions will need to be left by the door.

In terms of some key ideas, what might we be talking about?  Here’s just a starter list of topics, to spark the synapses ..

  • Social Capital – building skills, networks and resources to help ourselves to help others
  • Evolution of Teacher/Learner – teachers that learn; learners that teach
  • Learning Cultures – how do we foster them?
  • Weaving a Collaborative Learning Fabric – discussing 1Q13 at CDNA G+ Community
  • Self-Selection and Ownership – customization of the learning agenda
  • Motivation and Growth Mindset – removing fear of not-knowing
  • White space – exploring and exposing the creative urge
  • Social, Team & Project-based Learning – is all learning truly social?
  • Key Stakeholder Roles – including Community involvement, and the notion of Resilience
  • Open Knowledge Frameworks – via a 21st century read of Kant
  • Virtual Environments – the purposeful evolution of distance learning and e-Learning

Under the hashtag #cdna (for “collaboration DNA”) we have begun to explore what it means to learn deeply and learn together, across all the contexts described here.  To get at the issues more directly, we will use this space, related posts on the book site, and other spaces (join our CDNA G+ Community) to expand on what we mean by the practice of KM, OD and Education in the context of learning.

Change demands new thinking.  And as you likely know by now, that is the sort of discussion that  keeps me up at night.  I would love your input and ideas.

My fear is that increasing numbers will someday fail to learn how to learn.  It’s a slippery slope with serious implications.

We’ve got work to do.

KMWorld 2012 Workshop W5: Exploring the Flow of Insight, and the Future of the Learning Organization

By now you know I have lots of say about the future of KM.

I’m more excited than ever to be hosting a 3-hour workshop on TUES 10/16 at KMW12, in Washington.  It’s Pre-Conference Workshop W5, and seats are still available.  I’m on right before Dave Snowden, so perhaps you can come out to see us both.

In my last KM post, I shared my ideas on how KM might evolve.

That discussion, which became the outline of Chapter 19 in The DNA of Collaboration (now on Amazon), is also the foundation for my upcoming KMW12 Workshop.

What are the big ideas?

As I looked at how information moves in organizations, I found that it tends to get stranded more often than not.  The metaphor of a river loomed ever larger for me as I wrote. Senge cites David Bohm’s “leaves on the river” metaphor in The Fifth Discipline, and the more I reflected, the more it became a grounding concept for me.  John Hagel has contributed much re: moving from stocks to flows. And I was intrigued when Beth Noveck, former Deputy CIO at the White House, mentioned rivers in her recent TED Talk.

Potomac River, Leesburg VA

Ultimately the concept of flow is where we need to be, because it stands in stark opposition to the prevailing business paradigm, the hierarchical silo.

Flow opens the floodgates of possibility, so to speak.

We can move around barriers, choose new channels to follow, and adjust to the environment as needed. How can we make insight flow faster in organizations?  Here are some key themes:

  • Collaborative Cultures – that foster trusting behavior and learning, in all its dimensions
  • Room to Take Risk – as the path to learning (it’s ok to be wrong)
  • Framing and Messaging with Rigor – focusing on semantics and critical thinking to best define our problems and solutions  
  • Intention – as foundation for focusing our vision and the baseline for demonstrating integrity

We’ll touch on all of these themes in our workshop, and they flow (quite literally) throughout my book.  They are essential aspects of what it takes for KM to be successful. They are core enablers of learning, and central to effective collaboration.

We need to get better in all of these areas, if we hope to start solving tougher and tougher problems.

What’s most exciting of all?  When we apply our new metaphor … when we let our insights flow .. the feedback and new perspectives can be rapid and unexpected.  I’ve had this experience at #SMCHAT #ECOSYS and #CDNA.  As we begin to communicate and connect more easily, our ability to learn from our learning networks gets better. The pace of learning compounds at an accelerating rate.  It’s pretty exciting actually.

Here’s a quick look at some KMW12 W5 Highlight slides (PDF), pulled from my W5 master deck.

Again, I’d love to see you in DC at KMW12.  If you can’t make it, watch for takeaways at the event hashtag #kmw12 or at the workshop stream #w5insight.  As I say in my book, we’ve got lots to cover, and the current is strong. Let’s get started.

Chris

Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking

Language, like the culture it derives from, plays a subtle but powerful role in how we interact with others. Yet we are so completely immersed in it, we scarcely give it a second thought.

Early in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein brought focus to the critical importance of language in the context of knowledge, philosophy, and science. One of the more powerful and accessible claims he framed was this one:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6 (1921).

It may seem overstated at first glance, but let’s unpack it.

If we reflect on how we think about, evaluate, and come to understand virtually anything, we realize that the running voice of our conscious thought sets practical boundaries. We can contemplate problems and solutions in our mind only to the extent we have words to describe them. Our vocabulary either limits or unlocks our ability to describe what we see. Our command of grammar and ability to construct descriptions of abstract concepts works the same way.

Our command of semantics is a central to critical thinking.

Language literally bounds our possibilities.

Wittgenstein thus underscores a compelling argument for mastery of the original liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – skills that we might better grasp today in the modern context of reading and writing – but his message is clear: the tools of language are essential to the thinking person.

Now let’s apply those ideas in the social and collective contexts.

What happens in a team setting?

Carefully articulating a new idea for ourselves is only half the battle. As collaborators we face the more difficult but critically essential task of explaining this idea to others. What words do we use? What language will our audience understand? And if we’ve followed good practice by ensuring a diverse group of collaborative stakeholders, the bar has been raised even further: what subset of our shared language will be most effective to ensure common understanding across a diverse team?

From my experience, the most common failure in team settings is mis-communication of ideas, most readily observed when group members freely, often unwittingly, talk past each other. In a fervent effort to make a point, we default to arguments grounded in our semantics of origin. So what happens? IT folks will talk technology. Accounting will talk about margins. Sales will talk about customer problems. Educators will talk about pedagogy. Academics will talk about epistemologies. With heightened energy, the vocabulary grows increasingly parochial and inaccessible, and the steeper the organization’s silo walls, the more entrenched the participants tend to be, and the more difficult language barriers are to cross.

No wonder finding common ground can seem like a pipe dream.

So intentional collaboration places clear demands on semantic foundations. Defining key terms often helps. Project glossaries can go a long way.

Another strong approach (referenced previously in this blog, and elsewhere) is that of a solution language. The idea is to create common ground on the output side. We can define terms for the proposed solution set(s) that are literally grounded in a new language that is embraced by all. It is an extraction from the contributors’ source languages, an amalgamation of pieces and parts to create a viable whole. As the solution language is built, common ground is established in the process. In so doing, collaborators become more aware of their context of origin, better described as their comfort zone. With time and energy, many will see how cultural and linguistic boundaries can impact their collaborative engagement.

Peter Senge in the 5th Discipline, observes:

In dialog, people become observers of their own thinking.

then cites the work of the late physicist David Bohm, who researched collective learning among scientists. Bohm believed that we, as individuals engaged in collaborative dialog, can:

“… begin to correct incoherence in our own thinking. A kind of sensitivity develops that goes beyond what is familiar … (exposing) subtle meanings that lie at the root of real intelligence.”

Senge and Bohm share a deep sense for the requirements for team-based learning. Senge himself devotes many pages to language, and the evolutionary steps through which individuals must navigate to achieve value from a shared, collective learning model. Often, it means suspending bias inherent from professional education and what is often years working within a given specialty.

Thomas Kuhn’s thinking on the challenges and demands of paradigm shifts peers from these lines.

Wittgenstein’s foundational messages ring true throughout.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves standing before the locked door of critical thinking. We hold the keys in our hands, but remain dumbfounded about how to use them. When we attempt to collaborate, we stand before the same door with others, but we’re still at a loss; perhaps it’s even worse, arguing the course of action.

Language, like culture, is a profoundly rich, integral aspect of our social existence. I’ll summarize it like this:

Language is the master key to unlocking effective collaboration, opening the door to possibilities of what we can accomplish via intentional, purposeful dialog with others.

We can cast all this aside, broadcasting our views to the world at will. We can choose empty words with casual intent to impress, or use caustic words that serve only to bully, blame and obscure.

People do it every day.

The price? It’s a fundamental failure to be understood, preempting an exchange of ideas that could have emerged into something more. That spells disaster for progress in any language.

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.