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.

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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.

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The 2.0 Business Relationship: Are you investing in your network?

Social media is getting plenty of traction, but I’m still intrigued by its untapped potential, both inside the enterprise and out in open spaces.

Stubbornly, several barriers to adoption remain.

We’ve been chipping away at these hurdles here, first exploring culture in the organization, and then engagement. Those conversations have helped to surface yet another challenge: how to build valuable relationships (call them “virtual” if you must) using social media.

Let’s tee it up this way:

What are the dynamics and limits of “relationship” in a virtual world, where connections are free, global, and easily made? Can true value be achieved? And can we navigate network overload?

We’ll start with traditional business relationships, to set the stage.

Whether inside or outside of organizations, people are constantly meeting, connecting, and communicating. Results will vary. Some will pass each other by completely. Others will move closer together in their thinking and spark a collaboration, or they might hit a snag, and move further apart. It’s all in motion.

A successful organization brings a master plan to the madness. Via work groups, partnerships and/or employment relationships, an enterprise uses structure to bind together groups of people with a shared focus. There’s still that constant flux of relationships: people connecting, communicating, and learning. But if and when coordinated, good things happen, and the organization has a chance to thrive.

The impact of social media.

Our hyper-connected world accelerates and multiply’s our ability to connect with people anywhere. Boundaries of time and place are removed. Whether tweeting or blogging, the potential to meet, share and learn from others – literally around the globe – is unbounded. But there’s a catch. As you start to engage and connections start flooding in, you are soon forced to ask: Should this person be in my network? Should I reach out to them? Or will I be wasting my time?

Up front, there’s really no way to know.

I think most people that exit social media, often in frustration, do so in face of those daunting, never ending decisions. And that’s unfortunate. The possibility of each new social media connection creates a fascinating opportunity. Each connection you make brings the chance to challenge your thinking, expand your horizons, and even to change your path.

Navigating the challenges of network building

What factors will influence the chances of an online business relationship in the 2.0 space? I think it boils down to a couple of key things:

  1. Clarity of your intent. Why are you here? Are you tapping social media and building your network for a reason? Get in touch with that. Share your intentions right up front.
  2. Common ground (context). With intent on the table, establishing common ground is a matching exercise. Search engines and hashtags and communities are all ways to get connected. Believe it or not, this part is becoming easier by the day.
  3. Investing in your network (learning to “time box”). Relationships tend to benefit from ‘going deeper’ but time is increasingly precious. This is where many connections with potential fall short. Set aside an evening, a cup of coffee, a few minutes a day for network building. Put a box around the time commitment. That “time box” can be small, medium or large. Change the time allocation as needed, but make a commitment, to yourself and your network, so they’ll know what to expect.
  4. Dare to adapt. Ultimately, you may find many connections don’t align with your objectives, but don’t be too quick to filter on that. You may find new opportunities or interests by being open minded and flexible.

Sure, building a network via social media can seem overwhelming. But as the virtual world unfolds around us, it’s time to look deeper at its potential to spark new levels of collaboration. We need to think hard about what it will take to build value into our networks.

It’s easier than ever to connect with people online in the 2.0 space.

But the ultimate value – for you and for your connections – is driven by a shared willingness to focus, to set aside a little quality time on a regular basis. Even if it’s in small chunks. A tweet here. A blog comment there. One or two twitter chats. Okay, maybe three.

Are you willing to make an investment?

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Web 2.0′s “Broadcast” problem: The case for Meaningful Engagement

For the commercial web’s first decade, people communicated the old fashioned way: broadcasting their messages to anyone who would listen. It was a simple, easy extension of traditional advertising, public relations, politics and academic publishing. E-mail, also cutting edge at the time, modeled the same broadcast mentality. It was yet another easy way to lob messages to large audiences.

Prevalence of the “broadcast model” has limited people’s view of how the internet can be used to deliver messages. Many still don’t realize that the new internet (Web 2.0) offers a radically different proposition: collaborating with others via an open, multi-party exchange.

Engagement is communication at a different level

If communicating via email was passive and routine, the connections possible with engagement are active and dynamic. True engagement is more work. It requires time, energy and active listening. But the resulting flow of information brings rich rewards. Insights begin to accumulate and multiply. Ideas get validated and enhanced in several directions at once. And as the value of the idea exchange increases, personal relationships begin to form around them.

Meaningful, high-value connections like these are at the core of the Twitter chat phenomenon that’s spawned successful, ongoing communities like #smchat and #blogchat and social innovation teams like #ecosys.

And yet engagement rates among the masses remain critically low. Try to talk about social media with the average person, and you can see the resistance in their eyes, as if to say, “I know better, I’ve heard that one before, you can’t fool me.”

That makes building social teams and virtual communities much harder than it needs to be.

Why so much resistance?

I find the Web 1.0 mindset serves as a filter to the possibilities, reinforced by a culture that has grown cynical and distrusting. Unfortunately, those old habits and opinions die hard.

Thought leadership in this space goes back 50 years. Concepts like Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm” (1962), Charles Handy’s “organizational culture” (1976), and Peter Senge’s “mental models” (1990) all build on the theme of the filters we use when we perceive the world around us. It seems we’ve advanced our understanding, but have moved too little to act on what we’ve learned.

The idea of “getting outside the box” was clearly spawned from this line of thinking. Far too many remain safely inside those boxes.

Here’s a key takeaway, unvarnished:

Mental filters (influenced by culture, formal education and our past life experiences) shape how we perceive the world around us, blinding us to new perspectives and blocking us from making deep connections with others.

Can we take this problem on, unlocking engagement in the virtual space? I say yes. Getting past our mental filters may be the first hurdle, but there are more. I’ve posted thoughts on the specifics of meaningful engagement over at Talent Culture.

There’s a world full of complex problems out there. Embracing broad, meaningful collaborative engagement on a much larger scale is critical if we hope to solve them.

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Organization Culture: Barriers to 2.0 Adoption

CARY, NC. January 2010, by

How would you define organizational culture?  I’m finding it’s an increasingly important question.

To interact and function in the digital 2.0 World (Knowledge Economy, Flat World, 21st Century: choose your paradigm), it’s become critical that leaders understand the internal dynamics of the teams they are leading. How will an organization play in the new world? How will it connect? Drive value? Compete?

An org chart might show us structure and intent, but to truly grasp how decisions are being made, we need to understand the organization’s culture – a task that’s easier said than done. Ask enough people and you might get a sense of it, but its dimensions and reach can remain elusive.

Conceptually, org culture might be framed like this:

A complex, loosely-defined amalgamation of beliefs and behaviors of a group of people that yields significant influence on what actually gets done.

Peter Drucker called the topic “amorphous” (literally, without shape) because it defies the crisp definition that most in management prefer. Personally, I think it will likely fall more in the domain of leadership, aligned with Grace Hopper’s pithy: “You manage things, but you lead people.”

Regardless of how you try to frame it or categorize it, two key questions emerge. Can culture be overtly changed? Many, especially academics, say ‘no’. But can culture be influenced? That’s a topic of some very interesting debate and the subject of this series.

I’ll concede now, I’m not an expert but I’m a practitioner and a survivor. I’ve written vision statements in attempts to shape culture, and I’ve been stymied by mandates from above that were rendered impossible by the forces of culture. At one time or another, we’ve all worn cultural handcuffs.

Series Framing. In the weeks ahead, I’ll post on the many aspects of culture using this outline.

  1. Org Culture: Dimensions. (ref: Schein) 1/25/10
  2. Org Culture: 4 Structural Forces. (ref: Handy) 3/02/10
  3. Org Culture and Complexity: Useful Patterns. (ref: HSDI: Eoyang, Halladay, Nations) 3/20/10
  4. Culture Change in Government. (ref: Eggers/O’Leary and B.Noveck) 3/21/10
  5. Org Culture: Interventions. (ref: Kotter) 4/10/10
  6. It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government 9/10/10
  7. Collaborative Culture: Insights from Peter Senge 1/11/11
  8. in response to Tara Hunt post started 11/17/12

I’ve touched base with colleagues in OD, KM & GOV2.0. Several are planning to post insights via comments.

This will be collaboration from the outset.

Barriers to 2.0. Getting at culture has been on my mind since 1989. At the time, a few short years out of college, I recall rifling through Rosabeth Kanter’s classic Change Masters, hoping to unpack my first run-in with hierarchy, silos and cultures of control.

I asked, “Isn’t there a better way?”

Ah, the innocence of youth.

In the years since, I’ve tried to follow Kanter’s advice. Sometimes my interventions, at once brave and naive, have actually worked. But 20 years later, I’m still in chorus with my colleagues, still reciting that same old question.

The Trouble with Silos. As we’ll see in coming posts, silo thinking and cultures that favor stability work against the innovative forces of “2.0”. Innovation is being held hostage on an increasing number of fronts. Silo’s are designed for specialists, driving to standards and removing variance. That often means collaborative behaviors are counter-culture.

It’s a challenge of immense proportions. Let’s try to find some answers.

Starting 2010 with a Bias for Action

It’s the New Year, and there’s no time like the present to embrace all the things we spent 2009 talking about. Trouble is, there was lots of talk in 2009. Talk full of buzz words. Some claim that we’ve begun talking in circles. Maybe so. But in the process, we’ve laid an important foundation.

Look at it like this:

Meaningful, sustainable change starts with an informed conversation. Together, it’s easier to frame the future, to find the best path forward.

In 2009, via blogs and chats, we began to frame that future.

In many ways, 2009 had to happen. It’s not entirely clear how, but we survived it. We realigned our cost structures, built our networks, and learned how to interact using social media.

Now, with scarcely time for a breath, the hard work begins anew. Let’s start 2010 with a clear mindset. Here are four key themes, resolutions to guide our collaboration efforts:

  1. Bias for action. The key step in breaking the talk cycle.
  2. Bias for engagement. Moving away from the Web 1.0 broadcast model of communicating, toward a more valuable 1:1 exchange that builds relationships.
  3. Bias for learning and discovery. I’ve posted on the need for a learning culture, not only increased higher priority for education, but renewed focus on critical thinking and semantic clarity. If we succeed, the prize is a knowledge renaissance.
  4. Bias for change. None of the above will matter if we continue to cling to the past. Our risk-averse cultures are often biased to resist change. To move forward, we need to embrace it.

What does action-oriented collaboration look like? Here are some case studies in virtual community that seek to use engagement and discovery to drive new solutions:

  1. Look for some immediate changes at #smchat. Building on insights from 2009, we’re brainstorming how we can drive even more value for members. Thought leadership and emergent insight have been the core of our value stream. How can we leverage that?
  2. We’re at an inflection point for exciting things w/ #ecosys, our pilot project on public engagement to drive social innovation.
  3. Take a look at what’s happening at govloop. Over 20,000 voices from across government are self-organizing. Ideas are everywhere.

Let me know if you know of others.

2010 will be a time of culture change and new paradigms. We don’t have much choice. So strap in and hold on. We’ve got some work to do.