Friday, March 22, 2002

Gordian Knot. In my last entry I discussed complexity and perception. To many these topics are akin to the Gordian Knot, which if you know how to untie will give you skills and knowledge that will serve you well. I'm going to recommend two books that will help you to untie that knot:
  1. Turning Numbers Into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving. This book isn't as much about numbers as it is about how to think. In fact, numbers aren't introduced until chapter 27, which is exactly midway through the book. The author, Jonathan Koomey, skillfully leads you through the process of learning to think critically, probe, question and analyze. Along the way he helps you to develop a mindset and collection of tools and techniques, which prepare you for the second half of the book that does cover numbers and how to interpret them, transform them into knowledge, and use them to solve problems. This 221 page book is a masterpiece because it's clearly written, offers sage advice and contains easy to perform--yet powerful--exercises throughout. Unless you've mastered critical thinking and problem solving you'll ignore this book at your peril.
  2. Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity (subtitled, A Platform for Designing Business Architecture) is to understanding complexity and perception that Turning Numbers Into Knowledge is to critical thinking skills. Like that book, this one has more to do with techniques and concepts than with what the title implies. To be sure, it does delve into designing business architectures, but the focus is on sorting through complexities and perceiving reality without filters. I'm going to share two examples that underscore this book's approach, and why I think it's one of the more important books one can read:
    • Counter-intuitiveness in social dynamics is illustrated with a cause and effect diagram that clearly shows counterintuitive behavior in a welfare system. The diagram shows how a program designed to reduce the number of poor families can actually cause the opposite effect.
    • A side story about a birth control project in India illustrates perceptual differences between and among cultures and deeply influenced my own perceptual awareness. The synopsis of this story is the foundation team who was trying to teach birth control gave an incentive in the form of a free transistor radio to anyone who attended their educational lectures. Despite their best efforts the birth rate remained at a steady average of 4.6 per family. This unchanging fact was a source of great dismay and perplexity to the team of Americans who were about to deem the project a failure. Fortunately they dug deeper into the causes and discovered that in India there are no retirement benefits, social security or unemployment benefits. The retirement system is based on three sons. It takes an average of 4.6 births to produce three sons, so the mystery was solved. This short story was used to reinforce a triad of factors that support decision making: cultural, emotional and rational. We tend to examine the rational, which represents only one third of what needs to be considered. The rest of this book contains the same deep insights throughout and gives you the tools and approach to untie that Gordian Knot.
If this topic interests you please see my entry today in Postcards from the Revolution, which uncovers some of the roots of contemporary knowledge management and collaborative computing.

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