Tag Archives: Intuition

Apprenticeships and Zen

14 Jun

I recently watched a program on Japanese culture which touched on the subject of Zen. A Buddhist priest explained that meditation is a vital form of practice, it develops knowledge through self awareness, and then applying this knowledge to mindful activities such as cooking and gardening produces insight, and ultimately, wisdom.

The combination of knowledge and application to develop insight and wisdom is integral to the ancient system of thought, Zen. So, it is no surprise that there are strong similarities between how wisdom is acquired in Zen and how it is developed through an ancient, and highly successful, form of education, apprenticeships. I would argue that what makes apprenticeships so successful, is the same foundations of Zen, the combining of formal knowledge with practice on a daily basis.

The apprenticeship method, like Zen, trains the mind to interact with its environment, assuming less, noticing more and adapting accordingly. Both Zen and apprenticeships aim to harmonise the mind with the environment.

Relying solely on knowledge can have the opposite effect, resulting in the mind attempting to control the environment through the application of abstract theories and procedures. This reduces attention to environmental changes, and over emphasizes perceived control.

Taking the mind off the environment and relying on pure knowledge is a major source of organisational errors (see Taleb, 2012, for good examples). Developing methods where there is frequent feedback between the effect of knowledge on the environment ala Zen and apprenticeship models, is an effective way of avoiding these errors, acquiring wisdom and increasing creativity.


Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House


Why Focusing On Catastrophe Is So Effective

3 Oct

Gary Klein’s pre-mortem technique has a long and effective history in improving forecasting, plans and decisions (Kahneman, 2011, Klein, 2007). The technique is incredibly simple, as the below example illustrates-

You and your team are about to agree a decision. Before you do so, imagine the decision has turned out to be a complete catastrophe. Everyone, working on their own, takes 5 minutes to write down the history of this catastrophe. Each individual history is then shared with the team.

I recently wrote about an interview featured on McKinsey Classic with Gary Klein and Nobel Laurette, Daniel Kahneman. The two psychologists discussed the role of intuition in executive decision making. Naturally, the pre-mortem technique came up as a highly effective method of improving decisions.

The logic behind why the technique works so well has been covered several times in articles on this blog, and covered extensively across research and corporate literature. However, Klein’s simple explanation of what lies behind the technique’s success in the McKinsey interview is incredibly insightful, and worth sharing

“The logic is that instead of showing people that you are smart because you can come up with a good plan, you show you’re smart by thinking of insightful reasons why this project might go south. If you make it part of your corporate culture, then you create an interesting competition: “I want to come up with some possible problem that other people haven’t even thought of.” The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems”


Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency




Our Future Selves and Decision Making

7 Jul

Below is a link to a TED Talk by the Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert. The talk is entitled, The Psychology of your Future Self, and illustrates how we, as human beings, have the capacity to get our expectations of the future so badly wrong. Gilbert addresses some key reasons why anticipations of future states can be so adrift, and within this article I’m going to reference these reasons to highlight how experience and imagination can significantly improve our ability to forecast, acquire expertise and make better decisions. But first, a small detour to ancient Greece.

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The Benefits of a Growth Mindset

3 Feb

Why do some people seem to improve at tasks whilst other people stay still? How do some people, teams, and entire organisations seem to bounce back from unexpected events whilst others seemingly never recover? And what provides some people with an accurate sense of “what is going to happen next?”

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner (2015) recently revealed the results of their multi-year forecasting tournament. The aim of the tournament was to identify people who could forecast world and local events accurately. Once these people were identified, the task was to assess what behaviours and methods produced this accuracy.

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Decision Making Deconstructed- The South African Martial Artist and Coach, Rodney King

31 Jan

Rodney King is a pioneer in combat sports. Acting in response to the ultimately self-destructive “sink or swim” attitudes of most boxing and mixed martial arts gyms, where only the toughest and fittest survive, Rodney King reassessed the role of combat as sport in modern society. Rodney decided to look into our human past to rediscover the role martial arts and trained combat played in ancient societies. Perhaps counter intuitively for most, this took the coach into a mental first approach to fighting which had originally built the fighting arts, but had long since been forgotten.

As a decision making researcher and former boxer I was particularly interested in interviewing Rodney King. He had made the decision to do things differently in a sport which seeks to maximise the trappings of testosterone. This is what I wanted to find out- what were the reasoning strategies the coach employed? What did he notice which others ignore? What information does Rodney pay particular attention to and how does he use it? These questions underpin the structure behind any decision, so they would provide me with insight on Rodney and add another layer to my experience as a researcher. But beyond that, because a different innovative path had been chosen, there would be insight present in both decision making and innovation which anybody, operating in any domain, could benefit from. In this article I’ll be outlining the insights I got from speaking to the man himself and how his thinking has cross domain relevance.

Growing up Rodney lived in a tough part of South Africa where violence and fear of violence were a constant factor. As a fighter, despite a winning record and the all-important reputation, he lamented he still didn’t feel any more confident than he did back surviving a tough neighbourhood growing up. The anxiety of attending a tough gym and maintaining both his status and performance went way beyond what a sport should feel like. Rugby is a tough, tough sport for example but the training environment, despite the occasional flare up, doesn’t generate the same thought processes- faced with another man in a confined space, am I going to make a mistake and get knocked out, with everybody watching, and my reputation lost.

Rodney attacked this problem with a focus on fundamental human behaviours, what do people naturally do as oppose to what do we expect them to do and what lessons can history teach us on the subject. Following this thinking through, he built a new system of boxing by asking questions such as- how do humans naturally behave when they are being attacked? The answer to this was the foetal position, a form of instinctive covering up. If this instinct could be threaded into a structure of defence, then a means of staying safe and calm under fire would come naturally, and if you can find a way of staying safe and calm then it’s far easier to learn and enjoy yourself. This was a foundation of Rodney’s Crazy Monkey Defence style- an easy to pick up, but highly effective form of boxing built on natural responses and defence.

One of the most interesting aspects for me of Crazy Monkey has been Rodney’s re-examination of the martial artist, a counter cultural aspect of his training system which is the reverse of combat sport’s prime focus on winning. When we talked Rodney discussed the samurai culture at length and its impact on his system.

The samurai were not just a fighting force of highly skilled warriors; they used martial arts to hone all aspects of their life. The patience and structure of the tea ceremony were as integral to their identity as the katana. The tea ceremony teaches the practitioner patience, focus and a form of situational awareness essential in combat.

Rodney explained how he now seeks to bring back the notion of the martial artist, the antithesis of the current perception of a fighter. For Rodney the fighting arts should be able to improve every aspect of a person’s life, not leave a person sat at their desk terrified at the thought of the night’s training session- that kind of stress diminishes a person’s life. In the same way that the samurai culture through its associated practices (such as the tea ceremony) prepared a warrior for both life and battle, Rodney’s coaching now focuses on building better people through the concept of the martial artist or embodied warrior.

On this subject Rodney talked of how important a form of mindfulness was in sparring-staying in the present and not getting caught in negative and distracting events from the past or predictions from the future. This lesson, he observed, benefits his students as much in their professions as it does in their training. Focusing techniques, such as calligraphy and the tea ceremony had been the foundation of eastern martial arts centuries ago, a means of maintaining flow and staying in the present. These techniques would seamlessly flow into all aspects of a samurai’s life and this is now a cornerstone of the Crazy Monkey system- a continuum of mental and physical training designed to impact positively and instinctively on a life.

So, what decision making lessons can we pull from Rodney King?

Firstly, analogues are a highly effective problem solver and innovation generator. Rodney paid attention to the fact that despite success martially, there was a mental shortfall in the type of training he was using. To fix the problem Rodney looked around for examples of where this issue had been resolved before. An avid scholar, he had access to many analogues he could draw from to adapt a solution- a return to the roots and practices of martial arts where combat was designed to enhance all areas of life, not just martial skills. The take away here is that when you encounter a problem look for analogues from across other domains or eras and adapt it to your own domain\ time and problem. This is the key to true innovation- identifying cross links between domains.

Secondly, focus on what people do naturally. One of the drivers behind Rodney creating new techniques was to examine what humans naturally do when physically attacked and then aim to support them. Instead of imposing techniques, procedures and processes onto people, support their natural decision making by examining what works well naturally- what good practices are instinctive and tacit and how can these be supported, developed and shared?

Thirdly, situational awareness is crucial. Maintaining a mindful state which leads to flow (an instinctive carryout of a task to high level which is absorbing but requiring almost no thought) lies at the centre of Rodney’s teaching. Situational awareness, the ability to intuitively spot cues and patterns and apply them to actions and consequences is a cornerstone of decision making. Practice your decision making through scenarios derived from real life incidents (this is the equivalent of sparring) to improve your ability to spot the subtle cues and patterns. These are essential to gathering understanding from, and staying focused on, the present.

With thanks to Rodney King, a true pioneer and renaissance man http://www.crazymonkeydefense.com/

Tough Decisions Deconstructed- Deciding what Gift to Buy this Christmas

4 Dec

I got chatting to the person serving me at the bank the other day, they asked what I do and when I explained they immediately said-I’m terrible at making decisions! The fault line in the person’s decision making was easily identified, they struggled to choose between options, and at this time of year this is something which affects the majority- choosing between options or rather what should I buy or get bought for me by (insert name)? In this post I’ll try and provide a little insight into why choosing between options can be so difficult and how to deal with it. And because it’s my last post, I’ll do it quick too.

The frustration which comes from choosing between options is commonly caused by the cognitive strain of trying to make a single option more favourable than the others. The stress of producing a winner and using mental criteria you know you don’t really believe in simply ends up frustrating and exhausting you. Gary Klien identifies this as “the zone of indifference” and it basically means all the options are as good as each other but you refuse to accept it and embark on a pointless quest to find the winning option.

So, all that trouble is because of refusing to face up to indifference. When you start to feel like this the best way through it is to just flip a coin. Flipping coins means you’ll make the decision quicker, spend less time setting up criteria you have no faith in and you’ll feel better about your choice. You’ll feel better because if you try and force one option to look better and select that way you’ll continue to feel frustrated after the decision as you to start to question the basis of your choice.

A tip for assessing whether you’ve entered into legitimate coin flipping territory- ask yourself what the consequences of the decision are. If the consequence is severe, such as I’ll lose my business or my wife will leave me, then you are not at the decision making stage, you are at the problem solving stage. In this territory you need to work on solving the problems associated with each option not choosing between them. If the consequence is less severe- they can always take it back if they don’t like it, then flip that coin!

Merry Christmas to anyone and everyone who’s read these posts in 2013 and thanks!!

The More Information the Worse the Decision

24 Sep

A great article by Marty Kaplan at the link below in which he reviews recent decision research out of Yale. In summary the research concludes that when a person is confronted with data which goes against their beliefs they’ll simply ignore or alter the information to suit their beliefs (Kahan et al, 2013). With the vast amounts of data and information available at all levels of an organisation and society this might well pose a problem for the purity of data informed decision making.

Increasing information has proven in many tests to be detrimental to decision making, the Kahan study is one of the latest. Big data sets have added a new dimension to this, with so many correlations available you can “prove” whatever you like. You don’t have to just dismiss facts anymore, you can simply move onto some more which suit you better. There are many psychological drivers behind this, it’s quite instinctive, and it’s much easier to argue you’re right rather than wrong. So, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what is the best way to utilise information effectively rather than with prejudice?

Information takes many forms- visual, auditory, statistical etc so one way to explore effective use of information is to look across to domains which are fast paced, constantly changing environments, saturated with data and require multiple decisions. Klien et al’s study of fire-fighters spring to mind, and being crudely simplistic, the fire-fighters made good decisions through highly sophisticated and rapid analysis. The quick lesson- when using data to make decisions imagine it’s a burning building, raise the stakes and ask yourself- what could go wrong here?


How People Make Sense of Data

19 Aug

My first real encounter with tacit knowledge and the role it played in organisations happened years ago while I was a post graduate researcher. I was analysing over 16 thousand e mails to see how power and influence could be levered electronically. In other words how do you get someone to analyse data (in this case an e mail) in the way you want them to.

I was particularly fascinated by one respondent’s e mails over the course of 2 years because the person changed jobs. The respondent started off in a senior position running a department within an organisation and moved to head a virtual purchasing centre which sat in an ambiguous position on the periphery of the same organisation; no one quite knew what the centres reporting lines were, just that it was meant to handle purchasing in a more efficient way. So, same person, same organisation, different job; let’s call this respondent X and the first job A and the second job B

In job A the e-mails’s of X were short, direct and to the point; emotionally distant and assertive. And it got the job done, X’s task was to operate the department and X had the formal authority to do it, the team responded positively to X’s requests. In job B, X still needed resources from the old team and started off e mail requests in exactly the same way- emotionally distant and assertive. Unfortunately for X the result wasn’t the same and X struggled to get any requests met. X’s mental model initially remained the same but the environment had changed, the new role and the virtual centre were no longer perceived as a priority by former colleagues.

Instead of becoming frustrated X’s e mails started to change, the emails became more social, expressed understanding of the recipient’s position and the stresses of competing demands, and X began negotiating solutions. Within the space of a few months X’s request were being met promptly again, via a different approach. Where once X held formal authority they now had only their tacit skills to fall back on, and these tacit skills worked well as they began negotiating and not demanding.

The study and the example are all about data, all this happened via e mail. Respondent X demonstrated tacit skills which allowed them to lever power and influence to get things done. For other respondents in the study the outcome was sometimes quite the opposite- they had their mental model, expected the world to share it and failed to adapt when the feedback suggested otherwise. And this previous statement is key as I’ll highlight the tacit data analysis skills X deployed to adapt.

Respondent X had an existing mental model, they were in charge. When the environment changed X was sensitive to the feedback they were getting and realised a change was necessary, but change to what? At first X copied the e mail style of the person they were communicating with, if the other person would open with Hi so would X (it used to be Dear or just a first name), if the other person was chatty so would X be.

The copying provided a rapport and more information, by copying the other person X was allowed more and more access to the other person’s mental model. For example- if someone asked how X was, they would provide an answer with some substance (I’m fine, but very busy with the current deadline as oppose to just fine), and would receive similar information in return. Copying acted as a means of obtaining more information and managing the uncertainty. From copying X was able to adapt and draw up a richer model of replies, requests and negotiating tactics; copy and adapt helped X manage uncertainty, get the virtual centre up and running and eventually be seen as success.

As with most people who achieve what X had done through tacit skills they were largely unaware of their own actions until it was formally discussed. X wrote it down and said they would pass it onto their deputy who was currently having trouble getting their requests met! The way I look back on this is through the concepts of copy and adapt- X was sensitive to feedback and used copying to build up a range of mental analogies which enabled them to negotiate electronically- this looks situation A so I’ll try A, then wait for feedback and adapt if required.

The study is probably more relevant than ever. When faced with uncertainty, confusing or vast amounts of data, using an analogy to anchor, set up some feedback loops, copy the analogy, and then adapt.

A Possible Life without Data Scientists

15 Aug

I read a very interesting article on smartplanet.com entitled “Why big data means job growth for non- data professionals” and from my perspective just this title summed the data explosion up perfectly. The vast increases in data if used correctly (and I mean a big IF) will have far more value to non-data professionals and to their organisations than anything a data scientist could produce. This is because data represents an opportunity to develop and accelerate human expertise far more than any spurious predictive model.

The quest for data scientists is still built on the beliefs that complexity is mathematically tractable. The moment a belief in a predictive model occurs then trouble begins, it’s the banking crisis model all over again. You can’t predict complex systems, but when you believe you can, you think you’re in control, that the model can do it for you, and that’s when human beings become passive. It’s a form of electronic social loafing, when predictive models become part of your cognitive dynamic, expertise takes a back seat and conflicting data or hunches get explained away. Just take a look at the Enron case study, all the data was there but the problems kept being explained away, with plenty of models, graphs and tables to help.

Better use of data does not lie in the hands of data scientists, it lies in the hands of experts, in any industry, using it to adapt and test their mental models. Good decision makers are not passive; they are adaptive and use vast amounts of tacit skills and heuristics to navigate complexity. Good decision makers also do not predict, they anticipate- cognitively, prediction is what leads you to lock your car keys in your own car, anticipation makes sure you don’t. The problem with following the examples of good decision makers is that very often they know far more than they can say. Unlocking this expertise and transferring it is true high value information but you’ve got to know how to do it, otherwise you could be following the wrong cues.

Big data and some of the latest BI platforms represent huge opportunities for experts in any field to operate at more adaptive levels which allow them to identify and lever risks rather than be buried by them. These technologies also represent the chance to help unlock tacit knowledge and turn novices into experts faster, and also broaden the range of expertise. When a focus is finally placed on how people actually use data to make decisions as oppose to how can more people use data to make decisions then we’ll finally see some real developments.

All decisions start with a hunch, intuition. Hours of research have taught me that, and the rules of thumb people generate to manage complexity are just as effective now as they have always been; we just need to identify them, support them and transfer them. So, forget data scientists, in about 5 minutes you can make almost anyone a better decision maker using data via Google, so focus on a usable, simple BI platform and then use it to support expertise.

Final thought- The data explosion represents huge opportunities for non-data professionals but they need to be used correctly and responsibly. Remember, the data sets are now are so vast you can prove almost anything you want via correlative statistics, so positive cases are of dubious value. At that point, ask an expert. I’ll explain further next time….

What is Expertise?

8 Aug

Kahneman and Klein (2009) published an outstanding article in the American Psychologist outlining the environments in which expertise could be considered to exist. A lot of people are ready to call themselves experts, but the term needs to be reserved for the genuine article. In this post I’ll provide a short overview of expertise, some of my research experiences in the area, and how expertise can be developed.

For expertise to exist, two key conditions need to be met. Firstly the environment the person operates in needs to be valid; cues need to be available and these need to be recognisable, leading to fairly consistent outcomes. In midwifery, for example, one of the cues a midwife will look for is the breathing of the woman who is giving birth; this cue is available in the environment each time during a normal birthing process. The quality and nature of the breathing will produce outcomes, outcomes which the midwife can anticipate and generate action scripts for. This environment has valid qualities where expertise can develop.

Secondly, an environment must provide learning opportunities and quick, clear feedback. The midwife is able to employ an action script (based on the breathing during birth for example) and monitor and adapt this action script according to the needs of the woman. This environment again meets the conditions of expertise.

Hopefully, I’ve quickly established the broad environmental conditions for expertise to exist and also be developed in others. In the business environment, expertise is more difficult to develop. Many cues are available, but the outcomes they produce are inconsistent and difficult to predict. Analysis of the operating environment is important in business because if a cue is spotted and acted upon, and this produces a positive result, then illusory skill may creep into decision making as a cause and effect assumption is made. Acknowledging the difference between luck and skill is vitally important in decision making, strategy and leadership; nobody wants luck to be the driver of decisions. An analogy is throwing a coin into a wishing well, making your wish, and the wish being fulfilled. This is luck and coincidence and not a good strategy for achieving future goals.

However, decision making can improve in lower validity environments, even if true expertise cannot. A decision should not be a gamble (see Klein, 2011) it should be the starting point of dynamic action. Experience, particularly of the trial and error type, provides access to richer mental models of the environment and the ability to make sense of the same environment. Trial and error provides a broader range of options if things go wrong or plans reach their limits; there is higher capability to adapt to a dynamic, inconsistent environment.

True experts understand the limits of formal processes, and address these limits with adaptive rules of thumb they have learned through many trials. My recent research with health professionals proved this again; the experts had rich mental models and a range of options available to deliver outstanding patient care that went beyond their formal training.

To incorporate this into business – focus on what could go wrong with plans and find alternative interpretations of markets and data to your own analysis. Never use statistics to prove a point, use them to prove you are wrong. Something you could use today- if someone presents you with some summary statistical data, ask them where the figures came from. If that question can’t be answered then you can’t make sense of the environment to which that data allegedly belongs.