Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The three characteristics of a professional?

Listening to Margaret Throsby this morning on ABC Classic FM - she interviewed a guy who spoke about the three characteristics of doctors:
  • Authoritative.
  • Sapiential.
  • Charismatic.
Does this apply equally to all other "professions"?

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Path based" approach for IT development

Interesting piece here at HBR from Staats and Upton about what they call a "path based" approach to IT system development:

Through our work, we have identified an approach that not only reduces a company’s costs but supports the growth of existing businesses and the launch of new ones. We call it a “path based” approach, because rather than attempting to define all of the specifications for a system before the project is launched, companies focus on providing a path for the system to be developed over time. The approach’s premises are that it is difficult and costly to map out all requirements before a project starts because people often cannot specify everything they’ll need beforehand. Also, unanticipated needs almost always arise once a system is in operation. And persuading people to use and “own” the system after it is up and running is much easier said than done.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The risk of neuroscience degenrating into phrenology

Interesting article here from Perspectives on Psychological Science, by Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, & Harold Pashler (h/t New Scientist).

Basically, a lot of the very strong correlations that fMRI scans are showing between parts of the brain "lighting up" and emotions felt by subjects, are likely to be spurious. This article claims that the experimenters are making some basic statistical mistakes and are over-stating the links they see. To quote the abstract:

We show how this nonindependent analysis inflates correlations while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Credit crisis until 2010?

Sobering piece from The Economist here, which concludes as follows:
So the markets (and the developed economies) are waiting for a catalyst for recovery. Lower commodity prices helped for a while, and may help further if they encourage central banks to cut rates. Evidence of a bottom in the American housing market may also do the trick. But the crisis seems certain to linger into 2009, and could even make it into the following year.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The secret of creativity

(Reflections on "Strategic Intuition", by William Duggan, Columbia University Press, 2007).

What gives you that "game changing" idea in your strategy? This is the question Duggan sets out to answer in this book. And in so doing he lifts the lid on the secret of creativity.

So what goes on when you have a "game changing" idea? Basically, according to Duggan, you are combining pre-existing ideas and memories you already have, in new and interesting ways. Duggan calls this process "strategic intuition". Strategic intuition relies on a peculiar ability of the brain to see connections between different ideas and memories in a flash, in new ways. This ability to make connections in interesting ways is called "intelligent memory".

Duggan gives a lot of good examples in his book of "intelligent memory" in action. The first is Napoleon at the siege of Toulon in 1793. There Napoleon (who was not in command at the time, but advised the General who was) combined two pre-existing elements from his memory, along with some technological innovations, to come up with a new strategy that drove the British out of Toulon. At Toulon he remembered reading about how the British, in the American war of independence, got scared of being cut off from their main fleet when their harbour came under the range of cannon from a nearby hill. He combined this with Joan of Arc's strategy of relieving Orleans by attacking smaller fortresses around it.

So, he took these two ideas (from his reading of military history), noticed a small fort (l'Aiguiellette) on his new contour map, overlooking Toulon, and decided to take it. He put light cannon in l'Aiguiellette, aimed at Toulon, and the British felt cut off. They left Toulon without the French having to attack it.

So, on this reading, what makes Napoleon a good general? Simply his wide reading of military history, combined with his ability to make good connections between all those ideas in his head, and the present situation he is facing.

The Google story in 1996 is the same. Larry Page and Sergey Brin combine three existing elements in a new way. Firstly, the idea, from academia, that the more time a paper is cited, the more important it is. Larry Page took this analogy and applied it to links that connect back to a web page: the more links back to it, the more important the page. Brin and Page combined this with Alta Vista's idea to copy the whole web onto its computers to allow a full text search of the web. And, finally, they added the data mining expertise of their Professor at Stanford, Rajeev Motwani. The result of these three pre-existing elements, brought together in a new way, was the Google search engine (although at the time they thought they had invented a page ranking engine, but that's another story).

So what does all this mean? Well, if you want to think creatively, if you want to have strategic insights, you need to combine two important factors. First, you need a lot of good memories in your head as "raw material". Second, you need to be able to make useful connections between those memories, and see applications to your present situation.

The first, getting the "raw material" is easy enough. Just read a lot. Read what interests you. Read for enjoyment. And don't worry if it's not useful. The second - making connections between these ideas - might be a bit harder. What you need are tools and methods that help these connections to emerge. Duggan seems silent on this. But, it strikes me, at 2nd Road we have the "thinking tools" and approaches that can help people to make those useful connections.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

When it’s best to try to convince, rather than prove

(Reflections on Carroll C Arnold’s Introduction to Chaim Perelman’s “The Realm of Rhetoric”, University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).

When is it better to try for a convincing argument, rather than a conclusive one? And how would you go about that?

You should aim to convince, rather than prove, when your premises are disputable. That is, when you are dealing in the realm of “values” (as Perelman would say). I take it that this realm is bigger than it first appears: and would include decisions about most human social systems.

Argumentation that aims to convince can be termed “rhetoric”. Argumentation that aims at a proof, at a conclusion, can be termed “logic”. Logic can only be applied when your premises are indisputable. Beware of trying to apply logic into situations where your premises are open to opinion. You will end up with disparate and conflicting conclusions.

Rhetorical argument must have as its goal the “adherence” of an audience. Rhetorical argument, by the nature of the matters it deals with, will always have an audience. Even if that audience is just yourself. And its aim cannot be to get the audience totally signed-up to a claim. Rather, its goal can only be to increase the adherence of that audience to the claim. In the domains where rhetoric applies, we cannot hope for 100% acceptance of a claim. Only degrees of allegiance or adherence.

So, how do you argue in a good way, in the domains where your premises are disputable? That is, how do you argue rhetorically? One way to answer this is to draw analogies from the realm of logic: a realm we are more familiar with.

In logic, you build your argument from self evident premises. Premises that are universally true. In rhetoric, you need to build your argument from your audience’s knowledge and experience. You need to appeal to what they know. To what they value. To what they have gone through. You also need to take into account your audience’s current situation.

In logic, you rely on definitions of terms. Once a term is defined to mean a certain thing – its meaning is clear to everyone dealing in that formal system. For example, in the Tax Act, the term “assessable income” is defined in the “definitions” section of the Act. That term, “assessable income” will retain that defined meaning throughout the Act. Its meaning is not open to dispute by any accountant or judge.

In rhetoric, where you are dealing with language in an informal system (not the formal systems of logic), your language will always be ambiguous. You can’t pin a single definition down to a term. So, what can the rhetorician do? Her only option is to make her particular meaning of a word compelling to an audience. She must give her meaning of the word “presence” to that audience.

Finally, logic reaches its conclusions by following deductive steps in a formal proof. The logical rules, which allow you to advance from one step to the next, are well understood and universally agreed. No such formal rules exist for rhetoric. Instead, you need to make “liaisons” between ideas. You progress as you see and build the links between ideas. The rhetorician will use metaphor, examples and models to create these liaisons. She will also resort to argument by analogy, or by an appeal to the way things are (as viewed by the audience) to make these links.

Perelman’s contention, in the end, is that it's possible, in fact it's more intellectually honest, to aim for arguments that are “inconclusive” (in the logical, positivist sense) and yet still “convincing”.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Search engines to help technological innovation?

Interesting piece here from The Economist on using search engines to help with technological innovation.

The article's key idea is to turn innovation on its head. Instead of starting with a problem and looking for a solution: start with your collection of known solutions and see if you can find problems that they solve. Or, better still, if you see a "problem", search amongst all the known solutions out there and see if one will "fit".

That's, of course, where search engines come into play. The article looks at the latest "natural language" search engines - that make this type of searching a whole lot easier. And of course, someone's already got the "innovation search engine" idea in production. Accelovation recently went live with their "market discovery software".