Ravi Mohan's Blog

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Thinking as a learnable skill

If I remember correctly, it was in one of Edward de Bono's books that I first encountered the idea that thinking might actually be a skill, and thus learnable (and improvable by practice).

Over the years, this belief has been reinforced and I was forced to pull it all together yesterday when a friend asked me "How can I improve the quality of my thinking"?

This is my answer, fwiw.

First learn critical thinking. Critical Thinking teaches you to evaluate an argument and separate chaff from grain. Suppose someone were to state, for e.g "Agile is cool and we'd like to adopt it in the next project", how do you react? To learn critical thinking one could go through a course in logic, learn all the different logical fallacies and then try to apply them to real life conversations and claims. But Critical Thinking - An Introduction offers a gentler path. Just make sure to skip most of Chapter 1. Just read Section 11.4, 1.2 and 1.3 an move on to Chapter 2. I've never seen a better book that teaches one how to cut through the layers of BS and get to the core of an argument. The Craft Of Argument is a good book as well, though oriented more towards writing good papers and articles.

Second, learn Lateral Thinking. Dr. de Bono,the inventor of the method, has written many many useless books and a couple of brilliant ones. The latter contain some powerful ideas.

Dr de Bono's central contribution is the notion of a "thinking tool", analogous to tools like a hammer or a screwdriver - each tool having a context of use and a particular effect. The books to get are Lateral Thinking For Management(non management folks can ignore the "for management". It just means that he uses management situations to illustrate various thinking tools. Nothing prevents you from using them in your own domains) and Serious Creativity. Both are chock full of systematic practical lessons about how to think in different situations.

Third, I'd suggest a brilliant thinking tool - Thinking Gray - from A Contrarian's Guide To Leadership by Steven Sample. The book deals with a lot more than thinking, and in addition is very hard to find (Thank You Learning Journey, for getting me a copy) and so I'll briefly explain "Thinking Gray".

In essence, Thinking Gray (TG from now) asks you not to make a decision on something, or choose a side in an argument till you absolutely have to. Sounds simple doesn't it ? However, the human mind has tendency to converge to a decision and classify data into binary categories (good/bad, black/white, friend/foe) and take sides in an argument. For e.g everyone has an opinion about (say) the American invasion of Iraq. Some may think it a "good" thing and others may decide that the war is a "bad" idea. The TG practitioner, while listening to all the data, refuses to take a binary stand till it becomes absolutely imperative that he does so.

This refusal to decide lets you avoid three dangerous tendencies - (1) the tendency to filter incoming data to support a pre decided conclusion (2) the tendency to vacillate between two conclusions, depending on who you last spoke to (and how persuasive he was) and (3) most dangerous, the tendency to slant your beliefs towards what you think people around you believe.

Steven Sample precisely distinguishes TG from skepticism. The skeptic has two mental "buckets" - one labelled "I believe" and another labelled "I don't believe". The skeptic's policy is that nothing goes into the "I believe" bucket without proof or a logical, convincing argument. Everything, by default goes into the "I don't believe" bucket and stays there till logic or proof moves it into the "belief" b. The TG practitioner on the other hand, has no "buckets".

One thing the TG practitioner has to be careful of is that other people may get confused about your "true" beliefs and intentions and may think that you agree with what they say because you seem to understand what they say and ask clarifying questions and so on.

Thinking Gray can be enhanced by projecting the multiple conclusions forward into the future (thus providing a rich tapestry of possibilities) and backward into the past(allowing multiple interpretations) . Combined with Paul Graham's "running upstairs" or "staying upwind" concept, TG allows you to navigate an uncertain future in a stress free fashion and maximize productivity in the present. More on this later.

To generate ideas, in other words, to be creative, de Bono's thinking tools work very well. I recently came across an approach called TRIZ. The basic idea seems to be worth investigating, but during 2003/2004, TRIZ ( and the associated concept ARIZ ) became the fad of the day just as "agile" and "lean" seem to be today's. Thus there is a lot of nonsense written about them as various authors bought out books and a lot of consultants were selling "ARIZ enablement" and hiring themselves out as "ARIZ coaches". As a result, there is a lot of worthless literature out there and some effort has to be extended to dig out the core of ARIZ and TRIZ. As soon as I get some free time(a precious commodity these days), I will look into this.

To conclude, all these methods treat thinking as a learnable skill and the one problem with this model is that to get good at thinking, as with finding the route to Carnegie Hall, practice is the only way. And practicing thinking is an odd concept for a lot of people.


Anonymous said...

There is a book about TRIZ that I'd recommend to read to everybody (and that was translated to several languages) written by Salamatov. You probably can download this book from his Web-site http://www.triz-guide.com and/or ask him questions directly! He is one among about 50th others officially certified TRIZ masters who started with Altshuller many years ago.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post, Ravi. I just bookmarked it to read again, and to check out the books that you mentioned.
How about another post on Learning as a learnable skill :)

Ravi said...

Thank you for that info . Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

how much money do you spend on books annually ? :-))

Ravi said...

hmm i guess about 100 $ /month -- about 1000- 1200$ annually

Anonymous said...

A very interesting and insightful post, and some compelling reading suggestions. Much appreciated!

Valeri Souchkov said...

Although I have been involved with TRIZ for about 20 years, I have to agree with the author that recent attempts to sell "fast TRIZ recepies" led to distortion of the original ideas of TRIZ in many cases. For those who might be interested to read about TRIZ, I'd recommend to start with "Innovation Algorithm" by G. Altshuller (originator of TRIZ), available from Amazon.com or www.aitriz.org. Although originally written almost 30 years ago, the book explains the basic TRIZ ideas and its logic very clearly.
Also please note that legitimate copy of the book by Dr. Salamatov can be purchased at www.insytec.com