Saturday, March 28, 2015

Do You Know or Do You Understand

You've been fooled. We have ALL been fooled.

We were brought up in an education model that prizes knowing things.

If you proved in school that you know a thing, you got a gold star.

If you faced a list of ten things and proved that you knew 9 out of 10, we gave you a score and told you that it was good. We told you that if you knew fewer than 7 of the 10 things, you had failed.

The details, and the levels may vary, but don't get wrapped up in fascination about the margin of variance. The principle is, we taught you that knowing stuff was good and not knowing stuff was bad. We taught you that knowing more things made you better, and knowing fewer things made you less valuable.

We created a relationship to knowledge in our culture that prized knowing things as the gold standard, sometimes at the expense of understanding. Certainly, although we have sufficient means to measure understanding of a knowledge domain, we've failed to use those tools consistently, and we definitely missed the opportunity to place the emphasis there.

Don't get me wrong. I love facts. I insist on a context for discourse that is informed by prior art, citations, and access to definitive knowledge. But --- our predominant approach to education has created a world in which we might admire a car because of the tooling of its components and the quality of the materials used (the facts), but without concern for its performance on the road (the understanding).

Certainly knowing things is not the antithesis to understanding. Often in fact, it is the foundation. In the workplace, the developer who knows the inputs and behaviors of an API call, or the materials engineer who knows the tensile strength and optimal temperature range for a substance, or a broadcast engineer who knows the placement and behavior of his board controls ... all of these workers have an edge over someone who must find these facts by consulting a reference. Knowing things is generally good as long as we don't deify it in isolation, and as long as we are aware of the costs.

One cost is creativity. When we know things, we tend to neglect ideas that live beyond the range that (we perceive) the knowledge implies. We already know what's possible, so we're disinclined to look further. I once worked on a filmmaking project, and our cinematographer was certain that he knew the operating limits of the camera we were using. He did know them. So when we needed to shoot a scene in the dark around a real campfire (because we lacked the budget for the lighting tools that could simulate a campfire), he balked because he was completely certain that the footage would not come out.

But our director didn't know the limits of the camera and she did know that we needed the scene. So through a combination of focused reflectors, seating the actors uncomfortably close to the fire, and very close up shots, we were able to get the scene, to a great extent because the director was not blinded by knowledge of the technical constraints.

Another cost of deifying knowledge is perspective. Sometimes when we are overly impressed with our command of a knowledge domain, we fail to consider the input and ideas from someone who is in possession of fewer facts on the matter.

I once held responsibility for software development on a large project with high visibility and spent a great deal of time working with my marketing counterpart (the Product Manager) on the progress of the project. At a certain point, I was stalled by a problem that I could not unravel. My marketing partner asked me about the problem with the intention of helping me break the logjam. I snorted at the suggestion because I was a knowledgeable and accomplished C programmer and she was merely a marketing (insert your favorite pejorative here) who was concerned mostly with fonts and color palettes.

When I got over myself (mostly because of her dogged persistence) and explained the programming issue, we both leapt to a solution within a very short period of time. Although she didn't have the command of facts that I possessed as a working programmer, she did have sufficient understanding of the process to suggest an approach that would isolate the problem I faced.

One additional cost of having an inappropriate reverence for knowledge is connection. Certainly there is a powerful affinity that comes from having shared an experience or having acquired a common body of knowledge. Two people having just met, and who discover a commonality such as both having participated on a championship team in the same sport, or who have both worked in the same emerging industry, will find themselves immediately able to relate to one another.

Occasionally the connection does come from mutual possession of certain facts. If both have discovered that this fact is ironic, and that fact is profound, and another fact is perversely unlikely but true, they will quickly discover common ground.

But our reverence for possession of facts can also drive us to hide the areas in which we lack knowledge. That results in isolation. This is a lesson I learned from being in front of the classroom. In my time as a corporate educator, I noticed two compelling things. The first was that as a colleague would engage with the craft and begin to form a personal approach to training delivery for corporate professionals, almost every one of them would develop a strategy for downplaying, or deflecting, or circumventing questions to which they didn't know the answer. There was a vigorous marketplace in the trade of tactics and tricks for handling questions.

The other thing I noticed was that when I would use those tactics too often in a classroom, my students would begin to grow distant. They would sit apart from me at lunch, fail to meet my eye on the breaks, and begin to rely on one another more than on me to explain things they wanted to know. Every time I postured, or played off the fact that I didn't have a ready answer, it actually eroded the sense they might have that I had an understanding of the matter.

But I also discovered that if I understood the knowledge domain sufficiently, there was a phrase that would give me power in those moments when I didn't possess a particular fact that someone wanted to know. I found that this phrase worked in just about any working context, and even in simple personal situations such as cocktail parties or at a networking mixer. So in business, in sales, in creative work, and in the corporate classroom, this phrase gave me power far beyond that of someone with a mountain of facts at their disposal.

"You know, I don't know the answer to that. Let's explore it together."

When I discovered the power of that phrase, my career transformed. My results improved dramatically, and my professional network began to mushroom to include legions of new business associates who rely on me for answers and perspective.

I invite you to use that phrase today. Because if you are like virtually anyone I've ever met or worked with, you are like us. We don't really know. But we might be able to understand.



Friday, March 6, 2015

Location Aware

...some long time ago, I wrote a bit about location aware services but things have changed a lot since then. Gowall has gone-alla, and Foursquare has morphed into Swarm with Foursquare behind it. Instagram, Facebook, Yelp! and Twitter all have strong location-aware tie-ins now, and the game is really just now heating up in the US and abroad.

The importance of this increases as more activity among millennials and Gen-Y flows away from desktops and onto mobile devices. More and more the marketplace is saying, "if you want to talk to us, you need to come out here where we are."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Open Letter to an Old Friend

You used to be "too good to be true!" We loved you and looked forward to hearing from you every time the mailman came down the sidewalk.


We don't blame you for shifting your attention to streaming. Many of us did that too and were glad that you were out in front on that.

But here's the thing:

I won't be renewing my account. You often don't have the movies that I want to see available for streaming. You don't have a way (any more) for me to search to determine whether the movies I want are in your catalog unless I have an active account.

And the recent articles (here, and here) about how your management has somehow decided that because 20% of people don't mind spoilers, and many of the rest of us will (sometimes reluctantly) watch a series even after you deliver a spoiler -- makes me wonder if your decision makers actually studied basic statistics and marketing implications of customer satisfaction during college.

The waters are beginning to be infested with hungry media delivery players, and where Netflix once had a beautiful edge from being an earlier player, it looks instead like you're not getting the clue from the marketplace.  Shape up, or watch the others pass you by!

In the meantime, if you mend your ways, be sure and let me know. I'd love for us to be friends again.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why We So Ignorant?

In just a short visit with Hans and Ola Rosling, it's easy to see why we have so many misconceptions about the world.

If you need proof, just watch as Hans shows how an audience of educated people, a Swedish university population, and even the US and world media score lower than chimpanzees on key questions about the state of conditions in the world.

By the way, hang in there. Ola does provide an answer that shows us how we can stop being so ignorant. With the holidays coming up, you'll want to pay close attention so you can share this insight with old drunken Uncle Jack. He's sure to thank you!


Of course, you can do something about this. That's why the talk exists. Share the word, and if you see your way clear to help, join Ola in supporting the Ignorance Project. You'll find more about it here.

TED Talk: How not to be so ignorant about the world

It's worth the few minutes you'll spend learning about how much we don't know.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Speaking of the Edges



This passage from Kim Stedman's recent rant perfectly sums up something I've been dying to say:

News about important edge case solutions, is not currently being targeted to people who might have it. It is currently broadcast everywhere, all at once, in an  information dissemination  pattern similar to that used by  hormones  (which flood the whole body until the right organ hears them),  radio  (which does that same thing to the air), or TV advertising (which does it to your brain). This is the method society is currently using to distribute this information to the 3 in a thousand people for whom it actually makes a difference. This is a terrible method of communication and wastes everyone’s energy and time.* It is also and massively discrediting.


She's talking about a particular trend in health and nutrition, but the principle applies much more broadly in the marketplace. The principle that spattering a message onto 1000 listeners to find the 3 for whom it's relevant is at the core of mass communication, mostly broadcast.

When we realize that most of the noise being made around us is concerned with the narrow and the extraordinary, we can get down to the real business at hand.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Through with Passwords? Almost.

...if you're like me, you hate passwords with a passion.

They're almost gone from our lives, but it won't happen for some time yet. (Even if it takes another 2 years, that's about a generation and a half in Internet Years.) In the meantime, there is hope!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Where Have You Been

Although it's not a technological earth shaker, this little amusement brought a smile to my face and maybe you'll enjoy it too.


The tool is something we found at defocus-blog and it allows you to tag the states where you've lived, those you've visited often, those you've just set foot in, and those you've never seen.

The color code is explained here although I modified the definitions slightly to match my experiences.  My rules are:

  • Green - Lived there and rented or owned property
  • Blue - Visited often and probably worked there on contracts
  • Amber - Been there repeatedly and probably stayed in hotel or with friends
  • Red - Driven though, might have slept there once or twice

Go see it here and generate the picture of your own travels.