I’ve seen this before…

Why are some people so good at “seeing” things and how did they get good? In my opinion, “experience” is really just the development of a personal set of cognitive heuristics for dealing with what’s in front of you. In basic terms, you develop a sense of “I’ve seen this before and I have a pretty good idea of how it goes…”

This idea off pattern recognition, evolution, ecosystems and systems thinking has always fascinated me. Back when I was still in school, I can remember the effect the reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and James Moore’s The Death of Competition had on my thinking about business and relationships: the interconnectedness of it all. Some of their thinking is dated and gets a little abstract, but the core ideas, that there are a limited number of truly distinct patterns of interaction out there is a useful one.

This was brought to mind this week as I’m reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (on my favorite new toy – Amazon Kindle DX!). He is a paleontologist describing the evolution of human physiology. Great book, but the relevant point that sparked this post was a series of quotes he made regarding his learning process as a field worker locating and identifying potential fossils.

He starts by describing his essential blindness compared to experienced colleagues. The following are a few quotes that lay out his progression in awareness and thinking:

“Finally, one day, I saw my first piece of tooth glistening in the desert sun. It was sitting in some sandstone rubble, but there it was, plain as day. The enamel had a sheen that no other rock had; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, not exactly – I was looking at things like it every day. The difference was this time I finally saw it, saw the distinction between rock & bone. … All of a sudden, the desert floor exploded with bone…as if I were wearing a special new pair of glasses and a spotlight was shining on all the different pieces of bone.”

“ Over time, I began to learn the visual cues for other kinds of bones: long bones, jaw bones and skull parts. Once you see these things, you never lose the ability to find them.”

“Twenty years later, I know that I must go through a similar experience every time I look for fossils someplace new…I’ll struggle for the first few days…The difference is that now I have some confidence that a search image will kick in.”

“One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence.”

This lays out beautifully the progression you see in people’s lives and careers, IF they are paying attention.

The point is that as you get “better” (more observant, more experienced, etc.) you are developing mental heuristics. Your mind is being trained to think in new ways and short cut many steps based on experience, building new pathways in the brain. Malcolm Gladwell coins this “thin-slicing” in Blink.

I see two ways you need to develop and apply this pattern recognition concept. The first is simply getting better at it within a domain. This is essentially what everything above is really about. Develop deep knowledge and you can then get very good at a subset of things.

The second is to me what separates really excellent and creative thinkers and problem solvers from those who aren’t. Can you abstract and generalize patterns and apply them to new venues? Are you good at analogy?

Most problems are not new and many apparently unrelated problems are very often quite similar. This is what Senge gets at in the Fifth Discipline. There are a limited number of system archetypes and components that describe most systems, whether they be human, animal or natural.  

Effective general managers and consultants need both abilities. I have seen people promoted too quickly without broad experience struggle in that they are “learning on the job” at too high a level. Understanding all the moving parts of a $20MM business is easier to learn, but is much more like running a $1BB business than is going from running a $1BB function in a company to running a similar size/budget business. The business owner has more complex networks they are navigating.

Having said that, you will never have all the experience you need. So how do you manage learning curves? Well, being good at analogy and applying prior learning in other areas to a new problem is very effective. If you can’t you’ll struggle…a lot. (Curiosity, drive etc. all help a lot too!)

In my coursework, I try to teach people generic skills around problem solving  that are broadly applicable so they can be flexible in their thinking as we all have different cognitive styles. In part, this is to force people to apply themselves to answering questions themselves. If I tell you something you may or may not remember it, but even if you do you aren’t likely to understand it. If you go figure it out on your own, however, you’re likely to “never lose the ability to see” what you’ve learned as Shubin points out.

So, what’s the “so what?”

1)     Developing experience and expertise is about developing a sense of pattern recognition. This allows you to “see” things more clearly and with less work over time.

2)     You have to struggle through the hard work of developing this ability. It comes from doing. A guide can tell you what to look for and mentor you along the way, but the insight has to be yours or you won’t really own it.

3)     Being able to extend your insights into analogous environments is very powerful. Particularly if you want to be a general manager.

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