Thinking about thinking

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The neural pathways humans use to, say, recognize a friend’s face are different from those we use to understand why the square of the length of a right triangle’s hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squared lengths of its sides.

As Daniel Kahneman explains in his mind-blowing Thinking, Fast and Slow, the former is, for us, quick and effortless (thinking fast) while the latter is a lot slower and takes much more effort (thinking slow).

This disparity of effort is one reason some people accept some profoundly wrong ideas while rejecting others that are correct beyond any reasonable doubt: The attractive-but-wrong ideas rely on the thinking-fast pathway, requiring minimal effort. Meanwhile … if you had a million bucks riding on the outcome, could you, on your own, with just pencil, paper, and a five-minute deadline, prove the Pythagorean Theorem?

Anyway … while thinking-slow is intrinsically hard, it doesn’t have to be quite so hard. It’s possible to jump-start the process through what we in IT might call patterns – pre-defined approaches to thinking through different sorts of situation.

Over my accumulating years I’ve collected quite a few of these, and as they’re the backbone of Keep the Joint Running I figured you might find my compilation useful.

What follows is the list. The extent to which I elaborate on anything in it in future posts will depend on the feedback I get from the KJR community (that would be you). So without any further ado, and in no particular order:

Outline Thinking: Top-down decomposition. Outlines may be taxonomic (breakdown at all levels is based on the same dimension of analysis) or attributional (different outline levels are based on different dimensions of analysis).

Mind Mapping: Like outlining, but with many-to-many relationships.

Systems Thinking: How different components interact and relate to each other – process flows, algorithms, rules, feed-forward and feedback loops.

Stochastic Thinking: How randomness influences and accounts for outcomes.

Anti-anecdotal Thinking: Recognizing that a single event does not represent a trend. Related to Stochastic Thinking.

Narrative Thinking: Connecting the dots in story-telling format to see if everything hangs together.

Geometric Thinking: Step-by-step logic, from premises to conclusions. Similar to Narrative Thinking but more rigorous.

Editorial Thinking: knowing what to leave out; clarity vs completeness. Similar to Narrative Thinking but with less nuance and more emphasis on ease of comprehension.

Causal Thinking: Keeping means and ends straight; keeping correlation vs causation straight.

Proportionality perspective: Placing metrics and measurements on a defined scale; insisting on the denominators that turn numbers into ratios.

Metaphorical Thinking: How an unknown circumstance resembles a known one; what our knowledge of the known one suggests about the unknown one.

Fractal / Recursive Thinking: Metaphorical thinking applied to observations at differing scales.

Pattern-based Thinking: Like Metaphorical Thinking, but more rigorous.

Trade-off Thinking: Recognizing that sometimes, better is the best you can achieve, and that an improvement in one dimension can cause deterioration in other dimensions.

Scientific Thinking: Having increased or decreased confidence in a proposition based on whether reliable evidence fails or succeeds in falsifying it.

Models and Thought Experiments: Exploring how a situation would play out by putting someone or something in a defined situation and applying what we know about how they would behave in that situation to predict what the results would be.

Political Thinking: Choosing what ideas to accept and reject based on what you think those in power prefer, or that members of your peer group will like.

Empathic Thinking: Imagining how others might feel if presented with the idea. Similar to Political Thinking, but nicer. Similar to Thought Experiments, but emotional.

Plausibility testing: Assessing whether an explanation passes the don’t-be-ridiculous test, keeping in mind that quantum physics doesn’t pass it.

Ridicule: When you don’t like an idea but can’t find anything wrong with it. Akin to Plausibility Thinking, but malicious.

Bob’s last word: The point of this list isn’t for you to decide which ones you like the best (hint: as a card-carrying member of Sarcastics Anonymous, Ridicule is my favorite). No, the point is to choose the thinking mode best-suited to the situation you’re dealing with.

# # #

Bob’s sales pitch: Want to be a great leader? I can’t help you. I doubt anyone else can help you either.

But if what you want is to be a better leader tomorrow than you were yesterday, get yourself a copy of Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World. According to one reviewer, “This should be mandatory reading for any IT manager and above.” And as one executive told me after attending my leadership seminar that’s based on Leading IT, “I’ve attended at least a dozen of these, and this is the first one that wasn’t utter B.S.”

Comments (18)

  • I enjoy your columns so much! I have been reading them (around 500!) for about 10 years now. I find them insightful and thought provoking! Thank you so much for making the time to reflect and share your thinking!.

  • Nice list.

    Now tell us why people choose a certain one to justify what they wish were true.

  • Pythagorean theorem in 5 minutes? YES! In 1 diagram, 1 guided tour of the diagram, and 74 spoken words.

    It’s the Rearrangement Proof. (See the Wikipedia article.) Once the diagram is drawn, and the various lengths of the various sides are pointed out (that’s the guided tour), here’s the ENTIRETY of the spoken-words proof (my way):

    ” ‘Before-and-after” means before, versus after, the 4 triangles are moved. The area of the giant square enclosing everything is the same before-and-after. The areas of the 4 triangles are the same before-and-after. Therefore, the area of the 2 little square holes, before, is equal to the area of the 1 big square hole, after. Both are what’s left over after the 4 triangles are subtracted from the giant enclosing square, therefore both are equal.”

    I might have to rehearse a few times to get it below 5 minutes. If the original challenge had been “in 15 minutes”, instead of 5, I would have gotten it right the first time, with no rehearsal and no warning beforehand.

    Of course, I did not DISCOVER the Rearrangement Proof. I would never be able to DISCOVER something like this in 5 minutes (or 15). But once this was shown to me 3 times in a row many years ago, it stuck. Which illustrates something that, if not exactly the same as the “thinking, fast and slow” distinction, is somewhere in its neighborhood:

    It’s a lot faster and easier to regurgitate an argument that has been memorized, than to think through that argument for the first time. Retrieval of pre-computed results (e.g. from a table) is (usually) faster and easier than computation (though often less accurate).

    This last was at the heart of the Pentium FDIV bug (remember that? Gosh, I’m old!).

    • Hmmm … I neglected to differentiate between thinking-slow-remembering and thinking-slow-figuring-something-out. But then, I also didn’t differentiate between thinking-fast/friend-recognition and thinking-slow/persuading someone else that a friend is really who they claim they are.

  • 2 more items for your toolkit: (1) Lists of Anti-Patterns a.k.a. Dark Patterns, and also of other things in the same neighborhood. Aristotle’s list of fallacies is a good place to start. (2) Slogans and proverb-adjacent things are helpful in making Patterns and Anti-Patterns more memorable.

    Different areas of thought and fields of endeavor often have their own distinctive slogans and Anti-Pattern-ish “things”. Some examples:

    Trade-off Thinking: “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” (I just learned this one recently.) “Good, Fast, Cheap: choose any two.” (Alternately, “Cost, Schedule, Quality”.)

    Psychology: the Fundamental Attribution Error.

    Investing: the Greater Fool Theory.

    Economics: the Sticky Tax Theory, and the Stuck-To-Their-Jobs theory.

    Accounting/Auditing: when it come to accounting errors and suspicious discrepancies, “Mountains Can Hide Behind Molehills” (my favorite!).

  • Wow! Astonishing article, as well as the first few reader responses.

    Though for me, it is most valuable in understanding how to best teach and communicate with those (especially top management) outside the IT silo.

    Can I share this with my FB homies?

    • Of course you can share it. I’m flattered that you think it’s worth sharing.

      If you do, I would appreciate your preserving its authorship, and perhaps encouraging the folks you share it with to subscribe.

      Thanks again for the compliment.

  • You’ve described an impressive set of problem solving tools.
    Some, however, prefer the Simplified Maslovian approach:
    Hit it with your hammer.
    If that doesn’t work, hit it harder.

  • A great list. Is this going to be a book? I’d buy it
    If a series of columns, hell yes

  • Sounds like a good set of topics!

  • I would appreciate reading about each of these thought processes in greater detail.

  • All your column are enjoyable for me. This one is excellent. Maybe in the future you could elsborate on which three or four (or more) modes of thinking you would most likely bring to bear on particular types of projects and why. Thanks.

  • Bob,
    I think it took a lot of thinking to arrive at all those defined methods of thinking! I have never tried to put a definition on the modes of thinking I have used and now that I am retired I find that my thinking process has mostly gone to the “slow” mode to match the rest of my retired life. I have been a reader of your columns and books since way back in the days of printed computer mags. Still enjoy reading your material so keep on publishing!

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