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Outline Thinking: Preventing pre-frontal paroxysms

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Last week’s KJR introduced 20 ways of thinking something through, beginning with Outline Thinking and wrapping up with the satisfying but unilluminating Ridicule.

Honesty requires this disclaimer: While I’m quite sure none of these are original, I’m even more sure I didn’t plagiarize someone else’s list. The only credit I can claim is that of the numismatist: I don’t know who stamped these coins, and the only credit I can claim is that I’ve collected them.

Some of you asked for a deeper look at the 20 ways. And while I might stop at 19 – I doubt the world needs techniques for creating better ridicule – I figure starting with Outline Thinking – the first item on the list and arguably the most useful of the bunch – is a safe, if dull bet.

Outlining is top-down decomposition. It’s tempting to stop there, making this the shortest KJR ever posted. But that would be wrong.

Outlining is the tool of choice for documenting your understanding of a subject – of the details and how they fit together.

A successful outline begins with a good subject. It then breaks that subject down to between three and maybe nine topics that are of the same type, and which, taken together, fully encompass the top-level subject as viewed from that perspective.

For example, the subject of your outline might be a project you need to organize. You’ll have to address a number of different topics. For example you’ll have to think through the project team’s composition … that is, the roles you’ll need on the team to do the project’s work. Then there are the work products its team will have to produce to accomplish the project’s objective and goals.

And, not to be ignored, you really ought to figure out the tasks the team will have to execute to create those work products.

To figure out what these tasks are, the project manager will need to outline them. The project management buzzword is “work breakdown structure,” but don’t let that throw you – it’s an outline. So far so good.

You start the process of organizing project tasks by answering the question, “What are the tasks that make up the project?” That results in a top-level view of the project task outline, as shown in the box at the top left in the figure below, taken from the demonstration project used in Bare Bones Project Management – implementing a warehouse management system.

Figure: Outlining is progressive decomposition

Next, you ask the equivalent question about each project task that you asked about the project: “What are the sub-tasks that make up this task?” The figure’s middle box shows the result for the “Gather data” task, re-casting Gather data to Gather information requirements to help clarify what will be needed. In a real project you would ask the same question about every other top-level task, too.

The figure’s lower-right-hand box shows the result of taking the Conduct interviews sub-task to one more level.

Then you would continue until you run out of sub-sub-sub etcetera tasks. Or, if you’re smart (and lazy, but that’s just saying the same thing twice) you’d delegate the rest of the outlining to the experts on your project team best-suited to do so.

Bob’s last word: As you can see, outlining is an excellent tool for thinking a subject through to understand it better, whether the subject is project tasks, the components needed to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture (pro tip: yes, an Allen wrench is a necessary component, but no, it isn’t a sufficient one), or a meal.

What makes it such a useful tool is that it lets you understand the subject you’re figuring out at whatever level of depth you need, without having to keep all that depth in your head all at once.

Outlining, that is, is a terrific way to keep your head from exploding.

Bob’s sales pitch: Speaking of thinking, The Cognitive Enterprise, which I co-authored with my colleague Scott Lee, is, so far as I can tell, the only business book with “cognitive” in the title that isn’t about applying artificial intelligence to business situations. It asks what we think is a more profound question: What would an enterprise that acts purposefully look like – one that has more in common with predators than with ecosystems – and how would you build one.

Comments (11)

  • SYSTEMS thinking is the capstone and cornerstone of thinking.

    Outline thinking is just one way of getting organized when thinking about things using a SYSTEMS Thinking with a holistic gestalt out_of_the_box comprehensive logical approach to solving a problem.

    The systems thinking approach contrasts with traditional analysis,

    Attention to feedback is an essential component of system thinking.

    Systems thinking originated in 1956, when Professor Jay Forrester founded the Systems Dynamic Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    One of the major breakthroughs in understanding the complex world of organizations is the field of
    systems theory. The field studies systems from the perspective of the whole system, its various
    subsystems and the recurring patterns in the relationships between the subsystems. Systems theory
    has greatly influenced how we understand and change organizations.

    The application of this theory is called systems analysis. One of the major tools of systems analysis
    is systems thinking. Basically, systems thinking is a way of helping a person to view systems from a
    broad perspective that includes seeing overall structures, patterns and cycles in systems, rather than
    seeing only specific events in the system

    Note that systems theory and systems thinking are not the same as being systematic.

    • If you prefer a one-dimensional perspective about a subject, then by all means choose just one thinking mode to apply to it.

      • ROTFLMAO

        Systems thinking includes ALL methods to use.

        IT thinking is the in the box one mode approach to pretending to solve problems.

  • The outline structure is also what underlies most online forums, including this comments section, e.g., comment, reply, additional replies, etc.

    When I was architecting enterprise systems, I always started with an outline, with each subsystem being a subsidiary level, and detail features and requirements indented below those, with increasing levels of indent representing more precise specification. Interestingly, my code tended to follow the outline structure, so that functions/subroutines/api calls, etc. had an equivalence in the outline. The outline turned out to be the documentation, although containing too much detail if you got sucked into it. However, the existence of the outline made it much easier to later teach the logic flow to whomever got the terrible duty of maintaining my code! Unfortunately, subsequent inheritors of the code failed to keep the outline updated, but that’s inherent in our industry 🙂

    • Outlining is important no matter how you do things.

      I prefer to call it ORGANIZING rather than outlining.

      That is because of the way they taught outlining in my school did not work. It assumed you already knew the answer and they focused on how to use numbering as you got into more detail with your document: EG A.1.a. etc but also using caps and lc along with roman numbers and other symbols. Total waste but not nearly as bad as public schools now.

  • Did I miss a week? I don’t recall seeing the 20 ways and paging to the next most recent column takes me back to 3/14. I know I’m on my 7th week of Mondays, but didn’t believe it had spread further than my own desk.

  • It seems diversity can be exciting. as well as enlightening. Looking forwaed to your other 19 to see which ones I identify with and which ones I can learn from.

  • Changing the subject, Time to (yawn) eliminate IT, one more time revisited.

    The problem with reading old email is that the comments are closed for that email. So, I am cheating, and posting on the current email which has absolutely nothing to do with what I am commenting on.

    I received a notice from Malwarebytes, my friendly anti-virus vendor the following:

    White House urges US businesses: Protect against potential Russian cyberattacks

    Now, to go back to the issue of eliminating IT, who in your company are you going to look to to “Protect against potential Russian cyberattacks”? For that matter, you should also be protecting your company against cyberattacks from any source. Who in your company is responsible for maintaining the security of your servers, whether they are on site or in the cloud. Who is responsible for maintaining the security of your company network. Who is responsible for protecting all the computers, tablets, and smart phones used by the employees to get their job done? Who has the knowledge and expertise to provide security from cyberattacks?


    Greg Oros

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