Aaron Swartz on Curiosity

I found the following paragraph from an email exchange of Aaron Swartz. Aaron died unfortunately recently. I hardly knew about him before his untimely death, but I recommend reading about him. The following was ringing a chord in me. I have a similar feeling about exploring the world. Once you know a bit about an area, this area is getting interesting. I worked in several industries and did different degrees and it always works for me.

E.g. when I was about to finish my computer science studies I was looking for a job, maybe Ph.D. I was never exposed to the fascination of mechanical engineerings before and I only went to talk to the people that offered a Ph.D. to computer scientists within engineering simply because I was already working as a student in the same building and I needed job hunting practice anyway. But what I saw fascinated me. My curiosity was stirred. A month later I started an Dr.-Ing. I never regretted that.

This is what Aaron wrote on curiosity. I might not have been as consequent as he was. 🙂

“When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity. First I got interested in computers, which led me to get interested in the Internet, which led me to get interested in building online news sites, which led me to get interested in standards (like RSS), which led me to get interested in copyright reform (since Creative Commons wanted to use similar standards). And on and on. Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. This isn’t easy — my parents are still upset with me that I dropped out of school — but it’s always worked for me.” (Aaron Swartz)

There is no such Thing as a Pure Hard Problem

From time to time I use the differentiation between hard and soft problems or difficulties vs. messes and the TROPICS test from McCalman and Paton to differentiating these two. Why? The answer is simple. My first studies were engineering disciplines. Engineering disciplines are working with hard problems, that is problems where you have a clear understanding of what constitutes the problem and where you know when you solved the problem. However, at latest when you finish your studies you realize that life is far more complex. You might realize that two opposing and mutually exclusive solutions to the same problem might be correct, which makes you think about how well defined the problem is – a “soft problem”.

This is easy to see. But there was a piece missing. I worked in teams that did a great job in solving a tricky hard problem just to see that nobody acted on our results. It took me a while until my MBA teacher Nigel hit the nail when we told me “There is no such thing as a pure hard problem”. Every relevant hard problem is embedded in a real life context. And you have to understand the full context. If you solve the underlying hard problem you might simply solve the wrong problem. And looking back, I was part of several of those activities.

As I am now working in a project portfolio management function this is an important lesson. If you solve the wrong problem you are very inefficient, regardless on how well the project proceeds. Thanks Nigel. 

[Update 26/5/2017] The TROPICS Test was introduced to me to differentiate Hard from Soft problems. In the years following I found out that “soft problems” are often called “wicked problems”. Horst Rittel must have coined that term and he was creating a planning/design method known as Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) for handling wicked problems. IBIS made a lot of sense to me which is why I have created “Visual Thinking with IBIS” as a tool supporting the IBIS Notation.

Switch to new blog side

I changed my blog side. It is now integrated into my webpage www.kneupner.de. New material will be published there. Old material is converted manually. Therefore not everything is available yet through my “new” blog side.
If you have subscribed to this blog, then please add now the new feed https://www.kneupner.de/files/feed.xml 
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Steven Covey: The Big Rocks

Today I got an email with another great video I would like to share. This time it is Steven Covey, maybe best known for his book “7 Habits of highly effective people”. Watch, laugh and learn.

I referred already several times to the blog of JD Meier. He is a big fan of Steven Covey teaching. Have a look at his blog, e.g.

Flying Logic for Visual Thinking

Some time ago, I was pointed towards a software tool called “Flying Logic” from Sciral. I was told that Flying Logic would support to plan backwards from the goal. I like software that helps me to display my thoughts (I call that “Visual Thinking”) and I fully subscribe to the thinking backwards idea (famously promoted by Stephen Covey’s “7 habits for highly successful people” as “Begin with the End in Mind“). 

The structure of this post
Therefore I downloaded the software and used the 30 days trial to play a bit around. Flying Logic is actually a tool that maintains a directed graph. Each node of the graph has a type that is shown as a description. Therefore you can have a “goal” node or an “action” node. This is very simple and you can only influence the colour of the node frame based on the type. Flying Logic auto-layouts the graph without giving you many possibilities to influence the graph. The focus is clearly on clarity – not on creating the nicest graphs. But the result is decent. You can use these facilities to create your own node types and therefore to create your own thinking “grammar”. As an example, I tried to prepare this blog entry based on a simple grammar using “Fact”, “My part of the story”, and “Conclusion”. It isn’t the perfect grammar yet, but it allowed me to arrange the pieces of this entry first visually before the writing. Which was for once fast and straightforward. On the support page you can see that other people use the tool for areas like web-page design where they use their own custom-designed grammar to plan a webpage.  
Flying Logic has a set of already defined grammars “out-of-the-box”. Those grammars are mainly related to “Theory of Constraints” (TOC). TOC is a so-called management philosophy. Thankfully, Flying Logic comes with an eBook explaining TOC. Whilst what I read was really interesting I quickly found out that the eBook is very dense, i.e. packed with information. Hooked as I was I started to map out the content of the book and created a TOC mindmap – another way of “Visual Thinking”. By now I use Flying Logic regularly and use my mindmap as a guide to the eBook and to TOC. 
Mindmap: Theory of Constraints with Flying Logic
TOC provides different model types that help you focus on different aspects. Two of these models are the “Current Reality Tree”, which is used to analyse the weaknesses of the current situation, and the “Future Reality Tree”, which is used to envision a future solution. The latter, the Future Reality Tree, is actually the model type that let to me learning about Flying Logic. You start with the goal and analyse from there backwards how to achieve that goal. The provided grammar helps to think in a constructive way.
Overall, Flying Logic is a simple tool that allows you to display your thoughts. It comes with strong support for a backward thinking (“Begin with the End in Mind”) due to the underlying theoretical framework TOC. My understanding to the framework is available here as a mindmap. But Flying Logic is not limited to the framework and you can easily create your own graphs types. The tool isn’t cheap, but it was worth the money for me. 

Business Motivation Model

I mentioned the Business Motivation Model earlier. The Business Motivation Model is a model that explains core terminology for an organisation. The model is an OMG standard.

I got aware of the model during a conference when one of the main authors (the Business Rules expert Ronald Ross) explained it briefly. It doesn’t surprise that he uses the model to explain how Business Rules fit into an organisation.

I used the model to define the strategy of our department. The big advantage is that it explains easily the difference between concepts like “Vision”, “Mission”, “Goal”, “Objective”, “Strategy”, and “Tactic”. Having the clear distinction of these terms facilitates discussions that allow focusing on the “why” behind your activities. The terminology and relationships between the concepts provided by the model make it simple to see the bigger picture and how everybody’s work relate to our goals.

The model includes further related concepts as can be seen from the diagram on the right side. 

The “Why”

Sometimes, so see/hear/learn something that immediately connects with some loose ends that you have in your mind. During my MBA did “learn” about the importance of strategy. How everybody needs to understand the connection between the current work and the overall direction. Every now and then you can extend your understanding. On a conference in June about EA and BPM for example, did I learn about the “Business Motivation Model” which can be used to describe the main concepts like vision, mission, goals, and strategies. And now, on my “Leading Others” course, this video was shown. Another tidbit, that connects some pieces of the puzzle. Enjoy.