Are you asking the right question? (Part 2)

are you asking the right question - part 2

When I started studying Cybernetics, in 1982, we were asked to read ‘Introduction to cybernetics.’ (Ashby 1956).  After sleeping on the first three pages I produced the following chart:

Cybernetics processes to apply to information tight systems/machines developed from the ideas in the introduction of ‘Introduction to cybernetics.’ (Ashby 1956 from Hibbs 1992)

I noted that Ashby suggested that by working out a cybernetic example of ‘all possible uses’, one may identify important information gaps.

This was something that I could get my head around at this early stage, so I decided to explore it.  I first chose a ball-point pen to analyse, but soon abandoned that as being too complex. A lead pencil seemed more promising.

I started with iterations of a spider graph and before long would have needed paper the size of my room to put all the possibilities.

The analyses included attempting to use the concepts from the chart above.  I decided that ‘represented by’ might be some form of transformation or substitution, in which the wood might become charcoal and the paint molten paint drops.  I noted that there are many possibilities for using the whole or parts for unusual purposes: mini building blocks, cogwheels, wedges, dice …

When I started to think about the ‘lead’ I quickly realised that it was not the metal, lead, but graphite!  My research showed me that graphite is active with very strong oxidisers like fluorine, chlorine. Because except in a vacuum where its layers are not so slippery, it is the ‘universal lubricant’, excellent for door locks because it does not become sticky.  Usefully it is stable to minor trauma, but abraded and transferred to surfaces that are not microscopically smooth, like paper. So, that explains why it does not work if there is grease or oil on the surface.

I found no ideas for ‘ultrastability’ but some ideas for ‘feedback’ by observing written marks, hearing it crack or feeling or seeing it break.  Then I decided that a database of feedback mechanisms might be useful in future and suggested that the new Exercise Physiology Department (now part of Brunel University) would have useful components for such a database.

In a similar way, I continued to work through the chart.

When I came to the next seminar my supervisor asked about it, “Would anyone else be able to follow the paths that you have taken?”  I said, “In theory, yes, but many of the databases have yet to be built.” He said “Fine. Leave that now and learn Cybernetics.” In the appendix A of my thesis, I provided instructions to follow my thinking.

So, what is the question that you should ask? — ‘What are all possible uses?’, rather than the usual one, ‘What else could I use it for?’.

If you think about it, lots of things that we do are reusable with modifications, but most of us treat a lot of what we do as single use, not thinking that one might be able to use them to leap-frog on another occasion.  Storing whole entities or single components in retrievable form with a suitable address, could save hours of work.

Those of us in innovation too often ‘miss a trick’ by asking ‘all uses’ rather than ‘all possible uses’, a question that takes your creative brain forward to exciting reverie and possibly some great ‘aha’s’ in the hours, days, weeks that follow.

My thesis is: Information handling: concepts which emerged in practical situations and are analysed cybernetically.  1992 Accepted for PhD. ISBN 1 873015 03 8. The online version is available for free download here. Full copy at Brunel University and the official deposit libraries including the British Library.

 

Genevieve M Hibbs former: nurse (general and occupational health), midwife, Christian missionary, lecturer, elected councillor, mayor and a member of the Lucidity Network. To connect with Genevieve and the other wonderful members of the Lucidity Network join our free Lucidity Facebook community for clearer thinking and better results.

One simple tool to help you solve any problem

Have you ever had the experience where the same challenges keep coming up again and again? Whether that be in one to ones or in team meetings after a while these things get you down and you lose perspective or energy to solve them.

In my last job I managed a large remote team, we met together about 6 times a year. I used to sit in the day long meetings and note down everyone’s problems and take on the burden of solving them. I left the team meetings drained, stressed and quite honestly depressed. While my team left feeling upbeat and positive because they had unloaded everything. However, their initial relief soon faded when they realised that I wasn’t actually going to solve their problems. Just a quick aside – if this is a challenge you have – read: The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Ken Blanchard.

So, how do you solve this problem and indeed all the problems of your team? During my last three months in the job I took on a new team, a team that had lots of challenges. I knew that I had a short period of time to support them and that taking on their problems wasn’t going to help. I needed to empower them and give them the tools to problem solve.

The team was a small team in a charity responsible for looking after supporters – they were saying they were overworked and couldn’t take on a bigger caseload.  By looking at the problem in a more abstract way you start to unlock the root cause of the problem and frame it differently.

This is where the Ladder of Abstraction comes in. As you go up the ladder the thinking becomes more abstract and down the ladder thinking becomes more concrete. To move up the ladder you ask WHY and down the ladder you ask HOW. It is a useful tool to help describe our language and thoughts and re-label a problem. It can be used in many different ways but I have found it useful for problem solving and evaluating activity.

So how does it work?

You take your problem and start at the bottom of the ladder. For each statement you keep asking WHY. Eventually you get to a root cause of the problem and then you can work your way back down the ladder asking HOW. If you start with how you miss the opportunity to re-label the problem and you take it at face value. So, in the example below the problem is “We do not have enough capacity”, you might jump to – we need to recruit more staff or maybe we need to change a process or reduce workload. But you might be unsure which process to change or simply providing more capacity might not actually solve the problem – exploring the why helps you get to grips with this.

One simple tool to help you solve any problem

By using this simple tool we thought the problem was that the team didn’t have enough capacity but then we realised that we didn’t need to discuss every supporter together but that we could set aside a set time to creatively discuss specific challenges. This also helped the team focus on the solution and not the problem.

I have also used this tool personally to reflect on how a project or piece of work went – this is particularly useful if you feel that the project failed in some way. You could use the ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ method Better If’ method, which is useful. But the Ladder of Abstraction helps you to explore more deeply WHY things went wrong and then HOW you would do things differently in the future. It also makes it less personal because you can look at it objectively from a more abstract viewpoint.

I hope that this simple tool can help you unlock your thinking, solve problems and learn from failure. Used enough, asking WHY becomes second nature.

Emily Petty

 

Emily Petty, a member of the Lucidity Network, is a fundraising and change consultant. She is passionate about helping charities build a relationship led approach to fundraising and supporting them to unlock potential and manage change. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyPetty1 and on LinkedIn

 

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