Author Archives: Chris Jones

About Chris Jones

Tech consultant. Blogger. Author. Social instigator. Passionate about learning in the workplace and the classroom. Founder of #smchat, #ecosys and #cdna online communities.

Patterns: Are They Keys to Unlock Deeper Learning?

Thinking in Patterns: Can they help us unlock deeper learning?

Thinking in Patterns: It’s not all that hard.  But what more can be learned by looking at the relationships between things?

CHARLOTTE, NC.  As we continue to examine what we know (and what we don’t!) about 21st-century learning, I’ve recently stumbled back upon a foundational element of our cognitive process: the search for patterns.

As adults (including those parents helping kids with homework!) we might not even call them “patterns”.  But look back. The trail is clear ..

Since our school days in math class we traced relationships, from number lines to fractions to geometry and beyond, gaining our first inkling about how our world relates. Positive and negative. Numerator and denominator. Slope and intersect. Sine and Cosine. A bit abstract for some, of course; many were happy to leave it all behind. But have we truly left it behind? In your mind, sneak back into art or music class. The language of patterns literally leapt from THOSE class rooms.  So often we were learning about relationships (across a color palette, say, or discerning nuances among different styles, or notes, or textures) .. and ultimately .. it came down to learning how to navigate similarities and differences.

Thinking in patterns lies in stark contrast to rote memorization model, where everything is classified, discrete, and frozen.  We can learn that way too, of course.  But relying upon a heavily structured, pre-defined taxonomy of knowledge (or brush strokes, or notes on a staff) can get top heavy quickly.  And it is, I think, fundamentally convergent and limiting ..

Contrast that with the alternative. There is a flow of options available when we learn through pattern matching.  In this learning mode, the flow of insights is often continuous, providing us with a steady supply of raw materials, as options.  Our thinking here is expansive and more open ended, as we seek not to classify but to connect, not to name but to relate.

It is easy to label these thinking models ‘left brain’ vs. ‘right brain’ because there has been so much historical debate.  The CW then (and sometimes more recently) would hold that left brainers seek to reason and be rational, and right brainers favor imagination and creativity. The debate hasn’t always been friendly.  More recent f-MRI scans tell a more holistic story, but the diverse brain functions are still there.  I often refer to Iain McGilchrist’s very excellent 2010 RSA piece on the topic as more recent thinking on this. It’s as good a stake in the ground as any I’ve seen, and worth a look.

My most recent personal epiphany (and the one that inspired this post) came from my piano teacher, Natalie. I was complaining about the number of notes she was asking me to play in arpeggios, and my complete inability to memorize all those keys.  Her response: “Ah yes, grasshopper” (ok, not in so many words, but I digress) “.. look closer: the interval between the 1st, 3rd and 5th of each chord repeats.  It’s a pattern, and if you can learn that ..”

And so I did. My arpeggio playing skills have improved rapidly.

Maybe we can score some more breakthroughs on the topic of “thinking in patterns” .. as we explore the implications. Seems it’s a topic with broad application.  Let’s tackle these questions:

  • Q1. How does thinking in patterns differ from learning by classifying?
  • Q2. Can we introduce pattern thinking in domains historically given to structure, taxonomies and rules?
  • Q3. Is the left-brain vs. right-brain debate still relevant?
  • Q4. Which discipline thrives in teaching patterns? Art? Math? Music? Do English and Science have a chance?

Hope you will join us for #cdna on MON 6/16 8p EDT.  We’ll discuss, reflect, and even brainstorm a bit .. in hoping we might learn a few things.  Seems we often do!

Looking forward!

Chris (aka @sourcepov)


Rough Waters: Leading and Learning in Turbulent Times

Making Waves, Silver Turbulence (c) 2014 Amberwood Media Group, all rights reserved

Turbulent Waters in the Organization. Can we still make headway when our emotions turn to survival? image (c) 2014 Amberwood Media Group

CHARLOTTE, NC.  Leadership and organizational learning are hard enough on a good day, when things are calm.

When our surroundings become turbulent the situation can worsen quickly, as we begin facing new obstacles. The rules change. Challenges arrive more rapidly. Problem definitions morph before our eyes. Goals begin to shift in real time. Team members may end up in different roles, and the opportunity to communicate with them may be limited.

Whether its new management, new competitors, or even new regulatory presures, leading in times of change places considerable demands on us (ref: 21st century Kotter; see also: Collaboration DNA). Learning focus can move to the back burner.

Out of fear, do we simply latch onto survival instincts?

Or do we manage to focus, somehow, on the challenges flowing toward us?

Too often, fear consumes us. When we most need our thinking and perception skills, the flood of rapid change can cause paralysis or panic.

I love the metaphor of turbulent water (think flood waters, river rapids, or heavy surf) because the notion of rough water demands attention, skills that favor balance, and a clear ability to react in the moment. In short, turbulent change requires all of our energy. If we apply the metaphor in the organizational learning context, what may leaders take away? Let’s discuss it:

  • Q1. What are some secrets for change and learning leaders seeking to function in turbulent situations?
  • Q2. Can an organization still learn when rough waters distract us?
  • Q3. Are there good arguments to suspend learning when focus shifts to survival?
  • Q4. As the world grows more connected and accelerated, the rate of flow can only increase; will we ever see smooth sailing again?

I hope you will join us MON May 12th at 8pET using hashtag #cdna. Water metaphors or no, we always have in-depth conversations. Bring an extra paddle, and let’s see where we might go.

See you online.

Chris @sourcepov


Making Waves: Learning to Innovate in the Flow of Insight

Are we losing insights in the flow?

Insights flow past us, faster than we dare notice; what are we leaving behind?

[Note: This original content has also been posted at http://innochat.com/ with permission of the author, to facilitate a conversation at the #innochat hashtag on THURS 4/17 at 12pm ET.]

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2014, by .  Classic innovation practice tells us to catalog and rank our ideas. It’s a time tested way to surface newer, more creative means for getting a job done. It’s a sensible approach. The big ideas should, by all rights, float to the top.

But what happens when the currents of change are strong? What if the rules for success become fluid?

At a minimum, we’ll struggle to keep our bearings. At worst, we’ll lose momentum, leave our best ideas stranded, and fail to achieve our innovation targets.

I’ve been reflecting on an alternative approach to learning and innovating that is at once more simplistic and more complex. In a word, it involves “flow” .. and it starts with suspending judgment, refocusing, and listening. This approach allows raw insights, not shrink-wrapped ideas, to flood our thinking spaces, using notions like cross-over and edge-exploration to mix things up. Patterns replace processes. Simple rules replace best practices.

And we change the currency. Insights are the gold standard for innovation and creative learning, not ideas.

The ability of the human mind to perceive and solve problems is vast. Effective collaboration serves as a multiplier. Put some of those strong minds together into small teams. Help those thinkers to focus and frame and communicate and synthesize in real time. Pay attention to roles. Seed the group with an iterative, adaptive framing model. Then stand back. Powerful things begin to happen. 

New ideas emerge; we find we’re innovating in the moment.

Of course, the modern organization provides a host of formiddable barriers to this. These include all those cultures, behaviors and silos that seek to control. We find orgs that are consumed by process or paralyzed by aversion to risk. And at times, we aren’t helpful: our hyper-structured methodologies serve to put our best thinking into boxes. No surprise that our latest innovations seem like breakthrough candidates from the past: we use the past to classify them.

When trapped in structured models, there is limited or no flow of insight. Innovation will consistently struggle. It’s time to let the insights flow. Consider the notions pictured here:

 

FIG 9. Visualizing the Flow of Insights, in "The DNA of Collaboration" (2012)

FIG 9. Visualizing the Flow of Insights, in “The DNA of Collaboration” (2012)

What can we make of this?

I think there are several important questions that could help us suspend our assumptions about innovation practice, as we discuss new ways to approach old problems:

  • Q1. How do ideas differ from insights, and why does it matter?
  • Q2. In terms of innovation process, is flow a better metaphor than structure? 
  • Q3. When does collaborative innovation or OI move of us toward flow, and when does it not?
  • Q4. Can “flow of insight” be viable for driving new thinking re: new capabilities?

Let’s discuss these questions at #INNOCHAT on Thursday 4/17 at 12pm ET. I look forward to exchanging insights with you. Maybe we’ll make some waves.

I hope to see you online!

Chris aka @sourcepov


ADDITIONAL READING

Ideas come from many places, and some of the concepts discussed here had their roots in Twitter conversations. I’m grateful to the many #INNOCHAT, #SMCHAT and #CDNA thought leaders who contributed to these (and related) concepts about collaboration and social learning.  For more reading, here are some references from The DNA of Collaboration :


The Nature of Fear: Are We Paralyzed by Conformity?

AMG121606a-dilworth-leaves

Conformity in nature and human nature. Survival is at our core. Are we afraid to be different? Where has Darwin taken us?

Understanding the notion of conformity is important when we talk about culture, inside organizations and out. It’s become a key driver in our thinking. As we’ve discussed, our mindset is subtly but deeply influenced by our own vauge perceptions of things are supposed to be, consumed by a feeling that our survival may depend on our ability to fit in.

Can we actually be paralyzed by conformity?

To Margaret Wheatley, there’s no beating around the bush. She says we are. Consider these excerpts from A Simpler Way (1999):

“We have terrorized ourselves by the thought of evolution, driving ourselves into positions of paralyzing conformity, for fear of getting things wrong .. (where) extinction will follow swiftly on the heels of any mistake.”

“.. fear is the darkest of Darwinian shadows.”

Wheatley likes to cut to the chase.

Can we find examples to support her claim? I think they are plentiful, and they are all around us. Consider:

  • a consumer culture that thrives on conformist based purchasing (think: brands, trends, styles)
  • social circles that favor (or outright demand) fitting in
  • work environments that favor the status quo, resisting alternative viewpoints
  • education systems increasingly riveted to standards
  • organizations that cling to structure/hierarchy over more dynamic/collaborative modes of interaction
  • a Western busiess culture modeled upon repeatable, uniform, mechanistic models of efficiency

Much has been written (by me and others; see also a book by C.Christensen, and a great RSA animation by K.Robinson), on the downside of our mechanistic, structure-focused paradigms. It’s thinking that makes us slaves to someone else’s blueprint. Our culture and our thought processes seem literally consumed by the conformist view.

Can we break the cycle?

I say yes. If we can find ways to fundamentally change our mindset.

I’m intrigued that in the very same book, Wheatley goes on to describe patterns and rules in nature that seek to discover what works. Conformity, perhaps, is not all bad, like a tree seeking a greater share of critical sunlight, or vying to expand its rainfall catching potential. Have a need for more light and water? Grow a little taller. Sprout some more leaves.

AMG121607a-dilworth-leaves

A better, more useful frame might be: conform if it’s working, adapt if it’s not.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a balancing act. So often, we don’t see a choice. Conformity of purpose is important where precision, quality and scale are required. But when we limit our exploration of new ideas or way of doing things, we cut off our chance to learn, to innovate, and to grow.

Conformity can be a trap. And it can also be our saving grace when we frame it as a repeatable pattern, a platform for new possibilities.

Both. And.

The #cdna community hosts a periodic exploration of social learning, a deep dive into the factors that help us learn together. We seek to identify enablers that help us discover, and the barriers that tend to keep us from learning.  At our next discussion, let’s tee up these questions on conformity in the context of culture:

  • Q1. What reactions or thoughts does mention of comformity tend to trigger?
  • Q2. Can we advance metaphors for conformity that focus on upside (tree leaves) and caution of the downside (factory model)?
  • Q3. If you agree with Wheatley on the dark side of Darwin, why does conformist thinking carry a special risk?
  • Q4. Can we influence the cultural implications that conformity introduces? How?

I can help on that last one with a hint: if you’re a Peter Block fan, you’ll know the answer to “How?” is almost always “Yes!”  Our next #cdna chat is slated for Monday March 10th at 8pm ET.

Bring your ideas and an open mind. We hope to see you there.

Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)


Crossover: The Power and Resilience of Diverse Perspectives

Do we appreciate the strength of our crossover connections?

Do we appreciate the strength of our crossover connections?

Pick up an ordinary basket and look closely at the weave.  You’ll find an ancient yet simple way of making something that’s durable, flexible, and resilient.

In fact, a basket’s weave is a great model for how we might interact and learn with others more deeply. We need durability and resilience in our relationships too .. to me, a weave is a powerful way to think about “crossover” in all our interactions, especially when we seek to collaborate.

The power of the basket weave metaphor lies in its very basic structure. The over/under aspect of a basket weave reinforces the notion of complementary, diverse elements.  One thread or strand of cane provides support from one angle, which is further supported in the other direction by another.  These are connected and supported by yet another thread or strand on the perpendicular axis, creating structure, and ultimately, strength.  The tighter the weave, the more durable the resulting creation.

Aristotle was a big fan of metaphor, and I am too. Like so much in our world, we take useful concepts (like metaphor and basket weaving) for granted. But what could we gain if we dig a bit deeper? Is there untapped power in our mental models?

To me, there are 3 areas where I think the notion of a basket weave can help our collaborative efforts:

Unlocking Creativity. Artists are well versed in the flow of possibility that occurs when raw materials begin to show their potential. How might the threads or strands come together? What patterns are possible? How might we weave something new?

Inception of Ideas (or “ideation”). Each thread of insight brings new energy and strength from a different direction, supporting the other threads but in a different way.

Design Thinking. Coming up with new ways to solve a problem (solution patterns?) is at the core of design thinking, where structure, form , function and relevance demand diverse thinking from muliple perspectives.

AMG152709b Basket Weave

Examining the basket weave. It may help to ask: what is possible?

As we bring together design elements or ideas, we are bringing together strands of raw material.  As innovators, we are like basket weavers.  As collaborators, our ideas are like threads.  Our soution may well be the resulting basket.

Here are a few questions to drive this thinking home.

Q1. What challenges do we face when we seek to weave together ideas?

Q2. Why are notion of durability and flexibility important?

Q3. Have you seen examples of ideas woven into a “solution fabric”?

Q4. Where and how else might we apply the basket weave metaphor?

We’ll discuss these topics WEDS 10/16 at 9pET using hashtag #cdna, and again in the social change context with SMCHAT cofounder & special guest moderator Kelli Schmith WEDS 10/23 at 1pET using hashtag #smchat.

I must point out that idea weaving is already in progress. Props to Angela Dunn, Shell Rummel and the crew at #ideachat who provided deep insights on “Design Thinking” that contributed to this post.  To me, the richness of the weave metaphor provides plenty of inspiration, or at the very least, some new thinking based on a very old way to make baskets.

More on metaphor? See G.Lakoff: Metaphors We Live By (1980). In The DNA of Collaboration (2012) it’s chapter 6.

Let’s compare notes on this. I’ll see you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov


Cultures of Fear. Is ‘Old School’ still in session?

Staring up the Corporate Ladder. With much at stake, do we dare take a step?

STARING UP THE CORPORATE LADDER. With much at stake, do we dare take a step? Original art by Robert Winkler 2012.

CHARLOTTE, NC. September 2013, by

Seems risk is everywhere in the world these days, and the work place is no exception.  Not long ago we could count on the corporate world to provide a secure income and career track. Today we so often find ourselves vulnerable, unsure of our next steps, with our professional future uncertain.

SEPTEMBER FRAME

I just picked up a copy of Smart Tribes by Christine Comaford, the NYT best seller that does a great job of focusing on this topic anew. She relates traditional views of leadership to ‘old school’ management styles that are based on fear: “Perform, or we’ll remove your ability to pay your mortgage ..” (p.16).

At some time or another, we’ve all witnessed situations where fear has been a factor at work.

To me, the question is how do we escape the destructive gravity of these situations, especially when there is so often critical mass pulling everyone down. Misery, they say, loves company.  Comaford offers solutions that track well with Goleman’s Primal Leadership as well as CollabDNA .. namely .. creating emotional connections, and working to influence the culture.

Let’s frame some questions that might help us on this path:

  • Q1. What are the org dynamics or management styles that make fear possible?
  • Q2. What is the difference between ‘commitment’ and ‘compliance’?
  • Q3. When is the notion of ‘accountability’ effective? Is it sometimes misused?
  • Q4. Can you describe actions, behaviors and challenges of leaders you’ve seen who were actively working to dimantle fear-infused culture?

Thanks as always for your time, insights and energy. See you at the chat, the week of 9/16. Watch for timing.

AUGUST FRAME

As I recently turned the pages of Susan Jeffers’ classic “Feel the Fear, and Do It Anyway” I found both comfort and common sense in the logic of “pushing through.” But in the work context, it seems the risks can so quickly outweigh the benefits. Do we dare raise radical new ideas? Think outside the safety of conventional wisdom?

Can we dare to be different?

Thanks to Scott Smith for his comment in July in the post of leaders who resist change. It caught my attention, and inspired this post.

In our Monday 8/12 edition of #CDNA, let’s ask a few questions about fear in the organizational context, to see if we might bring some new light to a area so often shrouded in the dark inner reaches of corporate politics:

Q1. Argyris (1980) spoke of fear as the unspeakable; has this changed, or is still prevalent?
Q2. Jeffers (1987) spoke of the need to “unlearn negative programming” .. is it safe for us to proceed when others around/above us have not?
Q3. Which is the more difficult fear to unlearn: survival? not knowing? or not fitting in?
Q4. As a leader, what is the first step in elminating fear in the workplace?

The 2nd week of each month at 8pm or 9pm ET, the #CDNA crew seeks to bring open minds to our ongoing conversation on organization change.

Sure, we’ll try to tap industry knowledge and the wisdom of sages along the way. But we favor a common sense approach. Challenging “what we think we know” and suspending our favorite paradigms is, almost always, the first step to new thinking.

Looking forward to seeing you at #CDNA.

Chris aka @sourcepov


Why Do Leaders Resist Change?

Our path to the present has seemed a steady march. Sure, we’ve taken detours and followed many courses. But from our factories to our business schools to Wall Street, the lessons are still loud and clear: a repeatable result, with minimal deviations, is the winning model.

Repeating what's worked, however imperfect

Repeating what’s worked, however imperfect

It’s generally true in manufacturing, when you’re making widgets. And it can work if the past holds all the secrets to our future success. There’s comfort in the formula. Within the long-stable walls of the organizations and brands and empires we’ve erected, we know which bricks need replacing.

But turning away from the familiar introduces new variables. The old rules are often irrelevant. Think about IBM. Microsoft. Kodak. When it comes to our mental models, significant change is the enemy. In our high-stakes, increasingly connected world, the risk of embracing change, or even talking about it, can send shivers down the spine of any executive who is held accountable for results. And that’s pretty much all of them. Risk of gambling on the wrong future looks greater than the risk of taking small steps from a proven though imperfect past.

We talk often on the “how” of change. But so often we assume the “why” is a given .. and go on to assume we have the critical change  mandate from the top.

Usually we don’t.

So amid the familiar chorus of embracing change for a sustainable future, it’s time to look at why that cry often falls on deaf ears.  Let’s look at the brick wall of uncertainty facing the modern executive, and ask:  Why do Leaders Resist Change?

Here are 4 questions to help us unpack the discussion:

  • Q1. Executive psychology typically presumes the need to have all the answers; how can we help leaders rethink that?
  • Q2. ‘Sense of urgency’ tops Kotter’s 8-step change agenda; must we wait for failure or concoct burning bridges to drive action?
  • Q3. ‘Group think’ can be fatal at the board level; how can this be attacked?
  • Q4. Organizational cultures can embrace or resist change, but the latter is most common; what cultural elements can drive adaptive behaviors?

Join us MONDAY 7/8 at 8pET for a discussion, the next in our 2013 series on collaborative leadership in the 21st Century. We’re unpacking the challenges one brick at a time ..

Hope to see you online .. or please, share your thoughts .. we’re hoping to extend the discussion blog-side (via comments, here), our G+ page and via twitter async ..

The @collabdna team


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