Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Intelligence analysts, strategists and educators all require clarity of thought for their respective domains. Frequently, they rely upon - or too often assume they are using - formal logic for organizing and sequencing concepts or deconstructing patterns of information into component, isolated, parts. Generally, we can also assume that our respective thinkers all represent persons of with considerable vertical expertise, masters of a particular field or subfield of knowledge and, consequently, frame new information according to the received intellectual culture and rule-sets of their professional discipline as well as logical reasoning.

On average, this primarily analytical approach to engaging the world is very efficient and productive. Time is saved by recourse to preexisting and commonly accepted conceptual categories when integrating new data and the accumulation and verification of new knowledge is orderly and most of the time a valid and reliable process. Problems arise with this process however when new data

a) Seemingly represents familiar old data because our habitual use of our conceptual categories, our received intellectual culture from professional training, our entire worldview and the underlying genetic predispositions in terms of cognitive behavior render us blind to the implications of the new which lay hidden in plain sight.


b) If the new data contradicts all that we have been led to believe to be true.

The cognitive distortions that can arise then have various manifestations, among them:

Educated Incapacity


Magical thinking

Self-referential logical errors

Non sequitors

Mistaking correlation for causation

Paralysis by analysis

How to avoid this mental fog of distortion ? One possibility is the deliberate practice of metacognition during the analytical process to help prserve the integrity of the "Observation" and "Orientation" stages of John Boyd's OODA loop. Metacognition is a term coined by pyschologist and cognitive theorist John Flavell to describe the processes involved in " thinking about thinking". Metacognition has rationally methodical as well as intuitive aspects, both of which are useful in accomplishing the task of mental self-regulation, monitoring and evaluation:


Asessment: Identification of state of knowledge, attention and task at hand

Executive control of behavior: Self-regulation

Metamnemonic planning: Selection of mnemonic strategies appropriate for the task

Schema Training: Generation of new conceptual-categorical structures

Evaluation: Of changes in knowledge


Fingerspitzengefuhl or " fingertip feeling"

Tip of the tongue feeling or memory retrieval

Rechecking your analytical premises against your " hunch"when the data seems to be contradictory as well as systematic self-assessment of your reasoning process helps identify errors, blind spots and weakly supported assertions that represent more ideology than empiricism. In short, metacognition preps the brain for a burst of insight by bringing into simultaneous or sequential focus:

New data

Your premises

The operative rule-sets

Your logical reasoning

Your intuitive expectations

Past knowledge

Your evaluation of the validity and reliability of the above

You are now poised to look at the big picture, discern the interconnections and look further afield for analogies and parallel patterns.


This post has stirred some considerable traffic today so I thought I might highlight a few
"gurus" on my blogroll who also feature systemic, strategic, analysis on a regular basis:

Thomas P. M. Barnett

Art Hutchinson's Mapping Strategy

John Robb

Nicholas Carr 's Rough Type

Dave Chesbrough's net-centric dialog

Chris Anderson's The Long Tail
Excellent post. Thanks for writing.
Thank you Tom !

BTW what is your blog ?
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Er, whoops, typoed. That's News to Me is my blog, originally started by friends who have since lost interest. It, uh, is what it is.
Very 'meta' but very useful, Mark!

In my work doing scenario planning with senior management teams, we refer to this phenomenon as one's "mental model". Groups have them too, but seldom identify them explicitly.

In essence, one's entire life and career - what has 'worked' and 'not worked' to date - form strongly reinforcing (and atrophied) pathways that filter what information is let in, what is shut out and the rulesets that one can assume drive one's industry, family, company, politics, the economy, etc.

Mental models work great... until something changes... which seems to be happening more often nowadays! :)

I like this post very much. After my head-nodding agreement -- my immediate reaction to much in this post -- my next evaluational phase was to wonder about the routine systematization of cognitive processes which occurs here, at tdaxp (especially in charts!), and even at PC (though I think less often there...?) Concurrently, I added to this wonderment (or simply experienced during the wonderment a memory of) the frequently observed use of those vague terms, "intuition" or "fingertip feeling", to the systematization of the cognitive process. -- These things remind me of poets who will go to great lengths to explain their formalist processes to neophytes but to little avail: There are too many questions coming from those neophytes, and those neophytes just don't "get it." (Because art, particularly poetry, is very hard to nail down; but some formalist poets are loath to admit that not everything in poetry can be explained, some parts of their meticulous designs are quite subjective or hardly understood by them.)

But more to the point for this post: does the routine systematization of the cognitive process -- us viewing it so neatly dissected -- represent a cessation of that very same metacognition now being dissected? No; I think I've been "metacogniting" during the head-nodding. But may such routine systematization easily lead to one or more various cognitive distortions? Probably.

Particularly, I'm wondering how the use of vague concepts like "intuition" and "fingertip feeling" may lead to magical thinking. They are a little too, oh, deus ex machina. They may represent actual processes we do not clearly understand; but by placing them so prominently within an analytical outline, in support of that outline, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot.
One of the interesting concepts I ran across trying to find a good and adapative management style to a quickly changing environment was that of the Adhocracy. At that time I was trying to address systemic problems in the Agency I worked for and suggest alternative means to accomplish objectives. In an era when 'snap' problems would arise, the need to bring together a small group of experts or knowledgeable people to examine and address a problem was and is critical. While this idea could not be seriously examined in a stultified bureaucratic environment, I think it does have many places in the existing economic environment.

It does require a revamping of management and distribution and disaggregation of responsibility, and a positive feedback loop into the system itself, both on working group effectiveness and overall system effectiveness. So it tend to work better in losser management environments that are goal oriented and considers skills only on an aggregate of effectiveness balanced against depth of problem.

One can actually order their cognition along these lines, but without a good awareness of the component parts and internal analysis of what works against what doesn't, one may find their decision skills moving out of step to their perceived and actual skill capabilities. This must also include intuition and tacit knowledge use, both of which are highly overlooked from the individual on up to senior management. Also, it is difficult for individuals to accept that they are not particularly effective at something they enjoy, and even harder to restructure the underlying pleasure system to reflect abilities.

But that is only important if it hinders other areas of life, if it does not, then the enjoying is in the doing, not the end result. If that becomes a part of an overall organization and enjoyment is maximized over results, then the entire system begins to become inefficient. For an organization that only means turning into a non-organization (as opposed to simply disorganized).

Now I have known many people with pleasure seeking disorganized thinking... how they survive is another matter.
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