Keeping track of good stuff I read on my Kindle while commuting

Today I learnt how to highlight good stuff I was reading on my Kindle, while standing on a commuter train, and then retrieve it from my PC later. This is fantastic. I like reading, but when I want to remember things, I don’t like copying them out. This means I can collect best bits from books, and quote them easily when I want to.

Here’s how I did it, including the crucial hyperlink for reading my highlighted sections again later (in case I forget it, or you want to do this for yourself)

How to highlight

Tap and hold a word till it goes black. Then drag until the full quote is highlighted. Pause at the bottom of the page to get a quote that spans more than one page.

A button board appears. Press Highlight. The section changes to be underlined.

How to retrieve my highlights later on my PC

It took a while to find the link https://read.amazon.com/notebook, but there they all are.

What’s more, I can copy the highlighted section from this page into my OneNote or even into a blog post. Here’s a sample quote just to prove it works:

a digital curator collects, transforms, and shares digital artifacts with a critical mind. Digital curators have an agenda, a mission, or a purpose to their acquisitions. They use this to filter what they find, not simply collecting and aggregating, but distilling and dismantling. In our digital world we are content rich, but quality poor. Curators help to change this by making sense of digital content as it relates to their worlds. And the best curators do not stop at simply checking content in or out of collections—they remix, refine, and transform content for new purposes

Actually it’s not quite true. My newest notes from this morning haven’t made it on to that webpage yet, because I haven’t connected my Kindle to wifi since doing that reading this morning. Solution: sitting on the train this evening I’ve now taught my Kindle how to use the wifi hotspot on my mobile phone. Now, in the time it took to write that sentence, the latest ones have appeared.

This read.amazon.com webpage tells me it can download my eBooks and allow me to read them even when offline. So that’s an unexpected bonus.

Does anyone else use their Kindle for learning in this way? Or has anyone gone further and used the Notes button? Do you take copious notes, or just occasional quotes?


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tl;dr, and other ways of getting to the point

tl;dr of this post: Start with a short version to avoid losing your audience. Try some of the writing structures I find helpful. Share yours.

I was trying to solve a technical challenge this week, and one website I found kept using the acronym tl;dr at the beginning of every page. I had to look it up.

Apparently it stands for “Too long; didn’t read” and can mean one of two things:

  1. The posting above is way too lengthy to keep my interest’, or
  2. ‘here is a summary of the lengthy text that follows’ (It was this meaning)

What? Why? How?

Later that day, my teenage son asked me to read a complicated email he was sending to the other sound engineers in his team. “Start with a TL;DR” I said (proud of myself for knowing some hip internet jargon), “then do a Why, What, How.” He knew exactly what I meant and the resulting email was much better. And I was particularly pleased that he didn’t scorn my trendy dad-jargon – apparently this acronym isn’t out of date yet, even though it originated in 2003!

I particularly like “Why. What. How.” as a reminder to myself, because when reading or listening to anyone else that’s the order of the questions I want to ask them. But most people, myself included, are so familiar with our own subject that we jump right into the “how”, missing out the vital context. Like my son did in his first draft. So ask yourself:

  • Why on earth should I read this, what relevance has it, what benefit is this leading to?
  • What exactly is the proposal?
  • How does this get practical? What are the steps we have to take?

The lead paragraph

It’s much the same as modern journalistic style: the lead, i.e. the first paragraph, is a brief sharp statement of the story’s essential facts, in 25 words covering the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where and why. Journalists use an inverted pyramid structure – the most interesting things are near the beginning, and then comes the supporting information in order of diminishing importance. Once you notice it, you’ll see it in every news article you read.

I try to do that in my blog posts. If there is anything like a set of instructions, it goes last, and I fully expect most people not to read that far. So, if I want to describe interesting ways to use the technique, it has to come before the detail. And the most interesting bit (or the cat picture) has to come first, or no one will read on.

Barbara Minto’s pyramid principle: SCQA

Another structure that I often use is taken from Barbara Minto’s pyramid principle: Situation, Complication, Question and Answer (SCQA). I remember learning it when I was writing a case study to be used with our Global Services customers, and the editor of the brochure was very patient in coaxing me away from my systematic, technical descriptions to more of an engaging story. If you haven’t come across it, here’s a good summary. The “Complication” is the twist in the story that makes it engaging to read.

Oat…

Another one that has stuck with me is an acronym we were taught on a “Bidding to win” course many years ago. “Outcomes. Audience. Theme.” are the first three letters, the rest is lost to my memory and unavailable even to Google. However the first two words are what really stuck: what is the outcome you want to see in the lives of the audience. I ask myself that all the time. Even for this blog (Answer: in this case, I want some of you to share your own little aides-memoire that you use when writing stuff at work. So I’ve just added that to the TL;DR at the beginning.)

This applies almost everywhere

This stuff applies to almost everything that we do at work: emails, delivering effective presentations, reports, social media, webpages. I’m not really suggesting you use the acronym tl;dr everywhere, just to think that way or swap to one of the other helpful frameworks when it is more appropriate.

What’s your secret?

So I’m intrigued to hear your tips. Of all the things you’ve heard about writing and presenting well, what has stuck with you? Please share them in the comments below.

Mooers’ law: why people believe fake news and avoid seeking out knowledge

The IET Engineering and Technology magazine is one of the few thing that comes through my letterbox that is really worth reading. The articles give really insightful, engineering-informed views on current political issues, such as one on Fake news that I was reading at the weekend. There was a particular insight from the world of knowledge management that I had not come across before, and which also seems very relevant to us in the workplace.

Mooers’ law

Mooers’ Law is not a misprint of Moore’s Law, the much more famous rule of thumb of electronics. Calvin Northrup Mooers was a US computer scientist who analysed the ways humans find and use information long before the worldwide web deluged the world with disinformation – he died in 1994 just as the web was becoming mainstream.

Mooers found that humans will often deliberately avoid information: “It is now my suggestion that many people may not want information, and that they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information… if you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it… understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it.”

Mooers’ Law, as summarised in a 1960 paper for the journal American Documentation, claimed: “An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.”

A barrage of research at the intersection between psychology and economics has borne out Mooers’ Law. Economists have been fascinated with the idea of information avoidance for decades because of the effect it has on investors and business managers. Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller came up with a version that presents it in economics terms: “People will resist information unless the price of not knowing it greatly exceeds the price of learning it.”

Just in case this was itself fake news, I checked out a couple of other sources online, and yes, this is a thing.

Doesn’t everyone research things?

The thing is, Mooers’ law doesn’t resonate with me personally. I must be odd, because I do like to be stretched, and I deliberately seek out views that conflict with my own, pushing as hard as I can to see the grain of truth in another point of view. I use a search engine to research something as thoroughly as I can. Maybe other people just accept what they see on Facebook or the top result on Google without checking further. And the fake news insight is that corporations and vested interests manipulate those easy-to-find stories, wrap them in warm emotions so they influence us more than we realise.

I suppose I need to deal with a new realisation that not everyone wants to learn – even though it might be better for them in the end.

Findability is important, but it’s not enough

A lot of my work in the Academy is about helping people to find the resources they need to do their job really well. I’m gutted to discover that not everyone is going to value that!

Mooers’ law is a bit of a challenge. “No matter how findable your information is, people will avoid it because new information stretches you. And nobody likes to be stretched.”

More quotes:

“In the building and planning of our information handling and retrieving systems, we have tended to believe implicitly, and to make the assumption, that having information easily available is always a good thing, and that all people with access to an information system would want to use the system to get the information. It is now my suggestion that many people may not want information, and they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information.

“Having information is painful and troublesome. We all have experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it. To do this, you may have to think about it. The information may require you to make decisions about it or other information. The decisions may require action in the way of a troublesome program of work, or trips or painful interviews. Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or that your boss was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Having information, you must be careful not to lose it. If nothing else, information piles up on your desk—unread. It is a nuisance to have it come to you. It is uncomfortable to have to do anything about it. Finally, if you do try to use the information properly, you may be accused of puttering instead of working. Then in the end, the incorporation of the information into the work you do may often not be noticed or appreciated. Work saved is seldom recognized. Work done—even in duplication—is well paid and rewarded.”

“Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it. Let me explain this further. In many work environments, the penalties for not being diligent in the finding and use of information are minor, if they exist at all. In fact, such lack of diligence tends often to be rewarded. The man who does not fuss with information is seen at his bench, plainly at work, getting the job done. Approval goes to projects where things are happening.

“People usually take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to continue doing things the same way, as you’ve always done them, without reaching out to learn some new process or information that might invalidate, challenge, and force you to reassess your previous assumptions. Information can be threatening and hard to deal with. It can be thick to interpret, exhausting to follow, and painful in the realizations it provides.

“People resist reading an application’s help file for all these reasons — it’s tedious, sometimes hard to understand, requires interpretation, effort to locate, etc. It’s seems so much easier to hack your way through an application with trial and error and guessing.

So what?

I’m totally into lifelong learning. I’m now wanting to examine that and work out why that is true for me and many others. What would it take to influence other people to have the same outlook on life?

Organisational culture. How can we reward knowledge reuse more than ‘innovative’ reinvention of wheels? What would we need to build in to our processes, the questions we ask at performance reviews etc?

Search skills. I was amazed at the hunger there was for better skills in searching for stuff when we did the Search masterclass recently.

Curation. Putting effort into the quality of what is easily found. Adding those summaries and recommendations and quality markers that draw attention to the good stuff.

Findability. Making sure the good stuff floats to the top of search results. Or “ambient findability” it just appears in the context when people need it.

Keep it short. And visual.

Create emotional and human connection. Storytelling. Grabs attention, makes knowledge memorable.

What other practical implications of Mooers’ law can you see for how we do things in the workplace? In the comments please.


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Activity impact analysis: a pretty decent way of prioritising ideas in a workshop

I was leading a strategy workshop last week about increasing the effectiveness and business benefits of our subject groups (communities of practice).

The participants were full of ideas and pretty soon the wall was covered in post-it notes. Overwhelming.

To add to the flood of creativity, one person Gillian couldn’t come at the last minute and had sent in about 30 excellent ideas in advance. Plus I’d asked some open questions in two separate group meetings before the workshop day, got lots of good comment and wanted to incorporate their ideas too.

How can you make sense of such a lot of ideas? It really isn’t possible to do everything that was suggested.

The challenge was to get the group to do some work together to categorise and prioritise. With nine people in the room I wanted to get everyone’s brains working on different parts of the problem simultaneously. I did a few things slightly differently to how I’ve done this in the past, and was very pleased with the way it worked. One participant, Amanda, said “Great productive day. I really enjoyed it and loved the process you took us through.”

So this blog post is partly to remind me of how I facilitated the workshop this time, to reflect on why it worked, and to pass on the ideas to others who might be running similar workshops in future (I might talk about some of the ideas that came up another day). Here’s the workshop process in essence:

  • Stimulate discussion and catch all the ideas on post-its
  • Collect them on flipchart sheets in 4 special starter categories
  • Everyone does Reach-Depth-Length activity impact analysis simultaneously
  • Pair up to assess the effort axis

Stimulate discussion and catch all the ideas on post-its

Just before the workshop I went through Gillian’s notes and the notes from the other group meetings, and made each distinct idea into a short phrase in Word, set to two columns, 20pt text. This made it easy to print, cut up the ideas, and glue to some post-it notes just before the workshop began. Some of the people who arrived early helped with the scissors and glue.

Once the meeting began, we had a set of slides which summarised various aspects of the “as is” and “to be” vision for subject groups. After each couple of slides I gave space, and sometimes an open question, to get the group to think what could be done about that thing. When conversation dried up, I moved on to the next stimulus. This seemed to give the workshop pace and direction without being too forced. I sense that the participants remembered much more of what was presented because they were thinking what to do about it, rather than just listening passively.

When an idea came up in discussion, I pushed the person talking to summarise it on a post it. Sometimes several ideas tumbled out all at once, and I jotted them down myself rather than breaking that flow. Sometimes I had to be quite pushy to get the conversation to move on from one attractive idea to the next. I think I was forgiven for that (most of the time).

Collect them on flipchart sheets in 4 special starter categories

Working through the ideas shared before the workshop helped me to crystallise what the “starter categories” should be, and they evolved a bit during the workshop. Our categories were

  • Core: specific activities that the core team would be able to do
  • Subject specialists and L&D: things we hoped some of our key subject group participants would do
  • Tech: improvements to the technical solution
  • Problems and opportunities: valid issues where it wasn’t clear what the activity would be to resolve it. This evolved to include risks and other items where it wasn’t clear what the activity was.

Beforehand I put flipcharts on the walls to collect post-its in these categories. The ready-made post-its went up in advance, but I didn’t draw particular attention to them. As each new idea came out, I encouraged the person with the idea to place it on the correct category chart. Here are some of them. The categories weren’t as evenly filled as I had expected, but that didn’t matter.

Everyone does Reach-Depth-Length activity impact analysis simultaneously

We only had time to do the next stage of impact analysis with the “core” section of specific “doable” activities. I asked Tom to distribute some of the post-it notes to each person in the room, and each person to calculate an Activity Impact score to each post-it in the following way. It really forced them to think and do some maths!

For each activity suggestion on a Post-it, I asked them to score it from 1-3 for Reach, Depth and Length, and then multiply that together to get an Activity Impact score. This idea came from Richard Millington at Feverbee, though I can’t find the exact place on his site. [Actually they didn’t get it first time, I needed to explain the method more clearly. So I’ve improved the slide above and the wording.]

  • Reach is simply asking “How many will be affected“. “A few” scores 1, “Quite a lot” scores 2, and “A big lot” scores 3
  • Depth asks “How significantly will they be affected” [New wording, I didn’t explain this quite right in the workshop]. “Superficially” scores 1, “Fairly” scores 2, “Profoundly” scores 3
  • Length asks “How long will it last“. “A moment” scores 1, “A while” scores 2, “A decent long time” scores 3.

Having created instant chaos, I realised that this was an unfamiliar way of doing things and talked everybody through doing the first one simultaneously, thinking through one question at a time till we all got the hang of it. There was initially a bit of groaning about having to multiply until they realised the sums weren’t too hard.

They were all sat at the table thinking and writing sums on the post-its, and I was standing up collecting the post-its and putting them on the whiteboard-wall in horizontal rows according to their Activity Impact score. This is what I thought it might look like (scroll down to get a flavour for what it actually came out like):

So this process banded the post-its into ten levels of impact, and it happened much more quickly than I expected – about 10 mins. I was pleased that each idea went through someone’s brain another time and I felt that was much better than “high medium low” banding, not because it was precise, but because:

  • It was more logical thought and less instant opinion and feeling
  • It was then easier to deal with a row at a time because they were of reasonable length.

At this point I drew swim-lanes on the board to make the horizontal rows really clear, and in preparation for the next bit of apparent chaos.

Pair up to assess the effort axis

Priority is not simply “What has the most impact” because then lots of impossibly difficult things would be highest priority. Priority has to take into account effort and cost as well as the impact.

So the next step in the workshop was to get the participants to sort each row in terms of effort: low, medium, high and very high.

I picked people to lead the each of the first 5 rows, and asked them to choose another person to work with. Their task was to

  • Remove all the post-its from their row, (remembering which row it was!)
  • Put them back on the row, banded as low, medium, high and very high

Here’s how I showed the idea on screen

And here’s what it looked like in reality. It was crowded round the whiteboard, but people worked quickly and I think it was successful. I realised I needed to encourage them to decide whether a postit in a particular column should go to the left or right of any that were already in that column. This again happened much quicker than I had expected (only about 10 mins).

Once we had finished sorting most of the rows (the bottom few didn’t matter too much), I wanted to explain the point of the exercise.

I waved my hands in the air to show the rough shape of the line I’ve drawn on the photo here. Items above the curve have a high impact to effort ratio, and that’s where we should focus our efforts.

So then I talked through each row of post-its from the top, adjusting some of the positions. I think we got through 5 of the rows before we hit the end of the workshop. A tip from James was not just to photograph the board in sections, but to take a short video panning across it. So that’s what I did (even though you can’t see it here).

Going further

So that’s my reflection on facilitating just one workshop.

If you’ve seen or done a similar approach, and have additional tips, I’d like to hear them too.


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Habits of mind: sharpen up

Have you ever sharpened a knife the old fashioned way, with a honing steel? (If not, here’s the full run-down on how to sharpen knives, from Lifehacker, and some knife-sharpening sounds to get you in the mood for today’s blog.) 

There’s an old proverb, a favourite of mine, that says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”. 

It reminds me that one way at getting better at thinking is thinking with other people.  It’s like sharpening my kitchen knives – the result is good, but sometimes the noise of the process is not my favourite ambience – for example when my ideas get strongly challenged.   

It also makes me think of the sport of fencing with the routines of lunge, parry and riposte which we have adopted to describe debating techniques.  Iron on iron sharpens the skills of the players. 

So what is it that sharpens up our thinking? And why is sharp thinking important? 

Why is sharp thinking important? 

  • It is important that we commit to things that are based in reality. I find it appalling the current fad in politics that promotes outrageous untruths. How can that possibly lead to human flourishing? But even in the smaller scale around BT, it takes a sharp mind to see what is happening in true perspective and distinguish the statements that are based on evidence from the ones that come from well-intentioned passion, especially when the passionate statements are louder. Just this week I was challenging someone on the difference between his passionate perspective and the observable facts. It affects system design, process design and the whole way we target our efforts to make a difference for our customers or for the company.
  • Sharply defined thoughts help us to communicate, especially with people who are different to ourselves. I’ve noticed two kinds of communications professionals: some who can make anything sound and look marvellous; others who will interrogate the meaning and look for substance, precision and clarity before making it sound and look marvellous. I’m becoming more and more aware of rhetoric and how it convinces us at the emotional level without necessarily having any substance. I don’t want that to happen, nor do I want to do it to other people. I want to think more clearly than that.
  • Thinking clearly helps us apply principles, transfer knowledge to new contexts, and to become adaptive experts (I wrote about adaptive expertise in my blog recently).
  • Clear thinking is required to hit the higher goals. So many things conspire against the outcomes we really want to see for ourselves and for the organisation (such as an excellent customer experience). There is a time and a place to challenge and overcome the rules of the process, the norms of our culture, short-termism and natural psychological biases to get closer to those higher goals. Corporate life is complex and spotting those moments requires sharp thinking.

What sharpens up our thinking? 

This blog started because I spotted a pretty chart about “habits of mind”. I liked the simple, practical language. A “Habit of Mind” is a repeated behaviour that sharpens up our thinking. It gives us a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems. Which of these resonate with you?


Now those were written for schoolkids, but I think there’s good application at any stage of life. 

If you want the technical term in adult language, this is metacognition. Thinking about thinking. We’re all slightly different in how we learn: this is about becoming aware of what’s working and adapting your strategy so you CAN think clearly and learn effectively.   

I also want to add in an adult perspective: when brains are more developed, there are a few more habits of mind to add to the chart above. 

  • Know the limits of your memory, and create a means of external support
  • Monitor your learning strategy and change it if it isn’t effective
  • Notice whether you comprehend something as you hear, read or watch it. If you didn’t, do something about it.
  • Be aware of your unconscious psychological biases, and try to overcome them
  • Consciously choose to skim to filter irrelevance or unnecessary detail, and adapt those filters
  • Take opportunities to repeat a skill or to apply it in a new situation in order to consolidate and deepen it through experience
  • Reflect on what actually happens, and connect that honestly with your theory and expectations.

So which of these resonate with you? What are your own “habits of mind”, especially as you apply them in the workplace?

A lot of these are individual, but there is also an inter-personal dimension too.  What do you find improves your thinking in collaborating with others?  How does iron sharpen iron in your experience?  


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How can we develop adaptive expertise? The zigzag

Yesterday I said that adaptive expertise was key to a good customer experience and a key strength for helping BT adapt to the future. But if adaptive expertise is so important, how can we develop it – both for ourselves, and in quantity across the company?

The big realisation is that if we want to grow some adaptive experts, it doesn’t look like a traditional set of eLearning courses on Learning Home. So what does the research say is effective (and conversely, what hinders it)? (see Carbonell for example)

A connected zigzag. Daniel Schwartz, John Bransford, and David Sears explain that the path towards adaptive expertise is alternated between repetitive exercises in one domain, and new challenges that are somewhat related to the domain but don’t resemble the learned exercises. This mixture between doing the same thing several times, and being confronted with something seemingly unrelated puts learners in the optimal adaptivity corridor: They have gained enough experiences in one domain to not be completely frustrated when challenged with a new task. So what should we do first? Perhaps surprisingly the research suggests we should encourage people to discover solutions to problems without instruction first before building the routine knowledge. Although Sandra Viggers cautions that you might need a simulation environment for safety.

Reflective practice. New tasks push the learner to revisit the old tasks and wonder “Why have I done this?” It is through this questioning and reflection of work routines that learners develop a fine-grained conceptual map. This gives them the power to be adaptive.

Freedom to change things. Adaptive expertise requires that people learn how to experiment with their knowledge. This means that they should feel safe to change the methods and routines they learned early on. Such experiences will sharpen their innovation skills. But that doesn’t sit well in parts of the organisation that emphasise consistency and strict adherence to process.

Culture of learning rather than mere performance. Katerina Carbonell did a post-doc study of adaptive expertise in teams in 2016 and says A focus on ‘acing the test’ should be replaced by a thirst for being exposed to the unfamiliar, by replacing a culture focused on performance with a culture focused on learning.

Collaboration. It’s not an individual activity. Working with others and in the situations others face forces new viewpoints and more nuanced understanding. (see Wikipedia). The learning effect is particularly strong when collaborating with people (on their normal work, not a special learning activity) outside your normal team.

Team identity and professional identity in balance. Having a group identity beyond the immediate team leads to much better information exchange relationships. Individuals with high levels of adaptive expertise form and maintain more information exchange relationships (Carbonell). So in our company the professions and subject groups in the Academy are a vital counterpoint to the formal organisation structures.

So what might this mean in a corporate environment?

Adaptive expertise comes primarily from on-the-job learning (the 70% in the 70:20:10 model of how people learn). The changes that are needed are not much about courses and resources, and are a lot about things like this:

  • Give people the opportunity to do different things, not simply repeat the same thing over and over again. Job rotation, special projects, volunteering, covering annual leave could all have a role to play. In our learning design guide there are lots of practical ideas under the heading Stretch.
  • Build skills in reflective practice, then encouraging and giving time for it as part of normal work.
  • Allow questioning and experimentation with routines. We need more people to deviate from the routine (though not all the time), in order to explore from experience why the original routine is good and develop the adaptive expertise to respond to novel situations rather than always following the script. That is quite counter-intuitive, because it will introduce some inefficiency into the system in order to get a bigger gain (adaptive expertise). I notice we already encourage “continuous improvement” which creates a good mindset.
  • Reduce the emphasis on performance numbers. This is also counter-intuitive to some. Once we decide to measure something it assumes that that thing that can be measured is a good approximation to excellence and that all that is needed is to improve that number. That produces short-cutting behaviour that avoids (or bounces) unfamiliar things that might take longer or not have guaranteed positive outcomes in terms of the performance numbers. In fact it needs to be a positive thing for people to gain experience in the more difficult things, particularly when it comes to improving the customer experience.
  • We should increase opportunities for collaboration outside the home team, for example in independent reviews or peer assists. Here are four fantastic examples of Peer Assists Nancy Dixon just published a few weeks ago from BP, Mars, EU police crowd safety and USAID.
  • Step up the contribution to professions and subject groups. For adaptive expertise to develop, we need people to have a dual identity – to play an active part in their team AND in “team-BT” helping people outside their normal line of work. The biggest opportunities for this are through the professions and subject groups in the Academy. But lots of people say their pressure of work is too intense for them to contribute properly.

What do you think? How can we increase adaptive expertise? Is it even possible to organise?


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Adaptive expertise – key to a good customer experience, key to the future

Think about the astronauts on the famous Apollo 13 “We have a problem, Houston” mission, who successfully built an air filter from ill-fitting parts whilst in space. They weren’t trained for that task. It’s a compelling example of adaptive expertise.

Pete Faulkner phoned me up after reading my recent blog post about how important it is to help people become “learning animals”. He sent me a presentation about adaptive expertise which I found absolutely fascinating and I ended up finding out quite a lot more about the subject from other places as well.

Put simply, an adaptive expert is somebody who can

  • Work without problems on routine (well-known) situation AND
  • Find quickly a solution to a new situation

Adaptive experts are the result of the kind of learning animal behaviour I was talking about. And as I’ve been thinking about it, it seems really relevant in two main ways

  • Adaptive expertise makes for excellent customer experience
  • Adaptive expertise helps a company deal with a changing world

As you read on you’ll see I then talk about what experts do so well that others don’t. And another day I’ll talk about how we can develop adaptive expertise.

Four levels of expertise

Pete’s presentation draws on the stories of weather prediction, metro disasters and aeroplane incidents to illustrate the characteristics of an expert. It talks about four levels of expertise

  • Novice – Lives in the moment. Can’t recognise complex relationships. Produces limited options.
  • Imposter (others more politely call it “frustrated novice”) – Masters the procedures and tricks. Lacks a sense of dynamics. Can’t improvise when assumptions fail.
  • Routine expert – Great at everyday stuff, has problems with ill-structured or novel problems
  • Adaptive expert – Understands the structure of the problem domain and can use it to deal with fuzzy challenges or novel problems

Adaptive expertise makes for excellent customer experience

I’ve met some adaptive experts, and it was a good experience.

  • The guy in our corner hardware store is SO much more helpful than the young assistants at Homebase. He knew exactly what I needed within me saying a few words.
  • My daughter in the kitchen was able to rescue something that went wrong at Christmas. The intended chocolate roulade became something entirely different and stole the show (see picture). That’s adaptive expertise.
  • I had a great example with the IT department recently when my Skype had a problem. The first few people I spoke to were probably imposters – unable to improvise when my problem wasn’t on their script – content to give me a task to do (reinstall everything again please) but with no real idea why that would help. The second-level support person was a routine expert, quickly realised it went beyond the everyday diagnosis and knew who to refer it to. The third-level support person was an adaptive expert: They cut to the chase, made good suggestions, sorted things out.
  • My wife described her “instinct” to send someone into hospital (correctly), and the next minute referring someone else for debt counselling. I never cease to be amazed at the breadth of stuff that she has to deal with. Talking to a GP is SO different to phoning 111 where they follow scripts.
  • A lot has been written about the empathy-trained Apple store employees, but leaving aside the psychology, they are extraordinarily knowledgeable and the Genius mindset does appear to be adaptive expertise.

When I think about the customer experience I have had from a company, I am delighted when I talk to an adaptive expert. I love working with adaptive experts.

This is important for our company. What if the normal customer experience for someone interacting with us was that delightful one of talking to an adaptive expert. What would it take for that to happen?

Adaptive expertise helps us deal with a changing world

It is important for companies like ours to have adaptive experts “as it is thanks to those people that companies can deal with change (of course the company needs to listen to them). Especially in times of crisis, with budget cuts and uncertainty hanging over companies like a Damocles sword, it is important that a company nurtures adaptive experts. Through their adaptive abilities they are able to devise new products/services, new methods to work, and make the best of the opportunities the current situation has to offer them. But even when the number of threats are low for companies, adaptive experts are important. They are able to combine already existing procedures/products and create something new from them. In meetings they are better able to combine the (seemingly contradictory) inputs and ideas, summarise them and draw conclusions out of them” (Carbonell)

What do experts do so well that others don’t?

I thought the set of characteristics of an adaptive expert in the presentation was very compelling. Experts:

  • Recognise patterns. Know what’s causing the problem from a few symptoms.
  • Detect anomalies. Spotting the unusual thing in a lot of data. Noticing what’s missing.
  • Keep the big picture. Monitor what’s relevant. Act towards a goal. Judge priorities and most likely strategies. Don’t get overwhelmed by the data.
  • Understand the way things work. Can “see” what’s going on inside. Know why things are done this way and how to change it. Coordinate teams. Know what tools can and cannot do.
  • Observe opportunities, able to improvise. Not fooled by what the computer “says” is wrong. Can act against the apparent data. Can dream up a range of novel strategies.
  • Relate past, present and future events. Can run a mental simulation to work out whether a primary cause could in fact cause the symptoms over time, find alternative causes to the first idea. Can anticipate the future consequences. Can see it from several other perspectives.
  • Pick up on very subtle differences. Spot nuances that novices can’t even force themselves to see.
  • Address their own limitations. Aware of the quality of their own thinking. Work around memory limitations. Adapt strategy and include other people.

Here’s an academic summary of the characteristics of adaptive expertise for anyone who wants it in the technical language of dispositions, metacognition and cognitive skills. And a review of some different ways academics talk about expertise.

Does this ring true for you? Which of these characteristics do you have?

Do you immediately think of other people who you know can “handle anything” in their area of expertise? (Not necessarily space cadets!) What makes them different?

Is this more important in some professions than others, or do we all need it?


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