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Sideways Looks #20: Ideas About Ideas, also Porridge

Hello,

Lots of exciting stuff going on this week. Following the Data Sins animation last time (Insta, LinkedIn, Twitter), I've made and released another one. It’s about making evidence-based arguments, and also the perfect porridge.



For those interested, the latest one took about 1-2 days of work, which is an improvement on the ~4 days the first one took. Big hat tip to my English teachers who first taught me PEER - goes to show how good frameworks can be applied across all sorts of topics.

I’ve also set up two online half-day courses in collaboration with ComSkills. The first is on Complex Problem-Solving (Dec 20th), the second on Analytical Thinking (Jan 11th). Please do book if of interest to you – and more importantly, I’d really appreciate if you can share with anyone you think might benefit. The huge range of online training out there is challenging both for people who are trying to find courses, and for people who are trying to deliver them. So personal recommendation is extremely helpful.

Finally, I’ve started sharing fun examples of data projects / visualisations / ideas every Friday on the Data Skills Consultancy channels (Insta, LinkedIn, Twitter). It’s been an enjoyable, and also helpful, prompt to seek out interesting data projects.

I hope you are all well. As I write this the sky has brightened and the park awaits. Have a lovely Sunday.

Oliver

 

Thought for the Week: Ideas about Ideas

 

Here’s a very very crude definition of ‘an idea’. Someone thinks a specific thought about how to do things differently. As a result of that thought, circumstances change. At its most extreme, ‘circumstances’ can be the entire world.

The idea that thought can change the world is obviously very exciting to many, myself included. Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton is perhaps the best narrator of this excitement: he describes how Hamilton writes into being “a new form of government”, how conversations “open doors that were previously closed”, and within a generation they witness “the afterbirth of a new nation”.

When I was a sociologist of science, I had a recurring worry. The hard sciences have loads of ideas that obviously changed the world. Numerous medical and engineering inventions; digitisation; the World Wide Web; atomic bombs (ideas aren’t always good). The list goes on. It’s harder to point to such examples in the humanities and social sciences. Representative democracy, and maybe some economic interventions. There’s been lots of broad programmes (feminism, liberalism, etc.). Also various useful terms for describing human activity (my favourites are social capital and boundary-work). But not so many examples of specific thought => new circumstances.

But once I left academia I realised that isn’t really a great way to think about ideas. Social ideas are everywhere, just in a more fragmented way. Offices and creative studios and friendship groups throughout the land all have moments of ‘wait if we do x then that will make y better’. They might not change the world as directly as, say, vaccination. But they can be a sort of dark matter: groups do things differently because of all these ideas, and en masse that changes the world. Or they just make an office run better, or art more interesting. That’s ok too.

But…

I’ve spent much of this week researching ideas about ideas – frameworks to help people think creatively about how to get from x to y. There are LOADS. Agile, TRIZ, Theories of Change… Each spawning a whole industry of papers, courses, and networks. (An industry, of course, that this particular newsletter is contributing to). And that’s where this mass spread of fragmented ideas might be a problem.

The metaphor of a ‘toolkit’ is often used. You store up these frameworks for when they come in handy. But it’s relatively easy to try a spanner, then pliers, then other tools until something works. Not so with these techniques. A spanner doesn’t come with multiple explanataory slideshows. A familiar pattern: you try and introduce a new framework; your group doesn’t really commit, you don’t really explain it well, seniors don’t really support it; there’s faff and circular discussions and ultimately the technique still doesn’t change anything.

(To be fair, even a bit of exposure to thinking techniques can help at an individual level. I’d argue my own, relatively minor, explorations of Agile and Superforecasting have helped my personal thinking on a range of issues. But there’s a limit to what one person can accomplish).

The net result is that huge quantities of thought don’t fall on fertile ground. But trying to spread the necessary adaptability in big organisations is also hard. I recently read the UK Government’s evaluation of ‘What Works Centres’. These are great schemes for connecting policy decisions with serious research. There is decent evidence that, in some clearly bounded cases, they make things better. But getting the message to the wider Civil Service seems to have been a challenge. The evaluation announces:

As well as delivering sessions to new graduate Fast Stream recruits and developing online materials for policy professionals, the team has worked with 390 civil servants participating in the Civil Service-wide Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) over the past year.

That’d be a pretty small proportion of policy professionals in one department, let alone the entire Civil Service. We just have to hope that the right person with the right tool happens to be in the right place when needed.

So how to get from x to y here?

The current situation is some people manage time and inclination to explore frameworks to help innovative thinking; and some of those have luckily spent enough time on a technique which actually addresses a problem faced by them and those around them; and some of them find a supportive environment to make the change.

So the obvious approach is encourage more learning, and more adaptability to new tools. But those are both hard; particularly in 24-7 modern workplaces, where the latest news story or social media crisis can easily distract from learning time.

A second, somewhat more radical, idea is to encourage much more intermixing between (to divide very crudely) people whose main role it is to think big, and those whose main role is try to make things happen. Not just an occasional visit from an academic, or a newsletter from the strategy team. Set-ups where strategy people are actively involved in a range of delivery projects, while delivery team members regularly attend strategy team meetings; or where academics are able and expected to spend at least a day a week working with organisations large and small, and wecome those collaborators back into their seminars. I haven’t considered all the financial, institutional, and other complications that would bring. I suspect they’re substantial.

The third – and to me the best – is overhaul our education system. Use the time we spend in education to expose us to ways of thinking, working with others, getting stuff done. Instead of getting yet more eyeballs on Shakespeare and telling us the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. But I can’t see that happening any time soon.

Let’s finish with Hamilton. In the song ‘Non-Stop’, Aaron Burr repeatedly asks Hamilton “how do you write like you’re running out of time?” Sounds great to those of us who like writing. But people then had to read all the stuff he wrote. Maybe he should have written less (and - for the Hamilton fans - smiled more).


 

Fun Fact About: Vowels

 

As mentioned, I’ve been putting out Fun Data every Friday on the Data Skills Consultancy channels (Insta, LinkedIn, Twitter). Lots of stuff there for fact-fans. But one that I found particularly intriguing was this one (plus I like the execution – there’s lots more similar ones on the Sketchsplanations website):



Image of text reading:  Ablaut Reduplication - vowels in reduplicated terms almost always follow this order: I - A - O.  Then examples are listed with vowels highlighted in red: Zig - Zag, Hip-Hop, Splish-Splash-Splosh.    The last example is illustrated with a cartoon figure jumping in puddles.

 

Recommendations

 

🌍 Language learning: Deutsch Gym – and its new sibling French Gym – is a brilliant idea. It’s an online space where, for an hour every day, a group of people can gather to speak a second language. They divide into groups of roughly equal ability and chat about a designated topic, ranging from consumerism to the post office. I’ve found it a fantastic, easy way of practising conversation, and giving myself a scheduled hour per day of language learning.

📰 Keeping up with reading: I’ve recently moved from free Feedly to paid Feedly. The benefits are actually pretty good – it means you can have new articles from sites you regularly read, but also your email newsletters, in one place. Plus it’s got some A.I. etc. etc. to try and filter out stuff that’s probably not interesting to you (e.g. I can subscribe to tech websites and cut out all the stuff on computer games. Sorry gamers, but that ain’t what I’m reading). It’s $8.25 per month, billed annually. If trying to keep up with reading is a regular issue for you, I think that’s a decent price.

🖥️ Learning to code: I’ve picked this back up recently. There’s so much out there, and narrowing it down depends on what you want to do and your learning style. So, controversially, I’m not going to recommend anything here – I will simply say if you’re also interested in basic coding, get in touch and happy to share my experiences if helpful.

🐻 Finally: Please enjoy my favourite BBC headline for a while, and then this unusual Instagram influencer.

 

Thanks for reading. Please do let me know your thoughts via this short poll.

 

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