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Learning Is Thinking With Other People's Ideas

Posted: 10/14/2008
Process Excellence Network
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New ideas come from old ones, big ones from little ones. The trick is to associate, adapt, magnify, minify, substitute, rearrange and synthesize. And the best place to start is with the ideas of the experts.

Straight Talk About Twisted Numbers

Surveys of training practices are important. Yet, despite their importance, the data collection procedures are rarely analyzed, rarely studied, rarely challenged—indeed, rarely made explicit. Years ago we told the following story relating to "questioning data collection methods." It serves as an excellent example of the potential flaws and fallacies of today's training surveys and training stories based on survey results.

For years it was claimed and backed by "statistical evidence" that instigators of bar room brawls in London were more likely to be killed in such fights than those "forced" to defend themselves. Sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists and substance abuse agencies studying this phenomenon formulated theories and produced voluminous articles that attempted to explain this rather unexpected and unusual outcome.

The Royal Statistical Society, however, was somewhat suspicious of these reported "outcomes" of bar room brawls and set out to check their accuracy for themselves. The statisticians quickly discovered that the data was indeed questionable as the collection methods did not encourage accurate results.

What the statisticians discovered was that every time a bar brawl ended with a fatality or with serious injuries, the investigating police officer dispatched to the incident would invariably ask: "Who started this?" Witnesses would immediately point to the victim lying on the floor and say, "He did!" This response was duly noted and because of the victims inability to dispute the accusation, the witnesses' assertions were usually taken to be true.

Source: The Royal Statistical Society.

Flaws and Fallacies in Polling

Pollsters ask questions that will elicit yes or no answers. Polling ignores what people know about the subjects they are queried on. In a culture not obsessed with measuring and ranking things, this omission would probably be regarded as bizarre. But let us imagine what we would think of opinion polls if the questions came in pairs, indicating what people "believe" and what they "know" about the subject.

If I may make up some figures, let us suppose we read the following: The latest poll indicates that 72 percent of the American public believes we should withdraw economic aid from Nicaragua. Of those who expressed this opinion; 28 percent thought Nicaragua was in Central Asia, 18 percent thought it was an island near New Zealand and 27.4 percent believed that "Africans should help themselves," obviously confusing Nicaragua with Nigeria. Moreover, of those polled, 61.8 percent did not know that Americans give economic aid to Nicaragua, and 23 percent did not know what "economic aid" means. Were pollsters inclined to provide such information, the prestige and power of polling would be considerably reduced.

(Let’s hope this is a "wake-up" call for those researchers and journalists who are inclined to scholarly irrelevance, omissions in data, cheating charts, unknowable statistics and faulty induction.)

Source: Excerpted from Neil Postman's book Technopoly: The Surrender Of Culture To Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Mistaking Activity for Change

Activity is mistaken for change. Incidents are interpreted as trends. Change in a few visible things is rhetorically magnified into the appearance of massive transformations in all things. The future in all things is falsely projected as a linear extrapolation of the present in some things. ...There are some trends without a future, and some futures not identified in the identifiable trends...(put differently), a riot seldom becomes a civil war...and there are future opportunities that have already happened, but not yet recognized, that is, have not yet had its full impact.

Sources: Excerpted from the collected works of Ted Levitt (published by the Harvard Business School Press).

Lessons From a Seasoned Professional: Things I Wish People Would Learn

  • Management is the art of getting your employees to do something you want done. Leadership is the art of getting your employees to do something you want done because they want to do it.
  • You can achieve anything you want to achieve if you help others achieve what they want to achieve.
  • The quickest and best way to get promoted is to help your boss get promoted.
  • We rarely, if ever, credit others for our successes. We almost always blame others for our failures.
  • People who react to a negative usually make it worse. People who respond to a negative often make it better.
  • A psychology professor once taught me that people respond best when they are encouraged, challenged and complimented. He suggested that the best way to motivate people is to catch to them doing things right instead of catching them doing things wrong.
  • People who think they're good managers are only good custodians.
  • People with proven talent tend to go where that talent is recognized and appreciatedand where it will be rewarded.
  • People whose only tool is a wrench attack every problem as if it were a leaky faucet.
  • If your disposition is like that of an untipped taxi driver, you'd better be very, very good at what you do.
  • In a crisis, don't think with your feet.
  • Success comes in a can, not in a can't. You've got to believe you can, or you won't.
  • Persistence: It's an admirable quality. But beating your head against a stone wall is more likely to give you a headache than success in obtaining your goa. And don't believe those who tell you that practice makes perfect. Practice gives you permanence, not perfection. To achieve perfection, you must practice the right things in the right way.

Source: Excerpted from the published works of Sal Marino, former chairman and CEO of Penton Publishing, and former board member of the International Quality and Productivity Center, who wrote a much praised series of articles for Industry Week magazine.


Thank you, for your interest in Learning Is Thinking With Other People's Ideas.