Balanced, Contextual Approaches to Thought & Action

Whether it’s your professional or personal life, sports team, volunteer group, or dinner plate, humans tend to think big. We see ourselves as astronauts on the moon, living happily by the beach, winning the championship, eliminating poverty, and sitting in front of the most beautiful plate of oven-baked lasagna.

In such cases, our human instincts serve us well; thinking big provides the foundation from which our minds find motivation, our lives feel purposeful, and our networks and circles come together under common goals and desires. Thinking big is a critical aspect of maintaining a purposeful life, by seeing life as a journey and not as a big mess of disconnected days, actions, people, movements, and thoughts.

That being said, our goals, dreams, desires, and overall intrinsic value come not through thinking big, but by acting small. The actions we take at each step in life are the driving factors behind where we end up and the impact we make. Our actions give us shape, form, and direction to realize our big thoughts. Our actions carry us through each day to build a purposeful story.

But is this notion of “think big, act small” (TBAS) the optimal approach? Some considerations to make:

1. Flipping the Paradigm: TBAS vs TSAB Approaches

What happens if we flip this paradigm of thinking big and acting small (TBAS)? What if instead we focused on thinking small and acting big (TSAB)? How would our shape, form, and direction differ?

Thinking small may provide us with the ability to deal with manageable chunks, the ability to break down large problems into smaller intellectual divots that we fill through logic and reason. Inherently, thinking small allows us to make smaller decisions, minimize risk, and to tightly align plans with results.

On the other hand, acting big can provide great visibility, posture, control, and leadership. Sure the risks may be elevated, but so are the rewards. Despite human nature, it seems that taking a TSAB approach through life can surely provide the same foundation for success and happiness that a TBAS approach provides.

So when should we utilize a  TBAS approach and when should we utilize a TSAB approach?

2. Understanding Scope: Approaches for Individuals vs Groups

How do our approaches to thinking and acting change given the surrounding environment at any given time? Is one approach better for the professional setting? Is another better for the soccer field? How should our strategies differ when considering differing circumstances? Most importantly, does the presence of others directly influence the scope of our thinking, and if so, to what extent might this be within our control?

I find myself thinking big in the morning, thinking smaller throughout the day, then thinking big again at night. Both morning and night are when I see and am around the least amount of people, while during the day it’s a constant interaction of many different people through conversations, technology, and sense. So is the scope of my thoughts primarily dependent on the size of my immediate social environment?

My actions are tougher to characterize as the scope of them has no obvious correlation to any temporal component, physical surroundings, or social environment. So are actions less guided by our surroundings than our thoughts? How does the scope of our actions and/or the willingness to take big actions depend on the size of the acting body? Is the success rate higher for larger groups taking smaller actions, or smaller groups taking larger actions?

3. Independence: Decoupling Thoughts from Actions

The discussion of scope lends us the idea that thoughts and actions may be influenced by completely different elements, from the time of day to the size of our immediate social environment. So does it benefit us at any one time to decouple thoughts from actions, or is it in our best interest to bind the two so tightly that all our actions are driven by thought, and all our thoughts stem from actions? Is the strength of the bond unique for every individual, and again, is it within our control?

Concluding Thoughts

At the end of the day it is my belief that, given the events in our lives both within and beyond our control, we should be readied with TBAS and TSAB approaches, guided by an assumption that the strength of the bond between thoughts and actions as well as the scope of each is well within our control. Some days our best approach is to build visions and lend a hand, while other days require thoughtful prayers and leaps of faith. Realizing these differing approaches while beginning to analyze the interactions between thoughts and actions is critical to providing strategies for any situation. More importantly, it maximizes the chance for positive results and successful outcomes, for both the individual and the populations at large. Now that’s a pretty big thought.

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The Personal Finance System and Reasonable Economic Fasting

Understanding personal finance requires more than a regular checking of balances and a paying of bills. It requires:

  1. Conscientious recognition of all inputs and outputs of your personal financial system
  2. Analytical recognition of the internal and external factors that contribute to changes in your personal finance system
  3. Deliberate manipulation of the controllable factors when your short and long-term financial strategies dictate necessary change(s)
  4. Careful planning for and reaction to the uncontrollable factors in order to mitigate risks to your system and strategy

Personal finance can be depicted as a system because, well, it’s a system. There are inputs and outputs to your system. You make and you spend. You gain and you lose. There are internal and external factors that can change its overall state. Markets fluctuate. Rates change. Job success merits a wage increase. A loss of a job diminishes income. A health problem or car accident can lead to unintended expenses. The state of your system is directly affected by the collective impact of both controllable and uncontrollable factors.

Fortunately, this system is quantifiable and is readily measured. Through various ways and means, you can determine the state of your system at any present moment. For the oh-so-organized, you can determine the state of your system at any moment in the past. And for the oh-so-very enabled (I think you know where I’m going with this), you can peer into the state of your system for any multitude of moments in the future.

With this notion, there should be an overall strategy to your system – a place where you want to be financially and how you aim to get there. Your aim will be based on the financial knowledge you have built over time, with regards to the controllable and uncontrollable factors contributing to your system. And to your benefit, your knowledge will only increase over time, making your strategy more targeted and the desired future state that much more accurate and achievable.

So you recognize that there’s more to understanding your finances than the ATM and your wallet. Where should you start? Perhaps with what I call “reasonable economic fasting”.

What is your financial baseline? In other words, how can you determine the bottom line steady state of your system? Without needless purchases and expenditures, how much do you have, how much comes in, and how much goes out? Spend as little as possible, and organize your bottom line financial system.

For a specified period of time (a week, two weeks, one month, etc), don’t make those needless purchases. Do carry on with your basic grocery, health care, and sufficient living expenses. But don’t get those Don Mattingly rookie cards off eBay (although I would call them a basic need), trade a book with someone rather than buy a new one, and cook your own steak and potatoes rather than dish out $35 for a nice plating. Find your financial baseline, and I guarantee you’ll gain some new knowledge with regards to your personal finance system:

  • The Value of Money – How much is a dollar worth to you? How much is a dollar worth to you compared to yesterday?
  • The Value of Saving – How much is a dollar saved worth to you? Given your baseline, what is your maximum savable amount per pay period (the least hopefully not being less than $0.00)? A dollar can go a long way if it goes away for a long time.
  • The Value of Spending – How much is a dollar spent worth to you? Do all your baseline expenses amount to what you pay for them?
  • Controllable & Uncontrollable Factors – At your financial baseline, you should be able to determine which fluctuations in your bottom line are a result of uncontrollable factors versus controllable ones. Which expenses sustain your desired lifestyle, and which are a result of it?

In the end, it comes down to simple recognition and organization. Take the time to understand what goes in and comes out of your personal finance system, and try to analyze the impact of key controllable and uncontrollable factors affecting that system. If needed, find your financial baseline as a starting spot, and use some intuitive planning to craft your strategy. After all, thought planning is free.

The Intersection Of Expertise

As I begin my job search (25 applications in 2 days so far!) I keep asking myself how to describe what I’m looking for in a job and in what realm do I wish to work? There is no specific job title that describes my experience and education (e.g. “doctor” or “software engineer”) and there is no one department in which I’ve worked or wish to work (e.g. “Operations” or “Logistics” ). Yes, I have an academic background in mathematics & statistics yet it’s difficult to communicate why I have that academic background. I do not necessarily want to become a statistician but rather I fully understand the quantitative nature of things and the power that numbers, math, and quantitative methods have in all aspects of business, government, and life.

So where does this leave me? Well, unemployed and confused, for one. But that’s okay with me. I’m confident that with my capabilities, no matter how hard they may be to communicate in an application or even to a recruiter, I’ll find the position that leverages my abilities and motivation.

That being said, I think I’m at least getting close to describing where I stand, and in real-world terms. It’s at an intersection of sorts – between quantitative methods, scientific and technological realms, and the human element. It’s interdisciplinary – can fit within any group or team or stand alone as an independent researcher or consultant. It’s also dynamic – parallels the speed with which modern business operates and the flexibility required to optimally support the needs and requirements of many types of personnel.

I’ve used a similar image a few times, in posts on knowledge innovation and math in 2010 and beyond. Here I’ve intersected three main topics while including some of my strengths in the middle. Now if I could only match those to a job title…

At what intersection do you operate?

math in 2010 and beyond

If we want to fuel future growth and innovation in mathematics, three worlds must meet in the middle.

In 2009, we see three distinctly developed worlds:
  • The Communities: Math + People = Associations, Publications, Journals, Groups, Departments (ASA, IMS, WFU Math, etc.)
  • The Connectors: People + Technology = Social Media & Social Networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, iPhone Apps, etc.)
  • The Foundations: Math + Technology = Software/Web Applications (Wolfram|Alpha, SAS, R, Matlab, Mathematica, Statistica, etc.)

In 2010, we need these three worlds to mold into one, unified experience. With whom does the responsibility lie and when does it start? You and now.

matrix power

How much of your life can you fit into rows in columns? Well, enough of it for you to cherish the matrix as a valuable organizational and analytical tool.

Spreadsheets, tables, and matrices are used in every aspect of life. We track finances, monitor tasks, plan our future, and analyze potential relationships with rows and columns. And we are surrounded by this information as individuals, as part of small social groups, and as part of large organizations such as classes, companies, or governments.

More simply, matrices and tables give a new structure to elements of our life that are not always so two-dimensional. From the new structure, we can glean new insights and inspire new visualization of those same elements to make best-informed decisions. To me, a matrix is a valuable analytical tool that helps organize information for insight and action.

(Note that I am using the term “matrix” to represent that much more than numerical arrays of the math world. I am including categorical mappings, tables, lists, and spreadsheets too.)

The University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing nicely defines the matrix as an essential decision support tool:
  

“A two by two matrix is a useful tool for initial sorting of qualitative data. The axes should be chosen so that, e.g., the data with the most desirable characteristics will fall into the upper left quadrant and the least desirable in the lower right quadrant. While groups may be unable or unwilling to assign absolute values to qualitative data, they usually find it relatively easy to come to a consensus as to which quadrant something belongs in.

Generally, the two by two matrix is a useful tool for categorising things that can be reduced to two simple variables, particularly when quantitative information is unavailable and qualitative judgments must be made.

It enables a rapid clustering (or separating) of information into four categories, which can be defined to suit the purpose of the exercise. It is particularly useful with groups as a way of visibly plotting out a common understanding or agreement of a subject.”

Authors Alex Lowy and Phil Hood describe the matrix as “the most flexible and portable weapon in the knowledge worker’s intellectual arsenal”.

What’s best about the matrix is that flexibility. Depending on need, you can get as much power out of a 2×2 matrix as you can from a 5×5 matrix. Increased dimension does not translate to increased power. The matrix is flexible and dynamic to the needs of your analysis. You control the path to discovery.

And although matrices do a nice job of pairing categorical relationships, you can also translate these pairs to numerous other visualizations to better contextualize the information at hand. Turn your row and column headers into scaled concepts, map them to some x- and y- axes, and try and fit your qualitative information to a line that describes the relationship between x and y. Is the relationship directly proportional, inversely proportional, linear, parabolic, or along some other path? What do each of these types of relationships mean for your categorical variables?

It’s important to note that there can be fuzzy lines too. Not all cells need to have values and not all relationships need any sort of defined continuity. Empty cells and undefined relationships provide insights that are just as valuable as the populated and defined ones. Lack of data is data in itself, and that’s a great thing.

In the end, the matrix is just one part of the analytical toolbox and can provide a wide range of insight for your personal and professional life. Box up your data, organize it, visualize it, and use new structure to optimize your life.

Examples

Business/Leadership: Gartner, an IT research and advisory company, has created the “Magic Quadrant” to analyze types of entities in the business world. By plotting the ability (or inability) to execute against the completeness (or incompleteness) of vision, businesses can be categorized with those sharing similar characteristics, as Leaders, Challengers, Visionaries and Niche Players. This is a useful example of turning abstract qualities into groups for targeted strategy and decision making.

Product Development/Management: For analyzing how to grow a business from the product side, one matrix shows how plotting types of markets vs types of products can help guide that growth strategy.

Math/Statistics: Type I and Type II error tables are used to describe possible errors made in a statistical decision process. This is a great example of mapping relationships between categories, naming the cells, and using the matrix to understand what each cell represents.

the DIS cycle

Every organization has something to learn. Every organization has data. There is always something to learn from data. Therefore, every organization has something to learn from its data.
A painful problem? Organizations that DO NOT learn from their data.
A more painful problem? Organizations that DO learn from their data but DO NOT build those insights into strategy.
A most painful problem? Organizations that DO learn from their data and DO build those insights into strategy but DO NOT feed the strategy back into the data structuring, collection, and integration processes.
The idea here is that the collection and creation of data has become central to most managerial, informational, and strategic practices in today’s world. Organizations must understand how each data element is to be used in order to optimize the information and insights gained along the way. Organizations must also know what to do with the insights once those insights have been made. Building them into strategy is critical – as long as they are built into the right strategies. In particular, it is imperative for that information to feed back into the original source of the information: the data structure itself. How can new data be created (and old data be refined) to provide new insights and analyses moving forward?
The process needs to be cyclical. Organizations must turn historically linear processes into innovative cyclical ones. Cyclical processes are self-fueling and renewable, whereas linear processes are expensive and always run out of gas. It is that self-sustaining nature of cycles that enables perpetual growth for individuals, teams, departments, companies, and industries.
So how can strategy feed back into the data structure and collection systems?
  • Create new data.
  • Refresh old data.
  • Determine the value of each data element based on where, how, when, and why it is used.
  • Compare internal data to external data sources and data standards.
  • Ride the DIS Cycle backwards to see how data can supplement new, desired insights.
  • Question your data. Love your data. Hate your data. Ask why it works. Ask why it doesn’t.
  • Build quality control and oversight processes to ensure data is used properly.
  • Insert data into your everyday workflow. Build a dependency on your data.
  • Quantify elements of your marketing, product development, customer support, and managerial strategies.
If you create the cyclical process correctly, the data will provide valuable insight that will serve as a self-sustaining support mechanism for your organizational growth and success strategy.

knowledge management and organizational learning

Organizations are built and sustained by the collective brain power of its members. But that collective brain power is only as good as the memory that serves it up. And so was defined knowledge management.

Fundamentally, knowledge management (KM) is the effective administration of people, processes, technology, and information.* In encapsulates the concept of organizational knowledge/learning, which is the collection of facts, methods, and expertise by a group of people for dissemination and use. These days, the wide scope of new organizational knowledge coupled with the speed at which it gets developed leads to a distinct requirement to capture and centralize the knowledge. As a result, innovators and thinkers will be enabled to collectively work toward building new products and technologies while feeding back into the cycle of strategic thought.

Knowledge is king. Storing, sharing, and learning from it is royalty. This realization has progressed over the past decade or so into a “google”plex dollar business (“googolplex” is my favorite number – i’ll post on it at some point). But why are some organizations and some people so resistant to implementing proper KM practices?
Knowledge management needs to be part of every company strategy and needs to be ingrained in each of its four main components: people, processes, technology, and information. It should branch into all departments – and for each become the engine of collaboration and the backbone of innovative thought. Whatever technology is implemented to enable effective knowledge management, it should have dedicated support, alignment with existing security protocols, and proper branding and marketability as an engaging tool to use.

The benefits must also be made visible. Incentivize users to contribute knowledge in a semi-structured form. Make it something that is talked about in meetings, used in positive performance evaluations, built into non-work related worlds (as a place to “escape”), and an activity that is comforting and welcome amongst all levels of employees.

Within specific job functions, it’ll open up opportunities for valuable feedback. Jeff Lash, from his “How To Be A Good Product Manager” blog, has a good post on knowledge sharing and its benefits within Product Management. Everyone has “lessons to share, but even more to learn” he says. This philosophy is applicable to everyone and every job function – technical development, analysis, sales, marketing, management, etc. That’s why KM is necessary for innovation and success and as part of an over-arching business strategy. The improvement of learning across the organization will be measurable in every day communication, work efficiency, and eventually, revenues. 

Lastly, it’s worth noting that with KM, the design and implementation effort is a topic of its own (of which I’m quite fond). But hey, strategize first.

*Other definitions can be found on the KM Forum.