More than a change in latitude. A change in afftitude

margaritaville by Ed Bierman
We cannot problem solve our way into fundamental change, or transformation
[Via Gurteen Knowledge-Log]

By David Gurteen

Whenever I run my Knowledge Cafe Masterclasses, a few people always have a serious problem with the fact that when run in its “pure form” there are no tangible outcomes of a Knowledge Cafe.

There are plenty of intangible ones, such as a better understanding of the issue, a better understanding of ones own views, a better understanding of others perspectives, improved relationships and genuine engagement and motivation to pursue the subject but no outcomes in the form of a decision or a consensus or a to-do list.

I and many others don’t have a problem with this — the intangibles are worthy outcomes. And then I recently came across this quote from Peter Block in an online booklet of his entited Civic Engagement and theRestoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation

My belief is that the way we create conversations that overcome the fragmented nature of our communities is what creates an alternative future.

This can be a difficult stance to take for we have a deeply held belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs.

We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list.

We want measurable outcomes and we want them now.

What is hard to grasp is that it is this very mindset which prevents anything fundamental from changing.

We cannot problem solve our way into fundamental change, or transformation.

This is not an argument against problem solving; it is an intention to shift the context and language within which problem solving takes place.

Authentic transformation is about a shift in context and a shift in language and conversation. It is about changing our idea of what constitutes action.

So another intangible I should add to my list: “a shift in context and in language and conversation that changes our idea of what constitutes action.”


I do not usually include an entire post but this one has so many important points. There are intangible benefits when these changes are made that may eventually lead to tangible benefits. But, most likely, those benefits will be a series of actions that would be wildly different than expected.

This is the paradox of a paradigm shift. People on either side live in completely different contextual worlds and are completely unable to explain their worldview to the other. One example – mimeograph machines. This used to be the only inexpensive way that multiple copies of a test could be produced for schools. There was an entire process developed for creating the stencils for the test, etc. It resulted in a ‘wax’ copy of the test that was used to print off the copies. With the appearance of copiers, the mimeograph disappeared from regular use. Now most young people have no idea of what a mimeograph is.

Thus when they watch National Lampoon’s Animal House, they just do not understand the whole scene with the two characters rifling through the trash bin to find the stencil. They have no personal knowledge of what a stencil is or why having one would be useful for cheating on a test.

Transformation presents a similar division between what was and what is. But those organizations that can effectively learn how to move information around more effectively, who can harness human social networks in order to solve complex problems, will be more successful.

They may just have a hard time explaining it to those organizations still on the other side.

Stop them from choking

golf by chispita_666
The Tiger Woods Effect:
[Via The Frontal Cortex]

Success is intimidating. When we compete against someone who’s supposed to be better than us, we start to get nervous, and then we start to worry, and then we start to make stupid mistakes. That, at least, is the lesson of a new working paper by Jennifer Brown, a professor at the Kellogg school.

Brown demonstrated this psychological flaw by analyzing data from every player in every PGA tournament from 1999 to 2006. The reason she chose golf is that Tiger Woods is an undisputed superstar, the most intimidating competitor in modern sports. (In 2007, Golf Digest noted that Woods finished with 19.62 points in the World Golf Ranking, more than twice as many as his closest rival. This meant that “he had enough points to be both No. 1 and No. 2.”) Brown also notes that “golf is an excellent setting in which to examine tournament theory and superstars in rank-order events, since effort relates relatively directly to scores and performance measures are not confounded by team dynamics.” In other words, every golfer golfs alone.

Despite the individualistic nature of the sport, the presence of Woods in the tournament had a powerful effect. Interestingly, Brown found that playing against Woods resulted in significantly decreased performance. When the superstar entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even more pronounced when Woods was playing well. Based on this data, Brown calculated that the superstar effect boosted Woods’ PGA earnings by nearly five million dollars.


One of the things I have seen in great athletes I have known is, for want of a better term, a lack of self-awareness. They just do, They don’t think about it too much.

For example, they did not worry as much about striking out as I did. I had a talented bat, which allowed me to get a bat on almost anything. But I was not disciplined enough. If I had two strikes I would go after anything, anywhere because I did not want to strike out. I’d rather ground out by hitting a bad pitch than allow a called third strike. I was more worried about the humiliation of that one event than the larger strategic aspects.

I hated losing and would replay all the parts where if only I had done something different, then the result would have been a win. This was not something I really saw with the really great players. They just moved on, seemingly riding the vagaries of the sport with a wonderful adeptness I envied.

So it is nice to see that at the highest levels, when they really are competing with physical peers, the numbers indicate that they feel the same way. They think too much.

Now, another part of this is that once in a group of peers, such as the PGA, most people eventually find a relative plateau of effort and worry. That is, the pressure of the tour selects for golfers that can at least deal with the pressure of the Tour itself. And many golfers, week to week, do not have to really directly compete with Woods. They are in the middle, competing with the other golfers that they are used to seeing in the middle also. Familiarity means not too many worries, So they are not too worried and are not thinking too much to hurt their chances.

They find their own level and can be successful there.

It is when they have an extraordinary week, where they now move up into the elite group where overthinking can cause a problem. And, in some ways, being able to move away from the overthinking might allow them to stay in that elite group.

This sort of worry happens in many facets of life. The worry about our position, whether we are really good enough. It happens almost anytime we enter a truly novel situation.

I saw this first hand when I entered CalTech. The entire Freshman year was entirely pass/fail. Every class. Not only did this allow people to experiment and try a lot of different classes but it also provided a modicum of time to find your level without having to directly compete with others for GPA.

It removed a lot of pressure and worry. Most students had never had to think about studying in High School. They just did it. Like great athletes.

Now they were competing with other peers in ways that were completely novel and worrisome. By removing the pressure of grades, CalTech sought to ameliorate these worries. Not all the way but it was one less thing. We were less likely to choke and more likely to calm down as the novelty wore off.

So, in that first year I found a balance. I saw that there were guys that never seemed to do any homework, yet got better scores than me (Yes, they still had grades on tests, essays and such. It just did not matter for the GPA). I found that no matter how hard I studied, I just was not going to pass them. And that was fine. I saw where I fell by doing the work I was capable of.

I recognized that I was not going to be one of the elites at CalTech. And I could be okay with that. Giving us that first year to find our place in the crowd was one of the most significant things CalTech did.

And then, being a smart guy, I figured out ways to take classes that played to my strengths, used the knowledge I gained to raise my GPA every year, so that I was able to graduate with honors.

But having that break the first year permitted me to gather myself in ways that being dumped directly into competition with other might have broken me. Like a golfer who finds that there is a particular course that plays to their strengths.

It is a lesson I have held my whole life. So many organizations are designed to break people, taking only those who survive and making them the leaders, champions, etc. But that is so wasteful because there are so many others who, if given a break, a chance to find their own level, could perform quite well.

One of my advisors once said he purposefully created an environment of competition between those who work in his lab ‘The cream will rise to the top.’ Well, the cream will always rise but the process makes it curdled, And you waste so much that could have been so useful. Too many people dropped out of graduate programs, ones who could have been very good scientists, simply because the system worked by breaking its members.

It was designed to cast out those who ‘choked’. CalTech’s approach was to support everyone until they could figure out where they needed to be. Just like the middling golfers. They might not win very often but they provide some really exciting golf. Because they really are very, very good when compared to the rest of us.

We need better processes in scientific education so that more than only the elite make it through. Just as not every lawyer needs to plead in front of a jury, not every graduate student needs to get a job in academia. There are so many places where a well-trained scientist is needed.

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Make it a pub

[Crossposted at A Man with a PhD]

pub by gailf548
Participation Value and Shelf-Life for Journal Articles:
[Via The Scholarly Kitchen]

Discussion forums built around academic journal articles haven’t seen much usage from readers. Lessons learned from the behavior of sports fans may provide some insight into the reasons why.


The scientific discussions that many researchers have found the most productive are often those sitting around a table in a informal setting, like a pub. These discussions are often wide-ranging and very open. They often produce really innovative ideas, which get replicated on cocktail napkins.

Some of the best ideas in scientific history can be found on such paper napkins. Simply allowing comments on a paper does not in any way replicate this sort of social interaction. But there already online approaches that do. We call them blogs.

Check out the scientific discussions at RealClimate, ResearchBlogging or even Pharyngula. Often the scientific discussions replicate what is seen in real life, with lots of open discussion about relevant scientific information.

If journals want to create participatory regions in their sites, they might do well to mimic these sorts of approaches. David Croty at Cold Spring Harbor has such a site. Although it has not reached the popularity of RealClimate, it is a nice beginning.

I would think that research associations, with an already large audience of members, would have an easier time creating such a blog, one that starts by discussing specific papers but is open to a wide ranging, semi-directed conversation.

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Staying up to date with twitter services

Part 1: What are Twitter Lists?:
[Via Pistachio Consulting Inc.]

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series cross-posted from



Back on September 30th, Twitter announced on their blog that they would be launching their new Lists feature to a small group of users to beta test. Lists allow Twitter users to organize the people they follow into groups. By segmenting your following list into groups, you can then filter tweets from your main stream and just view the tweets originating from a selected list. You can also subscribe to other people’s lists.


Twitter is a social medium that has varying uses for different people. But it is obvious that it has some use for almost everyone.

When they introduce a new service, like lists, it is useful then to get up to speed quickly. This nice little series discusses the new Lists feature of Twitter. It helps prov ide some important insights into the potentials of lists and their drawbacks.

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Innovation on the cheap

innovate by jordigraells>

Why Great Innovators Spend Less Than Good Ones


A story last week about the Obama administration committing more than $3 billion to smart grid initiatives caught my eye. It wasn’t really an unusual story. It seems like every day features a slew of stories where leaders commit billions to new geographies, technologies, or acquisitions to demonstrate how serious they are about innovation and growth.

Here’s the thing — these kinds of commitments paradoxically can make it harder for organizations to achieve their aim. In other words, the very act of making a serious financial commitment to solve a problem can make it harder to solve the problem.

Why can large commitments hamstring innovation?

First, they lead people to chase the known rather than the unknown. After all, if you are going to spend a large chunk of change, you better be sure it is going to be going after a large market. Otherwise it is next to impossible to justify the investment. But most growth comes from creating what doesn’t exist, not getting a piece of what already does. It’s no better to rely on projections for tomorrow’s growth markets, because they are notoriously flawed.

Big commitments also lead people to frame problems in technological terms. Innovators spend resources on path-breaking technologies that hold the tantalizing promise of transformation. But as my colleagues Mark Johnson and Josh Suskewicz have shown, the true path to transformation almost always comes from developing a distinct business model.

Finally, large investments lead innovators to shut off “emergent signals.” When you spend a lot, you lock in fixed assets that make it hard to dramatically shift strategy. What, for example, could Motorola do after it invested billions to launch dozens of satellites to support its Iridium service only to learn there just wasn’t a market for it? Painfully little. Early commitments predetermined the venture’s path, and when it turned out the first strategy was wrong — as it almost always is — the big commitment acted as an anchor that inhibited iteration.


One problem of too much money is that bad ideas get funding also. In fact, there are often many more incremental plans than revolutionary ones. They soak up a lot of time and money.

Plus they create the “We have to spend this money” rather than “Where are we going to get the money to spend?”

Innovations often result in things that save money. But they are often riskier to start with. So how to recognize them and get them the money they need, but not too much?

Encouraging people to work on ‘back burner’ projects in order to demonstrate the usefulness of the approach is one way. Careful vetting can help determine whether it can be moved to the front burner or not.

Part of any innovator’s dilemma is balancing the innovative spirit with sufficient funding to nurture that spirit, without overwhelming the innovator with the debit of too much cash.

Updated: Short answers to simple questions

fail by Nima Badiey

NIH Funds a Social Network for Scientists — Is It Likely to Succeed?

[Via The Scholarly Kitchen]

The NIH spends $12.2 million funding a social network for scientists. Is this any more likely to succeed than all the other recent failures?


Fuller discussion:

In order to find an approach that works, researchers often have to fail a lot. That is a good thing. The faster we fail, the faster we find what works. So I am glad the NIH is funding this. While it may have little to be excited about right now, it may get us to a tool that will be useful.

As David mentions, the people quoted in the article seem to have an unusual idea of how researchers find collaborators.

A careful review of the literature to find a collaborator who has a history of publishing quality results in a field is “haphazard”, whereas placing a want-ad, or collaborating with one’s online chat buddies, is systematic? Yikes.

We have PubMed, which allows us to rapidly identify others working on research areas important to us. In many cases, we can go to RePORT to find out what government grants they are receiving.

The NIH site, as described, also fails to recognize that researchers will only do this if it helps their workflow or provides them a tool that they have no other way to use. Facebook is really a place for people to make online connections with others, people one would have no other way to actually find.

But we can already find many of the people we would need to connect to. What will a scientific Facebook have that would make it worthwhile?

Most social networking tools initially provide something of great usefulness to the individual. Bookmarking services, like CiteULike, allow you to access/sync your references from any computer. Once someone begins using it for this purpose, the added uses from social networking (such as finding other sites using the bookmarks of others) becomes apparent.

For researchers to use such an online resource, it has to provide them new tools. Approaches, like the ones being used by Mendeley or Connotea, make managing references and papers easier. Dealing with papers and references can be a little tricky, making a good reference manager very useful.

Now, I use a specific application to accomplish this, which allows me to also insert references into papers, as well as keep track of new papers that are published. Having something similar online, allowing me access from any computer, might be useful, especially if it allowed access from anywhere, such as my iPhone while at a conference.

If enough people were using such an online application then there could be added Web 2.0 approaches that could then be used to enhance the tools. Perhaps this would supercharge the careful reviews that David mentions, allowing us to find things or people that we could not do otherwise.

There are still a lot of caveats in there, because I am not really convinced yet that having all my references online really helps me. So the Web 2.0 aspects do not really matter much.

People may have altruistic urges, the need to help the group. But researchers do not take up these tools because they want to help the scientific community. They take them up because they help the researcher get work done.

Nothing mentioned about the NIH site indicates that it has anything that I currently lack.

Show me how an online social networking tool will get my work done faster/better, in ways that I can not accomplish now. Those will be the sites that succeed.

[UPDATE: Here is post with more detail on the possibilities.]