The Practice & Art of Thinking

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I normally would present the complete ‘picture’ – in this case, the ‘method’ for problem solving – and then explain what I mean by the individual components of the method. This assumes that the method consists of a combined set of components, which is the case here.

I am using this approach for the simple reason that I think the ‘journey’ (to use an over-used term) is important, allowing us to develop and visualise a personal version of the whole, which would be negated if presented with the conclusion upfront. I will add, many principles of the method have already been touched on throughout this blog.

The method consists of a mix of concepts and specific principles. In this post I will be looking briefly at aspects of the concept of ‘Reason’.

The notion ‘reason’ is important but we tend to park it in the ‘hard basket’ for the simple reason that it has connotations of ‘philosophy’ and such discussion can have the feeling of talking to someone who has forgotten to take their medication – it all seems a bit ‘random’ – as some New Zealanders would say.

Let us quickly look at why reason is important. A great example is that captured in one of Popper’s books (title at end of post), where he suggests that a healthy society is one that is open to ideas and reason. In contrast, non-open societies are (as Popper states) ‘barbaric’, with no capacity for sympathy or understanding for others and diversity of opinion (I could not agree more. We can currently see this happening in our world).

urlWithout the ability to reason, we cannot progress and understand the world around us. We reason to consciously make sense of things and to establish and verify facts. This is exactly what one needs to do to get to grips with any problem situation.

We tend to confuse the term ‘reason’ with logic and use them interchangeably but they are different. To explain, we can use the example of the difference between movement and locomotion. All locomotion is movement but not all movement is locomotion. A tree moves but it does not locomote because it is rooted in the ground. Likewise, all logic is reason but not all reason conforms to the standards of logic.

If logic is the map of what’s really “out there”, reason is the process of trying to read and follow the map. Using another example – reason is the application of logic to one’s perception of the real world, like engineering is the application of physics.

Simply put, reasoning is the actual process of evaluating information and applying logic to arrive at an appropriate (correct) conclusion.

It might now be clear to see why refining our skill of reasoning is essential to good problem solving. It should be considered as the overall concept of the method of problem solving – the balancing force.

I have used the metaphor of the spinning top before (see here in relation to design thinking). We could consider reason as the overall resultant force that keeps the spinning top performing at its optimum – in this case, good problem solving could be seen as a spinning top humming away, where reason is the element that feeds all the other forces and ensures they are performing at peak condition.

From this, it is not too difficult to see why it is vital that we are eloquent at reasoning and understand the importance of reason in relation to good problem solving practice. The cartoon below by Luiz Oswaldo Carneiro Rodrigues stresses the point that data should not be forced and distorted to do what you want it to do. One needs to use reason at all times.

Treat Your Data with Reason - Not With Force. Cartoon by LOR

Treat Your Data with Reason – Not With Force. Cartoon by LOR

I look briefly at reason and ‘listening to data’ shortly in the future.

Book: By Karl Popper – The Poverty of Historicism; The Open Society and Its Enemies. First published in London in 1945, Russia in 1992 and US 2013. This book was on the Modern Library Board’s 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. It criticizes Marx, amongst others, for relying on historicism to underpin their political philosophies.

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Heat Maps

Heat Maps is a simple yet powerful technique that leverages the human’s superior visual cognitive capacity to gain deeper and faster insights into data and information.

Cormac Kinney coined the term in 1991 to describe a 2D-display depicting real-time financial market information.

A heat map is any data visualization that uses color to represent data values in a two-dimensional image. A simple heat map provides an immediate visual summary of information. More elaborate heat maps allow the viewer to understand complex data sets.

There are many different types of heat maps used in different disciplines, each referred to by the term “heat map”, even though they use different visualization techniques.

The reason heat maps work so well is because of our ‘Pre-attentive Processing’ ability. The term refers to the ability of the low-level human visual system to rapidly identify properties, such as color and size, in less than 250 milliseconds.

According to Van der Heijden, we unconsciously accumulate information from the environment ,which is pre-attentively processed. The brain filters and processes what is important based on what stands out the most. Once the individual’s attention is captured (based on what is of relevance to what the individual is thinking), at that point the information is selected for further and more complete analysis by conscious (attentive) processing.

It is a two-stage process, which happens in seconds, and this is why heat maps are so powerful.

Heat maps are being used in many sectors and that is great. The best way to demonstrate these is to show you examples. I use some examples as shown by John Brandon in a slide presentation.


Marketing people created the map above. By using eye-tracking devices, a heat map is created showing where attention of the user is focused on display pages. The map above is a sample heat map of a Google search result.

A dominant pattern for search engine results is the “F” pattern showing the eye being drawn to the upper left (hot colors) and then moving down and across from there (shown as the blue colors). There are, however, factors (such as the inclusion of images, graphics, and additional columns) that can significantly alter this pattern.

This heat map displays risk by location. It was created by RMS (risk management company) to show risks related to catastrophic events: Earthquakes, hurricanes, severe storms (including tornados and hail), wind storms, wildfires and volcanoes. An insurance company might use it to determine the “probability of loss” related to such an event.

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This heat map shows the reality of fraud attempts in real-time using live data. A red dot pops up to show a fraud attempt. ThreatMatrix culls the data from 1,950 customers, which includes about 9,000 websites, and tracks about 360,000 cyberattacks per day.

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This heat map from MarketProphit shows buzz and sentiment around specific stocks. The larger blocks indicate the most buzz (or discussion) around a stock as culled from Twitter. The colors show sentiment; the red blocks denote negative comments and the green denotes positive comments. In an instant, financial planners can see general trends with stocks based on social media posts.

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This heat map shows the movements of customers in a retail store aisle. Red areas represent the spots where most customers shop. Retailers can use the heat map for product placements and to see whether a sales campaign was successful.

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This heat map shows the age of buildings in the Portland, Ore. area. About 544,000 structures are represented, including about 4,500 erected in the 1800s and 10,265 buildings constructed in 1978 alone.

Justin Palmer created this heat maps based on public data released by the City of Portland. It shows the age of buildings. This can help municipalities see which neighborhoods hold the greatest concentration of structures that may need repairs.

Click on the link ( to see the map in large scale, iit s beautiful. It shows the nearly 10 million buildings in the Netherlands; some in central Amsterdam are more than 1,000 years old.

Some would argue that heat maps are very specific – “the heat map is a treemap-like graphical technique used to represent a two-dimensional array of data” as shown in the example below.


Many techniques illustrated in this post, as argued by the purists, are not heat maps. I agree and I disagree. The principle of using color to very quickly highlight the issues of concern, attention or importance is extremely valuable and it is a perfect example of how we work better with visuals than with coded jargon. The fact that it is called a heat map – well, does it matter? Notionally, it is a perfect description even though it might not be as it was originally labeled – I think this is a good and natural evolution of the principles. I will call these techniques ‘heat maps’ – it works and it is powerful.

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The video is a presentation by Edward Segel, who is giving a talk at Truila for the data visualization meeting at an event around telling stories with data. He not only gives some great examples but also clearly articulates how to create these stories from data. The video is 19.34 minutes. If you have the time, he gives a good lecture (1.07 hours long) here.

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The Shape of Stories

This post is based on a link that Patrick Lambe (Straights Knowledge) shared an Facebook in early March.

An infographic by Maya Eilam.

An infographic by Maya Eilam.

The infographic above is a creatively re-imagined work of Vonnegut’s musings on the universally plottable shapes of stories by Maya Eliam. Here is a great way to consider stories. Kurt Vonnegut developed this idea and presented it as part of his Master’s thesis in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In Vonnegut’s words: “… stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper.”

The thesis was rejected at the time because it was considered to be too simple. He left the university to work for the public relations department at General Electric. This, however, did not stop him from vigorously talking about his theory with humour and charm, both in writing and public talks like the one in the video below.

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Essential Skills for 2025 – A Case for Liberal Arts Education – Part 2

In this post, I look at some key drivers that will change the nature of work. New core skills will be required for individuals to fully engage and be involved in delivering the needs to sustain the new economic environment.

None of the drivers should be a surprise to us. If we have been paying attention to recent developments, we should recognise them. Here are the key drivers:

  1. Emergence of smart machines;
  2. Longevity of the population;
  3. New media;
  4. Imbedded technology;
  5. Global connectedness; and
  6. New Organisational structures.


Emergence of smart machines.

In Gartner’s 2013 CEO survey, it is predicted that smart machines will have widespread and deep business impact within seven years (i.e. by 2020).

“Job destruction will happen at a faster pace with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.” (Kenneth Brant). Machines are changing from automating basic tasks to becoming advanced self-learning systems, mimicking the human brain and becoming as capable as humans in many highly specialized occupations. We are about to experience the biggest technological shift in recent times according to Brant.

We should not be surprised. Just look at the rapid advances in 3-D printing (see previous post here). It is predicted that in the next few years, we will see smart machines being used in the home; offices (that is if they still exist); supermarkets; and factories. Basically, they will be integrated into all human activities (teaching, production, military, security, medicine etc).

In some areas of our lives, smart machines will replace humans (as discussed in the previous post) particularly in middle-skilled occupations. In other areas, machines will assist humans by becoming our ‘collaborators’ and enhancing our own skills – there will be increasing co-dependence between humans and machine.

The question we need to consider is what distinguishes humans from machines? What are humans uniquely able to do that machines cannot?

The way we work will change even more.


Globally, the average life expectancy at birth in 1955 was just 48 years; in 1995, it was 65 years; in 2025, it will reach 73 years. By the year 2025, it is expected that no country will have a life expectancy of less than 50 years. In the US, for instance, it is estimated that by 2025, the number of Americans over 60 will increase by 70%.

The infographic below highlights the problem of changing demographics -people living longer with a falling birth rate, as is the current situation in Germany.

Image by siddharthdasari, gppai, silvia.recalcati (hyperlink), cropped by Rui Martins.

Image by siddharthdasari, gppai, silvia.recalcati (hyperlink), cropped by Rui Martins.

We will need to re-conceptualize what old age means, as well as what one does with all these years of life.

Individuals need to rethink their careers and people will work longer so as to have adequate resources for their longer retirement. People will need to consider further education to accommodate the changing work environment. In fact, lifelong learning will be a must and most probably people will have multiple careers. Occupational change will be a huge industry.

The shift towards a healthy lifestyle started quite a while ago. It will increase to the point that it will dominate our thinking and decision-making – the global economy will be viewed through this lens. People will demand a more holistic work-play balance.

New media

Various new media technologies are emerging and, as a result, we will see transformations in how we communicate. As technologies such as video, media editing, gaming and augmented reality become more sophisticated, we will see new ecosystems emerge around these areas.

The early Internet was text-based but this is rapidly changing and becoming more visual. This trend is just the beginning. We will see a massive shift towards the acceptance and recognition of visuality as a powerful way to communicate, think and make sense of our world.

In parallel, virtual networks are merging with our lives and bringing the new media into our daily experiences. Together with vast amounts of user generated content, this will have an impact on our culture, cognition and how we perceive reality.

The networks will enable individuals to work virtually and allow for collaboration with people we might never meet in person.

Individuals will have online personas and issues of personal reputation and identity management will have to be carefully considered. Our sensibility toward reality and what truth is will change due to new media.

We will need to develop acute critical thinking skills in relation to content and recorded events, particularly in deciphering how to interpret and make sense of events seen from multiple points of view.

Imbedded technology

Image bu Alexis Martin.

Image bu Alexis Martin.

The diffusion of technology such as sensors into everyday objects and environments will create an avalanche of data. Google has just purchased Nest Labs, which specialise in home automation, sensors and data collection. Without a doubt, they will be moving into an ever-widening array of devices aimed at delivering security, convenience and entertainment; smartphone-enabled security cameras, smart appliances, wearable monitors for children or elderly relatives etc. This is just tapping the potential for an “internet of things” that links every device imaginable in the home.

People will require different skills and an ability to make sense of their new environments. Machines will take over the mundane repetitive jobs, whilst humans will still be required to do the thinking.

It will be the dawn of an era of “everything is programmable”—an era of thinking about the world in computational, programmable, designable terms. Creativity will be a skill that all of us must possess.

The enormous amount of data will allow us to model systems to extreme scales. We will be able to operate at macro and micro levels as well as uncover and surface patterns and relationships that are currently invisible.

We will be able to plan our route to a destination and avoid traffic jams based on real-time data. We will be able to visualize levels of complexity by meshing the micro and macro scale models. As a result, whatever activity we might be involved with, our work and personal lives will demand us to have the skills to interact with data, see patterns in data, make data-based decisions, and use data to design for desired outcomes. This requires some serious sophistication in thinking and the ability to articulate questions that drive problem solving.

A recent article from FastCompany lists “15 Tech Trends That Will Define 2014” (I list a few):

  • Drones. Everywhere
  • Mind Control
  • Augmented Reality
  • Self-Driving Cars
  • Data, Rich And Full Of Value
  • The Consumer Will Own Data
A TV drone flies beside Canada's Erick Guay during the second practice of the men's Alpine skiing World Cup downhill race at the Lauberhorn in Wengen, January 12, 2012. Reuters

A TV drone flies beside Canada’s Erick Guay during the second practice of the men’s Alpine skiing World Cup downhill race at the Lauberhorn in Wengen, January 12, 2012. Reuters

Global connectedness

In many ways, “globalisation” is a trend that we feared but has now entered into our vocabulary and we are simply making sense of it. It is a long-term trend aimed at facilitating exchanges between countries around the globe. Today, in our highly interdependent world, no-one holds a monopoly on innovation. We see amazing activities taking place in the developing world and innovations aimed at markets other than the US and Europe.

This has shifted the notion of one-size fits all. Diversity, adaptability, research and development have now become the steady focus of business.

New Organisational structures

The question of how to create value is always an important concern for any organisation. Traditionally, this happened in large organisations but, with the rise of social media platforms and tapping into resources embedded in social connections, we can do things outside of organisational boundaries and possibly produce greater value by tapping into a new level of greater ‘intelligence’.

We are able to connect, collaborate and play at extreme scales – from the micro to the global. It is imperative that one learns to use these new social tools to work, to invent and manage – operating at these unfamiliar scales is what the next few decades will require from individuals.

Ramón Rivera says that new organizational concepts and work skills is emerging not from traditional management theories, but from fields such as game design, neuroscience and psychology. These fields will drive the creation of new training paradigms and tools of the future. Universities for instance, will have to rethink their offerings and reconsider their century-old organizational structures.

Skills for the future

Image source unknown.

Image source unknown.

The fundamental skill is the ability to think. In reality, this is not so easy to do. Nor is it easy to think particularly well, systematically and with rigor. I will explore this in the next post. Apart from thinking, which is the ‘umbrella’ skill, there are other aspects of thinking skills that people need to develop and become very good at, as these will be essential for taking advantage of the future work landscape:

  • Novel and adaptive thinking – expertise at thinking and coming up with solutions beyond that which is repetitive or rule-based;
  • Sensemaking – the ability to establish the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed (see Wikipedia – particularly Weick);
  • Social intelligence – ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way and to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments;
  • Cross -cultural competency – ability to operate in different cultural settings;
  • Visual thinking – ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning;
  • Media literacy – ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms and to leverage these media for persuasive communication;
  • Transdisciplinarity – literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines ; and
  • Design mindset or Design Thinking – the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context (see previous post).

In my next post, I will outline why a liberal Arts approach to education is essential for the future.

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A Retrospective of Visual Thinking

I thought I would do a retrospective of some ideas on visualization that I have explored during 2013.

Because I thought that people will be more interested in having a good time and catching up with family and friends over the Christmas holiday period, I am posting this in January. I am still in Bhutan by the time this post appears and, when I get back to New Zealand, I am looking forward to sharing some of the different insights gained during my trip.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Vision is one of those things that humans do very well and naturally.
  • The human brain has a very large portion dedicated to vision and visualization – this must say something!
  • We are awake more than asleep. This means that we are ‘doing ‘vision’ the majority of the time in our lives.
  • Through evolution, we are designed to ‘do vision’.  Again, this must say something very obvious about the importance of visualization.
  • Visualization is more than passive seeing.

My question is: does this mean that visualization is a massively important component in the way we make decisions and make sense of the world? Yet, we have not really defined this capacity and fully understood it. Is it too difficult or have we considered it to be one of those nice but not serious topics? I think this is about to change, especially as we are making a social shift towards recognizing the importance of design, innovation and creativity as a powerful component to the future survival of our civilization. The dominant ‘left brain’ (I have used this mostly as a metaphor) is not able to suppress and dominate the centre stage of our thinking anymore. Balanced critical thinking includes creativity.

Creativity is not about rearranging the furniture or choosing the wall colour to match the curtains. It is hard, yet everyone has this capacity in varying degrees and it must be cultivated seriously.

We live in a visual jungle. How do we articulate this skill so that we can use it mindfully rather than simply doing it? A sprinter runs, so do the majority of humans, but not all humans run like a trained athlete – can we, in a similar way, harness and understand our visual skills so that we become fantastic at thinking and, as a consequence, leap into another realm of awareness and understanding?

Visualization is a new language of cognition. With this skill we are able to zero in on the emergent factors, variables and otherwise hidden patterns in front of us and, in so doing, unlock new knowledge.

We need a high Visual IQ (V.I.Q) to deal with nuances and subtleties in the noise of life. As a society, we have progressively been increasing our I.Q in general – this means we are getting smarter as a species. But we need to define our Visual I.Q so that we can survive in the dense, visual jungle, make sense of it and not be afraid of it.

Visualization is a form of knowledge compression, as expressed by David McClandless. This allows us to identify not only the gestalt but make and design new knowledge. Knowledge has become a construct that gets reconstructed within new contexts by individual observers. Individuals are now the curators of knowledge and visualization has become the means to creatively explore and innovate our new futures.

I think we should celebrate this ability and use it to its full potential to enable us to unlock the creative spirit dormant in all humans. Everyone needs to be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. We need to change out thinking from a mindset that can only tolerate the logic of  2 + 2 = 4 to one where we can see the message captured in 2 + 2 = 5.

Tom Fletcher by mywonde - modified by Rui

Tom Fletcher by mywonde – modified by Rui

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Revealing Hidden Knolwedge

This Ted talk by David McClandless is worth watching. I agree with his observation that data visualization is really the process of using Design as a means of solving problems and creating elegant solutions. He points out that information overload is now a very serious problem and data visualization is one powerful way to make sense of it.

I agree and will even go further and suggest that without data visualization (an important new emerging industry), we will experience paralysis.

Enjoy – as with all TED talks it is no longer than 18 minutes.