The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Japan’s Educational Reforms – Paving the Way for Better Problem Solvers

In 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister made education his nation’s top agenda.


Innovation – is the transformation of knowledge and ideas into commercially successful products. Innovation has been the key factor behind the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. We talk of the knowledge society and knowledge worker as a result.

The problem is solved only temporarily - the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The problem is solved only temporarily – the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The driver behind transforming ideas into products is creativity and the process is one of solving a problem – in this case it is one of innovation.

Getting back to Japan. The country has a long history of importing ideas from the rest of the world. It has been good at adapting and transforming ideas – it was essentially an incremental innovator.

Japan improved and tweaked products and processes that had been developed by other countries. This took place in closed networks of organisations, where promotion was seniority-based. There was lifetime employment, internal research and the norm was to have in-house training. The system worked for awhile, however, like any relatively closed system, it cannot adapt to change. The destiny, as Prigogine would say, is for the organization to fail.

After the 90s, Japan started to invest seriously in research and innovation. It spent 3.2% of GDP on R&D. Japan knew that it needed to shift from catching up with the rest of the world towards developing its own fundamental product innovation through creativity. Despite this goal, its leading organisations like Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are struggling.

There are some fundamentals at play here. Japanese culture is conservative. Its educational system has been one of rote learning; its researchers are not the best in the world. The companies remain bureaucratic and hierarchical and lack the dynamism and agility that is required for innovation to flourish.

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

The Japanese Prime Minister identified that the schooling system had to shift from rote learning (maintenance of the status quo) to one where the emphasis was on learning to solve problems. This is a very important and fundamental shift. It recognizes that a healthy reality is an open, dynamic and complex system. The map to guide any enterprise into the future is not cast in stone. It emerges and gets addressed constantly where the attitude is one of solving problems creatively. Knowledge is temporary – projects are the new organizational structure – they are temporary knowledge organisations. This term was coined by me (Rui Martins) and Kim Sbarcea in 2003.

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Visual Problem Solving

This blog has up to now explored many aspects of visual thinking directly and indirectly.

The aim was to have diversity on the topic that would explore some aspects of thinking, rationality and simply how to think better so that we can contribute positively with our interventions.

The topics have not been exhaustive, the aim was to simply map the range and diversity of how we think and make sense of the world.

I am not one for quotes, but the ones below make the point better than if I were to write an essay.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has Brain.”pooh

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”

There was a long silence.

“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


“Don’t you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity, because it hasn’t developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don’t expect to see.”

Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

The point I am trying to make is that we sometimes get too clever and forget the basics and loose trust in out own capabilities. This leads us to desperately seek the magic formula out there, because we have lost the confidence in our basic abilities of thinking and making sense of the problems we are faced with.


The basic principles of thinking and asking critical questions – dumb questions – like the ones that children sometimes ask – is important and we should become confident to explore basic principles.

Visual thinking, although it might come across as a fad, I deeply believe is a very basic skill that we have lost confidence in. It is not a technique nor a method, but one of those skills that we as humans are excellent at and should reignite our innate abilities and use it with confidence.

In future posts I will be exploring more frequently issues related directly to problem solving and specifically how to use visuality to make good informed decisions.

There are tons of methods that promise to help us solve problems – I do not criticise any, I only suggest that there is a danger with any approach that promises that if you follow x and y steps this will be the panacea to all your needs.

The only caution I make is that there is the danger that one loses the basic skills to think and hands over control to a method that in many cases has been removed from ‘the context’, thereby loosing the essence of its original intention because it is being used incorrectly or applied incorrectly resulting in and creating more problems than the one’s we truly solve.

We tend to clutch at quick fixes because we deeply fear to make mistakes. This attitude was drilled into us at school. We learned that mistakes are bad, and we were punished for making them in some way. Yet, if you look at the way humans learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we had never fallen, we would never have walk. The same with thinking, we need the courage to think again.

As Toni Morrison said, if “You wanna fly, you got to give up the s..t that weighs you down.


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Humans are Highly Rational – Really?

Last week, I proposed that it is fallacious to believe that we can manage change by design and control, coupled with the belief that humans are perfectly rational at all times.

To shed some light on just how rational we humans are, I will look at what Daniel Kahneman has to say on the topic.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who received the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. I am reading his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011). It is a visual feast – I could not agree more with Kahneman’s thesis.

Firstly, the prevailing economic assumption is that all our thinking on decision making and planning is based on the following assumption: …agents are motivated by pure self interest, are capable of making rational economic decisions even in very complex situations.


There are a few problems with the above statement. Perfect knowledge does not and will never exist, nor will any individual have access to all knowledge. This means that all economic activity implies risk – we make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and limited information, particularly relating to the future.

Secondly, humans are individuals. We do not all like the same things; we are culturally different and so on. Utility function is not a constant but a variable. The other major problem with the statement is that it ignores the reality that humans have inner conflicts. We struggle between short-term and long-term goals (e.g., eating chocolate cake and losing weight) or between individual goals and societal values. Such conflicts may lead to “irrational” behaviour involving inconsistency, psychological paralysis, neurosis and psychic pain. Further irrational human behavior can occur as a result of habit, laziness, mimicry and simple obedience.

Kahneman’s central message is very important – human reason, if left to its own devices, is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors. Rational behavior in decision making and planning is a ridiculous premise to build any theory on. Yet, many theories and models are anchored in this fallacy.

Let me give you a very simple example – it is called the law of small numbers – people seem to be very comfortable to draw very important conclusions from little evidence. We are really talking about rules of thumb also known as heuristics. The issue stems from the fact that people are not comfortable with uncertainty, coupled with the fact that as humans we are constantly seeking patterns. We have a tendency (referred to as system one thinking – also known as spontaneous non-reflective thinking) to draw conclusions and have a bias for small non represented numbers.

A good example of this is the ‘Mozart effect’. A study proposed that playing classical music to babies and young children might make them smarter. This study triggered a massive industry of books, CD and videos overnight.

The study by psychologist Frances Rauscher was based upon observations of just 36 college students. However, the test was only conducted once where students who had listened to Mozart “seemed” to show a significant improvement in their performance in an IQ test. Before long, the media got wind of this and people were convinced that listening to Mozart made them smarter. However, in 2007 a serious and rigorous extensive study was conducted by the Ministry of Education and Research in Germany, they concluded that the phenomenon was “nonexistent”.


If we think of this, we seem to do this all the time. We are prone to generalizations and biases. The amazing fact is that we actually believe this stuff and act on it. The risk is huge, particularly if we are going to build a discipline like change management around very fragile theory and assumptions.

We have the capacity to be rational – it is referred to as system 2 thinking, but the problem is that it is slow. We of the human species like fast thinking. We like decisive people, people who think on their feet. We see that as being ‘smart’. Yet, Kahneman proves that is not correct. It is a very important discovery that Kahneman bring to us – if we want to make better decisions in our society and personal lives, we must become aware of the biases built in to us. I seriously recommend this book, we will start to select better leaders and make better decisions.

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How do we deal with change?

The next few posts are loosely connected under the theme of ‘rationality’. They explore rationality from different perspectives.

Change is not an easy thing to manage. To be able to use a systematic approach, like a formula, to orchestrate change would be great. There are many methods and theories that have been written about the promise to facilitate change.

Some approaches are quite complicated and require the ‘conditions to be just right” for the method to work. In other words, they are fragile and might only work in very specific conditions.

Change management has evolved over the last fifty years. Up to the beginning of the 1990s, the focus was on establishing the foundations and exploring how humans experience change. The underlying theory was based on psychology and human behaviour.

The next decade up to 2000, the principles were applied to business and organizational change management. Up to 2012, we saw the formalization of the profession and the establishment of procedures and rigorous methods. We are now seeing the maturing of the discipline.

There is much to be done for the practice of change management tends to be reactive and ad hoc. The body of knowledge is contradictory and lacking in empirical evidence. There are many hypotheses that have not been challenged or tested. The discipline is now ready to learn – we hope.

We need firstly to remind ourselves what the main objective of the discipline is. It aims to facilitate the organization to continually renew its direction, structure and capabilities to ensure that the ever-changing needs of external and internal customers are met. The organization wants to survive into the future and change management is there to ensure that happens.

This is a great objective, however, we now know that, as reported by various writes (e.g. Balogun and Hope Hailey) that there is a 70% failure rate of all change programs that have been initiated. Clearly, something is not working.

Change management is based on the work of Kurt Lewin in 1947. The model is not only linear and static, but assumes that one can design and rationally plan for change to take place.


This is the fundamental problem. There are massive contradictions in the discipline. The main overarching principle is based on the assumption that one can plan and control the change process. It is like saying that you know exactly what is going to happen on your 5 year old’s birthday party with 50 sugar-hyped children. The parents that dance with the flow and channel the energy might possibly live to see the end of the day. Those that think they have everything under control are living with the fairies in the bottom of the garden. Anyone who believes that one can manage change through control and design is living with the fairies.

The paradigm for change management is stuck with systems thinking (first order systems – I will explain this one day soon). Systems thinking talks about emergence and interconnectivity, yet it fundamentally believes that one can design ‘the system’ – control it and plan so that it produces the designed outcomes – yes there is a blatant contradiction. It assumes that all people will always behave in a rational way – the change manager believes s/he knows what people think and therefore is able to have the organization change in the planned way. Sounds like beautiful music.

The problem is that people do not march to the manager’s sound of music. Actually, not even the manager marches to his/her own sound of music. Intuitively we know this yet we plan and believe that if we do ‘x’ and ‘y’ and then ‘z’ will happen and when it does not happen we are innocently surprised.

So, what is the problem with our thinking?

logicChange management deals at the core with people. It is not about managing self-contained neatly inert objects. One is dealing with dynamics and agents behave in a way that is not predictable. As soon as some small change happens (often not detectable), there is a dramatic amplifying effect on the behaviour of the agents (known as the butterfly effect). Individuals will make decisions based on the information they have just received and that same piece of information will be interpreted differently by different agents.

Sounds like chaos – remember the 5 year old’s party? That is exactly what one is dealing with – the attitude one should have is how do we manage highly complex and chaotic systems? This attitude is fundamentally different to that of managing something that we think we can control and predict rationally.

It is not that difficult. It simply requires a fundamental internalization of the way things behave and how to manage them. Once you realize that people are complex adaptive systems, the management approach must be different. You cannot use the same tools that you would use to manage highly predictable and fully-understood behavior (utopia).

Control and micromanagement is really a sign of ignorance. Management by algorithms is a joke to say the least. People who like closure and are not able to sway with constant uncertainty need to change jobs or, better still, need to go to ‘finishing school’ – try the liberal arts!

I would even go further and propose that the nature of thinking required to manage complex situations under conditions of uncertainty is the type of thinking similar to that of visual thinking.

Next week, I will look at the work of Daniel Kahneman.

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New Forms Of Poetry.

I find the work of Ted Warnell pure visual pleasure. His work is elegant, funny and thoughtful; simple and strong. The beauty of his work is rooted in technology. He uses the new medium to create new forms of communication and meaning by mixing and remixing disparate elements.

Commerce as art is a thread he explores frequently throughout his work. He likes to infuse his work with more than simple representational reality. He refers to it as ‘perceptual realism’ – an objective reality infused with a ‘spirit of life’, resulting in images that have clarity and power.

Various works by Ted Warnell

Various works by Ted Warnell


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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 2

How do we make sense of beauty in our tech age?

It is unavoidable but, in order to explore this concept, we need to set the context by having some understanding of how beauty has been perceived throughout history.

In the Renaissance period, beauty and nature were tightly interlinked concepts. The purpose of art was to represent natural beauty – this included notions of godly, romantic and scientific nature – all intertwined.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. The goddess Venus is the classical personification of beauty.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. The goddess Venus is the classical personification of beauty.

During the Industrial Revolution, beauty was associated with the idea of nature as pure, whole, intelligent, soothing and, above all, the expression of truth. This obviously was emerging within the context of cultural and economic settings of the time.

These paradigms were strongly challenged by modernity and, as a result, we see the disappearance of the notion of ‘artistic beauty’.

Brutalism, Dadaism, abstract art, pop art and the Bauhaus, were movements that challenged our concept of beauty. At the peak of modernity, we start to emphasize (I say emphasize because this distinction was not new, it has roots in ancient Greece) the notion of high art on the one hand and craft as a lower form of activity on the other. Craft was seen as the creation of functional objects, whereas art was associated with the notion of ideas – the end destination was the object (high art) and not the means for something else (craft) as defined by Stephen Davies.

MAN RAY (1890-1976) 'Cadeau (Gift)' 1921 (Flat Iron with Brass Tacks)

MAN RAY (1890-1976)
‘Cadeau (Gift)’ 1921 (Flat Iron with Brass Tacks)

Today, these distinctions between art and craft are collapsing. We see artists like Gwendolyn Magee (quilt maker) celebrated as a great artist and Tacita Dean’s FILM for Unilever’s 2012 series, where she engages directly with the tactile skills and crafts of making moving images through film.

Technology has been used throughout history in the creation of ‘beauty’. However, never before has it been deeply incorporated with the creation of ‘beautiful’ things as it is now. The postmodern movement saw the turning point from where previously technology was regarded as ugly, disruptive and alienating. Technology was more associated with the crafts – work and utilitarian performance. Today, the notion of beauty has to be addressed against the backdrop of the electronic age.

As we can see, the notion of ‘beauty’ is constantly shifting and today it is simultaneously adapting to both a local and global context.

In our technological age, the new notion of beauty has been extended to performance – referred to by Falk Heinrich performativity beauty. Beauty has now migrated into fields like consumer markets and the anesthetization of everyday life. The notion of beauty is reformulated by technology – the very technology that is shaping our society.

Beauty is no longer solely linked to both aesthetics and to representation. It has evolved to recognize the fact that beauty is dependent on the societal context, which includes science, commerce, the wellness industry etc. In this respect, participatory art and other participatory artifacts are real and contain the experience both I terms of visual tactile beauty.

A great example of this is Dreams of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, created in 1999 by the German artist Kirsten Geisler. It is an interactive art piece that deals with female beauty.

Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, 1999 by Kirsten Geisler

Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, 1999 by Kirsten Geisler

The piece forms part of a series of works people can interact with created by Geisler and entitled Virtual Beauties. The theme of the series is that of a bold young woman’s face created in a computer program that generates 3D images. The series depicts the virtual female projected onto the gallery wall. The female has been created following mathematical rules of perfect symmetry and proportion, giving the face a quite unreal and untouchable beauty, which is spotless and without wrinkles or blemishes.

The 3D simulations are that of the puppet-like ideal of the type of beauty created by modern advertising and the beauty industry. The work is a criticism of an unobtainable and impersonalized ideal of beauty in the age of digital technologies and mass media.

The installations in the series experiment with different forms of interaction between the depicted beauty and the onlooker. The piece Dream of Beauty 2.2 Touch Me, for example, consists of a small touch screen that allows the viewer to interact with the women’s face. She reacts by crying, laughing or frowning. Touching her lips can even make her blow a kiss.

On another dimension by allowing the viewer to interact with the virtual female, does it change our understanding of beauty? The issue that is emerging with our conception of beauty in the technological era therefore is not only the interaction with a representation of a proto-beautiful female body, but also the beauty (pleasure and feedback) of the act of interaction.

In the technological age, beauty now has the added dimension of performance and participatory – the one-size-fits all is gone. Beauty is a dynamic and found in diversity. On another level, beauty can be understood as an emergent property that manifests itself as a reflective sentiment i.e. as a result of the interaction. The notion of beauty is an emergent dynamic phenomenon that manages to slip the rigid limits of algorithmic coding.

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Beauty in the Tech Age Part 1

The notion of beauty is one of those cyclical arguments; we will never have a universal set of rules that defines beauty.

The reason for this is really not too complicated – we are all individuals and culturally diverse. The problem is that humans have a tendency to be imperialistic, controlling and arrogant. In our ignorance, we seem to be quite comfortable imposing our value system onto others. Possibly, this is the reason for many of the problems we are faced with today (such as wars and national conflicts) but this is another conversation.

The structuralist paradigm of ‘one size fits all’ is a form of small-minded parochial thinking. For some reason, we are threatened by ‘otherness’. We seem to want to force everyone else to our way of thinking. This is the case with politics and religion, even music. My opinion, my taste, my view is better, correct and the only one acceptable. Why is this the case? I will not attempt to explore this complex question in this post. Rather, I am hoping that we are now in an age where it is not only okay to be unique but, also, we have come to see cultural diversity as something that should be encouraged, respected and celebrated.

Globalization does not help but rather than seeing it as a destructive force, we can see it as a reason to strengthen, invigorate and give us a conceptual base to reinterpret our unique traditions and evolve them within this new context of globalization and technology.

iToday, diversity is ‘beauty’. If we were all exactly the same, that would be a terrifying ‘desert’ and the ‘ideal’ human would very quickly become ugly and boring to us. Beauty is a consequence of the times we live in. It has shifted to being of a passive nature to one where we, as a society, are participants and co-creators.


We need to mature further as humans to accepting and appreciating the pleasure of what other people see and treasure as beautiful.

I will explore beauty in the age of technology next week in Part 2.