Saturday, January 15, 2005

Blink Think - Immersion Leads to Better Hunches

Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking was reviewed by David Brooks in the Sunday NY Times this weekend.

Gladwell's primary premise reminded me of a survival phrase we used in college to remind each other that we could hone our instincts for scientific and engineering thought processes through sufficient immersion in the subject matter. The expression was, "that's intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer."

An example from Physics: acceleration is force divided by mass. Intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer (...who understands how to manipulate some form of F=MA, the meaning, units, and relationships between those entities, and how to diagram and apply them).

An example from Chemistry: compounds formed from covalent bonds are usually liquids or gases at room temperature. Ionic compounds, by contrast, make up the room temperature solids. Intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer (...who understands electron balancing, molecular diagramming (those Lewis diagrams with the 'parking spots' in particular), balancing chemical equations, and so on).

An example from Computer Science: for quick and dirty on a relatively small group of items, nothing beats a bubble sort. It just writes itself. Ah, intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer (...who has studied several different types of sorting algorithms, written and tinkered with them, analyzed how a group of methods performed on different data sets to judge relative strengths under controlled conditions, and has the experience to implement different sort routines in different languages and/or computing environments).

Gladwell's research sustantiates this perspective (as you knew it would when you started reading this entry!).

Now, this may seem esoteric techie trivia for building a stronger business, but you'll see the point when you consider that what you know that is specialized -- your processes, your business, your industry, for examples -- is esoteric to others, which is why they rely on your expertise.

It's when you're out of your domain and don't have that that expertise behind you, that you can get into trouble trusting your 'blink think.'

Three quick implications for business owners:

  1. Continue to immerse yourself in your discipline so that you develop greater gut accuracy. The stronger and more current your knowledge base, the better your starting point is for 'blink think,' as Gladwell would say.
  2. When you are seeking out expert advice, gather a sampling of opinions/recommendations.
  3. Conduct your own experiments to develop greater trust in your own 'blink think' by paying attention to your gut instinct and deliberately decide to follow that hunch. This will develop your gut instincts in other areas.

How do you develop better instincts?
By developing greater confidence in your decisions. Start off with low-risk, low-frequency situations, say, travel decisions 5 times a week. Keep a record of those decisions and how they turned out. (Hmm, somehow I knew that road would be closed today. Glad I took the old shortcut. I wonder why that made sense to my guy? Oh, yeah, now I remember that I heard about the construction starting on the radio last week.) Sometimes you'll find evidence, sometimes you won't. What matters more is that you recognize your successes in proportion to your non-successes.

It becomes a positive re-inforcement cycle: the more you trust your gut or 'blink think', the more fully you will tap into the capabilities it holds and expand the range in which it serves you.

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