Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes

Cover Image - how to take smart notesAhrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

It’s always exciting to discover a book that generates a cascade of “aha” moments. I certainly didn’t pick up Sonke Ahrens’s *How to Take Smart Notes* expecting that result.

I’ve kept notebooks and journals in various forms for decades. They’ve contributed significantly to the quality of the work I’ve been able to do. Nonetheless, Ahrens convinces me that I have left a lot of value on the table. More importantly, he makes the case that I can recover and extract much of that value with a change of perspective and some manageable adjustments in my practices and workflow. I don’t need a wholesale reengineering of my systems or infrastructure and I don’t face a massive conversion of previous work. I do face adjustments and the usual discomfort of building new habits, but on a clearly manageable scale and timeframe.

Notes as first class knowledge assets

The first aha moment is the notion of thinking of some notes at least as a permanent and evolving knowledge asset. Ahrens argues that there are three categories of notes:

1.   Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

2.   Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

3.   Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

The first and third categories have been a part of my work practices for as long as I can remember. It is this middle category and the approach to building and maintaining it that I find intriguing and promising. It promises a solution to some enduring frustrations. Those frustrations may not be evidence of limits imposed by my ADD or fundamental moral failures. Instead, they result from some missing ideas and practices those ideas enable.

During my doctoral student days and consulting years I kept chronological notebooks as part of my work practices. I did that based on the advice and example of Jerry Pournelle and Jerry Weinberg, both of whom turned out prodigious amounts of quality work and were gracious in reflecting on and sharing elements of their work practices. As computing technology became personal and portable, I began to do much of my note taking and writing development at the keyboard. As part of that practice, I used WordPress to create a blog as a commonplace book on my local computer. These notebooks and their digital equivalents have been useful enough that they have remained components in my current work.

A corpus of notes is its own knowledge asset

If the notion of a permanent note is the first aha moment, the second is to view the growing body of notes as a separate knowledge asset. Until now, specific projects have provided my primary organizing structure. Blogging is a step in the  direction of a prospective knowledge asset, but only partially so. Blogging is a kind of ongoing project whose outputs I have thought of and treated as final deliverables.

I’ve struggled with what to do with ideas that are still “cooking” and don’t yet have an obvious home. I’ve used various tools with varying levels of success but tools don’t dictate good practices or how best to use raw materials.

Maybe I missed school that day, but I never encountered good examples of how the leap from random ideas to finished product might work better. Way back in the day, people talked about index cards and cutting manuscripts into little pieces to be rearranged. Never made sense to me. Later, text editors and word processors made the mechanics of writing easier. I became and remain a fan of outliners and mindmapping tools but they didn’t offer guidance about how to think about the contents they contained.

What I lacked was a good data model. One of my advisors in my doctoral days talked about journal articles as “bricks” in the wall of knowledge. I never got what went into making a brick much less where it went on the wall. Ahrens concept of a permanent note is derived from the  paper-based system of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann he labeled a Zettelkasten. Luhmann developed an interesting system for maintaining and working with his ever-expanding corpus of notes. There is, of course, a thriving Internet sub-culture devoted to divining the whys and wherefores of this strategy and adapting it to a technological world–it’s easy to see how a Zettelkasten maps naturally into a world of hypertext.

The risk to avoid is the tempting rabbit-hole of experimenting with new tools and debating the arcana of indexing and branching strategies. Seeing a note as a permanent and fundamental knowledge “particle” is the aha moment. It’s certainly a more fine-grained level that now exists in its own right. These notes are not a temporary container that is only useful until the final product is finished. A collection of permanent notes becomes a thinking tool to work out and develop new thoughts and lines of thought.

As such, notes can’t simply be pointers back to a piece of secondary research or the barest sketch of an argument to be fleshed out in the draft of a larger deliverable. Permanent notes “are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.”

If I still kept physical books, this one would already be dog-eared. Instead, I’m developing and exercising new skills for extracting the thoughts from this container and using them to expand my own thinking. Right now, I’m clumsy and unskilled but I can see how to get better.

Connecting the dots encourages bad thinking

Connecting the dots is one of those common metaphors that we don’t think about very much. When we do invoke it, however, it leads us astray more often than it helps.

The premise is that the elementary school activity of revealing a hidden picture by drawing lines from one numbered dot to the next teaches us something transferable about problem solving. The pleasure of reading mysteries and detective stories flows reinforces the same message. There are a series of clues lying about waiting to be found; rearrange and connect them in the right order to reveal the culprit or foil the terrorist.

When the bad guys succeed, we criticize the good guys because they failed to arrange the obvious dots into the now obvious order. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but that obscures a more important critique of the method and its premises.

Connecting the dots makes one of two assumptions about the end of the process. Either, there is a picture to be perceived when the dots are connected in the right sequence. Or, there is an answer to the story or riddle when the facts are arranged in order. Both of these assumptions lead us wrong in the real world. First, they presume a single, correct, answer; this works for puzzles and simple problems in math, nowhere else. Second, they presume a single, correct, ordering of the dots.

At best, which isn’t very good, connecting the dots is a label for retrospective sense-making masquerading as a problem-solving strategy. Possibly useful if your goal is to divert blame. Useless as a thinking strategy.

Managing personal learning in a VUCA world

man hiking in forestSpinning a new consulting firm out of older, bigger, ones is a common story—no different from the founding of a new religious sect in a schism with the past. A charismatic leader and a few faithful followers declare a new revelation and start preaching from a new street corner.

When we started Diamond we all had experience in large professional service firms.  We were driven by things we didn’t like and wanted to fix and by opportunities we saw being ignored. We were less aware of the unique issues connected with being small and vulnerable.

Coming from big firms, we knew that training and knowledge management were important capabilities. As the only person who seemed marginally qualified, I was handed both problems and the hats of Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer. I had no staff and only the promise of a budget.

We lumped these two functions out of the reality of limited resources. In the organizations we had come from and knew, these functions were distinct. They demanded lots of resources and had grown from different origins and histories.

The decision rooted in our constraints generated insights that have become more relevant over the past twenty plus years. I want to start with the individual consultant—one of the prototypical knowledge workers that drive today’s organizations.

Alvin Toffler predicted that successful knowledge workers would be those who could “learn, unlearn, and relearn.” We live in the world he predicted. What we need to know as knowledge workers continues to grow at the same time that the half-life of our knowledge base continues to shrink.

The reality of this environment means that as a knowledge worker, you can’t count on organizations to be responsive enough to support your learning needs. They face the same problem you do and their problem is magnified by issues of scale.

Conventional strategies for learning break down. You can’t keep going back to school. You can’t afford the time and schools are as slow or slower to adapt their curricula to morphing demands as the organizations you inhabit.

Old avenues for learning in smaller, more up-to-date, chunks still exist and new avenues are appearing. If anything, the proliferation of options—YouTube, Udemy, EdX, Coursera, Khan Academy, workshops, seminars, webinars, ebooks—threatens overload more than relief.

What’s a reasonable path forward? I think it includes an explicit and dynamic personal learning plan coupled with a coherent set of supporting learning processes and practices. A learning plan should build on understanding how learning works, a view of your base of knowledge, and expectations of what skills and knowledge need developing.

Learning processes and practices provide the scaffolding and support structures that would otherwise be provided by the formal schooling environments that aren’t available. They will likely include:

  • reflective practice
  • cohort of co-learners
  • journals/journaling practice
  • reference management system
  • systematic note taking and management

What you might correctly infer from this is that I am actively engaged in updating and formalizing my own plans and practices. I’m curious who else finds this a journey they might like to join?

Review: Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness

cover photo -Curse of BignessThe Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. Tim Wu

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School, probably best known for coining the term “network neutrality.” In The Curse of Bigness, Wu turns his attention toward the growth, concentration,  and accumulating power of a handful of global corporations. He makes an argument that this growth is not an unalloyed good, that market forces by themselves are insufficient to counter the negative consequences of amassing power, and that current government policy is aggravating these consequences rather than ameliorating them.

Wu’s approach is to revisit an earlier era of rapid growth and power accumulation in the U.S.—the Gilded Age at the beginning of the 20th century. That era and its excesses provoked a compensating government response in the form of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the policy decisions on how to interpret and enforce it. Wu is no fan of the Chicago School’s legal or economic reasoning. Here’s one example that captures Wu’s point of view and demonstrates his skill with language to boot;

Jumping from theory to reality in a novel way, the Chicago School then asserted that that which did not exist in theory probably did not exist in practice. Robbing banks is economically irrational, given security guards and meager returns; ergo bank robbing does not happen; ergo there is no need for the criminal law. Exaggerated only slightly, this premise has been at the core of Bork-Chicago antitrust for more than thirty years

Income inequality and increasing concentration of wealth has been a topic of much debate. The Curse of Bigness offers a brief and compelling argument that these results are not an outcome of natural law but of decisions about how and whether to enforce actual laws. I wish that he had some more reassuring thoughts about whether our current political processes can bring about that change in perspective, but this is worth your time regardless.

Strategic Improv

Tomorrow’s healthy organizations must make innovation routine. That’s a natural consequence of organizations becoming increasingly knowledge intensive while the half-life of knowledge also continues to shrink.

Routine innovation requires a shift from scripted responses to widely distributed improv capacity.

At first glance this is a straight reversal of organizational best practice. Organizations succeeded and scaled by transforming craft into standard operating procedure. The logic of the industrial revolution was anchored in scripting and standardization. We programmed technology and people to produce products and services at scale. We programmed people when the technology was too expensive or insufficiently flexible. As the technology evolved, we dispensed with the people whose work was now programmable.

Over time, this increases the proportion of people in organizations whose work is to do the design and programming; the script writers flourish until there are no more scripts to write. Concerns about AI and robotics boil down to script writers—programmers, analysts, data scientists, advertising creatives, etc—anxiety over whether or when they will write their final script.

What happens when the audience—or the market—demands performances faster than the scripts can be written and produced? There are three answers. The first is to speed up the writing and producing of scripts. The second is to settle for lower quality scripts. The third is to learn how to work without a script—to improvise.

The first approach seems to be business as usual for most organizations, the second, sadly, is appearing more and more frequently. It is the third which most interests me.

There’s a classic piece of career advice offered to those starting out, “fake it until you make it.” This is advice rooted in a scripted world where experts are thought to be those with the most robust collection of scripts. I think a more relevant view of expertise comes from a definition offered by Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, “an expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

From this perspective, an expert is someone who knows how to improvise safely in new situations.

If you grant this as a working definition of an expert, then experts are not those with the largest collection of memorized scripts. Beyond the scripts they have accumulated, they have learned a meta-skill. Beyond a deep understanding of multiple scripts, experts understand the structure and components of scripts so well that they can invent a new script in the moment in response to particular situations and moments. In short, they can improvise.

One of the mistakes that brought me around to this line of thought happened during a visit with a highly desired prospective client. We had gotten an introduction to this Fortune 500 organization through an academic colleague. Cracking open this account could keep multiple teams busy for years; we brought three partners and our CEO to the meeting.

After introductions and some talk about our general qualifications, one of the prospective client executives laid out a problem they were wrestling with. We pulled out our solving a strategic problem script and started working the problem in the meeting. Actually, a pretty solid way to showcase our expertise.

But, we were in script mode. The script runs all the way to an answer to the problem, which our CEO divined and promptly shared. We launched into a soliloquy when being fully in the improvisational moment would have led us back to a dialogue about the relationship we both desired not the transaction in the moment.

We never did any work with that client. We learned an immediate lesson about script selection. I’m still teasing out the implications of taking an improv point of view. I believe that the improv perspective is more suited to the mix of problems we now face. I believe that perspective is learnable. I suspect that it is not teachable but may be coachable.

Learning to sail

biremeIf we’re lucky we connect with good mentors during our careers. I first worked with Mel in the late 1970s. Our paths intertwined over the years; I moved from Boston to Chicago to become one of his partners in the consulting firm we founded in 1994. He was CEO and holder of the central vision of what we became. I was Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer, which was a very grand title when we were 25 people; it became more representative as we grew to over a thousand in the next several years.

One of our points of disagreement crystallized on a drive home after another long day. His critique was that I cared too much about insight. As he put it, “95% of the people in most organizations are just pulling on the oars, they don’t need insight.” My response was to ask where did sails come from if everyone was pulling on the oars?

Mel was anchored in a classic individual contributor/hierarchical manager model of organization. Success depended on faithful execution of the scripts; managers monitored and controlled, contributors rowed. New ideas appeared infrequently and by magic; after careful vetting, new scripts were written, rehearsed, and deployed.

Organizations that survive and thrive do so because they are well-adapted to their environments. When environments evolve slowly, so can organizations.

Those environments don’t exist anymore. The current term of art is that today’s environments are VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, and Ambiguous. Yet the show must go on; the curtain rises each day and the audience awaits.

The usual response is to row faster. A new script is written—or found, quick rehearsals take place, and we hope the audience is tolerant of the cast and crew’s mistakes.

The better answer is to reorient to an improv mindset and learn how to act more responsively and in the moment. This demands more of everyone in the organization. No one can be content to simply learn their lines or wait to execute their cue.

In the old scripted world, you could set up the joke and plan the special effect. It is a place of grand vision broken down into tactical execution.

An improv, VUCA, world exists between those two poles. The grand vision must relate to the audience/market’s interests and responses in the moment. Tactical bits must be selected and sequenced to move in the general direction of the evolving vision.

This calls for performers who can straddle the divide and support crew who can assemble platforms, bridges, and illumination in real time. Developing skill and competence in this dynamic performance demands more capable performers and practices designed to be adaptable.

Dealing with the messy middle; accepting the wisdom of improv

A number of years back my thesis advisor retired and I made the trip to Boston to join in the celebration. One of the observations that has stuck with me was that the curtain was going up on Act 3 of my advisor’s career.

The reason it hit me was that I was being forced into a similar transition but not by choice. The metaphor of the curtain coming up on another act was a lot more empowering than the feeling of the curtain falling to end the performance. That helped me switch from licking my wounds to contemplating what to make of the next act.

Two things have become more clear as this act has unfolded. First, this act has called for me to step from the wings onto the stage. Not all the time, there is still work to be done from the wings, but I have to step into the light. Second, it turns out that there is no script for Act 3; Act 3 will be improv.

Now, the truth is that life is improv, but it can feel safe to pretend that there is a script. If you’ve been pretending there is a script, then making it up as you go feels like you must be cheating somehow.

There was a time when I ran the training function for Diamond Technology Partners, the consulting firm I co-founded with nine other partners and fifteen staff. When we had grown to several hundred professionals a few years later, one of our staff came to me with a proposal. Rik had been an actor before he became a consultant and convinced me that any consultant would be a better consultant with some basic improv training.

We ran the experiment with help from Second City in Chicago—a world class improv company. I joined in the initial sessions myself; much easier to evaluate an experiment from the inside than from the sidelines. It was a success but seen as a bit too threatening to the conventional wisdom by people with the power to say no. I was pushed out shortly after for other reasons and that is a story for another day.

But the improv perspective was a demarcation point in my thinking that only became clear in retrospect.

One of the mistakes that made me uncomfortable taking the stage was believing that you had to have your lines memorized to perform. I had learned one level of truth in the quest for expertise; experts were people with knowledge and answers. You wanted to find the person who wrote the book to get the best answers. If you wrote the book, then you’d better have the answers.

With two books written so far, you would think I would have also learned some deeper truths as well. But, having head and heart out of balance makes certain lessons slow to sink in. Thinking about the differences between scripted performance and improv was one of the elements in getting back to a more balanced place.

Among the fundamental principles of improv are the notions of accepting what is happening in front of you as the only meaningful starting point and of subordinating your personal agenda to letting the collaborative process play out.

What that translates into for my work is that the process is about exploring questions and digging into uncertainties not about starting with predetermined answers. That may seem trite and trivially obvious but honest inquiry is tremendously hard to do inside most organizations. The most powerful demonstration of true expertise is to be comfortable not knowing and trusting that the answers will appear after you’ve worked through the questions.

The essential part of that journey is working through the mess in the middle. There are powerful forces and temptations to rush through that stage. Developing and maintaining the strength to resist is a continuing demand.

Learning the obvious

This past weekend was Groundhog Day in the States—an odd custom that seeks to predict the arrival of Spring. It is also one of my favorite movies of the same name. In it Bill Murray repeats the events of the day countless times until he learns the lessons the universe has set for him. There have been times in my life when I’ve had lessons repeated until they sink in.

A divorce, several job/project failures linked to missed organizational clues, and a career change to avoid both a second divorce or more job failures mark the genesis of my deeper exploration of the organizational ecosystem.

My initial launch out of college appeared perfect and decidedly upwardly mobile. Married above my station, promoted rapidly, accepted into Harvard Business School. Followed by a spouse opting for a different path, confusion and erratic results in school, and a reentry into work that was a flattened trajectory at best. I might not have been drowning but I was barely treading water and did not understand why.

Reconnecting to the offstage side of the theater was the first stroke back to shore. I met and married my second wife, now of thirty five years, and sought to understand the causes of my other failures. Once again, I was observing from the wings while others performed but now I started thinking about observation and performance more broadly.

Actual stages and wings made the distinction easier to see. I began thinking about onstage and offstage behavior as something to look for elsewhere. Where others moved naturally and fluidly, I needed more explicit markers to guide which behavior was appropriate in which settings.

For example, I recall an internal project I was managing. I discovered a problem looming in the near future and went to my boss with suggestions on how to eliminate the problem while it was still tiny. I was puzzled when he tabled my proposal.

I was smarter now and asked him to share his reasoning. If we solved the problem my way, we would get no organizational credit for eliminating a problem that no one else had yet seen. On the other hand, if we waited to present a complete solution just as others were seeing the shape of the problem, we acquired organizational stature and credit we could draw on later.

There were intricacies and layers to moving within the organization that I hadn’t learned to see. I suppose most managers develop their ability to see these things through the accumulation of experience. I needed more help and more structure. I needed to do more than continue as an apprentice to someone with mastery of one organizational environment. I saw that I needed to acquire and develop craft intentionally. I needed to find masters and mentors who made the world of organizations their vocation.

On the surface, this looked like another round of schooling and credentialing. On a deeper level it was a search for a conservatory where I could develop new craft under the tutelage of masters who knew both the craft and how to extend and transfer that craft.

I did find that place and did ultimately acquire another credential. More importantly, I developed new craft and the capacity to extend and transfer that craft myself.

The Magic of Theatre

Girl sitting on a swing“Can we fly six of the chorus girls during the 2nd act opening number?”

Directors always have crazy ideas. That particular idea took a week of design work, rigging, and rehearsal to pull off. The one technical detail you need to know is that the key safety issue was properly balancing the rigs while the dancers got on and off the playground swings they were sitting on.

The rig was balanced for two dancers, one on either side of the stage. When they were both on the swings, a stage hand could raise them 15 feet in the air with one hand. Before getting off the swings, we had to replace their weight with sandbags clipped to the rigs offstage. That kept the system safely in balance. We had rehearsed the switch multiple times; it was a complex piece of offstage choreography in its own right involving nine stage hands and six dancers.

Opening night, the scene runs smoothly, the curtain comes down, and one of the dancers hops off her swing early before the sandbags have been clipped on. As her counterpart starts what is about to be a very rapid ascent into the rafters, I see Mark, the stagehand at the rail controlling the rig, reach up about two feet, grab the ropes, and use his bodyweight as a temporary counterweight. The sandbags were clipped on, dancer number 2 came safely back to the ground, and the show went on without interruption. My heart restarted several minutes later.

The audience saw none of this. The director delivered his moment of magic. The crew got a story to talk about at the cast party.

Most people seem content to simply enjoy the magic. I find the magic more compelling when I understand how it is made. Making magic takes work; the more you understand of the work, the better the magic you can make.

We live in a world that appears magical. But it has been built by designers and engineers and carpenters and stagehands. If you leave the magic to the experts you are bound by their imaginations. If you are prepared to come backstage and invest in learning something about how the magic is done, then you can become another collaborator in imagining and creating new magic.

Perspective

“Point of view is worth 80 IQ points” – Alan Kay

If you’ve interacted with me for more than a few minutes, there’s a good chance you’ve heard me quote Alan Kay. If not, it’s a pretty safe bet that you have no idea who Alan is, even though you are probably reading this on a device that can trace its roots back to Alan’s work.

Alan is a computer scientist who was one of the original members of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Both the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows are built on work that Alan did first. If you Google Alan be prepared for a long list of articles to read and videos to watch. It would also be time well spent.

I first learned of Alan’s work by way of a consulting project I did for Andersen Consulting while I was in graduate school. They were interested in whether they should take deeper interest in the ideas of object-oriented programming. Since Alan is generally regarded as the father of object-oriented programming I learned of his existence. That work led to a working relationship between Accenture and Alan and I went on with my studies.

Jump forward about ten years. I’m moving to Chicago to join Diamond, a new consulting firm that I am founding along with former colleagues from Andersen. Diamond’s CEO, Mel Bergstein, was my client at Andersen and cut the deal with Alan based, in part, on my earlier work. Mel asked Alan to serve on Diamond’s Board.

I got to transform my arms length knowledge of Alan into a working relationship. Alan worked with us in client settings and internally. I invited Alan to talk to our consultants in various workshops and I got to watch Alan interact in multiple client settings. I went from professional admirer to full-on fanboy.

Alan is a polymath and has a collection of awards that constitute a resume in their own right. On paper, he is the definition of “scary smart.” In person, he is not immediately intimidating. Watching him think on his feet, however, is a master class in focused inquiry.  He’s also, first and foremost, an engineer more interested in how to make something work than anything else.

That pragmatic focus drives Alan to the middle space that bridges the gap between blue sky concept and picayune detail. Moreover, his engineering point of view values solving problems so that they stay solved. This is not always the perspective you encounter with managers and executives; they are often under pressures that favor things that look like rather than are solutions. Watching Alan think provides lessons in managing and manipulating points of view to gain extra IQ points and discover answers that are both practical and enduring.