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Leverage analogies

Using analogies can help you approach new, unfamiliar problems creatively, but they can also be constraining. To sidestep this limitation, understand your assumptions and look for alternative analogies.

Analogies can help you approach unfamiliar problems

Facing an unfamiliar problem, using an analogy (or its close cousin, the metaphor) can help you make progress. For instance, consider the obesity problem and society’s inability to cure it. Yale’s David Katz has recently suggested to treat health as wealth and obesity as drowning. This helps open the door to health management (we don’t spend our entire wealth in one go, neither should we destroy our health capital) and a different approach to managing obesity, not as a disease that needs to be treated but as something that requires prevention.

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Improve your thinking by mapping it

On January 8 1989, British Midland Airways Boeing 737 was cruising at 28,000 ft when a strong vibration shook the plane. Fumes and a burned smell led the crew to believe that one of the engines was malfunctioning. When they throttled back the right engine, the vibration stopped, so they concluded that the right engine was the problem and they shut it off.

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Diagnose before looking for solutions

Before actively looking for solutions, you should ensure that you understand the problem and its root causes. That is, diagnose before prescribing. Our four-step process makes this explicit—and it makes implicit sense to do so, too—and yet, we constantly fail to do so.

Consider British Midland Airways Boeing 737. On January 8 1989, it was cruising at 28,000 ft when the flight crew sensed a strong vibration. Fumes and a burned smell led them to believe that one of the engines was malfunctioning. When the captain throttled back the right engine, the vibration stopped, which led the crew to believe that the right engine was the problem. So they turned it off.

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Use an assertion-evidence structure in your slides

Many PowerPoint presentations are dreadful. But that doesn’t mean that yours have to be. Capturing ideas in the taglines of slides can go a long way towards improving the quality of your presentations.

Yale’s Edward Tufte, a preeminent specialist in data visualization, vehemently criticized PowerPoint presentations, noting that it “promotes a cognitive style that disrupts and trivializes evidence” (Tufte, 2003). From experience, thinking about the dozens of presentations I sat in over the past few months, I agree that most weren’t optimally visually supporting the presenter’s point. Yet, that doesn’t mean we are doomed.

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Manage your confirmation bias

Confirmation bias—seeking and interpreting evidence partially so as to support one’s beliefs—is so destructive that it can render your analysis useless. And chances are, you are a victim of it.

Raymond Nickerson, a psychology professor at Tufts University, found evidence of confirmation bias in a number of disciplines. (His 1998 paper published in the Review of General Psychology is both enlightening and sobering: citing hundreds of sources, he makes a compelling argument that confirmation bias is everywhere.)

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