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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

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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Conduct the right analysis

Having identified a set of hypotheses you need to test them. To do so, you need to conduct tests that can help you rule out some of the hypotheses. Sounds obvious, right?

Conduct the right analysis: easier said than done

Unfortunately, conducting the right analysis is not always (or perhaps even hardly ever) our preferred way of proceeding. In a classic article published in 1964 in Science, John Platt made the case that Pasteur was able to have a prolific career in a number of unrelated fields because he was particularly good at asking the right questions and conducting the right analysis to test his hypotheses. Pasteur shined because his competitors weren’t as skilled.

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