October 29, 2014

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.

However, the left engine was the malfunctioning one; the reduction of vibration was only coincidental, something that the crew failed to notice. The left engine eventually failed completely during their final approach, and the plane crashed with neither engine running, killing over 40 passengers.

Dealing with complex problems, we face blurry situations where it’s unclear what the problem is, what potential answers are, and how items of evidence fit in. In fact, evidence is often compatible with several hypotheses, which may make it easy to reach the wrong conclusion. One way to regain some control is to fully disclose your thinking; mapping it can help you do so.

To improve your thinking, graphically disclose it, entirely

When discussing the scientific method, Gauch argues that we should expose our entire thinking. In his words: “at most, a scientific argument may be correct; at least, it should be fully disclosed. Full disclosure is the first and minimal requirement for clear scientific reasoning.” (Gauch, 2003)

Mapping your thinking can help you fully disclose your thinking—to others and to yourself. Twardy has shown that mapping can help us improve significantly our critical thinking (Twardy, 2010)

On that fateful day, the crew’s thinking went something like this:

It is common to only consider consciously part of our argument.

It is common to consciously consider only part of our argument.

However, there is a second part to that reason that isn’t apparent. A hint that the thinking is not fully disclosed is that reasons always have at least two distinct claims (for an excellent primer on how to map arguments, see Austhink’s tutorial) while this one only has one. Fully disclosed, the argument might look like this:

Argument mapping may help us understand our thinking in full, thereby helping us identify potential weaknesses

Argument mapping / hypothesis mapping may help us understand our thinking in full, thereby helping us identify potential weaknesses.

Making that second claim visible can go a long way towards understanding your thinking and identifying the evidence needed to test it. Making all parts of your thinking apparent allows you to consciously evaluate what you take for granted and decide if your assumptions are appropriate. To test the claim that the stopping of the vibrations might have been coincidental, perhaps the crew might have checked the indicators of the left engine to ensure that all vital functions were normal. Or perhaps they could have powered the right engine back up and observed if the vibrations returned.

Of course in crises, when time is short, it is not practical to map our thinking and no-one would have expected the Midland flight crew to do it in real time. But many of the problems we face—including our organizations’ big strategic problems—can accommodate the time for us to fully expose it and question our thinking. For those, mapping may be a powerful tool to improve your decision making.



Austhink, Argument mapping tutorials

Gauch, H. G. (2003). Scientific method in practice, Cambridge University Press. [p. 131]

Twardy, C. (2010). “Argument maps improve critical thinking.” Teaching Philosophy 27(2): 95-116.

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