Learning framework for solving problems/capturing opportunities

Edit: after writing this post I came across a Kwik Brain podcast episode featuring Tim Larkin on learning faster by slowing down that also divides learning into 3 stages.

Crawl: foundational phase, Walk: increase velocity, Run: full speed.

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1 – The simple stage requires the most guidance from experts to perform diagnostic tests and share insights on problems, what’s important to focus on, inspiration, fundamental skills and problem-solving prerequisites. An analogy is attaining fitness required to do a dance then learning one dance move then choreography to one song.

Questions at this stage include:

  • What problem are you currently best suited to solve?/What opportunity are you best suited to capture? (Focus is essential because some activities require your 100% capacity and creativity to perform at a satisfactory base level. Once decided on a problem, the initial stages need the most laser focus to learn fundamentals before your progress is transferable.)
  • Who are experts relevant to this problem/opportunity? (People focused on specific fields of study, in industry, affected by the problem e.t.c.)
  • What’s the best way to learn from the experts? (Books, interviews, online or in-person courses, apprenticeships e.t.c.)
  • What are the fundamental prerequisites required to solve this problem? (Vocabulary, procedures, resources e.t.c.)
  • How can you make the most of what you have then multiply it? (Location, relationships, skills, finances, health e.t.c.)

2 – The complicated stage requires an increase in collaboration with peers who would work well together and have a firm grasp of fundamentals. Having a firm grasp of fundamentals helps with speed, for example, avoiding misconceptions, quickly resolving them if they arise, and higher comprehension making the learning process faster. Peers are sometimes like pacemakers in the middle to long-distance running events. If they have the required running ability and work well with other athletes, then world records are set. But if they don’t, then its best they aren’t pacemakers. Working together works best in win-win games where the agents have the trust and incentives required for victory. Experts and peers help with perspective to i) avoid unnecessarily reinventing the wheel and ii) realize when there has been a change in conditions that enable and require innovations to emerge. An analogy is dance improvisation, where you know your dance partner, the music, or both.

Questions at this stage include:

  • What are trends relevant to this problem? (Relevant trends include trends in susceptibility, funding, expression, interaction e.t.c.)
  • What works well, and in what context? 
  • What isn’t done, and why? (Limits resulting from social, technical and other factors e.g. laws of thermodynamics, laws of motion, ecological thresholds, homeostasis, habits, de facto standards, resources, risk, misconceptions, market conditions, timing, it isn’t done because it doesn’t work well e.t.c.)

3 – The complex and 4- The chaotic stage is where the magic happens and involves the most experimentation with a focus on tacit knowledge with convexity to develop heuristics, practical tricks, and erudition. Science is more art than science here. An analogy is dance improvisation with a new dance partner to new music.

Questions at this stage include:

  • What did we do well?
  • What would we do better?

Diffused mode and Focussed mode

The stages above don’t always follow a step by step sequence or have hard boundaries because we alternate between different methods of thinking to solve problems. Diffused mode thinking goes wide, seeking a breath of learning and making new connections. If you’re starting with a new challenge or one you don’t understand yet, then diffused is the way to go. Focussed mode thinking goes deep, with emphasis placed on the depth of learning and concentration. When you have a path on how to solve a problem, go focussed for the win.

Diffused mode works best with beginners and in the complex to the chaotic stages. An expert may share insights on complicated to chaotic problems to a beginner. Having a beginner’s mindset is essential for experts. While experts are in the complex to the chaotic stages, they may still explore questions a beginner would ask.

Focussed mode is great in the simple to complicated stages after developing fundamentals. Problems here are broken down into smaller parts to solve using fundamentals (diffused mode thinking is sometimes required to find the right way of breaking down the problem, solving the parts, then putting the solved pieces back together).

APPENDIX:

Requirements vs Methods Matrix

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Competencies Proficiency Scale

1 – Fundamental Awareness (basic knowledge)

You have a standard understanding of basic techniques and concepts.

2 – Novice (limited experience)

You have the level of experience gained in a classroom and experimental scenarios or as a trainee on-the-job. You are expected to need help when performing this skill.

3 – Intermediate (practical application)

You can complete tasks in this competency, as requested. Guidance from an expert may be required from time to time, but you can usually perform the skill independently.

4 – Advanced (applied theory)

You can complete the actions associated with this skill without assistance. Recognition within your immediate organization as “a person to ask” when difficult questions arise regarding this skill.

5 – Expert (recognized authority)

You are known as an expert in this area. You can provide guidance, troubleshoot, and answer questions related to this area of expertise and in fields using the skill.

Reference: National Institutes of Health Competencies Proficiency Scale

Depth of knowledge

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Reference: Teaching Complex Topics – Karin Hutchinson

Learning cycle

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Reference: ALU Learning model

Ownership, Possession, and Control

The book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build The Future by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters highlights three functions that influence alignment in a startup.

Three functions:

  • Ownership: who legally owns a company’s equity?
  • Possession: who runs the company on a day-to-day basis?
  • Control: who formally governs the company’s affairs?

Distributing the functions:

Usually, the division of the tasks is as follows. Ownership to founders, employees, and investors. Possession to managers and employees. Control to the board of directors (made up of founders and investors).

In theory, there is a harmony created by the division of the functions among the team. The financial gain of part ownership attracts and rewards investors and workers. Possession increases the ability to get stuff done, and that motivates and empowers founders and employees. Control from the board places managers’ plans in a broader view.

Challenges:

While the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a trade-off created by many diverse parts is the increased risk of misalignment. An example of misalignment is a principal-agent problem where the agent has personal interest/intentions different than that of the principal and acts to maximize their interests to the detriment of the principal.

Gains from working together outweigh the risk of misalignment if the partnership results in an antifragile entity. An antifragile entity i) comprises of sub-entities, where ii) the sub-entities can break in a distributed fashion (this results in the entire system not breaking if some sub-entities break), and iii) the entity can regrow the broken entities.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and this Twitter thread by Luca Dellanna are some resources that cover the concept of Antifragility.

Market Types

“Rule No.7: Agree on Market Type. It Changes Everything.” (The Startup Owners Manual)

The Startup Owners Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide For Building A Great Company by Bob Dorf and Steve Blank is an insightful book below is a summary of Rule No.7.

Product/Market relationships:

  • Bringing a new product into an existing market
  • Bringing a new product into a new market
  • Resegmenting a market as a:
    • Low-cost entrant
    • Niche entrant
  • Cloning a business model that’s successful in another country

Questions for existing markets:

Does your product or service improve on a customer-defined attribute (faster, cheaper, better e.t.c.)?

How do the features of your product or service compare with competitors?

Questions for new markets:

Does a large enough customer base exist, and can they be persuaded to buy the new product or service?

* Don’t spend on sales and marketing funds yet.

Questions for resegmenting an existing market:

Low-cost re-segmentation

Are there customers at the low end of an existing market who will buy “good enough” performance at a sustainability lower price?

Niche re-segmentation

Would a segment of an existing market buy a new product designed to address more specific needs?

* Check out Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim for more information on re-segmentation.

Questions for cloning an existing business model:

Has an existing business been proven in location A but not yet adopted in location B, that has a large local market, due to its unique domestic setting (language, culture e.t.c.)?

Starting or Stopping?

We need to start so that we can gain the momentum to win. But starting is the hardest part. Starting is more than pressing start to play a game. Starting is more than taking your first step in a journey of a thousand steps.

The first step is hard and necessary, like static friction, where it’s harder to move an object at rest than it is to move an object that is moving.

However, the first step isn’t everything like the Chinese baobab and farmer story where the farmer had to take care of the baobab daily with it barely growing for five years. Then it shot up fast after the 5th year.

We need to start accelerating to go faster and build the momentum to push through obstacles that try to slow us down. We need to start changing directions to get to our destination when the path we’re currently taking isn’t the best one. We need to start taking each step after the first step in the journey of a thousand steps; then begin the next adventure. We need to start getting up when we fall.

If we’re not starting to start, we’re beginning to stop. If we’re not starting, we’ve finished. An analogy is how to cook a frog story where a frog is in water that gradually increases in temperature. The frog doesn’t notice until it has been boiled. However, if the frog is placed directly in boiling water, it notices and jumps out. We need to see and act on what’s happening to us, especially the small changes over time.

Did you come this far only to come this far? Will you only start to try to pull it off or will you pull it off? In the end, the choice is yours.

There is always an opportunity to get better. Plateaus are opportunities to get to the next level. Once you achieve a goal set the next one and work towards it. We’re either climbing or falling. We need to overcome the inertia that prevents positive progress.

Action steps:

i) Have goals (SMART goals) and work towards them in the short run (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, five years) to keep moving forward.

ii) Have an awareness of your progress towards the goals and the impact this may have in the long run.

iii) Based on your goals and development, adjust (improve systems, processes, e.t.c.) to get better.

Action & Identity

When choosing, it’s not about action. It’s about identity.

The impact of a decision on our future identity is a more significant guide in decision making than the effect of the decision on our planned activities. The prioritization of the impact on our future identities is because a character is long run and informs short-run actions.

There are many actions we can take, not all of them positive, thinking about identity reduces the number of activities to the ones positive for a character.

The argument isn’t we should spend all of our time thinking about identity and not living in the present at all. 20% on character and 80% on the action is the right mix. Choosing to learn from the short-run can help inform the long run. To change your results (activity), you need to change who you are (character). You change who you are through actions. Starting with who you are changing to helps you choose the actions that will improve who you are.

Action step:
i) Write a to be list before a to-do list. Why are you doing all those actions? Start with why. Start with what is essential.

Appendix:

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Identity is represented by blue, to represent water from sources such as rain (that contributes to groundwater). Action is represented by green, to represent life such as trees. In space, exploration, water is a popular proxy for life. Water (e.g. rain) influences life (e.g. trees) and trees (action) influence rain (identity).