Rhizomatic and Nomadic Learning

Two analogies for understanding the non-linear nature of strategic thinking


People often try to force strategy into linear plans, process, and artifacts because they desire concreteness and simplicity. That forcing seldom leads to good strategy.

These two analogies offer promise as ways to help you learn to be a better strategic thinker. They will help you grasp the essential complexity and ambiguity that is inherent to strategic thinking.

The Rhizome Analogy

A few summers ago I spent many hours removing pretty-leafed invasive ivy from a flowerbed. I would dig out a shovelful of earth and carefully pick out any trace of its root system, because a small segment of root would re-sprout. Botanists call this kind of root system a called rhizome. Rhizomes are characterized by root systems that explore, connect and reconnect, and establish new shoots.

The analogy of a rhizome is relevant to learning and practicing strategic thinking. The similarities include:

  • It is about making connections. With a holistic point of view, you can make the case that there is a multiplicity: everything is connected to everything. Similarly, every person is connected to every person. What would happen if we connected a group of competent strategic thinkers?
  • It is distributed. You can start your discovery anywhere. You can follow the thread, and end up knowing more. Yet, there will always be individuals who have a different and deeper knowledge, simply because they’ve spend more time on a different path.
  • A “rupture” line will emerge with a new shoot. If you make a digression or get interrupted, you will probably follow a different direction for your line of thought. Strategic thinking is inherently non-linear just like a rhizome. You can travel along a segment of a rhizome (such as reading a story) but inevitably some interesting point or curiosity or connection will take you in a different direction.

The rhizome analogy fits the non-linear nature of strategic thinking. Instead of an idealized and rational body of knowledge, it is better to see it as a subjective, growing, recursive, tangled, and sprouting structure.  The following graphic should help you visualize the strategic thinking rhizome.

rhizome strategic thinking

The Nomad Analogy

This metaphor refers to the individuals and small groups who are constantly moving.  Indeed, walk through any airport or coffee shop and you’ll see hundreds of people learning and contributing to work. Nomads are constantly alert to opportunity, improvising and adapting current resources.  The nomadic lifestyle is one of curiosity, networking, and sharing.

A nomad has a basic task of accomplishing work. They seek resources, knowledge when and where they can find it and rely on others.

Three Lessons

Here are three lessons that will help you be better at non-linear learning and contribute to your proficiency as a strategic thinker:

  • Pick and follow a thread for a while. See each little chunk of knowledge as something that connects to others. Don’t worry about complete, logical structures. Things will make sense, little by little.
  • Look for connections. Be ready to see the points of intersection, overlaps, convergences, and new sprouts of insight. Strive to incorporate abstract principles, models, and definitions with your own experience. Be alert for opportunities. Don’t worry about strategic thinking being a tangled mess.
  • Be an active learner. Take responsibility for your own learning. Ask questions. Don’t assume there is a nearby expert, nor that expert is correct.

References and Resources:

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (2002). A Thousand Plateaus Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

https://davecormier.pressbooks.com/chapter/learning-in-a-time-of-abundance/

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/making-sense-of-the-rhizome-metaphor-for-teaching-and-learning/

http://blogs.ulethbridge.ca/teachingcentre/2014/03/17/understanding-the-basics-of-rhizomatic-learning/

Rhizomatic and nomadic learning are relevant to building competence in strategic thinking. Do you agree?

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The Shapes of the Future

Simple phase spaceToday’s business consultants, strategic planners, trend-spotters, and management experts sell predictions. They are satisfying a market need. But it’s not likely they are enhancing anyone’s strategic thinking.

Instead of point predictions, it’s better to consider the shapes of the future. Here, we can draw some lessons from the so-called new science of complexity. First, we need to see that there are simple systems (which can be predictively modeled) and complex ones (which are not predictable). The nearby graphics illustrate the difference between simple and complex systems.

The notion of shapes-of-the-future gives our strategic thinking some space for considering alternatives and gaining a richer understanding of context. It allows for ambiguity and exploration and opening up for exploration by a sharp-minded person.

The figure at the top of this article depicts the “phase space” for a pendulum swinging back and forth. It traces out a simple and predictable linear pattern of forces (e.g. gravity, momentum, and time). As you can see, the line models the back-and-forth pendulum by cycling up and down as time progresses. It’s not too difficult to predict the shape of this simple, linear system.

Complex phase spaceThe nearby figure illustrates the phase space for a complex system. Notice that there is a circular disc on one plane and it appears that the system is mostly in that region, However, is another disc arcing upward. Is that an emerging new shape? Complexity theorists tell us that system is converge towards a particular area of phase space, called a “strange attractor.”

Further, the initial starting conditions influence the shape. A slight variation in the initial conditions might lead to no change in the final results or could produce wildly different final results.

Compare the two figures and you should see the difference between the notions of point predictions and shapes of the future.

Organizations are complex systems and furthermore, organizations interact with the also-complex external environment. Complexity theory tells us that we can’t predict a point in complex systems but can only roughly estimate it to be in some general region.

Tips

The point for strategic thinking is that we don’t waste energy focusing on events and visions, but rather emphasize understanding the context that produces the events.

This example can help you exercise the shapes-of-the-future question: What are the shapes of the future that are influenced by your children’s or grandchildren’s choice of college (or not) and vocation? Each of their choices has the potential to powerfully influence the shape of their future: their income, their status, their family size. As any parent would recognize decisions that are made today have effects that will be felt in the future.

Consider using words like triangulate, encircle, and fractals to help you imagine regions.

When you hear someone making a prediction, listen to them with skepticism if you listen to them at all. Do you agree?

Gregs new book available now

Tips for a Strategic Thinking Lab Book

Lab book 3We can take a lesson from Christopher Columbus’ practice of recording notes, observations, and ideas in a personal journal. Biographer Eugene Lyons closely studied Columbus’ journals, concluding that,

“The notes reveal his struggle to measure, comprehend, and master the secrets of the earth.”

In 2014, I started the practice a daily strategic thinking lab book (I prefer the term lab book over journal simply because I was trained in the sciences and it seems a little more evidence based). Although I have not been diligent on making daily part, it has been a great tool in my struggle to measure, comprehend, and master the secrets of strategic thinking. I make notes of observations stemming from conversations or patterns.  I include reflections on my emerging theories and frameworks. I add to it notes from research.

Here are a few of the things I’ve noted in my lab book:

  • Interesting conversations and personal anecdotes that help me recall specific strategic issues and context.
  • People that I want to contact, or stay in contact with, that will help me in my strategic thinking journey.
  • Books that I would like to read. That’s served as a good reminder when I’m in a bookstore or online.
  • I can see that I’ve been struggling a long time to characterize operational thinking, which is the opposite of strategic thinking. I can tell you that the struggle is less now than when I started.  Similarly, I can see that I’ve had an evolution of my thinking about the nature of conceptual mapping.
  • Definitions of some new words that I’ve learned. (Consilience or corruscating anyone?)
  • For me, a breakthrough idea was that strategic thinking is a “macro capability” composed of microskills.  I found my first attempt to list those microskills.
  • I have insights on strategic thinking scattered throughout, and I need to delve deeper into the significance of those insightsLab Book 2.

Overall the book reminds me of the importance of perspective as a quality of strategic thinking. Perspective is defined as personality plus point of view. Because of the lab book, I have a much better understanding of my own strategic thinking perspective.

I’m positive that the lab book will become a powerful tool for your learning journey. What additional suggestions and questions might you have?

Lab Book 1

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Expectations Casting

 

Fly CastingForecasting and backcasting are common techniques for understanding the future. They have specific meanings. Forecasting is an extrapolation of current data into the future. When I identify a trend, I can choose to forecast that trend to continue. Back casting is the selection of a future  scenario and then identifying the variables that would be needed to bring about that future scenario. An example: I wonder if  a presently-strong company will fail in the future; I identify the premises and arguments that explain what would cause that failure.

Neither of those two concepts quite captured what I wanted to explain about strategic thinking, so I made up a new phrase, Expectations Casting. I’ll use the analogy of casting a fly fishing line to introduce it. In fly fishing, it is the weight of the line that provides the momentum that allows the fisherman to get his fly to the a target. A single cast is not feasible if the target is far off. The fisherman begins by feeding out a little line, and then swishes his rod slightly forward and then back, releasing a little bit of line to extend the distance of each cast. Eventually, the fly fisherman allows the line to fully extend and settle on the target.  It may take several iterations of backward and forward to reach the desired target.

Like a fly fisherman casting his line back and forth, expectations casting is an iterative cycling of looking retrospectively into the past, and then prospectively into the future. The back casts are reviews of your knowledge and memory, typically tied to a short passage of time. The forward casts involve the use of your imagination.

Like casting fly line, you start with a short manageable line, and feed it forward in a controlled way.

Suggestions for the practice of expectations casting

  • Start by making a short retrospective cast of 3 months into the past. Ask yourself, “What in the last 3 months has been interesting, exciting and significant?” Here is a variant that turned out to be very fruitful for me, What’s the most interesting idea I’ve found by participating in social media?” (The answer was finding data on showing that personnel recruiters regarded strategic thinking as a very difficult-to-find skill.)
  • I find it helpful to review the “lab book” that I keep for ideas. I make it a practice to write down interesting things and patterns.
  • I put them into categories. Here are some: career/business, family, personal finances, personal health, community, society.
  • Identify and ask powerful questions (the purpose is to stimulate insights). An example is, “What might happen in next three months?”
  • Which of your observations might qualify as a pocket of the future (POTF)? A POTF is a thing that is presently low in prevalence, but have the potential to increase in prevalence and the potential to be seen by our future selves as significant. We are especially concerned with those trends that would change in a non-linear fashion.
  • Record them in a lab book, and allow room for capturing strategic thinking reflections.
  • It is generally better to pick just one expectation. Relax and take a walk to mull over your speculations. What is the nature of a future opportunity with a given person, client, technology? Record your thoughts, especially if an insight occurs.
  • Repeat, with a longer iteration. Look back 6 months, and look forward 6 months. Then 9 months, then a year. Etc.

The purpose of the expectations casting is to generate a portfolio of educated guesses about the future. Part of the value is in the number of guesses, and part of the value is in the mental process of retrospection and prospection. As with most strategic thinking practices, it is essential to search for powerful questions and to budget time to record and reflect.

I find that I slip into a trap when making educated guesses. I’m basically an optimist, so I am biased to believe that markets will keep going up and that people will love my ideas. I have to put a little extra mental effort into making sure I’ve considered the non-optimistic scenario. Too, I find it’s easier to declare my wishes than my expectations. I need to discipline myself to say, “Here’s what I expect to happen, and here’s my probability estimate.”

Do you think that expectations casting can help you become a better strategic thinker?

Orient Your Strategic-Thinking Map

strategic thikning beaconAll students of strategic thinking occasionally feel just a little lost and frustrated. I imagine the topic of strategic thinking as a map – albeit a fuzzy and dynamic map – with salient landmarks that help you navigate through the subject. Even with the best of maps, you can find yourself wandering about when you’re in the field for the first time. Fortunately, with experience, the landmarks seem familiar and expected. The exploration seems more natural.

This article describes one “beacon” and two “cues” that will help you develop and improve your conceptual map of strategic thinking. By way of introduction, consider these three questions that apply to any orientation:

  • Where am I now?
  • Where should I be headed?
  • What other landmarks are relevant?

Where am I now? (Find Orientation Cues)

An orientation cue helps you locate your position on a larger field of concepts.

Too often, people look for “best practices” on the basis that the external environment is predictable and obvious (which it is not). Instead, a strategic thinker will be sensitive to nuance and relationships. I like Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. It takes as a starting point the idea of disorder and diagnosing whether you are in a simple system (causes and effects are obvious and linear), a complicated system (an expert is needed to analyze and design a solution), or a complex situation (the ultimate solution will emerge and each experts brings a distinctive view of the problem).

Pay attention to the current discourse; the conversations you are having with your colleagues as well as with your internal thought process. If the conversations are about productivity, quality, and efficiency, then you likely to be practicing operational (rather than strategic) thinking.

Where should I be headed? (Find Navigational Beacons)

A navigational beacon gives you a point to navigate towards. When you lose sight of a navigational beacon, you practice a kind of “dead reckoning” towards the beacon, making course corrections when you sight the beacon.

The two most useful beacons of strategic thinking are the future and success. By definition, strategic thinking is concerned with “success in the future.” Does your organization have a diagnosis of its strategic situation and policies for addressing that situation (these are essential elements of good strategy)? What threats and opportunities are present? How far into the future are you looking? What metrics are you using beyond basic financial measures?

What other landmarks are relevant? (Find Associative Cues)

An associative cue is an object or concept that contains useful navigational information. It helps you know what to do and what to think about next. In the past, I’ve written that insights are the secret sauce of strategy, so they are an example of an associative cue; when you have an insight, you should consider their use in the design of strategy.

Another tip for associative cues in the strategic thinking map is to stay attuned to the emotional tenor of the discussions: Are people feeling frustrated? Tired? These would be cues to approach the strategic situation with a fresh perspective.

Finally, the search for associative cues gives us a way to build the reflective competence essential for developing competence in strategic thinking. What patterns have you observed? Notice the number and nature of the questions that have been posed. If you are reflecting on the specifics of your situation, you’re not thinking strategically.

What other examples of beacons and cues might be found in a strategic thinking map?

Strategic Thinking Landmarks: Orienting Your Mental Map

StrategicThinkingLandmarks

If you are a regular reader, you are following me because you have accepted the invitation (and the challenge) of  a journey to become a competent strategic thinker. There is much to know, and it can feel a bit overwhelming, much like it would feel being immersed in a new culture.

The above graphic shows 19 strategic thinking landmarks. I consider them the salient landmarks of a mental map.  I encourage you to take select a handful and relate them to your own experience and study.  Too, you can relate them to other articles that I’ve written; such as last month’s article was on high-quality questions. I encourage you to return to that article and review the questions, which will reinforce other landmarks such as interestingness and salience of details. By examining that earlier article in a new light, you are practicing recursive learning.

Associative Cues

I’ve organized them (in the graphic) to show natural groupings. For example, open-mindedness and playfulness are both qualities of a person’s approach to and processing of a situation. As a mental map, as associative cue helps us to organize concepts that have relationships, thereby helping us to learn a new terrain. There are also two other ways that we can organize landmarks: orientation cues and navigational beacons.

Orientation Cues

When a landmark serves as an orientation cue, it helps the person know where they are on the map.  The above map started with seven landmarks, drawn from the introduction of my in-progress book. I started with the landmarks of imagination: I asked the reader to imagine him or herself in the future and asked the reader to imagine that the benefits were sufficient to make a commitment to learning. I used the analogy of visiting a new city, where the problem/opportunity was to learn about the city. I explained that the salience of things helped us to orient ourselves.  As part of the introduction, I mentioned that there are several limiting beliefs about strategy and about strategic thinking.

The remaining eleven landmarks arose through my exercise of analogous reasoning.

Navigational Beacons

Landmarks also give us a target to aim for. Three of the can’t-fail landmarks for encouraging your own strategic thinking are that of interestingness, high-quality questions and sensitivity to context.

(In this article, I assumed that the label on each of the landmarks are self descriptive. Feel free to comment below or contact me if you would like me to elaborate on the specifics.)

I encourage you to experiment with these landmarks and add your own.  Let me know how this helps you with your journey to becoming a competent strategic thinker.

Improving the Quality of Your #StrategicThinking Questions

what are good questionsOne of the most powerful tools in the strategic thinker’s toolbox is the ability to pose high-quality questions. A high-quality question is better than a good question.

Here is an example of a good question: What is going on here? Asking this question would certainly encourage a person to look a little deeper into the situation. It could be made a high-quality question by adding specificity. These are better questions:

  • What is interesting about what is going on here?
  • How are power relationships changing?
  • What relevant things are being overlooked by most people?
  • What are patterns in the evidence and what assumptions being made about those patterns?
  • What are the future implications of what we see today?

Good questions are conversation starters, but they don’t typically encourage answers that are specific to your context and to your ability to secure your fundamental interests. Above, I made a good question better by adding some of the specifics of strategy: interestingness, power, overlooking things, patterns, and future implications.

Here is another example: A good question is to ask about strengths and weaknesses.  A better question (and one of my favorites) is, What could your competitor do to put you out of business? A high-quality questions points you towards insights that are specific and meaningful to your organization.

Good questions are conversation starters, whereas high-quality questions require and provoke deeper thought. Do you agree?