Talent #1: Crystallizing Models

First, Break All the Rules says that great managers define talents as “recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be put to productive use.”

In general, I feel compelled to study a new system (organism, machine, business, economy, situation, even person) until it “makes sense.” A model for how it operates crystallizes in my mind. When the model is new or unexpected, or when a new aspect of an existing model becomes apparent, then this process of crystallization is immensely satisfying, deeply inspiring, and enjoyable. The blood seems to rush to my head, and my neck prickles. At its most intense, it is what I would consider a “religious experience,” though I don’t believe it to be supernatural. When a model crystallizes, it is a transcendent experience for me, a glimpse into the world of abstract Platonic ideals.

As a child, I frequently took apart toys and appliances and derived joy from discovering clever designs. I feel that my entire undergraduate career was devoted to learning how computers work. My graduate-school interest in AI, and my childhood interest in brain function was due to curiosity about how the mind works. My lifelong interest in physics and biology has been due to curiosity about how the universe works and how organic life works. My analysis of stocks for purchase and sale is animated by a desire to understand how different businesses operate and sustain themselves.

To me, writings and computer programs are models of a system. The pleasure of writing and programming lies in the process of crystallizing models that function as desired and meet design criteria. I experience psychological flow when I write prose or programs.

Achieving this kind of understanding is inherently rewarding to me, but it can also “be put to productive use.” The model frequently suggests actions that make sense for me to take. Because worry is generally caused by feelings of helplessness about an uncertain situation, the model eases worry and stress. Occasionally, possession of the model imparts a feeling of control, advantage, or power. Most importantly, when a person annoys or angers me, a model of the situation raises my tolerance level. It lets me find compassion in an understanding of the forces the person is operating under. Indeed, I now know that when my immediate reaction is, “What an idiot!” then my model of the person or the situation is incorrect or incomplete.

Though the process of crystallization may be a source of intense joy, I understand that the model itself can be corrupted by my own biases, ignorance, or misunderstanding of specific details. Often, I seek a model for a specific insight, or to suggest an action, but the model that crystallizes may be unsuited for this purpose. Therefore, it is important to test the model, refine it, encourage others to critique it, and be willing to abandon it or replace it. (In short, I believe in treating the model as a hypothesis in the scientific method.)

When the model of a business suggests it is undervalued by the stock market, purchasing shares in the company is a way to test the model, literally putting my money where my mouth (model) is. Computer programs can be tested by running them or their components under a variety of conditions. Writings can be tested by trying to read them from the perspectives of various people. With frequent testing and refinement, elegant writings or computer programs can be written. Specific methods of refinement have been codified in books like Refactoring, and The Elements of Style.

Although I speak of “elegant” and “refined” systems, I am not quick to make value judgments about a system. A system may operate effectively, achieving a desired purpose simply, rapidly and efficiently. It may also be dysfunctional, achieving an undesirable purpose. It may appear to be non-functional, but succeed in occupying valuable space or attention by its very existence. I understand that value judgments about a system can only be made in the context of the purpose it was constructed for, the constraints it was constructed under, and the environment it must operate in. Furthermore, as time passes, there may be a desire to extend the value of the system by repurposing it, constraints may become relaxed, and the environment usually changes. Hence, the construction of a system that now is dysfunctional or seems irrational may be perfectly reasonable in a historical context.

Recently, I have found it very interesting to observe a system that appears dysfunctional in some ways and find out the historical purposes and environmental constraints that caused it to turn out the way it did. This might be described as crystallizing a model of a meta-system, a system that creates dysfunctional systems. Whereas politics, history and economics used to intimidate or bore me, I now find them fascinating for this reason. These subjects study the human systems that create governmental systems, business systems, and artifacts. When a governmental system is corrupt, when a business system is unsustainable, or when the market value of an artifact seems to far exceed the value of its function, these subjects explain the environmental and historical cause.

I enjoy seeing models presented visually in ways that expose design elements. This is why, as a child, I enjoyed studying diagrams and illustrations, and collected posters charting the paths of space shuttle missions. This is why, as an adult, I found Edward Tufte’s book and course, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, memorable and deeply satisfying.

Tags: Business, Philosophy, Reading

Updated at: 9 July 2007 12:07 AM