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Building Short Courses

You can think of strategy as the key to learning new knowledge The best way to learn is to teach.

With that in mind, you might ask yourself, how many courses have you built and taught — about the things you are trying to learn?

Good question! Most of us would answer, “none”.  Mea culpa. I am starting on a new path in this blog, where I will be building courses around some core ideas

  • What – what do I want to learn
  • Structure – how do I structure the course to teach it
  • Materials – where do I find the core knowledge that I need to apply
  • Content  – how do I fill out the course with great content
  • Test – How do I test myself to level up

You can remember this by What Smart Man Can Teach?


Start by Solving Problems

Let’s say that you have experienced a great st back. it has wiped you out. You have no job, connections and no apparent opportunities. After you get over the shock, the question arises, what to do?

Many would retreat into themselves. Pout. Complain. It is natural. And of course, it will not get you very far.

To get started again, you need a certain amount of conviction that enables you to translate beliefs into action. Where do these come from? The answer, according to Great Satell, is to develop a problem solving mentality.  that mentality gives you  a learning tool to re-connect with other people.

How does one develop this? Think of it as a learning challenge. We need to break this down into tasks and then find ways to master the most important tasks first (Tim Ferriss). So how about this for a breakdown.

  • identifying problems
  • developing  conviction around potential solutions
  • experimenting to test potential solutions
  • packaging solutions into lifestyle
  • sharing solutions

The more one practices each of these steps, the better one gets at them.

Following the Strategic path

Over the last several years, there has been a lot of thinking about something called “life design”. The idea is that one can apply enlightened design thinking to decisions that shape who you are over time. Not just career planning but life planning.

I ascribe to the idea that life is too precious a thing to just do without reflection.So Ilike this new school of thought. At the same time, I am also a bit wary of its vocabulary. One designs things. Whether those things are tangible things, like cars, or abstract things, like models. You are bot a thing.

Or I might say that you are a thing in motion. You are a series of activities promoted by decisions that you make either consciously or subconsciously. To become a “better you” you need to work on designing those paths and tracking and reflecting on the flow of thinking that following the path produces.

This is strategic thinking in its purest form.

When Do We Frame a question?

We are at work here thinking through the starting point for strategy.  Why bother? Because if we get the starting point right, our analysis has a much higher chance of getting us somewhere. Get the starting point wrong, and we may develop great answers to the wrong question.

Our work so far has taken us to the challenge of making framework decisions. These are decisions that we need to base further activity upon. We do not want to get these wrong.

As an aside, we might think, for example, that “civilization” is a process of building on shared framework decisions.

What does a solid framework look like?

I would suggest that the best frameworks are predictive. In other words, they allow us to test their value based upon observations of future events. Scientific method is a tool that we use to make framework decisions about the nature of reality. If gravity is a force that exerts an attractive force on a mass, then if I  hump out of an airplane, I should fall to the ground. Simple enough.

But things get a bit weird when we seek to predict how humans will act. As a species, we are capable of creating our own interpretations of what is important. We are free to do so. And as a result, foundation decisions about people will always be less predictive than we might like. Perhaps this is why the advance of civilization has been so jerky – up and down.

And perhaps this is why humans, by and large, are such terrible decision makers. We are reluctant to set aside our beliefs in reality, even when we see evidence that they are wrong.  We suffer from cognitive biases.

If we wish to build strategic decision making capacity, it may not be such a bad idea to accept this as a fundamental aspect of being human. We are prone to interpret reality in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. We must live with our cognitive biases.

If so, foundation decisions that rely upon personal belief are the most suspect. Are there other types that have a stronger foundation?`Of course. If all humans are subject to the same  cognitive biases, framework decisions based upon what others believe to be true are more likely to predict how they will act. Why? Because those people will hold onto those beliefs no matter what.

So strategic framework decisions focus on identifying and using shared beliefs with in groups. If you can identify a belief, you can make a framework decision about how that belief will affect what people will do over time.

Getting started with a strategic question, then, is less about me than about seeing the beliefs that drive other people to act.

Added Value and Domino Effects

This is the fourth post in this thread about finding the starting point for strategic thinking. If we find the starting point, we have a good shot at developing more and better strategic ideas.

We know by now that strategic thinking starts with a question about how to add value over time. It is a type of “ex ante” versus “ex post” thinking.

So how do we manage this “ex ante” thought process? First, a cautionary note. We know that humans are terrible at coping with the future. We do not have good instincts for ex ante thinking. For example, we  know that we will get old. Everyone does. And we know that when we get old, we will not be able to work as we did when we are young. We will need some sort of savings to see us through that period. We can only save to prepare for this when we are making income. Moreover, due to interest compounding, the earlier we start saving the more savings we will end up with. And yet we tend not to svae. We tend to over spend. We know what we are doing is stupid on an intellectual level and yet we do it anyway.  I rest my case. Humans suck at future thinking.

We can do better if we can more easily visualize the future. But here is the thing. We can’t. We cannot see what tomorrow will bring because it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, if you think about it, we are walking backwards through life. We see only what is behind us (in the past) and interpret what we have seen to build expectations about the future. Even our perceptions of the present are in fact interpretations based on the past.

The starting point for understanding strategic questioning is simply  to accept this limitation.  Accept it as the best possible model of reality. Once we accept it, we can start to reflect more systematically about how to improve our modeling. These improvements include making better choices as well as being more flexible in changing direction as the results of our choices become apparent over time.

Here is a good starting point to achieve this. Bob Cialdini wrote a long time ago in his very important book “Influence” that we tend to act in patterns based on commitment and consistency. If we commit to a thing, we tend to act in a manner that is consistent with that commitment — even without thinking about it.

An example — if you commit to making your bed every day, after a while you may notice that you are not doing the dishes. If you commit to doing the dishes as well, you may notice that the vacuum cleaner is gathering dust. And onward. Pretty soon your house will be very clean and tidy. Conversely, if you do not make the bed, you are less likely to notice these things. This is the so called “domino effect”.

This informs us about what types of questions have more strategic value than others. We are looking to start the best possible domino effects.  Some  questions are more likely than others to  trigger positive domino effects. to take us where we want to go.

Keep in mind that as we look for these, we are making a value judgment about the future. We are either deciding that we want to change something about the present, or we are deciding that we want to reinforce something that is already there.  We are either “breaking the mold” or “using the mold”-.

The romantic tradition gives us a certain fascination for breaking the mold. We have the notion that this is what creativity is all about. Doing something new seems to be better in itself simply because we did it. That is at the core of romantic thinking. So we have that quaint romantic idea of the “rebel without a cause”. One rebels because one is supposed to rebel.

If you think of this in terms of domino effects, you begin to see that the rebel without a cause will find and commit to all sorts of activities that are consistent with rebelling even if they are meaningless in themselves.  So  some of us will only buy jeans that are already torn at the knee.  Tattoos? Of course! Drinking? Hell yes! And so on.

Let’s take this a step further. Quite a lot of things called “innovation” are in fact just attempts to break molds for no particular reason. To build something new, just because we can. The Segway is a classic example. It is a transportation tool that has had no clear function. So too was the original PC-. Watson was right. There was very little use for it in the home. But Steve Jobs persuaded us that it was cool.  We committed to being cool, and so we bought lots and lots of Apples.

Strategically,  one can see that this can produce effects, but it is also high risk stuff. Change for the sake of change, even for the sake of being cool, may not lead to much value added. It may, but it doesn’t necessarily do so.

So what about using the mold?  If our initial commitment already has value and produces a domino effect, we are likely to be pleasantly surprised at where we end up. We may achieve the original goal as well as many other things that are connected to it.

The key is that the mold has to fall into the category of things we do not want to change.  So, for example, Jeff Bezos famously said that Amazon is not interested in what is changing. Amazon is intensely interested in what will NOT change over time. And Amazon believes that people will always want (1) lower prices, (2) greater selection, and (3) faster delivery. And Amazon relentless innovates to give the customer those three things, changing anything and everything that takes them a step down one of those paths. Doing so caused it to invest in enormous computer storage capacity. And that led to an amazingly profitable AWS business. Wow!

but once again, a commitment to using a mold does not guarantee that the mold will offer long term value. We can just as easily get stuck in meaningless routines because of a commitment to a value that offers little opportunity to grow. So Nokia committed to offering cheaper and better mobile phones. No one was better at this. And the routines that Nokia created to take this further blinded the company to the value of the smart phone. They simply couldn’t believe that breaking the mold the way Jobs did with the IPhone would add more value. In that case, it did.

My point here is not to advocate for breaking or using molds as the answer to all strategic problems. It is instead to sharpen our focus on the nature of the strategic choices at hand. Because of the domino effect, any single choice will have multiple effects over time.

So far so good. But how do we direct our focus so that we are more likely to know which starting points will take us farther? How do we know when to break the mold or use the mold? That is next.