10 July 2012

Lessons from a one year old - a reflection about reflecting

Some time ago I watched my one year old play with one of those shape sorter toys (put the block through the equally shaped hole to get it into the box). The problem is he's a bit too young so he pretty much tried to bang all the four shapes into the circular hole (which actually worked once for the star shape but that's another story) getting more and more frustrated, especially when all the circular blocks were already in the box. So with a stroke of genius he removed the lid and started filling (and emptying) the box with ease looking up at me to recognize his success. My reaction? "No no no, put the lid back on". A few seconds later I started reflecting upon my reaction. This is the result of that reflection.

Lesson: It's not the receiver's fault when you are unclear
In this case it's hard to know exactly how my son was thinking but looking at his action/reaction my guess is he saw the mission as getting the blocks into the box while my idea was to find the right hole for each block, the getting it in the box was just a proof of correct behavior. So I failed at communicating my model and when he acted according to his interpretation (finding a better solution to my problem) I rejected his solution and more or less degraded him by correcting an error he wasn't even aware of.

Lesson: When someone finds a flaw in what you've communicated, that's creativity, not cheating.
I found this very often to be the case in school. If you are creative, finding a solution not thought of/intended (mostly known as "cheats") you are often rejected. Real example:
In one course we were split into groups and built an autonomous robot. In the spec it said "when hit, the robot must continue straight forward for 3 seconds". So we simply made the robot go forward in 3 seconds (the goal was to send all enemy robots of the arena) but also turned down the speed by a factor of 10 when doing so. My idea of a good reaction reaction from the teacher would've been something like, "Well, you pointed out a flaw in my spec, I'll make a positive note about it but please change back to regular speed forward". His reaction? Something like "Well, now you're just trying to cheat, you know very well what I mean!".

Lesson: You need to monitor if the receiver has actually understood you
When I tried to communicate my view, in this case a very simple one, I failed. Since I just assumed we had the same view I didn't really notice that my kid got happy when the darn block was in the box not when he found the right hole. In retrospect waiting expectantly when he actually found the hole and cheering when the block was in box was not very helpful. Of course my intention was to not reveal the solution but all and all it was just a good intention not good communication.

Lesson: It's important to share the same view
Let's pretend I was in my son's position and could speak. In that case I should have asked a whole bunch of questions, mainly: "Why on earth did you put this stupid lid on the box?", that would have saved both me (him) and the dad (me) the frustration.

Lesson: Models limit our creativity
If someone would have told me to, as quickly as possible, get the blocks in the box I would probably not have removed the lid simply because my model is "blocks go into the box through the holes in the lid". The same task given to my kid would have rendered him removing the lid and hence, beating me. Beaten by a one year old?! Just because I'm too stupid to look beyond my assumptions? And I make big money on my thinking skills every month while he is officially a cost!

Lesson: What's obvious to me is not obvious to everybody else
I didn't even think of the fact that my kid might not share the idea of "how to play with a shape sorter", to me it was too obvious. Of course all, or at least a vast majority, of my colleagues share this view but in that case it could instead be "of course they've thought of handling negative values as input". I think you would go mental if you never were to trust anyone about anything but at least question you assumptions.

Lesson: Assumptions must be under constant review
To ensure we don't end up doing bad assumptions and inefficient problem solving we need to constantly question and review the usefulness and relevant context for the assumptions we make. Since assumptions are shortcuts we fall back on to save us from constant tedious repetitive thinking I guess it's in their nature to be hard to monitor. One thing I find helpful is lateral thinking puzzles, since they by design challenge your assumptions.

Lesson: Courage to question is an important skill
Instead of just going with my idea of putting the blocks through the holes in the lid my kid continued to try to remove the lid. That might not always be the best solution, but at the same time I guess you can excuse a one year old for not starting a sophisticated discussion about our different views on the shape sorter. Anyway, the skill to question someone else's assumptions (and therefore uncovering what might be interpreted as facts rather than assumptions) is an important skill to anyone, one that might get you into trouble in the wrong environment but make you a hero in the right one. If you're in an environment where questioning isn't appreciated you might need to question what you're doing there by the way...

Lesson: Being too helpful is not helpful
I had my best intentions when I corrected my kid and in this particular case it might be useful for him to listen. However helping people too much can lead to less thinking, making them scared to go with their own idea or even stop evolution (as in how solutions to problems can evolve over time). Let people think, let people think and before correcting them, ask why they've gone a certain route, maybe we're more right than you?

Lesson: You need to spot assumptions
Finding assumptions require constant observation. At work I recently uncovered that you could actually simulate a certain type of hardware in our system simply by not just accepting "it doesn't work". Once again, of course you can't spend all your life with trying to question every little aspect of every little statement but to challenge common propositions you've not seen/heard any proof of is, to me, a very healthy behavior.

Lesson: Questions is a tool
Well, I've already touched upon this several times but I think it's important enough to highlight again. Questions are an essential tool that you need to use to clear any uncertainty or ambiguity in whatever someone tries to communicate. "Are you sure that..." is often a good start or, if you really want to be considered a genius pain in the butt, go for "why", "why doesn't it work". Never accept something that seems unclear just because you're too afraid to question or afraid that you'll look stupid (hmm, really nice that I write this as a exhortation to you when I'm one of those who really need to work on this).

The most important lesson...?
"You can learn an awful lot from a one year old"? Well, to put it in a more general context: "You can learn an awful lot by just reflecting on an everyday event". I could have come away with tons of lessons like this from reflecting about virtually anything, how I act when I'm cooking, how me and my girlfriend share work at home, how a colleague react to my bug report etc. You could argue some of this is just associations from associations (not immediately related to the example I reflected from) but I guess that pretty much sums up what thinking is (going from one interesting idea to another). You could also argue that a lot of this is just common knowledge and well, it is, just like it's common knowledge not to eat crappy food, don't make up apologies and go to bed in time, sometimes we need reminders, at least I do.

One final question: What else could you learn from this? Well I didn't even start on the psychosocial aspects, parenting in general, I had a lot more interesting associations to school that I didn't bring up, you could question the toy or how it could be redesigned to better set the rules or challenge the user's creativity... well I guess I need to stop otherwise I won't be able to sleep tonight but there you have some more aspects in case you want to continue .)

So to sum it up: Reflect! It's not just a valuable skill to practice, it can also lead to very interesting results.