Ounce of Perception

Fourth and inches

Chances are you’ve heard the saying, “Won the battle but lost the war.” While it is hard to willingly accept defeat or failure, sometimes your best strategy in a given situation is to not give it your all. To not try your absolute hardest to be successful. To not try to win at the specific task at hand. To lose a battle so you can win the war.

In baseball, a manager may have a batter sacrifice (bunt or fly) themselves to advance another runner. Or have a pitcher intentionally walk a good batter to get to a relatively weaker batter. In American football, most teams choose to kick – either a punt or field goal – on fourth down instead of going for it. In basketball, coaches may call for intentional fouls late in a game to prevent a sure two by the opponent and risk a 1-and-1 foul shot situation. In chess, a player will intentionally sacrifice pieces to improve board position. You get the idea.

What each of these situations have in common, of course, is that the goal is not to get an individual hit, or out, or touchdown. The goal is to win the game, and ultimately a tournament or season. You weigh the risk of doing what is typical against the potential benefit or cost in terms of that goal of winning. You may not “go for it” on fourth and inches early in the game deep in your own half of the field, but you probably will if it is late in the game deep in your opponent’s end and you’re down by four points. Context is key.

Of course, no one would ever intentionally lose an actual game. Or would they? Depends on the context.

During the 2012 Summer Olympics several teams were disqualified and removed from the Badminton competition for deliberately trying to lose a game. From the outside this seemed crazy, and the crowds at the games were rightfully angry at what they were seeing. Did I mention that these teams were playing against each other, both of them intentionally trying to lose.

But for the teams at the time the strategy made perfect sense in the context of their ultimate objective – Olympic gold. For various reasons, the rules for the badminton tournament were changed going into the Olympics. The teams who wanted to lose games on purpose were simply adjusting their strategy on the court to increase their chances to win gold based on these new rules.

I say “simply”, but the whole situation was anything but simple. The rule-makers had failed to consider this second order effect of changing the rules, and the athletes had failed to take into account the reactions of the fans and officials at their blatantly unsportsmanlike conduct. And so they were disqualified, even though they hadn’t technically broken any rules.

They won the battle, but lost the war.



Musical instrument and portable recording studio in a 10″ (or so) package. All you need is a little electricity to charge the battery and a wee bit of talent. And this is just a tiny sample of what is possible. I can only imagine the awesomeness being unleashed out there. I can only hope that it will someday make it to my ears.

Pound of Obscure

Congrats to the Moodle team and everyone involved in the Moodle 3.1 release, including an update to Moodle Mobile. From the announcement:

Moodle 3.1 wraps a lot of new features together with hundreds of fixes and improvements into a package that we’ll be supporting for the next three years, 1.5 years longer than most releases.

I am proud to announce that the most important new feature in this release is the new core support for competencies, which is something we’ve been talking about and developing in the community for many years.  These help when Moodle is used for competency-based education (CBE), “mastery learning” and any technique that involves learning plans based on the things students know, and the things they are yet to know.

Congrats to Moodle team – 3.1 now available

Ounce of Perception

Organizational forgetting

I wrote the following back in November 2005:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do we forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

That post also included a reference to memory and forgetting in the human mind, taken from the book The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

explored this idea a bit further in March 2007, where I added the following to my thinking:

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve.

And yet again in June 2009:

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.”

I was reminded of this train of thought today when a colleague shared a link to a TEDx talk by Pablo Martin de Holan titled Managing Organizational Forgetting, based on a paper of the same name published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. If you read my quotes above, I’m sure you understand why this opening paragraph from the paper grabbed my attention (emphasis at the end is mine):

Over the last decade, companies have become increasingly aware of the value of managing their organizational knowledge, and researchers have investigated those processes extensively. Indeed, the ways in which organizations learn and have stocks of knowledge that underlie their capabilities can be a powerful tool in explaining the behavior and competitiveness of companies. Yet something is missing in the current discussions of organizational knowledge: Companies don’t just learn; they also forget.
Pablo Martin de Holan 

There is a lot of great info in the paper (about 12 pages worth), but for now I’ll just mention the two modes of forgetting – Accidental and Intentional. Obviously, you will want to limit the former and maximize the benefit of the latter. At the risk of a giant spoiler (you should still take the time to read the full paper), de Holan summarizes nicely:

Some companies forget the things they need to know, incurring huge costs to replace the lost knowledge. Other organizations can’t forget the things they should, and they remain trapped by the past, relying on uncompetitive technologies, dysfunctional corporate cultures or untenable assumptions about their markets. Successful companies instead are able to move quickly to adapt to rapidly changing environments by being skilled not only at learning, but also at forgetting. Indeed, as companies work to increase their capacity to learn they also need to develop a corresponding ability to forget. Otherwise, they could easily be learning counterproductive knowledge, such as bad habits. The bottom line is that companies need to manage their processes for forgetting as well as for learning, because only then can they deploy their organizational knowledge in the most effective ways for achieving sustained competitive advantage.

I really wish I had come across this paper back in Winter 2004 when it was published. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

And for those of you interested in the TEDx talk, here you go.

Ounce of Perception

Organizations, organisms, and intelligence (some thoughts)

Some thoughts inspired by  The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing by Frank Vertosick, Jr., and other sources.

In the introduction to The Genius Within, Vertosick sets up the book with these comments:

To survive, all living beings must respond to an incessant barrage of stimuli: good, bad, and neutral. Some stimuli are so potently bad they provoke an immediate, reflexive response…. [M]ost hazards can’t be handled so simplistically. If I blindly leapt from every threat, I would soon exhaust myself. Moreover, some threats, such as a menacing animal, are better handled by walking slowly away.

Of course, even better would be to avoid running into menacing animals in the first place.

I couldn’t help thinking of this passage when I came across If it’s urgent, ignore it on McGee’s Musings (which in turn points to the original FastCompany article by Seth Godin and a posting about the article on Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog.) A couple of quick excerpts:

Urgent issues are easy to address. They are the ones that get everyone in the room for the final go-ahead. They are the ones we need to decide on right now, before it’s too late.

Smart organizations understand that important issues are the ones to deal with. If you focus on the important stuff, the urgent will take care of itself.

Organizations manage to justify draconian measures–laying people off, declaring bankruptcy, stiffing their suppliers, and closing stores–by pointing out the urgency of the situation. They refuse to make the difficult decisions when the difficult decisions are cheap. They don’t want to expend the effort to respond to their competition or fire the intransigent VP of development. Instead, they focus on the events that are urgent at that moment and let the important stuff slide.

Or in other words they are, to use Dr. Vertosick’s words, blindly leaping from every threat, and will soon exhaust themselves. This is another sign of a “stupid,” or in this case non-intelligent, organization.

A few more words on “intelligence” in organisms from Dr. Vertosick:

No creature can make it through life equipped solely with dumb reflexes. Reflexes alone do not constitute intelligence. Organisms must temper their reflexes with judgment, and that implies reason.

When reflex alone proves inadequate or counterproductive, living things resort to more subtle ways of dealing with environmental data. They begin by determining the predictive value of their experiences and storing those experiences for later application.

In other words, organisms learn from experience and apply this knowledge to future challenges. Learning is central to all intelligent behavior.

Since the organization that focuses on the urgent, instead of the important, is apparently not learning from the past, it stands to reason they are un-intelligent and doomed to an earlier demise than might otherwise occur if they could start learning. Unfortunately, this type of organization takes a lot of people, money, and other resources and capabilities down with it.*

* Of course, you can look at this as a kind of “circle of life” kind of thing, as most of those resources will eventually find their way back into the system. Unfortunately for the “human resources” involved, though, this will be a very unenjoyable process.

Pound of Obscure

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Garry Kasparov – How Life Imitates Chess

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage… Uncertainty is far more challenging