Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cognitive Connections 

A light of understanding flicked on; not the blinding flash of wholesale inspiration, but yet a narrow beam highlighting a previously invisible linkage in a complex system of particular interest.

I delight in systems thinking - in understanding how parts fit together to make a functioning whole, be that components of an engine, interconnected electronic sub-systems, or people and processes in organisations – yet one system which perpetually baffles me, with which I’ve never come to grips, is that which is closest to me: myself. How the patterns of thought and emotion and belief and behaviour work together to create this mysterious entity known as Andy Borrows.

The defining features of any system are often to be found in its connections, in how the elements are joined up and interact with each other or operate in the presence of each other. Any network engineer (of which I’m not one) will know how one single change in the configuration of a network switch can totally screw the operation of the network. Or to take an example from biology, as I understand it, genetics isn’t as straightforward as being able to say that there is a gene “for” any particular feature of an organism; rather, those features derive from combinations of genes, genes working in complex interrelated patterns. Change one gene and the consequences can be as unpredictable as changing that switch config. (Someone out there tell me if I’ve got that all wrong…)

It was just such a connection in the system known as Andy Borrows on which that light shone today. I knew a bit about some of the elements of the system, but I’d never before realised the profound impact of how those elements operate together. Or to be more specific, how powerfully they can oppose each other and lock the system in a static conflict.

I’d better stop talking in the abstract and explain.

Last week, I undertook a particular psychometric exercise – a Thinking Styles Profile. This looks at a number of aspects of the way in which we think, grouped into three main categories – how we receive and use information from our senses, how we interact with other people, and how we approach tasks and problem solving. Other than for the sensory group, these thinking styles are grouped in related pairs – for example collaborative or competitive; a preference for possibility or procedure, or for a detailed or a strategic approach.

The two elements of each pair aren’t necessarily opposed, and one isn’t necessarily biased to one or other element; the most flexible people have all ways of thinking available to them and can pick and choose to suit the situation. When it gets interesting though – what makes people individuals – is when certain patterns of thought have a strong preference at one or other end of the spectrum – heavily preferred or heavily disliked.

When I saw my results last week, they held no immediate surprises – I recognised myself easily; all the known strengths and weaknesses were there. As a slight digression, that included one feature that I was told is unique to engineers – a dead equal balance between creative or intuitive thinking and logical or linear thinking. That’s one to explore another time.

Back to the main thread. It was only today, in the light of those recent posts about dreams and goals, that I made a significant connection – a realisation of the profound implications of the combination of certain thinking style preferences. Consequences which go a long, long way to explaining some of my stuckness over this business of dreams and goals and hopes for the future.

To begin with, I have a strong preference – significantly more than average – for difference as opposed to sameness. I’d much rather have change and variety than stability and predictability; I’m also powerfully motivated by the prospect of moving towards a positive goal – by a vision - as opposed to solving problems, either real or potential. Add to that an approach to tasks which tends to focus on options and possibilities and in handling complexity and detail instead of using the simpler, tried-and-trusted approach of known procedures, and you’d think I’d be well equipped with the capacity to handle the practicalities and challenges of turning dreams into reality.

And so I might be, were it not for some of my other thinking style preferences. Something I already knew well is that I’m intensely anti-competitive; a dyed-in-the-wool conflict avoider. I don’t just back down from conflict; I stop and find another route the moment I think I see the faintest mirage of a potential conflict over the horizon. When I stop and think about it, I realise how habitual, how ubiquitous, how insidious that approach has become. In almost every human encounter, however routine, however trivial, however everyday, there’s a part of me that expects some kind of conflict, some kind of attack, and automatically adopts a defensive position. Don’t get me wrong; that part isn’t always dominant, but it is always there to a greater or lesser degree.

There are other styles too which get in the way, although not to the same extent. In spite of my preference for difference over sameness, I have a milder preference to conform instead of challenging. That’s my chameleon nature; the desire to blend in, to belong. It can be a useful feature – it makes it easy to get along with just about anyone – but it’s not a good way of finding a path through opposition. Another factor too which gets in the way of those dreams is a preference for altruism over selfishness. I’ll put another’s dreams before my own.

The real killer though is when you combine those two sets of patterns. On the one hand, a make-up that is strongly motivated to move towards a goal of change and possibility; on the other hand, a powerful, debilitating aversion to conflict. What happens? In one word, stress! I’ve known times when that stress was so powerful it felt like a physical force literally tearing me in two; the clearer the vision became, the more intense was the desire to reach it, yet the clearer also were the bridges I’d have to cross in order to reach it; bridges which I equated, rightly or wrongly, with conflict. There have been times when I’ve been so tightly gripped by those opposing forces I’ve scarcely been able to breathe.

I couldn’t bear the stress, so there were only two options. Abandon the dream – in effect, abandon even the idea of having dreams – or face up to those conflicts, whether real or imagined, and learn how to deal with them.

Clearly, it’s the former approach I’ve been using for so long now; it’s time I took a look at using the latter. Time to examine, identify, describe and quantify those blockages which have taken on at least the outer appearance of conflicts; time too to look at those few conflicts I know I have handled successfully and determine what was different on those occasions.

Incidentally, but importantly, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether this model is “true” in any absolute way; after all, it is only a model. What matters, what’s significant, is that it opens up possibilities for action that weren’t previously accessible.

Follow those possibilities, and I might even start dreaming again.

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