By Thinking!

Still on the theme of mastery, and further exploring attention and perception, here is another story I like to tell alongside the Master Butcher and the Agassiz fish tales. It is one of Richard Feynman’s stories from his childhood:

One job was really sensational. I was working at the time for a printer, and a man who knew that printer knew I was trying to get jobs fixing radios, so he sent a fellow around to the print shop to pick me up. The guy is obviously poor — his car is a complete wreck — and we go to his house which is in a cheap part of town. On the way, I say, “What’s the trouble with the radio?”

He says, “When I turn it on it makes a noise, and after a while the noise stops and everything’s all right, but I don’t like the noise a the beginning.”

I think to myself: “What the hell! If he hasn’t got any money, you’d think he could stand a little noise for a while.”

And all the time, on the way to his house, he’s saying things like, “Do you know anything about radios? How do you know about radios — you’re just a little boy!”

He’s putting me down the whole way, and I’m thinking, “So what’s the matter with him? So it makes a little noise.”

But when we got there I went to the radio and turned it on. Little noise? My God! No wonder the poor guy couldn’t stand it. The thing began to roar and wobble — WUH BUH BUH BUH BUH — A tremendous amount of noise. Then it quieted down and played correctly. So I started to think: “How can that happen?”

I started walking back and forth, thinking, and I realize that one way it can happen is that the tubes are heating up in the wrong order — that is, the amplifier’s all hot, the tubes are ready to go, and there’s nothing feeding in, or there’s some back circuit feeding in, or something wrong in the beginning part — the RF part — and therefore it’s making a lot of noise, picking up something. And when the RF circuit’s finally going, and the grid voltages are adjusted, everything’s all right.

So the guy says, “What are you doing? You come to fix the radio, but you’re only walking back and forth!”

I say, “I’m thinking!” The I said to myself, “All right, take the tubes out, and reverse the order completely in the set.” (Many radio sets in those days used the same tubes in different places — 2 1 2′s, I think they were, or 2 1 2-A’s.) So I changed the tubes around, stepped to the front of the radio, turned the thing on, and it’s as quiet as a lamb; it wait until it heats up, and the plays perfectly — no noise.

When a person has been negative to you, and then you do something like that, they’re usually a hundred percent the other way, kind of to compensate. He got me other jobs, and kept telling everybody what a tremendous genius I was, saying, “He fixes radios by thinking!”

– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, pg 19-20

Once again I have quoted rather more of the text, making for a longer read, though hopefully staying within the bounds of “fair use.” (To compensate, please rush off and buy Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! It is full of such delightful stories, giving insight into one of history’s great — and endearingly playful  — minds!)

Discussion: I would like to invite you to join the discussion, using the comments to share how this story strikes you and what insights about architects, architecting or architecture it prompts.

Follow-up Discussion

Is this is relevant to architecting — and architecting software-intensive systems at that? How do we create software? By thinking. And if something isn’t working as we expect, or is doing something our users can’t tolerate, how do we “fix” software? By thinking.  Ok. So maybe it is somewhat relevant… But we covered that in the comments. Indeed. That was a wonderful discussion (thank you Peter, Gene and Stuart), and it illuminated new insights for me. So we’re done?

First, it would be very useful if you could spend a couple of minutes watching this video and following the instructions, before you continue reading here. I know it is tempting to read ahead, to decide if it is worth watching the brief video, but you will miss the point if you don’t watch it first, before reading on.

Alright, so now that you have watched the video — you did, didn’t you? Can you find the “gorilla” in our “by thinking” story?  The gorilla I saw? It may not be the same one you saw (and if so, please do share what you perceived, when you considered the story again, in the comments). But it went like this: I titled the post “By Thinking” and all the discussion went straight to the heart of the piece, and focused on fixing systems, and thinking. Stuart Boardman mentioned stories in the comments, and that hints at but doesn’t quite identify this particular gorilla. Remember, when I quoted the piece, I thought perhaps I should just quote the core story, but decided also to include the encompassing story? Why? What do we learn from that story? Which? About the stakeholder — hello? the customer! — and the important lesson Feynman learned about people who resist an idea becoming its strongest champions, once they “get it.” It’s not just about the system and troubleshooting and being the fix-it-by-thinking hero who saves the day. So we get back to Stuart’s mention of stories. But also this point about personality. How many times have you worked with someone who has that interaction pattern? They resist and devil’s advocate but when they get it, they become loyal advocates for the system (or mechanism/design fragment/design approach/etc.)

Ok, so that “gorilla” was really two gorillas. The point about the stakeholder/customer and the interpersonal aspect to the story, not just the system failure/resilience/system thinking dimension at its core. And a point about us — about our cognitive frailty. That “what we are paying attention to shapes what we perceive and pay attention to.” Does that make sense? Led by the title and the core of the story, we focused all our discussion there, and didn’t notice, or didn’t think it worthwhile to point out — even when prompted with strong hints — how our discussion canalized around the topic suggested by the post title and the repeated phrase in Feynman’s story. Anyway, that introduces the whole body of work on cognitive biases and biases in decision making and judgment.

We will come back to all of these topics — “by thinking” and complexity, resilience and failure, stakeholders and their concerns, stories, persuasion and influence, cognitive biases, and more. Not to mention topics raised in the Master Butcher story around mastery, including system decomposition and finding the natural interstitial lines within the system.

But let me return just for a moment to the stakeholder versus our tendency to focus on the problem our brains seize on. I can’t tell you how many times executives have voiced frustration to us because their architects have just ignored concerns they articulate, and focused on some facet of the problem they have ideas about. This story, and what happened to us, happens over and over, in many different forms. It’s not that we don’t have good intentions, it is that we just canalize. And we have to develop levers to get ourselves to shift! Levers? Questions, for example. Like “what else?” and “why don’t?”

And more. That future posts and discussion will address. Please do join us! Your active engagement makes the learning experience richer for all of us.

Learning to See

As we start to navigate our way into this topic of mastery, I’d like to explore attention and perception further. Louis Agassiz became known well beyond his own field for teaching observation, and many of his students relay similar stories of how he imbued this lesson in them. The following is one such charmingly told story, excerpted from Louis Agassiz as a Teacher by Lane Cooper (I heartily recommend reading the book in full):

“Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen.’

With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.

 ’No man is fit to be a naturalist,’ said he, ‘who does not know how to take care of specimens.’

 I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, [..]

 In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the Professor–who had, however, left the Museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate the beast from a fainting -fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of the normal sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but to return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed –an hour–another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face–ghastly, from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters’ view–just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so, with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

 On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the Museum, but had gone, and would not return for several hours. My fellow-students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying-glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me –I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned.

 ’That is right,’ said he; ‘a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked.’

With these encouraging words, he added:

‘Well, what is it like?’

 He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me: the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fins and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment:

‘You have not looked very carefully; why,’ he continued more earnestly,’ you haven’t even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery.

 I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the Professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly; and when, toward its close, the Professor inquired:

‘Do you see it yet?’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.’

 ’That is next best,’ said he, earnestly, ‘but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.’

 This was disconcerting. Not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

 The cordial greeting from the Professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw. ‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’

 His thoroughly pleased ‘Of course! of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically–as he always did-upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.

 ’Oh, look at your fish!’ he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned, and heard my new catalogue.

‘That is good, that is good!’ he repeated; ‘but that is not all; go on;’ and so for three long days he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. ‘Look, look, look,’ was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had–a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the Professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part. ”

– “How Agassiz Taught Professor Scudder”, Louis Agassiz as a Teacher, Lane Cooper

Once again, let’s open this to discussion of what we learn from the story, as it relates to being an architect.

Debrief: When I first encountered this story, I learned something from it about observing and noticing. Seeing relationships and connections, starting to make conjectures about the form and structure, structure and function. When I return to the story, discuss it, read the wonderful discussion in the comments (thank you!), I learn more. If we treat the story as our “fish” and ask what we learn, “the pencil is the best eye” jumps out — when we draw what we see, we notice better what we see.

When the question was put to Agassiz, ‘What do you regard as your greatest work?’ he replied: ‘I have taught men to observe.’ — Louis Agassiz: Illustrative Extracts on His Method Of Instruction by Lane Cooper, 1917

This is echoed in a comment on John Ruskin (1819 -1900):

“His mission was not to teach people how to draw, but how to see.” Niamh Sharky, Everyone Can Draw

But let’s ask ourselves why Agassiz (1807 – 1873) insisted on no tools — nothing to magnify, and nothing to cut into. Ah, indeed, nothing to remedy our urge to do something. So the typical starting point is to begin by busying ourselves with inventorying and classifying. But that doesn’t satisfy Agassiz. And his students are left to notice, and to notice more. To notice patterns, symmetry, relationships, connections. And as they did that — as we by proxy, placing ourselves in the story, do that – we get caught up in this incredible creature, the fish, and become curious about it. And seek to understand why it is like it is, what purpose does just this set of relationships serve, and what else might the fish teach us.

Responding to the story with enthusiasm, an architecture program manager recently told me that when he was learning to sail as a kid, his instructor had told him to be aware of everything — the wind, the water, the movement of the clouds — and he just wanted to learn how to sail, but now, teaching his sons to sail, he’s teaching the same lessons about observing, not just acting.

From the story we learn:

To observe. To see. To notice.

To still our urge act-act-act. To be patient. To enter a state of creative suspension.

To become curious. To ask questions.

To reflect.

To perceive. To understand.

And as Gene and Tom indicate, to be somewhat wary and willing…

To return to observing, noticing, questioning, …

because thinking we’re done already, is a sign we’re missing something. Of course, the “extraordinary moment” principle we introduced in the Master Butcher debrief applies. We have to use judgment, but as we’re developing our understanding of systems in general, and the system we’re evolving in particular, we need to take the time, and still ourselves enough to observe, or listen, as the case may be. And we will need to act. But in this rush to action, YAGNI-flavored world, we need to remind ourselves the system, and the greater system that is its context, has much to teach us, and we need to perceive it, better understand it. Then what we do, will be more as the Master Butcher, for we will perceive with a greater sense the wholeness, the interrelatedness and the natural structure and flow.

We could use this story to seed conversations along many paths — the nature of architecture and the relationship between structure and function; visualization and perception; the role of the architect. But I want to highlight the centrality of observation. To get better at designing systems, and evolving them, we, like doctors, need to be able to ask useful questions:

“Doctors have to be able to ask the right questions,” said Pink. “That calls for extraordinary observation skills — the observation skills of a painter, of a sculptor. So, medical schools are taking students to art museums to make them better diagnosticians. And, lo and behold, doctors who receive this type of diagnostic training are better diagnosticians than those who haven’t.” — “The Pink Prescription: Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges Calls for Right-brain Thinking,” June 10, 2009, Knowledge@Wharton

Mastery and Architecting

To launch this series of posts, I thought it would be useful to convene a discussion of the role of the architect and mastery.

Talking about Conceptual Architecture several years ago, Dana Bredemeyer relayed the story of the Master Butcher. It struck me forcibly as a story that speaks to mastery, and architecting. The imagery is rather gruesome, but we can take that in our stride, hopefully.

There are several translations of the story of the Master Butcher from Chaung Tzu. Here is one version:

‘Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”’

Translated by Burton Watson
(Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964)

Another version ends:

Duke Wen Hui said: “Excellent!
I listen to your words,
And learn a principle of life.”
– from Carving Up an Ox

A principle of life indeed. But let us focus on what we learn from this story as it relates to being an architect.

Debrief: Firstly, thanks to Peter, Gene and Leo for engaging in the discussion — great points all! This story and the discussion serves as a prelude to an exploration we’ll unfold in this blog, of what it means to be an architect who achieves mastery in architecting. Which saves me a books-worth of debriefing in this moment! And that in turn, picks up a key theme introduced in the story, that will sound through much to come — namely, the ongoing background consideration of “what, at this extraordinary moment is the most important thing for me to be thinking of” (Bucky Fuller, by way of Dana Bredemeyer). From this story: When we hit a complicated spot, we notice, and pay careful, concerted attention. The more experience we have with systems design, the more complexity we can take on with confidence (not bravado and arrogance, mind) because we’ve developed not just judgement, but a keen sensibility that tunes between active, self-conscious judgment and a more intuitive rhythmic flow or “dance” as we find the natural structure of the system.

Introducing the Requisite Variety Blog

Playing with a “learning chemistry” metaphor: Essentially the idea for this blog is to create an architect’s learning lab of sorts, where we create new insight compounds by tossing a starter into this learning crucible for discussion, so that we can all add various insights into the mix, to create/enhance the combinatory/new connections making learning experience for all of us.

More straightforwardly, what we would like to do with this blog, is convene conversations around topics relevant to architects architecting architecture, extending the variety of concepts and skills, orientations and perspectives, models and tools, and so forth, in our cognitive and practical “toolkit”, to enhance our capacity to deal with the variety of challenges and demands we face as architects.

The format I would like to propose, is that each post presents something for discussion (a model, mechansim or pattern, a story, an example, and so forth, which we then use the comments to discuss. Following some discussion, we would “debrief” the session, adding a section to the end of the post to formally draw some of the main learnings together (reserving the right to add learnings from our experience working in this field for <cough cough> close to two decades.

Update (12/3/12): Given some feedback, I’ll experiment with moving the “debrief” to a followup post.