Habits for a Chaotic, Information-rich World

My mother, a well-educated educator, introduced me to an interesting series of book entitled Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series. The authors, Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick, constructed a new type of education framework with a goal to:

"...help educators teach toward these habits of mind which we see as broad, enduring, and essential life-span learnings that are as appropriate for adults as they are for students. Our hope is that by teaching students (and adults) the habits of mind students will be more disposed to draw upon the habits when they are faced with uncertain or challenging situations...and develop [people] who can live productively in an increasingly chaotic, complex, and information-rich world." (From the preface to the series)

Their list of Habits is a wonderful reference (though it violates my consultant sensibility for lists of three to five items):

* Persisting

* Managing impulsivity

* Listening with understanding and empathy

* Thinking flexibly

* Metacognition (thinking about thinking)

* Striving for accuracy

* Questioning and posing problems

* Applying past knowledge to new situations

* Thinking and communicating with precision and clarity

* Gathering data through all senses

* Creating, imagining, innovation

* Responding with wonderment and awe

* Taking responsible risks

* Finding humor

* Thinking interdependently

* Open to continuous learning

(Here is a PDF document with more detail on each of these items.)

I love this list because it...

    Offers a blueprint for recruiting and employee development. The Habits of Mind series is intended to guide the teaching of students. In our case, we don’t have a luxury of waiting until these students grow up. In the meantime, I have a checklist for recruiting. We’d articulated many of these things in our job postings (see our previous post), but never so fully. But how do you develop these skills? How do you tell whether they are catching on? No problem, the Habits series has us covered: the second book offers strategies for teaching these habits; the third book tells you how to evaluate whether the habits are sticking.

    Is Juice-y. I believe the Habits of Mind reflect many of our values as a company, our approach to our work and some of our favorite themes (e.g. "agile" analytics, better presentations, creative problem solving, sharing our knowledge). I don’t think Arthur and Bena set out to validate us...but it still makes me feel good. More importantly, the "increasingly chaotic, complex, and information-rich world" is the landscape faced by our clients every day. We need to bring these habits to our work.

    Gives us an alternative to No Child Left Behind thinking. The habits of mind are fundamental thinking skills that can make children productive citizens and lead to a learning culture and thoughtful community. Unfortunately, a focus on these habits seems to conflict with the primary themes of No Child Left Behind. The Habits emphasize broad, flexible skills over specific knowledge of the facts on a standardized test. They recognize that if you can learn how to learn, all knowledge is at your fingertips.

    Future-proofs those with the Habits. I spent a little time recently thumbing through Thomas Friedman’s well-known book The World Is Flat. The Habits dovetail nicely with Friedman’s thoughts on American education in a Globalization 3.0 world. He asks: "If the jobs of the new middle require you to be a good collaborator, leverager, adapter, explainer, synthesizer, model builder, localizer, or personalizer, and these approaches require you, among other things, to be able to learn how to learn, to bring curiosity and passion to your work, to play well with others, and to nurture your right-brain skills, what does that mean specifically for education?" Friedman even dismisses the theory that we should focus on turning out more engineers and scientists. "Now that foreigners can do left-brain work cheaper, we in the U.S. must do right-brain work better".

Wanted: Smarty Pants, apply within.

Chris talked about customer intimacy last month and that kind of thing always gets my mental juices flowing. When an idea like that is laid out in front of you, it’s a head slapping "of course" and "weren’t we doing that already?" thought.

Being around really smart people like Chris and Zach gives you a Newtonian stance on ideas; you get to rest your mind on top of fully baked thoughts. You also get critical, constructive analysis of your own musings and ultimately both our clients and Juice reap the benefits.

But where do you find the kind of people who live for this stuff? It’s not like you can pop down to the mall and pick up a clutch of insightful, ultra-curious, Excel-wielding Python gurus. No, there are really just two solutions: You have to stumble on them or grow your own.

Stumbling on smart people really is tons of fun. Some of what works is really obvious and takes the form of talking to people at conferences, wooing people with great blogs, reaching out to some of the better user groups, and posting on places like Craig’s List. Actually that last one isn’t so obvious because unless you can articulate your company’s worldview in a few muscular paragraphs you’re just going to attract the wrong kinds of people. If your post is too wacky you’ll be treated to an interpretive dance during the interview to detail how a project was a success. And if your ad is too dour you’ll attract the living dead. Oh, the horror.

A few years ago popular belief held that there were oodles of highly trained, big-brained technology folks begging for work. That might have been partially true, but I do know a lot of carpetbaggers left the business to go back to whatever carpetbaggers are doing these days. I’ve been blessed with working with some amazingly brilliant people over the years. None of them have ever had a problem finding work. Ever, ever, ever. Those are the kinds of folks you want to go out of your way to stumble upon.

The second method of growing your own might sound like a leap of faith but it’s really effective if you can pull it off. Back in the mid nineties, I was King of the Internet for a rapidly growing software company. Much like everybody else, we suffered the slings and arrows of an outrageous job market, and finding top notch talent was an uphill struggle. The world had all but lost its mind and you’d find yourself seriously mulling the thought of shelling out $100k a year for an HTML "programmer." Plus signing bonus, of course.

No, that would never do. Something different had to be done.

That’s where working with brilliant people comes in handy. If you float what might be an out-of-the-ordinary idea they’ll actually think it over before voting either way. We had this crazy idea to take really clever people from outside the industry and train the living daylights out of them.

Boy, it worked like a charm. I still keep in touch with a few of these rather bright individuals and they’re still enjoying the heck out of their careers. One is still with the company, one with a smaller software outfit, and the third is a consultant for one of the largest consulting entities.

Whichever route you take, you can only squeeze out really juicy ideas from the right kind of brain. In our case we value creativity, chutzpah, a smart work ethic, dedication, and unbridled curiosity. It’s not enough to teach somebody to be effective with a toolset and, to paraphrase Potter Stewart, we know smarts when we see them.