Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Adaptive Thinking, Deliberate Practice, and Complexity

In military parlance, the term Adaptive Thinking has been used to describe the cognitive behavior of an officer who is confronted by unanticipated circumstances during the execution of a planned military operation. It refers to the thinking a leader must do to adapt operations to the requirements of unfolding events and is thus a key component of competency in battle command. Adaptive Thinking is a behavior.
(Source: Think Like a Commander.PDF)  

I discussed the need for Adaptive Thinking in this earlier post as well. I mentioned that Adaptive Thinking that promotes adaptive expertise is what makes us learners, takes us out of our preconceived notions formed by our domain expertise, and allows us to probe and respond to changing situations with greater elasticity. In short, this helps us to deal with complex situations.

The article Think Like a Commander takes an in-depth look at Adaptive Thinking and how it can be “taught”. Here, by taught I am trying to imply that Adaptive Thinking can be acquired. It can be acquired through deliberate, focused practice. 

This post is a summary of the key learnings from the article. I have paraphrased liberally from the article. The interpretations, however, are mine and any errors in understanding associated with those are entirely mine.

The Adaptive Thinking Training Methodology (ATTM) and Think Like a Commander (TLAC) represent a method and tool for training adaptive leaders.
  1.   Adaptive Thinking focuses on training how to think rather than what to think.
  2. Adaptive Thinking is different from lateral, creative or out-of-the box thinking. It is defined by the conditions under which it occurs. The conditions or constraints need to be taken into account and a solution sought within that. This is also the hallmark of a creative problem-solver, one who is unfazed by constraints but adapts herself/himself to get the maximum benefit out of the situation.   
  3. Adaptive Thinking, as the term implies, indicates thinking while performing. This is different from thinking in an environment of calm reflection. This is why it becomes important to develop Adaptive Thinking skills through deliberation. Under conditions of stress, it is human nature to react automatically, using approaches that come most naturally and effortlessly.
Hence, the military where situations can change their course within the blink of an eye train leaders and decision-makers on Adaptive Thinking skills. Expertise in Adaptive Thinking develops out of deliberate practice, which is at the heart of ATTM. 

Deliberate practice has the following characteristics: 
(Source: Think Like a Commander.PDF)  
  1. Repetition: Task performance occurs repetitively rather than at its naturally occurring frequency. A goal of deliberate practice is to develop habits that operate expertly and automatically.
  2. Focused feedback: Coaches/trainers are at hand to provide corrective feedback and help the learners model their behaviors.
  3. Immediacy of performance: After corrective feedback on performance, there is an immediate repetition so that the task can be performed more in accordance with expert norms.
  4. Stop and start: Because of the repetition and feedback, deliberate practice is typically seen as a series of short performances rather than a continuous flow. This series of iterative, feedback-driven practice instills confidence and takes away the stress.
  5. Emphasis on difficult aspects: Deliberate practice will focus on more difficult aspects. E.g., rarely occurring emergencies can be exercised frequently in deliberate practice.  
  6. Focus on areas of weakness: Deliberate practice can be tailored to the individual and focus on areas of weakness.
  7. Conscious focus: In deliberate practice, the learner may consciously attend to the element because improving performance at the task is more important in this situation than performing one’s best.
  8. Work vs play: Characteristically, deliberate practice feels more like work and is more effortful than casual performance. The motivation generally comes from a sense that one is improving in skill.
  9. Active Coaching: Typically, a coach must be very active during deliberate practice, monitoring performance, assessing adequacy, and controlling the structure of training.
Therefore, it is characteristic of deliberate practice to focus on behavior on does not do well; while during actual performance such behaviors are avoided as far as possible.
Now the question remains, how will this help knowledge workers deal with complex and chaotic challenges that are unprecedented? 

This is precisely the aim of Adaptive Thinking. It focuses on training how to think and what to think about rather than what to think. By including deliberate practice, ATTM ensures that leaders become comfortable with the approach. The situations can and will change but someone trained to “think on their feet” will be able to handle complexity with greater ease. 

In today’s workplace where Knowledge Work is characterized by:
  • Complexity
  • Ambiguity
  • Novelty
  • Diversity (of opinions, people, issues, domains, technology, etc.)
  • Information overload coupled with “not exactly what I need” syndrome
  • Vanishing shelf-life of knowledge
Adaptive Thinking seems to be one of the keys to handling the onslaught. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave your response to the post.

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