Accomodate different styles of thinking

I have an extremely bad memory. When I try thinking about complex multi-layered political situations, a bad memory means that even though I might have an extensive knowledge of all the details, I fail to see the complete structure, because I can only think of one aspect of it at a time. When I move to the next aspect, the one I discovered before begins to fade already (What consoles me a bit is that research has found bad memory often to be linked with high creativity – in a brain that isn’t cluttered with sights of the past, there is a lot of space for new things).

While the last entry talks about some things that Net-Map does in groups, this is about a very personal experience that I make when mapping out things on my own – and in my individual interviews I have seen some of my interview-partners go through similar experiences. This is about using visualization to work with the fact that our minds are no machines. Even if people have all the facts they need, real understanding can only develop, if they can structure the facts and attach meaning to them.

Let me share some examples, how I saw different people use Net-Map, accommodating their different styles of thinking and getting to a higher understanding through it:

  1. The complex structural thinker with the bad memory (i.e. me): When using Net-Map you have all the answers to the past questions in front of you, while adding more answers to the same picture. Thus, without going back in your notes and just by looking at the evolving picture, you can understand, how specific patterns of informal and formal links overlap, how links, goals and influence of actors relate to each other and after putting it down in front of you, you have emptied your mind of thinking about details and can move to a higher level, where you interpret the picture to find specific structures and develop appropriate strategies.
  2. The one who knows too much to focus: In terms of memory, this would normally be the opposite of me, someone who has such a good memory that she would find everyone and their cousin to be involved in the network and knows so much about the specificities of each and every relationship and role, that she is completely overwhelmed and finds it difficult, to prioritize. I had interviewees who would mention over 45 actors to be involved in a governance activity where their colleagues only saw 20-25. Here Net-Map helps with two steps: By adding everyone (including the cousins) to the Net-Map, you acknowledge the complexity of the situation and the linkages. But by putting the actors on influence towers you learn to cut it down to a manageable size: Typically, in these over-complex networks, about a third of the actors were rated as “having no influence at all”. However, the effort of mapping out the whole structure is not wasted, because especially for strategic network planning, it is very important to broaden the perspective and think about potential future roles for actors who are not important at the moment.
  3. The one who thinks in terms of individuals, not structures: Some people tend to see individual interactions just as that, individual interactions and don’t normally look at the bigger picture. That makes them effective in their day to day activities but means that they might not realize their full potential in terms of strategic planning or political maneuvering. Also, they will waste a lot of energy on finding individual solutions again and again to problems that might be structural. Typically they would start the interview with a very small number of actors (maybe 6 or 7 in the same study where the over-complex thinkers thought of up to 47). By discussing and drawing all individual actors and links into the same map, they slowly build up the complexity of the picture and tend to add actors throughout the interview. Because they have drawn this structure by just adding simple individual components, the complex outcome tends to be still understandable to them and they can develop stronger skills in understanding and reacting to structures.

When you read this, you might think about your own style of thinking. Does it fall into these three groups? Or is there something else about the specific way your mind is structured that helps you to draw something from Net-Map? For me, these are all fresh thoughts and observations and I would be thrilled to get your views or experiences to broaden my perspective.

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