Thursday, February 25, 2016

Don't over-complicate the analysis

Reflecting on Black-Box thinking got me thinking about the process of analysis in which we become involved when we're trying to improve. It made me wonder if we don't sometimes over-complicate the process or more likely over-analyse things.

When I go to my practice sessions I usually go with a plan of sorts. I'll often think about it as I drive to the courts (you knew I was talking about tennis didn't you!). I might think about how I've been playing and what I want to try or where I want to focus my practice. We tend to do a series of drills planned by the coach, and I usually have something simple, almost generic in mind. It might be footwork, it might be contact point, it might be balance. It might even be a decision to hit cross-court or focus on my backhand.

I rarely have more than one or two things in my mind, and there are times when the plan goes out the window because the session opens the door to something I hadn't thought about. Other times I'm hitting so poorly that I have to ditch the plan in favour of focussing on the really basic principles of hitting the ball!

The things is, when you're actually playing a match, there isn't time to do detailed error detection and progressive correction. You just have to fix it, change something, find a way to get things working. That's one of the great joys and challenges of a game like tennis and also one of its great frustrations!

So keep it simple. Fix one thing. Change one thing. Don't fill your mind with all sorts of stuff. Don't try and check your footwork, body-work and racquet work in at the same time. Get your feet moving first, then your body and then your racquet.

I met a golf pro once who used to talk about the guy that sits at the front of your head and messes with your swing by asking if your grip is right, your take-away smooth, the club head doing whatever it's supposed to do. Too many things to think about. He used to say, "Give him one job to do." That one job might be to make sure you focus on the contact point until after the ball has gone, or it might be to get yourself balanced before you swing.

You'll be amazed at the difference it can make when you don't over complicate the process. After all, if you get the process right, everything else will fall into place. The ball will go where you mean to send it. Outcome follows process, so always focus on making the process work, and the best way to do that is by keep it as simple an uncomplicated as you possibly can.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Currently reading: Black-Box Thinking

I've just started reading Matthew Syed's "Black-Box Thinking" alongside Gray Cook's "Movement". Clearly two very different books, but it's good to be able to swap between them. In the past I've had anything up to 10 or more books on the go at any given time, mainly when I was researching and preparing. These days two is enough, although a new book dropped through the door today all about fascia and I'm tempted to have a dip into that. Oh, and I'm re-reading John Gibbons book about the glutes.

Black-Box Thinking is an interesting read so far. I'm only about 10% of the way through the book, so barely scratching the surface, but apart from maybe one too may anecdotal stories (I skimmed through the last on about WW2 bomber planes, but read enough to pick up the salient point of the story), I've enjoyed what I've read so far. The basic premise of the book concerns how we learn or don't learn from failure and errors.

The contrast is made between aviation and healthcare. Aviation has a very open culture that encourages the reporting of errors and failures and their investigation. The reason is simple enough: failures are data rich and learning opportunities for future failure or error avoidance. Through a series of stories this becomes very clear and very positive. Healthcare, by  contrast, is more inclined to conceal its errors and failures. The reasons for this are complex to the extent that they involve issues around litigation, perception of success and competence etc.

I'm not quite sure what you'd use to describe the opposite of Black-box thinking, but we probably all recognise when we see or hear. The other day I was listening the radio and they were discussing education. A report had suggested that the development of a northern powerhouse might be undermined by the apparent failures in education, particularly in secondary education. "Who's to blame?" was the question, a question typical of non-black-box thinking. It's a search for the scapegoat, and even those answering the question were guilty of the same pattern of thinking. One side says it's poor teachers, one side suggests it's poor leadership and eventually someone blames the government. Very little was said about solutions and opportunities to move forward. There was always a reason why it wasn't possible to do something positive. Maybe to was the way the discussion was arranged, maybe it was just a symptom of the kind of thinking the book describes as a closed loop approach.

It does make you think about your own approach to failure. As you know, I play tennis. Sometimes I play well, sometimes I don't. I lose a lot! I don't like losing, but it's part of the game and the simple truth is that there are a lot of tennis players who are very much better players than I am. I have played with and against another player who has been taking lessons for as long as I have and as regularly. When we first started playing we were pretty even. He would win some, I would win some. More recently I've beaten him consistently and, it has to be said, quite heavily (6-1, 6-0, that kind of thing). I've clearly improved more than he has. I think I know why.

Firstly, I own my errors and failures. I try not to make excuses, even if there's a valid reason why I played poorly. I know it's down to my technical execution of the shot and/or my choice of shot that lets me down. I also know when I'm playing a better player or a player who might not be significantly better, but who is certainly more experienced. I try to take my failure and process it into what I need to do in order to do better next time. It's a long process and it takes times, effort and application to practice the right things in the right way.

Secondly, I practice. I work as hard as I can to improve.

In contrast, my fellow student doesn't seem to play much differently now compared to how he played when we first met. He still makes the same errors, and he still makes as many as he did 4 or 5 years ago. When we talk about the game his approach is often to blame the court surface, the weather conditions, balls, the strings, his grip or his failure to "go for it", which usually means hitting it as hard as he can.

Perhaps that makes me more of a black-box thinker. I'll keep reading the book to find out!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Early thoughts on the European referendum

With the date of the in-out referendum announced I'm bracing myself for the long campaign and all the contradictory information that will assail us over the coming months. Already we've had Michael Gove saying Europe gets in the way of his being able to do his job day to day (some might suggest there are other reasons) and Michael Fallon saying it's not quite so.

Being part of a wider european community will undoubtedly have an impact on how we do things.  Any form of coalition does. Some have been positive some negative, often dependent upon your perspective. For example, most of our environmental legislation comes from Europe. If you're an organisation or company that would rather not have to contribute to clean air or water, then you might consider the regulations an interference. Similarly you might consider some of the regulations about working hours and conditions an unwelcome hurdle, blaming Europe for the red tape that you feel restricts your business.

The question we have to ask is whether we would have these regulations and rights, whether environmental or in other areas, were it not for our memberships of the European Union. Perhaps, as Stanley Johnson said on the news this morning, there will always be a price to pay for being part of a european community, but there is also great benefit too.

There's no doubt that the EU has morphed into something other than the free trade area that it was back in the 70's when we first joined and first had an in-out vote. There's also little doubt that there are many things about the present organisational structure of the community that need to be addressed and some questions about the overall destination of the process that need answers. Are we ultimately headed towards a United States of Europe? Is that what we want as Europeans not just as the UK?

I also wonder why there are not some simple principles about entitlements to things like benefits and health care that are either pan-european, i.e. a basic level of both applied across the community, or some structure that means your entitlement is based on your country of origin. Perhaps this already exists, perhaps these issues only actually exist in the minds of those who want us out. Perhaps the benefits and health questions are actually just red herrings in the debate.

I hope that over the next few months we get some real data and some real facts that make it possible to make a thoughtful decision rather than one based upon headlines and fear-driven speculations.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The China Study

So, what is the China Study I hear you ask! Well, it's a reasonably long text about nutrition and heath developed from a series of studies over a number of years. The big question is: Is it true? If it is, then there are some very serious and potentially life-changing decisions to be made by all of us about what we eat.

The book details a lot of information, which is fine but it is only presented from one perspective as you might expect and that perspective soon becomes pretty clear. Animal protein is the enemy, go vegetarian to avoid the major diseases of a typical Western diet.

If you do a quick search of the internet you will find plenty of counter arguments suggesting that the conclusions drawn ion the book are far from exact and even possibly unreliable. In the end you will either have to decide for yourself, based on doing a lot more research and background reading, or you will decide to trust the authors or dismiss them.

But before you do, you might want to do two things. First, you might want to dip into the book and read it. Second, you might want to think about the broader issues of diet and lifestyle that seem to precipitate the health issues we face and ask your own questions. Perhaps the book's conclusion are too narrow, too unproven, but to deny that our way of eating is linked to the state of our health would be to bury our heads in the proverbial sand.

Some of the research quoted is fascinating, and if true it is certainly cause for rethinking our eating habits. Generally we al know that a diet needs to be balanced, that fibre is important, fruit and vegetable are essential and that calorie dense, nutrient poor foods are bad for us. We just don't know what data is reliable and who to believe. Even the 5-a-day principle has no discernible scientific basis that I can track down. There's even talk about it ought to be 7 or 10.

So if the China Study does only one thing and that thing is to make us all think more carefully about how and what we eat, then that's a good thing. Maybe the jury is still out about the veracity of the data and the conclusions, but the fact remains that we are dying from diseases that are directly linked to our eating habits and lifestyle choices. Something needs to change, and it needs to change pretty soon.