Perception shifting: Consolidating learned experience into action

Notes on exploring experience consolidation in organizational and personal contexts

Sunday, June 27, 2021

In James Stanier’s book on engineering management, he talks about how weekly summaries of your team’s work during the week can help you debug and find solutions to issues:

Writing weekly summaries is the closest thing that I have found to [software debugging] in a managerial role. Often when I’ve had multiple issues whirring around my brain, the act of committing them to paper has enabled me to be more logical and clearer in my thinking, thus unlocking the solution.

Doing a weekly summary gets you out of an autopilot state where you’re just aware of issues that are happening (and might be working on them ad-hoc) but haven’t had the space to figure them out, and shifts you into a different mode of thinking where you can consolidate your experiences.

It provides you a perception shift to detach from the moving current of everyday experience, coalesce those experiences and make sense of them, and organize that current of experience into logical objects that are easier to mentally work with them and find solutions to. Experience becomes real when consolidated.

For me, it’s a very visceral experience where I’m able to more clearly see what’s going on and how to solve problems, which made me interested to study and think about it further, figure out why it works, and find out if there are other similar experiences that very viscerally bring you out of the normal current of experience and give you a fresh perception.

(My use of the term consolidation is somewhat derived from its use in Sebastian Marshall and Kai Zau’s Gateless and Marshall’s Ikigai.)

Consolidation for course corrections

This is important because inside autopilot isn’t where we make our most important course corrections. In the course of progress of something – a project, company, life chapter, or career – there are certain moments where you come to a realization, usually backed by experience that has coalesced in some way with a certain level of confidence, that tells you something that causes you to see things differently, and most likely leads to an action. In most cases, this also leads you to committing to an action or course correction, instead of sorta-knowing that you should head in that direction.

Shifts in perception and modes of thinking, from autopilot to consolidation, are a way to trigger these realizations and course corrections, so they can be powerful tools since they not only have a short-term effect in how you see things, but the outcomes of consolidating experiences can also have a long-term effect on perception.

We should probably try to:

  • Increase the frequency that we consolidate and course correct. Assuming that more frequent course corrections are better to a degree, we should have more of these realizations to respond faster to the environment and our learned experience – to maximize the gains from getting experience.
  • Decrease the lag time between becoming aware of something (an issue, a learning) and consolidating learned experience. When we become semi-aware of something, we should both try to remember it (or record it somewhere) to make sure it’s considered, and soon thereafter, provided enough information, consolidate that into experience.

In practice in the organizational context

How do we put this into practice? I don’t have any great answers yet, since I’m just starting to explore this and have limited learnings, so the quality of the thinking in the sections below is pretty basic and you shouldn’t expect to get that much out of it. But here’s the starting point:

Organizations operate on autopilot too. How can you set up your organization to consolidate more frequently and reduce the lag time between semi-awareness to consolidation? Some practices that end up leading to consolidation actually stem from more mundane management work, like status updates or performance reviews, but I think there’s more we can do to build intentional activities that lead to consolidation, both in creating the space for consolidation, as well as employing that space in the right way to bring about consolidation.

Certain methodologies such as Agile do a pretty good job of creating the space for consolidation (e.g. through retrospectives and some types of standups), though often the way those spaces can be used can range from going-through-the-motions to actually effective. We have to go further than creating space, and employ that space in the right way. I think this mainly stems from knowing how to ask the right questions that are expressly intended to cause a perception shift and require the consolidation of experience. Things such as: “What’s the most frequent anti-pattern that you see in our team’s work?” or “What types of work do we do that have the highest outcome leverage, and why, and how can we do it better?”

Not forgetting is also a tactical element that should be considered. Having an easy way to record experiences and semi-awarenesses that occur so they can be referenced later is useful, since some of these semi-awarenesses can be lost in the current of experience. Finally, while we’ve talked a lot about backward-looking things such as asking questions for consolidation, we should also consider forward-looking practices that can increase the frequency of semi-awarenesses to maximize consolidation as well (e.g. telling people on a team that it’s important to the team to notice anti-patterns when they come up and to record them.)

In practice in the personal context

Journaling is the clear analogue of management-related weekly summaries in the personal context, and the benefits of journaling for giving you space to figure things out are well-known. The same benefits of using that space in the right way, like asking the right directed questions, also apply. I don’t know what the best questions are, but there is likely already a lot figured out in terms of useful journaling prompts.

Environment shifts also tend to be pretty useful in bringing about perspective shifts, though they don’t always directly cause consolidation, but they can bring about semi-awarenesses. Changing surroundings, traveling, talking to people with a very different outlook, and changing sources of media and information are examples; there is most likely a way to design your life to maximize the frequency of semi-awarenesses, consolidations, and realizations.

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, mental models, and strategy.