Jeff Kessler (make-up post)
It was easy to divide the ‘Thinking in Levels’ paper into two distinct parts: one that described the concept of thinking levels and one that sung its praises. More so than any paper yet, I don’t think this one needed the second part to make strong points.
The “emergent view” of levels, for me, has been a way to gauge comprehensive understanding of a system. The easier it is to determine differnt emergent levels and describe the relationship between them, the more I feel mastery of a system. In other words, looking at a system in terms of hierarchical levels is analagous to rote memorization, whereas looking at the same system in terms of emergent levels is like having license to manipulate and understand the system.
The company-hierarchy example that the paper was particularly striking. At my first job after undergrad I spent a lot of mental energy understanding the way that both the company and the manufacturing supply chain were organized. This was thinking in hierarchical levels. At the same time, I focused on my day-to-day engineering R&D activities, zooming in on my individual process as one of over a hundred engineers, as well as paying attention to the process of others around me. All along, there was something very dissatisfying about my job but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Eventually – years into the job – I realized that the reason I didn’t like it was the fact that my performance felt completely decoupled from the success of the company, or even the product line I was working on. And it wasn’t because my performance comprised a proportional part of my department’s performance, which in turn comprised a proportional part of the company’s. Instead, it was because the emergent levels of organizational trends that came out of, but transcended the company’s “org chart.” Water cooler conversations, rumors, and social interactions that added up to create the company’s culture added an entire layer, decoupled from project assignments and management hierarchy. Morale and culture trends surfaced as an additional level, because no one works in a vacuum, and in the case of my job greatly reduced the effectiveness of individuals.
Not until years later did I start to look at these trends as a relevant, analyzable, barometer of what makes a company successful besides hiring smart people and training them well. As an engineer, it’s easy to work at the lowest level without surveying the big picture and direction of a project, department, or company. Even as an adult, I’m still learning to think on multiple levels at once, and how actions on one level can affect the other. Being able to do so – which I’ve learned more about since coming to Stanford – can change effectiveness and impact much more than just working hard at a single problem and being good at math. With the ability to manipulate a system and do thought experiments, you can use that system – and the resources within it – to do so much more.
This “social levels” concept, which is new to me but probably old hat to sociologists, extends itself conceptually to the educational space. Looking at a student’s test scores is different from looking at that student’s learning process, but these are worlds apart from how that student’s attitude towards learning affects the entire classroom, and how the teacher’s performance and contributions to his or her department affects his or her colleages, and so on.
I had never been trained to look at non-scientific systems in terms of levels, and stumbled into this sort of thinking years later. Not every student grows up to be a hard scientist, engineer or mathematician, just as not every student grows up to be a sociologist. However, introducing all of these students to “Thinking in Levels” in both technical and social mechanisms will better prepare those students to think critically and more effectively manipulate the world they inherit.