Cluster-the-Dots


My wife is an emergency room nurse.  She has a theory that the trauma bay is more likely to be empty during a televised Chicago Bulls game. What makes her believe this? Enough patients over the years who've told her they waited until the game was over to call the ambulance. Add in the reflection on consistently realizing that the trauma bay was less busy when the Bulls played. Then add the predictions proving true after the theory had been developed. And then sharing the theory with co-workers...who share their experiences. (Confirmation bias, anyone?? lol)

So is my wife correct that her particular hospital emergency department occupancy is impacted by a basketball team's schedule? We don't know. Maybe the winter weather impacts it. Maybe the team's season's relative success is an added factor. But until you design the algorithm and input the data to disprove her, I'll believe her. I have nothing else to disprove her dozen years of experience! 

Our heads are filled with mental models - our personalized perceptions and depictions of how the world is designed, operates, morphs, connects, and interacts. They're constructed from our life experiences, the movies we watch, the books we read, the stories we hear, and the dreams we hold. They break apart, adapt, are retuned, and rebuilt. They evolve, shift, grow, and continually refine themselves. They're an ever-changing puzzle.

Mental models serve as a foundation for our primal, emotional decision-making, through subconscious patterns, biases, and intuition. We all have them. We all need them. We can't consciously decide to get rid of them. These mental models also serve a function in our higher-order critical thinking and decision-making. 

Dot are the pieces of data. They are the bits of knowledge, facts, and signals. When we combine the pieces together, we make connections between them. Through purposeful research, we attempt to find relationships between dots however complicated the network may be. Through experience, our brains do this automatically - whether accurately or not. Our minds form clusters. And we become more efficient (READ: lazy) decision-makers by relying on them to make sense of our surroundings and situations. 

It's been argued that we can be more intentional on confirming or challenging, not only the dots themselves, but the connections between them. This is accounted for in the scientific method, SARA, John Boyd's OODA, Double-Loop Thinking, and a laundry list of other models, frameworks, methods, and non-linear processes. My reality is such that we have so many patterns and clusters inside our subconscious, we will never be able to confirm all the links we have made over the years and decades of our existence. My reality is my limited perception from where I've been and what I've done. It will always be only a part of any orientation to reality. 

I want to talk more about these clusters...

Each dot represents a piece of information or knowledge. It can be something we know for absolute certainty. Maybe something we have extremely high belief in. Maybe something we aren't so sure about, but it's all we have. Maybe it's even something that's false or wrong. Maybe it's something that we want to believe. As such, the strength or intensity of dots lay on a spectrum of confidence. 

Each connection represents a relationship between dots. Again, something we know with absolutely certainty...down to something that we want to believe....or that is falsely correlated. These connections are based on a confidence spectrum from strong to weak (and maybe even wrong). 

Some clusters are strong and unbreakable. The information and connections withstand the tests of time and context. They can be universally applied across space, culture, situation, domain, function, or environment from situation-to-situation. Other clusters are weaker...yet are still generalized enough to be as universally applied.

Other clusters are more temporary or context specific. They apply well to certain time periods, situations, domains, environments, and functions. They may be very strong, accurate, or intense...but they quickly dissolve in a changing environment. The mental model was right for yesterday...but wrong for tomorrow.

I like to find those clusters where the dots and connections are known, strong, and predictable. These are, in Cynefin language, the Obvious and Complicated things. These are firm networks of various sizes. (Right now, I am envisioning unbreakable 3D molecules rotating through space.) And I believe these Obvious and Complicated clusters are found floating within the Complex and Chaotic spaces where relationships are less understood and more dynamic. Hopefully we can combine clusters into a new mental model - even if it becomes stale as the situation unfolds and requires us to break it apart and make a new one.

I've been thinking a lot about this as I've been more and more interested in criminal intelligence. The ideas of crime patterns or crime trends are nothing new. Now with predictive policing and data analysis, more and more information is being pumped into intelligence functions - both human and machine seeking the connections.

I'll long defend the human as a more effective (but maybe less efficient) clusterer-of-dots. This is because the human brings with him/her the collective clusters of a lived life - 20 years, 30 years, 50 years. The clusters are built through both passive and active means. We can't know what dots are being digested by our brains.

The experienced police detective might not realize the significance of the red high-tops, or the unique tattoo, or the frosted tips on the hairstyle, or the metallic finish of the gun. To him/her, any of those things might just be more "noise." Until it shows up again...and a small cluster is synthesized. A new mental model that leads him/her to connect something new with an existing cluster. Or maybe a match. Or a trend. Pieces of the puzzle might start falling into place.

As a young cop, I once made a burglary arrest by comparing a dusty shoe print on a door with a guy's shoes a few blocks away (before cellphone cameras, so by memory I'd like to add!). Since then, shoes have been a significant "dot" for me to place in criminal investigations. It was an emotional anecdotal experience that's stayed with me. I seek that "dot" in crimes whenever I can. It shouldn't come as a surprise that I've also solved crimes through tattoos, hairstyles, and seemingly insignificant firearm details that I've listed above. (For you young cops, you'll get there. For you old cops, you can surely recall some specific incident that added some dot-placement to your mental modeling...and that you ask about ever since!)  

Detectives know the power of open-ended inquiries. They walk the crime scene. They ask seemingly weird questions. They develop theories...multiple theories. They hunt for information that both confirm or conflicts with those theories. Clusters are strengthened or weakened. Hopefully, more clarity is brought to the situation. And beliefs are abandoned when disproved. To use the terminology of John Boyd, it brings one's orientation into symmetry with reality.

Then again, some dots just aren't all that significant. Not everything matters.

We'd grow weary if we tried to capture every single piece of data in our lives (assuming it was even possible). We can't predict how a dot may be found..or how that dot connects to something bigger. Or how it conflicts with how we previously clustered something. It might cause us to see something new.  Maybe drastically in a lightbulb moment. Or maybe it evolves more slowly over time, through exposure.

These clusters give us (at some level) better sense, perspective, understanding, predictability, and anticipation.
  • How do we ensure we are operating on patterns and clusters that are true?
  • How do we bring patterns and clusters into our rational, analytic brain function? 
  • How do we visualize or draw our mental models, clusters, or patterns? 
  • How do we spend our valuable time fleshing out dots and relationships to appropriately weld or dissolve the connections? 
  • How do we communicate, share, and describe our models, clusters, and patterns to others? 
I've been using the term cluster more and more often, and more intentionally lately. It resonates with me because I like to group things together. I have a framework that I believe to be firm, to which I can hang other clusters on. Sometimes clusters of clusters. Each with varying levels of confidence, durability, and strength. Even in the most complex or chaotic situations where dots are floating around and flashing before us, we can find clusters of familiarity to help us get on our feet and figure things out.

The heuristic makes sense to me. It might not make sense to you. Either way...I'd like to hear from you on how this resonates or irritates you. As with anything, the thoughts included in this blog are temporary. I invite you to change my mind. The conversation might help us both with refining our mental models to more closely represent reality. Whatever that is.

***



Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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