Teaching Students Resourcefulness Skills

November 6, 2012

Being resourceful means being able to get the information and results you need.  It takes practice, but is a skill that is of benefit in many areas of life.

Problem Solving Success results from a combination of:

  • Necessity  (This problem has to be solved.)
  • Knowledge (Underlying Principles have to be understood.)
  • Resourcefulness/Creativity  (Open-mindedness and confidence when a solution is not obvious.)
  • Persistence (Relentless effort)

Steps to be  Resourceful:

  • Evaluate a proposal.
  • Realize that mistakes and choosing wrong directions are inherent in the process.
  • Take action.
  • After each attempt, use the experience to pick up a clue from the result, make a change and try again.  Working Questions may help change the perspective and pick up a new lead.  A new lead is crucial; a common frustrating mistake is to just keep trying the same thing again.
  • Repeat.

Working Questions–Put aside the current approach and consider these questions:

  • What requirements are not met by the current proposal?
  • What is your goal?
  • Where is the effort most needed.  Is that where it is being put?
  • What are other perspectives on the problem?
  • What are other ways of thinking about resources?

Forward: What resources are  required and not currently available?

Backward: What can be done differently with the resources available?

  • Who has information to contribute a different skill or perspective?
  • What is one more idea to try?
  • Has a similar problem been solved by someone else or in a different context?
  • How can search engines be used effectively?

The first choice of search terms is often not the most effective.

Use the results of the initial effort to identify more appropriate key words)

Consider searching “images” .  This can be an efficient way to scan information.

Learn and apply advanced search techniques to focus search results.

Eliminating Mental Bias (Cognitive) Decision Errors

March 5, 2007

“The decision made sense at the time.

How did we get stuck with such a bad result?”

Good decisions look forward to the future in an unbiased way. However, human decision makers tend to hold to the present and their individual perspective. The unrecognized clash of these two facts often leads to a mediocre decision and poor results.

In order to increase the likelihood of making the best decision in the future, watch for this clash. The first step toward improvement is become aware of these biases. Then, deliberately make an effort to change behavior in order to compensate for them.

Here are five specific examples of mental biases followed with suggestion actions to compensate and help make a better decision.

Examples of holding to the present.

1. Giving disproportionate weight to the first information received.

The initial set of facts, by virtue of their familiarity, tend to be reassuring. Consequently when additional information is received, the new information is evaluated against a higher standard and may not be properly considered. Make the effort to fully value the new information.

2. Favoring choices that allow current conditions to continue.

The status quo also has its familiarity. There is often pressure to continue with the current path. It is important to value the current situation objectively. Question if the current situation, evaluated on its own merits, would be selected now or continued.

3. Favoring choices that justify previous decisions or actions.

There is a tendency to make choices that confirm previous actions, even if the earlier decisions or actions were flawed. This bias can lead to a compounding of errors and a deteriorating situation. It is particularly important to guard against this bias since the negative consequences can be so severe. An opinion from someone not involved in the previous actions can serve to provide objective balance.

Examples of Individual Perspectives.

4. Selecting Confirming Evidence.
It is natural to favor information that supports the individual view. It is very easy to ignore, or not fully evaluate, information that does not fit well into one’s perspective. Make the effort to ensure that all the information is being examined fairly. Allow others to fully evaluate all the facts.

5. Asking the decision question in a distorted way.

Very often, the questions leading to a decision are posed in a misleading way that emphasizes one preferred direction. Then, the discussion follows the logical consequences of the biased question. Check to see if the question has been properly formulated in a neutral way and revise if necessary.


It is important to keep in mind that the above five examples of mental bias are simply behavior habits. Such habits only contribute to a poor decision when people are not aware of them. Watch for these tendencies and make adjustments when possible. It is far more rewarding to catch these behaviors as they happen rather than deal with a poor result influenced by mental errors.

Other articles in this series can be found by clicking the Thinking /Perception Skills category in the right box or through the links below:

(2) Use of Working Theories

(3) Listening for Consequences

(4) Put Aside the First Idea




These types of decision errors can often be traced to the tendency to mentally hold on to old ideas that interfere with appropriate responses to the present situation. A different perspective to this type of attachment can be seen in the Zen story Two Monks and a Woman.




Great Ideas Going Nowhere–Getting Projects Launched

October 16, 2006

Great ideas often go nowhere. The idea may have merit, relevance, and a capable persistent champion. At the beginning, there is a burst of enthusiasm. Then, at an early stage, there is an unanticipated obstacle, momentum is lost, and time passes the proposal by.

Plan for obstacles and opposition. The likelihood of success is increased by identifying alternate options in advance. These options increase flexibility to respond to unpredictable circumstances as they occur. Momentum can then be maintained.

Example—Ferdinand Magellan’s 1519 Expedition

Ferdinand Magellan’s idea for an expedition to the Spice Islands and circumnavigation of the earth is an example of multiple path planning. This expedition, at least as it is presented in introductory history, reads as if Magellan simply requested and was given the ships and the crew to sail west into the ocean. In fact, obtaining a commission for a fleet was a highly improbable long shot. In perspective, Magellan was a Portuguese expatriate trying to convince a hostile Spain to support his proposal rather than that of Spanish nationals. It took a lot of flexibility, cunning, politics, negotiating and luck to pull this off. The path from idea to approval of the fleet did not follow a predictable process. However, for the crucial elements, Magellan had multiple options. For example:

Two governments–The kings of Portugal and Spain, bitter rivals, had the opportunity to provide a charter for the expedition.

Both government and private risk brokers were involved in financial backing

A number of different goals appealed to the sponsors: Spices, land, glory, power over rivals, and the potential for huge wealth.

Assistance was obtained from Portuguese expatriates, alliances with rivals, court lobbyists and proprietary knowledge.

All of these options were used as the decision process played out into the final commission to launch the expedition. History remembers Magellan, not the ideas of his rivals. Of course, Magellan himself did not survive the expedition, but that is a story of execution (literally in this case).

Multiple Path Planning–Application to New Ideas

The process from idea to approval can not be expected to follow the initially proposed path. Increase the likelihood for success by planning multiple options.

1. Even before the idea is presented, identify the crucial elements needed for support.

2. Crucial elements are specific for a project, but may include sponsors, funding, schedules, expertise, and resources.

3. Although it at first may appear that there is only one option for each of these crucial elements, stretch to find others.

These options may not be needed, but can provide the flexibility to keep momentum when the obstacles are encountered and increase the chance the idea will progress to an actual project.

Multiple Path Planning stretches the thinking at an early stage in the process when planning has the most leverage on the activity. This stretching exercise is related to method of Put Aside the First Idea described earlier.

Solving Complex Problems–Put Aside the First Idea (4)

September 21, 2006

The most obvious idea is rarely the best approach to solve a persistent problem. It is true that most workday issues are straightforward and can be resolved in a more or less routine way. In these cases, the first ideas are usually good enough.

However, if a problem is of sufficient complexity to require more attention, then it is likely that there are more difficult or more subtle aspects than found in most routine problems. These persistent problems demand additional focus. If there were no unrecognized facets, the problem would not have grown to this proportion.

The different methods required to resolve these more complex problems are often not recognized or acknowledged. In many cases, the first idea, particularly if it originates from the boss, is seized and the creative energy shifts to the implementation. Time and resources are consumed. If the first approach works, fine. Often it does not, and the cycle of idea generation and implementation is repeated at higher cost.

It is extraordinarily difficult to break the habit of implementing the first idea.

That is where the lessons from the Oulipians can help. The Oulipo, a society founded in 1960 by writers, poets, and mathematicians, has an interest in the effect of self-imposed restrictions on the creation of literary texts. The literary work itself is generated with a specified rule in place. There are any number of good examples*: Lipograms–A full length novel that never uses the letter “e”; Snowballs–poems in which each word is one letter longer than the previous one; Tautograms–all words in the text begin and end with the same letter; Univocalism—only one vowel is used. Some experiments are astounding in ingenuity, others are less successful. One of the Oulipians’ objectives was to devise systems to ensure that writers did not run out of innovative possibilities. They also had a lot of fun.

So, how can their lessons be applied to generating solutions to real and difficult problems? The key is to add a restrictive condition to the analysis process and stick to it while searching for a solution. A very practical restriction for the problem-solving group (or individual) is an agreement to put aside the first serious approach without prejudice. In most cases, this decision often means to reject the first approach for the remainder of the discussion. Then, with this restriction, take a fresh mind to the work of analyzing the problem and generating new approaches. Although it will initially be uncomfortable, people will scratch harder, develop more insight into the problem, and allow more comprehensive solutions to emerge. The people can also have a lot of fun.

As an example, the groundskeepers at a golf course saw that one putting green was turning brown. A likely possibility was that additional water was needed. It was suggested that a week of watering would take care of the situation. However, before increasing the watering, the crew put aside the idea and investigated further. This analysis showed that the problem was due to an infestation from a pest. By putting aside the first suggestion, the green was restored to playing condition a week sooner.

This method has been used by many disciplined organizations. When it is introduced, it often takes a strong leader to maintain the restriction. Of course, some people will resist the approach. They may actually hold their first idea back and present others so that they can spring the pet later. Anyone can choose to game the system, but this only retards innovation.

A restricted form can catalyze innovation. Try it.

*Specific Examples: http://www.oulipocompendium.com

Getting and Giving Directions–Listening for Consequences (3)

August 24, 2006

Directions Example: Finding the Restaurant

A group of men approached me during a walk in the neighborhood last weekend and asked for directions to College Place. They were frustrated. They had asked at least a half a dozen people for directions with no success. I’ve lived here a long time and knew there was no street of that name.

But really, the men were on their way to a location not the street itself. I asked them where they were really trying to go. They were looking for a bar called the Cedar Tavern. The Cedar Tavern is well known and is on University Place.

Colleges, universities, sometimes a small distinction, but for this time it made a large difference!

Questions seem to demand direct answers. The first six people responded to the men’s questions at face value and to the best of their knowledge. However, it is likely that some of them did know the location of the Cedar, and would have been happy to provide it, but they did not see the full intent of the question.

This example brings up a useful technique to increase information in both home and business situations called “Consequential Listening”. It can be stated in one easily remembered sentence:

You can better understand what people are telling you when you also think about the consequences of what they are saying.

This response goes one step beyond responding to a direct question. Just the increased awareness of the listener increases the likelihood of getting a better result or a smarter decision.

Asking Better Questions

When it’s time to get information by asking questions, thinking about “Consequential Listening” from the questioner’s perspective can help you to formulate questions so that the answers have a better chance of providing high quality information.

In many cases, the opening question is often hit or miss. However, by considering the first answer, together with your own view of the desired outcome, follow-up questions can be guided to be more specific.

In the Cedar Tavern example above, the men, by considering the negative answers together with their goal, could have realized that the bar was more well known than the street and changed the question on their own.

One other point: Listening for Consequences differs from the technique known as active listing. Active listening focuses attention on the content speaker, with interactions to ensure understanding. Here, the listening exercise is to go beyond understanding and make the effort to synthesize or extrapolate the information into a more useful form.

Dealing with Contractors–“Working Theories” to Increase Perception (2)

August 20, 2006

The first post about increasing perception and reducing mental errors, including the background, can be found at Increase Perceptions (1).

This example shows the use of working theories applied to the evaluation of a physical renovation project done an outside contractor. The example is followed by a more general description of observation and working theories in order to apply the method to other situations.

At both work and home, we periodically contract people to do perform services. At home, it may be to remodel the kitchen, landscape, repair windows etc. The arrangements may be either formal or informal. There has to be a natural tension in the relationship since you want a quality product and the contractor needs to make a profit.


John has hired a contractor to remodel his kitchen. He is not be an expert in renovation, but he does have a clear idea of the appearance and function of the finished kitchen. However, if he inspects the job at the end and is not satisfied , there are few options still available to correct earlier errors or poor workmanship.

So, at regular intervals during the project, he can inspect the work. His attitude and preparation for these inspections are important factors for eventually getting the kitchen he expects. It is important that he does not view the inspection as a tour.

Think about the tours you may have gone on at a museusm or in a new city. The tour director is a wealth of information and is paid to give out the story. It really doesn’t matter if the details are accurate. There may be a few questions from the tourists, but since much of the information is new to the tourists, the director has ready answers.

At home, an inspection trip with a contractor who recounts the details of the job and its special problems is equivalent to a tour. The observed facts and explanations do not have a readily available reference standard. These one-sided inspections have marginal value in ensuring the quality of the work. Just looking at the job from the perspective of the contractor is like being on tour. John is at the mercy of the contractor and will get what he deserves.

It doesn’t matter that John is not an expert in the underlying details of the construction. If John has taken the time to develop a working theory to sharpen his perspective, he can be more fully engaged during the inspection with the contractor.

For example: Where does he expect the electrical outlets to be? What does he expect the plumbing to be made out of? When should the cabinets be installed to meet the schedule? John’s own answers to these types of questions are the basis of his working model for the kitchen inspection.

Armed with this information, when he does inspect the job, he has a basis to evaluate and discuss the observed facts and comments of the contractor.

Continuing the example, if John expected to see the cabinets installed and the cabinets are not even in the house, John can then probe further to determine if the job is behind schedule (a problem) or if he did not understand the construction order (an education).

The use of the working model has allowed him to be more fully engaged. Rather than wait until later to learn that the project is behind schedule, John’s use of a working model forced that information to surface sooner. On the other hand, if he were on a tour, the observation may be simply that the kitchen cabinets were not installed.

Working Theories

A working theory is quite simply your idea of what you expect to see when before you observe a physical situation. It provides a mental reference against which you can evaluate the actual situation. It is not essential that you working theory be accurate. It is the process of making and using it as a reference that allows you to focus your perception.

Perceptive Observation

Observation is taking in the facts of the situation to form a mental picture. Perceptive observation requires more than seeing. It requires identifying the differences between the observed facts and your own working theory. Once the differences are identified, you can really focus on understanding the reason for them and work to improve the project.

Application to other projects

Once you get into the habit of having your own mental picture for any project and then using it, the using working theories becomes second nature. Your baseline performance has been increased.. However, as noted, it can be used in areas in which you do not have experience!

Sometimes though, its fun to take a tour and see things without a reference point, like to experience art for example. Everything has its place.

What was I thinking! I knew that! Increase Perception and Reduce Mental Decision Errors (1)

August 8, 2006


Mental errors are the bane of decision making. You always have to pay for them twice. The first time is the poor outcome and the second is knowing you could do better. There are techniques you can use to sharpen perception and reduce errors. In a couple of posts that will be later be linked, at least 5 different techniques will be described. All of these are easily remembered and straightforward to apply. Some methods will be familiar and others new. The idea is to build awareness of the methods so that people at least have the option of using them.

Background–Mental Errors

The single most significant action to improve performance is to eliminate mental decision errors.

Mental decision errors are incorrect decisions that can directly lead to failures, inefficiencies, mistakes, or sub-optimal results. The error is considered mental, when with available facts together with the knowledge and capability of the individual, a more appropriate direction could have been reasonably selected. Excluded from this category of mental errors are situations in which required information was not available or that the analysis was beyond the expected capability of the individual.

During a review of a disappointing result, the recognition of a better approach is often met with comments such as “I knew that!” or “I could have done that” or “What was I thinking”. People have been repeating these exclamations since spelling tests in grade school!

The realization is that with a little more focus or concentration on the available facts, a different direction could have been chosen and a significantly better result been obtained.

However, the remedial action to correct the cause of the disappointing result too often addresses the specific failure. (Think about the number of times you had to copy the correct spelling of the offending words in those tests.) This approach has limited value since the same situation rarely presents itself again. Here, the emphasis is on general techniques that can be applied to new situations as they are encountered.

During a day, people encounter unique situations and make decisions continuously. Although most of these decision actions do not have significant consequences, experience has shown that some do have far reaching adverse results. The trick is to provide tools that will both allow the individual to routinely bring focus to any routine decisions and to increase the baseline level of performance in areas such listening, observation, and problem formulation.

All of these tools to increase perception are really parallel activities that are complementary to the task being done. The parallel activity adds the energy needed to focus more strongly on the task at hand. The potential benefits, both in achieved results and personal satisfaction, can be an extremely motivating force to give these methods a try.

That’s the background, detailed examples are in the links below or find them in the. Category: Thinking/Perception Skills:

(2) Use of Working Theories

(3) Listening for Consequences

(4) Put Aside the First Idea

(5) Eliminating (Cognitive) Mental Bias Decision Errors