Putting Theory to Use

How do we keep up with centuries of ideas in today’s fast-paced times? Authors of bestseller, The Decision Book, give us an insight…

LILA: Thank you for participating in this issue of Inter-Actions, themed EDUCATION. You have gained worldwide acclaim for your books ‘The Decision Book’ and ‘The Communication Book’, among others, that grab readers’ imagination by presenting complex theories in a concise, comprehensive and visual manner. What were the origins of these books? How did you come to engage with a variety of theories in this manner?  

Mikael and Roman: The origin of all our books is pure curiosity. And lack of knowledge. In the case of ‘The Decision Book’, it struck us that we both struggle with making decisions. Not only the big, life-changing decisions like where to live or who to marry, but everyday decisions too, like what to wear, what to watch on Netflix, what to order at the bar, etc. So we wanted to find out what scientists had to say about making decisions and if there are any proven methods that could help us.  The result of our search was The Decision Book. We wrote it primarily for ourselves 😉 

LILA: You both went to the same school, Kaospilot, together. This is an interesting space for us to discuss as we think about education. Can you tell us a little bit about your time there? Was your experience of education significantly different in this space? How did it shape your ideas and work? 

Mikael and Roman: The starting point of Kaospilot is this: The whole world is in chaos – politically, financially, ethically, and actually, also privately – so what if we educate our students to navigate that chaos? So, the focus is on the so-called “soft skills”: How do I lead other people? How do I lead myself? How do I analyse a complex topic and how do I communicate it? How do I think and work and live ethically – and how do I walk the talk? These are deep, difficult questions that seem pretty useless when you leave school. But the older we get, the more we think of them and the things we were taught at Kaospilot.  

Here is one fairly simple but important thing we learned at Kaospilot: When we encounter chaos, our brain seeks ways to structure it, to see through it, or at least to gain an overview of it. And design is a way to do so. Most people remember a symbol better than a sentence. Most people will recognise a pattern better in a visual than in a text. We are visual people. Models – diagrams, or sketches as we use them in our books – is a simple way to reduce the complexity of any given topic by leaving out a lot and concentrating on the essence. Critics like to point out that models do not reflect reality. That is true, but it is wrong to claim that they compel us to think in a prescribed way. Models do not define what or how we should think; they are the result of thinking. 

LILA: Do you think design as a thought methodology has gained higher significance in our fast-paced lives? What do you see its role today as well as in the foreseeable future?  

Mikael and Roman: That is an interesting thought. Quite frankly, we don’t know. We assume design thinking has always played an important role in communicating messages. But it might be true that tools like Instagram, YouTube and of course PowerPoint have emphasised visual thinking today. 

LILA: The Decision Book is put together as a workbook, that not only distills the theories and models for its readers, but also suggests activities that can help apply these theories to lived experiences. How does this inform your understanding of readers/learners/audiences in the contemporary times? Can you provide an insight into the readers of the 21st century? 

Mikael and Roman: We actually don’t know “the” reader of the 21st century. He might not even exist. What we do know is that theory has to be put in use. That’s the fun of it. Of course you can just read about intuitive decision methods, but you can also try them out. And our books encourages readers to engage. These are ‘work-books’. You can try out the models, fill them in, cross them out, change them or even improve them. We always say: models are methods, they do not provide answers, they ask questions; and answers emerge once you have used the models, i.e. worked with them. 

LILA: Do you see the need to have shorter, easy-to-read books as a symptom of a lack of intellectual engagement in the public space, or an indicator of varied interests, even as people continue to be engaged otherwise?  

Mikael and Roman: What if the opposite is true? In a dynamic, super fast, sometimes shockingly shallow culture, there is a huge demand for deep work, deep thinking and deep knowledge. Our approach of easy-to-read food for thought is meant as an appetiser for deep knowledge. Reading our book should ideally lead to new questions.  

LILA: In our age of technological advancement and increasing digitisation, people are constantly advertised instant knowledge and instant results, a trope your books successfully avoid, despite their succinct format. How important is it for you to capture the complexities and nuances of the various theories you talk about in your books? How do you achieve this? 

Mikael and Roman: That is indeed a huge challenge. And we are aware of the fact that our super condensed summaries and diagrams do not capture a whole theory. But we always read the original material and try to give a correct, if shortened, version of it, which would ideally lead people to reading the real deal.   

LILA: We noticed that you have always avoided making PowerPoint presentations, and instead use the traditional chalk and board in your workshops and talks. Why did you choose this mode of presentations? Can you elaborate on your thoughts behind this decision?  

Mikael and Roman: Yes, haha! We aren’t too fond of PowerPoint… it’s always the same, and we all already stare at our screens the whole day. Why then stare at a big screen when there is an actual person talking to you on stage? It’s always a relief for everyone in the audience when at a conference, after 8 sets of PowerPoint presentations, we roll in with our old school blackboard. 

Also, we realised that something magical happens when we use chalk and a blackboard – one of us talks and the other draws, and the drawing perfectly accompanies the words, and vice versa. Since you can’t draw so fast, we need to talk a little bit slower. Through this process, the thoughts ‘develop’ slowly on the blackboard  – and in the minds of the audience.  

LILA: Beyond personal success in communication, there is a larger issue of the society — communication between ideologies, nations, histories, etc. How can the personal be enhanced into the larger space of humanity? Would the formulae change then, when the power struggle affects not the negotiating individuals but millions who are not directly involved?  

Mikael and Roman: Paradoxically, in our age of constant communication, the raw material of conversation has actually disappeared: listening. And that is true in a personal setting as well as in conversations between ideologies or nations. 

LILA: In such a context, what’s the education that governance thinkers and leaders necessarily need? 

Mikael and Roman: Maybe kindergarten? Because all we ever need to know when it comes to communication and collaboration, we were taught in kindergarten:  
Share everything. Be kind. Say hello and thank you. Make eye contact when apologising. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Stick together. Be aware of wonder.  

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
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