Chunk your project

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Categories: chess, cognitive


This is a short blog post about a long-term view of project management.

And, it comes with some tips for becoming a better … chess player... or, whatever it is you want to become good at.

You (considering where you are reading this) probably want to become better at project management.  And if you could learn how to aid in the effort to boost sustainability, well, that would be nice, as well. 

The idea for this post came from a podcast called Inquiring Minds.  This was their episode 161 – “How to Become a Grandmaster Chess Champion”.  In this podcast (an excellent one – consider subscribing) the hosts interview Patrick Wolff, a chess Grandmaster. 

Wolff talks about a variety of subjects related to his rise to power in the world of chess, including the great debate about talent versus teachable skill.  And then, he mentions a technique he used called “chunking”. 

What is Chunking?

We explain with a ‘chunk’ taken from this article at The Mission.

Explainer: How Chunking Happens

Think about when you first started learning to read (or when you see a child learning to read). Although you didn’t realize it, you were chunking!

The first phase was learning that these random shapes you were seeing were actually a new concept called letters. You combined multiple things into one new thing. That is the essence of chunking. In this case, you combined shapes into a new chunk called letters.

As you developed mastery of letters, you learned that they could be combined into a new concept called words and that these words could be accessed automatically.

Over time, you continued additional levels of chunks. You realized that words could form word groups, which could form clauses, which could form sentences, which could ultimately form stories.

And voila! You suddenly had a new magical ability: the ability to read. You no longer had to sound out each letter. Where there used to be randomness, you now saw order.

This is more than just popular psychology.  In a 2015 article published by the International Society for Computational Biology, chunking is studied in detail.  Have a look at this paper's abstract: Learning of Chunking Sequences in Cognition and Behavior:

We often learn and recall long sequences in smaller segments, such as a phone number 858 534 22 30 memorized as four segments. Behavioral experiments suggest that humans and some animals employ this strategy of breaking down cognitive or behavioral sequences into chunks in a wide variety of tasks, but the dynamical principles of how this is achieved remains unknown. Here, we study the temporal dynamics of chunking for learning cognitive sequences in a chunking representation…

In the Inquiring Minds podcast, Wolff explains that he doesn’t see pawns, or knights, or even queens or kings.  He sees chunks.  Chunks of pieces in certain positions.  There’s even a video that shows Wolff excelling – or failing – at identifying, learning, and memorizing chess pieces when they are put in logical placement (that’s when he can chunk) or in random order (that’s when he fails).

If you’d like to learn about chunking through video, here’s a short animated explanation.

To cut to the chase, here is the connection.

So what’s the connection? Projects, like chess pieces, are smaller components of programs and portfolios.  If you can learn how projects fit into the larger picture, you are able to better understand how the chess board (the enterprise) works, and to better connect the benefits from a single project to the mission, vision and values of the overall enterprise.

I’m not taking anything away from projects, mind you.  Under your leadership, they are things of beauty, just as is a finely-carved knight in a collector’s chess set.  But your project is more important, more understandable, more beneficial, more sustainable if it is planned and managed in the context of the greater whole – as Andy Jordan says in a post here on projectmanagement.com just yesterday,

“Leadership must therefore be extremely clear on what the strategy is intended to deliver, with a focus on:

The long-term goals they wish to achieve in terms of market share, revenue, positioning (i.e. volume leader, quality niche, etc.), customer satisfaction, etc.

The internal improvements they expect to see: capabilities, efficiency, employee satisfaction, etc.

Stability and resilience: the primarily balance sheet performance that ensures long term survival and ability to grow.”

 

So… Queen to King's Rook 5, and “Chunk on”, project managers!

 

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: July 21, 2017 10:54 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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I'm a chunker! Thanks Richard.


I like the animation. (-:
I also teach during my spare time and this is a learning technique we teach our students due to a lot of information (information overload) they have to process in class. Thank you for sharing the article.

Thanks, chunkers (chunkies?) for your comments. I am looking at them as part of a greater whole. Seriously - I appreciate it!

Execellent reminder, we are dealing with project that are more complex then ever. Trying to resolve problem work better in chunk.

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