Are you fooling yourself? 5 ways to check if you REALLY understand something.

Pondering the cosmos? Check your understanding.

What many of us call understanding is often times something else, a parroting of information e.g., some blog post we read somewhere or in some corporate circles what’s sometimes called domain knowledge (an ossification of old truisms). This is human nature — we all want to seem smart and up to date and like pioneers in our fields. But rates of information intake vs. synthesis are unfavorable (we read much without proper time to process it fully). We’re moving closer to a mode of existence where we’re literally always online. It takes time and reflection to integrate new ideas into our existing knowledge and pass it through the imagination. So here’s some thoughts on processes to keep ourselves honest that I sometimes use.

First a definition I’ve always liked that we used to use in the lab when I was doing research is that to truly understand a thing is to have the ability to make a prediction. So if you think you know the mechanism by which some experiment is operating you should be able to design an experiment exploiting this knowledge and predict the outcome. Turns out this is not easy.

R. Feynman on knowing vs. understanding

Anyway, to really understand a thing in the marrow is to discover, to extend prediction beyond the horizon. Sometimes the understanding is axiomatic: think Newton’s laws. And sometimes its intuitive: think Steve jobs‘ ’knack for product development. Either way it’s important to codify rules and stress test them for ourselves. Following the rules of others may or may not work. It’s important to have a theory vs. simply repeating the concept, or even the equation if we are to come up with better ideas in the future.

So a game I’ll sometimes will play with myself is to take some topic and check my understanding. Getting explicit really helps clear the fog. So for example I will sometimes ask in relation to some topic:

* What can I predict what will happen next/tomorrow.
* What can I predict that my peers cannot? Then ask: How did I know? Can I define it? Can I repeat this prediction or was it luck?
 * If it was repeatable, how would I communicate the rule to someone else?
 * How can I this to achieve my goals, or perhaps to outsmart the competition?

Turning to business, a practical way to check one’s understanding that I’ve loved and used over the years is to use Andy Grove’s (former CEO of Intel) stagger chart. This is straight out of High Output Management. Here’s a hypothetical one generated for unit sales on a widget:

An example of a stagger chart, based on High Output Management by A. Grove

Looking across the chart tells you the n-month forecast. Looking down the chart tells you how the forecast is changing over time. The red numbers are the ‘actuals’. Taking November unit sales we can see that the forecast has gotten worse over time in terms of moving farther from the actual of 212. In contrast December has improved. In this case it’s possible the team has some misalignment in business drivers and expectations. Regardless the reason this could be an indicator to dig in and see what’s going on.

The key takeaway here is it’s important to implement a feedback mechanism for oneself, for an organization to check for understanding. This will keep objective reality a value and minimize getting blindsided by the latest fancy tweet or theory. In practice this leads to a sharpening of the thought-process around current outcomes and helps us generate better new ideas moving forward.

So how do you check for your own understanding?