Is there (always) a Step 0?

Examples and consideration of the unstated prerequisites of life.

(For those long-time readers of this blog, you’re familiar with my oft rant about prerequisites, but this take is about the unstated ones.)

I was thinking about part of the leadership workshop that didn’t really work for me. All the ideas made sense and the logic, justification and relevance were all fine, but it just didn’t ‘feel’ right for me. When I encounter such situations I try to go back to the basics and see if there’s some assumption about the situation (or a Step 0) that I don’t have or have missed.  I’m not sure what it is in this case, but I’m pretty confident there is something.  I’ll have to think more about it.

But then I was thinking about other situations and how that this hidden Step 0. was often a very important part of the eventual success. For example:

The practice of mise en place in cooking, where before you start the steps of a recipe, you get out all the equipment you’ll need and prep all the ingredients. I use this when I cook at home and find it makes the process much more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.  In contrast, when another member of my family cooks, they take on a more ‘just-in-time’ approach, prepping each ingredient as needed. They often seem much more frustrated with the cooking experience, and sometimes it impacts the results.

The role of assumptions in mathematics in general and in statistics in particular in answering basic questions. For example, if asked what the probability of rolling a single pip on a standard die, to get the expected answer of 1/6, there’s a long list of assumptions that have to be made about the die, the physics of rolling, the roller, etc.  This example is simple and common enough that most wouldn’t worry about these assumptions, but for more complicated situations, it is essential to clearly state all of them.

Anything based on a long-time tradition, e.g. anything within a religious tradition, where the standard interpretation or set of actions depends on a specific worldview.   I think my leadership workshop issue falls under this situation.

So then my thoughts go to wondering if most/all solutions depend on this background, a.k.a. Step 0? And, if so, then how can we effectively identify what it is?

My thought is that since there are a limited number of absolutes that all agree on, that, except in the most simple of cases, there is always a Step 0. Then the challenge becomes identifying what it is. I think you always need an expert in this case, i.e. someone who studies the situation and process and reflects on it, to provide some broader insight into the context and how the solution plays out. The key value is for the expert not to just be good at whatever it is, but to have spent time thinking about what it is (and isn’t) and how it fits in the world. The expert has to either have been or played the role of a foreigner to the world that produced the result. An expert in probability who ‘just gets it’, would never think of all the things that go into the rolling of a die, unless they deliberately stepped outside of what they understand about probability and looked at it through the eyes of another.

For our own practice, this means for those areas in which we are experts, we need to step outside and view the area as an outsider. This could be done through deliberate reflection, along with working with newcomers and those with different perspectives. Teaching is a great way to do this, as long as you pay attention to those Step 0 gaps that show up. For example, when I explain a new idea and a student doesn’t ‘get’ it, I can look at what ideas the student is building their understanding from and see if there’s a gap or if there’s some fundamental misunderstanding.

Another point of action is that once we have identified these Step 0s to remember that they exist and incorporate them appropriately in our practice. For example, if I find a specific type of gap shows up in a particular lesson, then I can either fill that gap as part of the lesson, or use part of the lesson to ‘discover’ the gap and help the students fill it on their own. The remembering part means that I’ll have to do this every time I teach the lesson.

Unstated assumptions or steps (Step 0s) exist and can greatly influence the outcome of an effort, so it worth our while to try to identify them and to regularly incorporate them into our work.


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