Progressive Place

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Three-dimensional thinking in a Triple Bottom Line world

How to think in three dimensions in a Triple Bottom Line world

Rather than back into my subject from a tangent, as I usually do, I'll state the topics of this article:
1. Triple Bottom Line, but only briefly
2. My three-dimensional mental model, and how I learned it
3. The three-dimensional world we live in, as the natural way to perceive, analyze, and share our thinking, rather than the prevailing linear way
4. The intriguing and eclectic perspectives at, and why this is more related than it sounds.

Here's my typical online experience. At a Green Entrepreneurship conference at Temple U. yesterday, I was doodling possible designs for a Triple Bottom Line logo. I wrote the characters 3BL, then BL3, as in, BL-Cubed, on a sketch of a cube, as though on an alphabet block. I decided to do a web search when I got home, to see "what's out there."

I quickly found that 3BL© is a copyrighted logo of some accounting organization. That's okay; I like BL-Cubed better anyway, because I learned long ago to organize my mental space into three-dimensional patterns, to match the world I live in. Similarly, I envision Triple Bottom Line not as a simple extension, but as a geometric expansion, of the simplistic— dare I say, primitive? — single bottom line concept.

The search led me to a concept called Book3, or Book-Cubed, in a website called
It combines it's creator's vision for saving our nation from decline, with his approach to structuring information for presentation and learning. I read the Book3 introduction with growing excitement. Maybe this was the tool I've searched years for, where I could map concepts and issues during development, then to present to others, the way I see them in my mind: in interlinked, 3-dimensional patterns of elements and relationships.

When I analyze an issue, I tend to form a 3-dimensional mental picture that spreads the elements out into a network of linked arrays, like a stacked set of interconnected charts. This allows for a more detailed representation, more rigorous analysis, and more comprehensive and defensible conclusions. On the flip side, it can create a monster headache, as offshoots of emotion and misinformation weave an inconclusive, contradictory, and paralyzing tangle.

Always a literary, artsy type, I only learned this discipline well into adulthood. At age 32 I was forced by circumstance to become a computer programmer (long story deleted). I learned the useful discipline of structured analysis, and applied it happily to numerous computer systems tasks. After about two years, I found myself, quite effortlessly, using structured analysis to construct a 3-dimensional mental model of every complex issue I encountered.

Numerous side benefits began to appear. Of course, my everyday problem-solving skills had taken a giant leap forward. I also found I could now sketch the kind of accurate perspective views that had always escaped me in Art class. As a baritone, always singing the harmony and not the melody, I could immediately mimic almost any harmonic line, however obscure or unfamiliar. But now I could anticipate, even create, complex harmonic structures. It's been proven that young children who learn to play a two-handed musical instrument gained a lifelong cognitive advantage in math, science, and other fields of abstract analysis. Had I, by brute force, re-wired my brain to overcome my early skill deficiencies?

I eventually quit programming to became a technical writer, and draw on both sides of my now more balanced brain. This is when I saw, for the first time, that my three-dimensional mental model is a more accurate view of the world than I had before, and is a very useful and natural way to think. I was soon struck by how many people don't constuct three-dimensional mental pictures. Whether they haven't learned, or have forgotten, or just don't bother, I don't know. I do know that I'd gone through 16 years of formal education, and don't recall ever having encountered this incredibly useful discipline, or anything like it.

A problem remains: I still don't have a visual space where I can store a partially-constucted mental model, outside of my brain, where the connections won't fade, and where my overactive right-brain won't re-arrange them in countless tangles of less-relevant relationships. I've tried pencil-and-paper grids on multiple pages, and tabletops filled with sticky notes, and multi-page Visio charts, and mind-mapping programs on the computer. The mind-mapping was the best, although I gave that up when I found the response so slow and the framework so awkward, that I ended up analyzing the process, and losing track of the purpose.

So, what about Book-Cubed? While it may be a useful interface for hierarchical presentation, it's still visually flat, and leaves too much context out of the picture. Because it's not actually a cube, it fails its promise. The physical reality we live in has three dimensions. Because we're all accustomed to living in that reality, it's the logical and familiar paradigm for laying out our mental terrain. Until something better comes along, that is.

The content of also intrigued me, and I'll have to give it a lot of thought before I can comment. I will say that, two years ago, I could not have imagined a hotly contested presidential race between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. Maybe many of us in the US agree with Andrew Schmookler, and are ready to create ways to bring his dark vision into the light. If you want to know more, visit the website:

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