Robin Skitt

robin skitt@2x

I believe I am an atypical student at Radford. I have retired after forty years of working in the corporate world. My area of expertise was quantitative models and statistics. Three of the companies I worked for were leaders in their industries (Procter & Gamble, Peabody Energy and Whirlpool). My assignments touched almost every functional business area, including government relations.

I have also been fortunate to get nearly all of my bucket list done early. Being a “flatlander” from Indiana, I learned to ski and visited many great ski areas in the Rockies and the Sierrra. Sailing was exciting in that I raced boats from small two-person craft on inland lakes, to six person crews on Lake Michigan. I learned to fly and hold a commercial license for powered planes and also learned to fly gliders. My current hobby is my horse. This is most rewarding because of the interaction with another thinking, feeling being.

With that behind, I am now able to pursue my passion, which is to help people learn to function well in the current and future environment. My belief is that we must stop thinking of our environment as a collection of parts with minimal interaction. Many of the solutions put forth for today’s problems are simply looking at only a small part of the system involved. The subject of Complex Adaptive Systems provides a much more accurate view of reality. Design Thinking is a critical tool for operating in Complex Adaptive Systems. Based on a deep understanding of the members of a system, recognizing multiple points of view, and testing alternatives in the real world, Design Thinking is the tool required to confront our challenges.

I hope to be able to contribute to spreading knowledge and understanding the need for Design Thinking and the practice of applying it to help improve the future of coming generations.




* The figure in the top left is a plot of the Lorenz Attractor, derived from the early work of Edward Lorenz in modeling weather. Some call this the beginning of Chaos Theory. There are three variables in this model. When viewed individually they look random. When viewed as a whole, they display this beautiful pattern. The message is that chaotic systems usually have patterns that are knowable and useful.


This is a difficult and interesting assignment. I have not viewed my experiences through this lense in the past. This leads me to explore many personal feelings. So, I understand your comment that people seem to share some deep insights in this assignment. I took the liberty of selecting some key terms that were not in the list at the end of the chapter. Also, I found that these subjects are somewhat interrelated, which is not surprising since they are all part of the same system.


On page 36 neuroscience is the study of the entire nervous system. This is a holistic study of how the activities of the brain can impact the whole being. I was introduced to this term several years ago when I found that the Dalai Lama had instituted an on-going study of the effects of meditation on the human experience. Yearly a group of neuroscientist and Buddhist scholars gathered to dialogue on the intersection of these two concepts.

One of the early findings was that the brains of Buddhist monks were very different that the average person. This is one of the beginnings of the idea of neuroplasticity which will be discussed later. The metaphor used here was that the brain is similar to a muscle. It will physically change in response to the exercises done by the person. This effort gave rise to the term Contemplative Science. Interestingly, I found that there is a Center for Contemplative Science at UVa, and that there is a section of this center focused on Design Thinking. In addition, there is a section of the center that researches place, both natural and built environments.


Neuroplasticity is defined on page 38 as the ability of the brain to adapt to changes in the thought patterns of the person, and to physical changes brought on by injury and disease. The brain is in a continual process of making new connections and pruning those that are not used. A classic example is the overdevelopment of the hippocampus in London taxi drivers because of the requirement to be able to navigate the city from memory.

I believe I witnessed this phenomena in my younger son. In his elementary years in school he had a significant anger problem. He would regularly erupt when he was required to switch tasks. We tried different school settings in an attempt to deal with the problem. He endured several detentions because of this. At a point in his time in middle school I believe he realized that this behavior was not serving his goals, and there was a dramatic change in his behavior. From that point on he handled some very tense situations with calm and reasoned responses.

This seems to me to be an example of a person consciously choosing to change the way they think. Over time I believe that he was able to turn off the circuit in his brain that led to his tirades and redirect those impulses to an area that allowed him to deal with the stress in a more positive manner.

One area that has interested me is the source of creativity. In the article from the Guardian, it is conjectured that creativity comes from the ability of the brain to form connections between various areas of the brain that store knowledge and experiences. This is closely related to plasticity. The ability to bring together disparate ideas and concepts is the basis for creativity.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

On page 38 the text introduces the idea that each side of the brain is responsible for different tasks. My research led me to an article which indicated that the differences between the hemispheres is exaggerated. That brain function is most accurately characterized as networks that are constructed by each person’s use of their brain. There are differences in the functions of various areas but they are organized differently in all of us.

In my experience the bigger question is; How best to use the whole brain? Because of the demands of industrial work, doing repetitive task in conjunction with a machine, our education and work experiences have not exercised the creative capabilities and therefore we lose them. Daniel Pink’s Book, A Whole New Mind, makes the point that creative thinking is required in the future. Also, this realization is put forth in changes needed in higher education in books like Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovative University. Educators are not only using Design Thinking to design new programs, but many are using it as a teaching method to encourage students to develop their creative thinking skills.

Daniel Pink, and others, makes the case that the future will require more creative and innovative thinking. Many of the skills taught in traditional schools are being taken over by computers or lower salaried people in developing countries. It is imperative for the next generation to be able to use their whole brain.

Cognitive Disorders

Cognitive Disorders and impairments were discussed on page 44, with examples of test anxiety and immobilization by fear. In my experience, the biggest cognitive disorder is self-induced. It is that people have been taught, over and over, not to be creative. These messages are reinforced by classroom and work environments that are specifically designed to inhibit this behavior. There are many articles on how and why we are not as creative as we should be. First and foremost, as mentioned in the last section, is that we are taught not to be creative in our

schools and workplaces. Add to this the fact that certain medications in general use can impact this function, as well as technology that takes the place of stimulating activities we could otherwise engage in.

A big factor that we lose as we age is the ability to play. In almost every book or video on creativity emphasize that play and laughter is absolutely necessary for creative work. The absence of play is again, a relic of the Industrial Age where people were reprimanded for smiling and fired for laughing on Henry Ford’s production line.


Neurochemicals are described on page 41 of the text as chemicals that facilitate or modulate signals passing between neurons in the brain. Along with the structure of the brain, these chemicals determine how the brain functions. Many serious problems with behavior and emotions have been traced to unusual levels of certain neurochemicals in people’s system. Problems such as obesity, depression, PTSD, manic/depressive have been found to be treatable through the neurochemical balance in our body.

Simon Sinek has recently talked about the fact that many people are getting addicted to new technologies. The interactions with others stimulates the release of dopamine, making them feel very good and making them want more. This situation, along with a somewhat poor preparation for the real world, is a recipe for depression. This is the same process that produces addiction to other substances that produce dopamine in our systems.

We all need to be cognizant of how these chemicals work and how, and why, they are produced. They can be very powerful and create situations that can produce negative outcomes.

Limbic System

On page 38 the Limbic systems is discussed. This part of the brain is the oldest and most primitive, sometimes called the “reptilian brain.” This is the seat of our survival instincts, learned across the centuries, and most of our emotional memories and responses. This area of the brain has received much attention lately. Marketing people understand that if they can make their product or message elicit an emotional response, they have a better chance of gaining a loyal customer.

Simon Sinek, in Start with Why, advises all of us to lead with why we do things, not what we do, because that message has direct impact on the Limbic brain. This is his core concept in his theory of leadership. People are more likely to follow you if they agree with why you are going in a certain direction.

The Limbic area also strongly impacts our decision making. Experiences are stored in this area that can be called back subconsciously to make decisions in a split memory from which athletes react correctly without thought. I have experienced this phenomenon several times. The most surprising instance was when I was taking an aerobatic flying lesson. On the way back to the airport, the tower asked us to hurry down the final approach because a passenger plane was behind us. To do this a pilot must do two things, 1. Increase power, and 2. trim the nose down to keep descending. This was a plane I had not flown before, but I instinctively reached for the trim handle (even though it was located in a different position from my own plane) and maintained the descent rate as we hurried to land and clear the runway. After the flight, I was amazed how automatically I responded in this situation.



The Amygdala, described on page 38, is a part of the limbic system that has a very large part in survival instincts. It signals the endocrine system to prepare us for a fight or flight response. This response is very strong, and it is sometimes hard to control. I experience this every so often when riding my horse. There is a distinctive feeling when the horse senses something that starts their survival instinct. The rider immediately knows that the horse is no longer listening to them, and is about to take evasive action.

I have been riding for many years now, and am cautiously confident that I can control my horse in these situations, or at least stay seated while we get to a safe place. However, the amygdala still sends out the signal, my heart rate and blood pressure go up, and I prepare for action.


On page 45 the author discusses dyslexia along with other learning disabilities. Dyslexia is a disturbance in the ability of the brain to respond to written language. The very interesting fact is that many people with dyslexia are very creative. Most attribute their success to the condition rather than seeing it as a problem. They develop creative methods to cope with the condition, which translates into creative ways to deal with the environment as a whole.

This seems similar to neuroplasticity in that the brain reorganizes to deal with deficiencies in one area. People who lose one of their senses are likely to be extra sensitive in another. To me these facts reinforce to idea that all people need to learn in their own way, and at their own pace. The education system that assumes that all must move along at the same pace, doing the same tasks, is robbing people of their future and robbing society of the talents of many. We can learn much from the strategies that dyslexic people use to deal with the world.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are defined on page 44 as an inability to interpret incoming stimuli, or processing the stimuli differently from the majority of the population. This became very personal to me in an unusual way. About ten years ago, a friend encouraged me to take an IQ test for membership in Mensa. I contacted a psychologist who gave such tests. The test I was given had two parts, general reasoning ability and the ability to apply the reasoning power. The results were that my scores were well above the threshold for Mensa membership, but the two scores differed by an amount that would classify me as having a learning disability.

It is easy for me to understand how this situation was not recognized previously. In addition, it explains the difficulty I have in applying some of my learnings. For example, in my undergraduate studies I became very interested in optimization models. I understood the examples in the texts and was able to do all of the problems assigned. However, when I went out to the real world I could not find applications, or could not determine how to formulate a real-world problem appropriately.

Later I worked at Procter & Gamble where we worked on large mixed-integer optimization models regularly. After gaining that understanding I went on to have an article published in a refereed journal on a new approach to a vehicle routing problem. This experience has made me sensitive to people who seem to need a bit more time to understand a process or procedure. Simply because people do not understand at first, does not indicate that they are incapable of learning. This applies to schools where all students are expected to progress at the same rate.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

On pager 46 the text defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as diminished capabilities in all developmental pathways. This subject is very special to me because my older son, Landon, is on the spectrum and knowledge of this disorder has shed light on several mysteries about myself and my family.

Landon had a difficult birth and was given oxygen for the first day of his life. His speech was delayed and we suspected something was wrong right then. We took him to the University of Michigan when he was two, and received the diagnosis. As described in the text, Landon is extremely sensitive to certain types of stimulation. He exhibits an exceptional memory for the subjects he is interested in.

The Young Adult program and Project Search were programs that helped prepare him for life. He was exemplary in his work assignments at Bronson Hospital. Currently he is employed part time at a local McDonalds, where they provide a consistent work schedule and environment. This experience has taught me how people are “differently able.” Landon has the potential to do more complicated work, but it will take an employer who is willing to understand his condition and work with him to provide an environment that is comfortable for him.

There was a very creative group of researchers that created a room to simulate autism for teachers in one school district. The room had flashing strobe lights, very loud music and a film of a lecture playing on one wall. The researchers asked the teachers to watch the lecture and take a quiz afterwards. Their scores were not good. It has also shed light on other behaviors in myself and my family. Like most conditions, autism does have an hereditary aspect. My family has never been very emotional or emotionally open. I strongly suspect that autism may have played a part in that situation.

One of the inspirational authors I uncovered is Temple Grandin. She is a person with ASD, who obtained a PhD in animal behavior and is now a professor at Colorado State. She is known for her extreme empathy for the animals and for her ability to explain autism to the public.




Wallace, B. A. (2009). Contemplative science: where Buddhism and neuroscience converge. New York: Columbia University Press.

Neuro Plasticity

Begley, Sharon (2007). Train Your Mind, Change your Brain, New York: Ballantine books,

Left vs Right Brain

Pink, Daniel H. (2006). A Whole New Mind. New York: Riverhead Books.

Christensen, Clayton M., Eyring, Henry J. (2011). The Innovative University, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ackoff, Russell L., Greenberg, Daniel (2008). Turning Learning Right Side up. Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cognitive Disorders


Limbic System

Sinek, Simon (2009). Start With Why. New York: Penguin Group.

Klein, Gary (2013). Seeing What Others Don’t. Philadelphia: Perseus Books Group.



Learning Disabilities

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Montgomery, Sy, Grandin, Temple (2012). Temple Grandin: How the Girl who Loved Cows, Embraced Autism, Changed the World. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.