Based in Mahone Bay, nova scotia, agile libre is an independent publisher of technical books about the subsurface.  

Get a helicopter not a hammer

Science is built upon the ability to continually challenge, change, and refine our understanding of everything, but within a framework that respects what can be proven through controlled, repeatable, and documented analysis. Geological principles such as uniformitarianism, plate tectonics, evolution, and sequence stratigraphy are the result of detailed observation and measurement, but they have subsequently been proven and refined by scientific experiment with controls, constants, and mathematical theory. Geology’s credentials as a science are solid, but there are issues which perhaps we could all take as ‘areas for improvement’ in the way we work, communicate, and conduct ourselves as geologists.

Geo-engineers working at the sharp end of geology — planning and drilling oil wells — often complain that geologists have too many arms. They claim that the geologist’s answer to any emerging issue is always that ‘on one hand it could be this, on the other hand it could be that, or it may be something else.’ In other words, the geological model is constantly being updated with the latest data. In this sense geologists are being responsible scientists, but as an applied tool a constantly shifting base model can be the last thing that’s required when all you want is help solving the current challenge. 

Some economists question why companies drill exploration wells when the probability of a hydrocarbon discovery is on average less than 40 percent. Wouldn’t the huge costs be better invested buying into existing secured volumes? With a bigger picture — a helicopter view — this is a flawed model since eventually you’ll run out of existing volumes, but better communication of the risks and uncertainties in our work are certainly required at all levels.

Most geologists use their hammers (and brains) to dig deep pits of knowledge, sometimes referred to as academic silos. The deeper they get the more interesting things are for the individual and the harder it gets for the rest of us to relate to them. The more focused the individual gets, the narrower their field of view and the more restricted their overview of what the rest of us are up to. Discipline expertise is often what you need from someone, but more vital and harder to find is the competence and experience to frame and communicate a skill set within the bigger picture of the task at hand.

Focus on the level of information the investor, manager, co-worker, client, or audience actually requires. This bigger picture or helicopter view should be paramount otherwise the final outcome is likely to be that the work and its conclusions will be ignored, unused, or even discredited. If the recipient does not quickly and easily see the value in them, framed within the needs of their task, they will turn to other sources for support. 

To achieve a helicopter view, the specific needs of the audience, customer, or colleague must be identified as early as possible.

  • The timing and deadlines should be identified and the experience level of the audience or recipient should be assessed.
  • How much time the audience or recipient has to absorb the results and conclusions should be determined.
  • What does the customer need?
  • Is a verbal confirmation within five minutes or a short practical presentation of facts or conclusions all that is needed?
  • Perhaps a single page document or diagram should be emailed as the audience does not have time to read more. Many people appear to believe the product must always be a thesis of 200-plus pages in the most complex technical jargon possible; this is almost always not what is required.

Perhaps the most simple rule here is to ask yourself the control question, ‘is this the product I want to deliver, or is it the delivery the audience/customer needed and asked for?’ Even the most world-leading, groundbreaking geologist must put their ego to one side, assess the bigger context, and identify the needs of their audience if they wish to improve the communication of and application of their conclusions.

A walk through time, part 2

Geophysics is all around