Weblog Entries for February 2011
February 21, 2011
links for 2011-02-21
When a pianist prepares the wrong piece for a concert, what is she to do when the orchestra strikes up with something else? A stunning example of improvisation found by Chris Corrigan.
February 20, 2011
links for 2011-02-20
More tasty blogging from Dwight Towers: He spots this from a book on how communities respond to disasters: "In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human beings in times of disasters has little truth to it."
"What defines complex problems is that to solve them, a person has to think not only about what he believes the right answer is, but also about what other people think the right answers might be"
February 19, 2011
links for 2011-02-19
Fascinating set of examples of how we can be "primed". Simple things that appear to make us more or less smart on tests, and more besides
February 14, 2011
Socialising around deviance
Dwight Towers spotted this lovely article: bring the outliers inside. It's based on the book Positive Deviance. Dwight picked out a lovely Nasrudin parable to illustrate how easy it is to miss the answers that are right before our eyes. There are some other real world examples where looking at outliers helps people - often with no status as entrepreneurs or inventors - to solve serious real world problems.
My eye was caught by the analysis of the relative capacity of magpies and robin to break open milk bottle tops and steal the cream. It seems that when foil tops were introduced, a few birds of both species figured out the solution. With robins, it remained just the clever few. The explanation?
The contrast between robins and magpies is instructive. Robins are highly territorial, live comparatively isolated lives and vocalize primarily to demark their territory.But millions of magpies caught on.
The magpie, by way of contrast, is highly social and leverages its intelligence accordingly. Magpies, with a brain-to-overall-body-weight ratio only slightly lower than that of humans, exhibit unusual levels of social awareness... Magpies are gregarious in winter, gather to roost at night and collect in rooks as large as 65,000 birds during mating season. They team up in bands to tease cats and dive-bomb predators. Demonstrating empathy and social altruism, cooperative breeding occurs from time to time, with additional adults helping to raise nestlings. Young magpies even play elaborate social games, including king of the mountain, passing sticks and sliding down smooth surfaces. They can work collectively to lift garbage bin lids as members take turns feeding. It was observed that one flock figured out how to crack nuts by placing them in crosswalks, letting passing cars break the husks, and waiting for the red light before safely retrieving the contents.Big lesson there for humans. Possibly not for intellectual property fans.
Bohm on Creativity
I've been drawn to the work of David Bohm for a long time. He brings together ideas from physics, philosophy and meditation. His thinking is deep, to the extent I'm not quite sure I fully comprehend it - in a way that keeps me engaged rather than putting me off.
I'm just reading a collection of his essays on creativity. I'll just make a few observations on some of what I've enjoyed so far.
I like how he relates creativity to the perception of higher levels of order, and (and as I understand it) sees true creativity as the expression of a natural urge to comprehend higher levels of order... as something noble and beautiful.
Thus it can be seen that nature is a creative process, in which not merely new structures, but also new orders of structure are always emerging.
Elsewhere in his work, Bohm sets the bar high in his definition of what constitutes thinking. He suggests that much of what passes for thought in our lives is really the repetition of conditioned responses, provoked by old feelings. He labels those as "felts" rather than thoughts. I think this more rareified idea of what thinking is relates closely to his conception of creativity.
He has some fascinating things to say about the limits of mechanistic models, such as this:
But, after all, for thousands of years people have been led to believe that anything and everything can be obtained if only one has the right techniques and methods. What is needed is to be aware of the ease with which the mind slips comfortably back into this age old pattern. Certain kinds of thing can be achieved by techniques and formulae, but originality and creativity are not among these. The act of seeing this deeply (and not merely verbally or intellectually) is also the act in which originality and creativity can be born.
One my mantras is "notice more, change less". Bohm appears to me to emphasise creativity as an act of discovery rather than of manufacture. He argues that when we try to force change we commit an error of perception:
..a preconceived idea of producing social harmony is in reality just as mechanical and arbitrary as is the chaotic state of conflicting orders which it aims to eliminate... What is really needed to create a genuinely new order in any field whatsover... is that state of mind that is continually and unceasingly observant of the fact of the order of the medium in which one is working.Somewhere in there is perhaps the reason I distrust so much of what I read about innovation processes: on the surface, they claim to champion novelty, but often what I sense is really an attempt to impose power.
Daniel Pink suggests that explaining the purpose of work can have a dramatic effect on productivity: Have you ever asked yourself why you're in business?
Good stuff. It's something that easily gets lost in meetings when people get too obsessed with action and don't make enough room to connect with the meanings and feelings of those present.
Last year I was involved helping an international organisation implement a new management structure. (This counts as pretty heavy lifting for someone like me). Much of the energy went into explaining the "how" of the new approach, with lots of work on detailed protocols and systems. The "why" was addressed to some degree but without much feeling.
You can probably imagine the sense of reluctance of many participants, and the tendency to get bogged down in territorial disputes.
A major turning point came when one of those involved spoke for about 15 minutes about how he felt about it, connecting it to his passion about the work and the value the approach might bring. He didn't get into the details but he conveyed with passion why those details mattered.
And he had something else you can't learn from a textbook: he had authenticity - it was easy to believe him; and he had humility - you could feel you were not being harangued and you weren't being "motivated" as a technique.
This much more personal statement had a big impact, much as those reported by Pink did. But I think the tone was every bit as important as the content. And it helped a lot that this organisation itself had a purpose beyond money within which such an appeal could be framed.
Dwight Towers has a fascinating post comparing the results of the famous Milgram experiements (in which people were alarming willing to inflict suffering on others at the behest of authority) with other work and stories demonstrating a quite different aspect of human nature. Lots of food for thought.
James Gardner has a good post about innovation by taking things away. He uses the example of Dropbox, which has been hugely successful by keeping things simple.
The pressure is usually on to keep adding things. I feel this lots of the time in the run up to meetings, where the various parties keep wanting to add new bits of process to the event. I often feel I earn most of my fee for my ability to invent new and polite ways to say no to these suggestions.
I'm reminded of Csikszentmihalyi's injunction (in his book Good Business):
One of the key tasks of management is to create an organization that stimulates the complexity of those who belong to it.When we overcomplicate a system, we actually interfere with human's ability to do clever things with it.
The other area of my life where I'd like to see some of this kind of taking away is in retailing. I'll take WH Smith as the worst offender. I want them to remove the candy-gauntlet through which I walk to the till. This absurd rat run takes up lots of space. And even when you get to the end, they make their staff ask every customer to buy a pound bag of sweets at the checkout. I dare say this has some apparent bottom line advantage, but it comes at a human price. It makes me feel embarrassed for the staff and I can't imagine it does anything for their morale. And it means I avoid WH Smith like the plague whenever I can.
February 13, 2011
Learning is not a parcel
I'm about to embark on a three-week road trip working with teams of faciliators to share experiences and develop skills. I now hesitate to call it training, especially after reading Harold Jarche's post - Training Evaluation: a mug’s game. Harold links to this spendidly fierce post by Dan Pontefract, a pushback to something called the Kirkpatrick Four Levels™ Evaluation Model.
Anything to do with learning that bears a ™ tends to put me in a critical frame of mind for starters. I find it hard to associate the joy of learning with intellectual property chastity belts. And to be honest, I find the presence of ™ correlates fairly positively with banality.
Echoing Dan, I feel rather miserable reading statements like this:
any successful initiative starts with a clear definition of the desired outcomes.It's management speak and it's a wild overclaim for a world of complexity and the unexpected.
Both Dan and Harold argue for a far more social way of understanding how learning happens in organisations.
I can understand why management feels pressure to prove some return on investment, but this is a game with unintended consequences. The pressure is on participants to establish they have been "good" learners by affecting to have taken delivery of profound "outcomes" whether they have or haven't. It puts learners in a childlike position vis-a-vis the training which results in either good boy (thank you, mummy, for that valuable lesson) or bad boy (delete your own expletive) behaviour in response. We end up in the same world as that I talk about in this post on commitment ceremonies.
Learning is not a FedEx package that you sign for at the door. Learning happens on its own schedule. We often realise the significance of events long after their original impact, and may actually continue to revise what we think the lesson is as our lives unfold.
I can see that for some training you might well want to set practical tests and evaluations. But for soft skills, I would put much more emphasis on supporting peer-to-peer sharing and support. Reducing things to models may comfort management that it's doing something but easily gets in the way of people's intrinsic desire to learn and to socialise.
Not doing role play
Paul Clarke muses on the morality of his own eavesdropping. Interesting stuff.
As someone who works in training/facilitation I was quite engaged by the eavesdropped rail employee, who was in recovery from a recent course.
I cringed a little both for him and also for whoever ran the course. It's no fun trying to cajole people into activities. It's no fun being cajoled. I do try to make all such things optional as the most sane route through this.
The prospect of "role play" is likely to strike dread into someone's heart in any group. Done with sensitivity it can create more exciting learning than any amount of theory or argument. It's a question of people feeling able to get to the edge of, but not outside, their comfort zone. And that means having the option to watch and not play.
What's interesting is people who "don't do role play" often opt to watch from the sidelines. And then find themselves expressing strong opinions on the scene they're watching... and with that engagement, they'll often be up for having a go after all.
Mind you, if the scene is all about classifying customers by some four-part colour scheme, I'd probably be outside the room with the train guard having a grumble myself.
February 8, 2011
Belonging in groups
Tenneson Woolf writes some thoughts about how to create resiliency in groups. Some good ideas here. I've been reflecting in particular on these: letting go of "aloneness" and its sister:
Belonging -- Presume connection until apprehended. With colleagues. With community. With purpose.I that's one I need to practice more!
I also liked Tim Merry's aphorism:
Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.
Hat tip: Geoff Brown's tweet
My little robot
What if you had a tiny personal robot that gave you outrageous compliments all day long?I tweeted about it this morning, and what comes in the post an hour or two later? My own one!
A great little social object.
February 7, 2011
Innovation for what?
I really liked what Tim Kastelle says here. He asks us to think about what innovation is for.. something that seems left unsaid in a lot of writing on the topic. For me, talk about innovation as an abstraction becomes quite grating. You can come up with all the brainstorming techniques and stage gates and whatever you like, but without a connection to need or purpose, it can all get very dispiriting.
He links to this fun talk by Jane McGonigal:
Tim Kastelle writes about the problem with solutions - essentially that they stop us from thinking. He argues for leaving problems open for longer. (I sometimes talk about the danger of "premature encapsulation", where we force meetings to conclusions too hurriedly).
He goes on to share some diagrams showing divergence and convergence and I notice I feel troubled. It's easy to idealise a process as if everyone in the room should be on the same schedule... right now we should all be diverging; and now we should all be in the middle bit, and now let's all converge. This feels quite uncomfortable to me and many meetings get interesting results without the need for this kind of discipline.
And who's to say the meeting should converge at all? Sometimes schisms and disputes may prove to be a useful part of a wider creative process.
Of course, any constraint has the potential to spark creativity but I'm personally quite cautious about closing the field in these ways.
Confusion is not ignorance
Because any information can mean a variety of things, meaning cannot simply be discovered. Information does not help. We have to talk! Many meetings that are directed at the problems of ambiguity fail to handle it because potentially rich views are silenced by autocratic leadership, norms that encourage harmony or reluctance to admit that one has no idea what is going on.
The perils of "evidence-based"
Ben Goldacre has some interesting thoughts about what gets in the way of medicine being truly "evidence based". Much the same would apply outside medicine. There are so many places in the system for failure to interfere.
I also wanted to go off a slight tangent, prompted by this from Ben:
I often glaze over a bit when people break processes down into completely obvious components like this (it feels like they might be angling for some dismal management role)...He suggests the current example is an exception but his general precept sratches an itch for me. I see a lot of management documents and they often break tasks and projects down into numbered or bulleted lists. These are often written in quite jargon-laden language and provoke a visceral dislike in me. I associate them in some way with a kind of power grab.
And it reminds me of the stuff I blogged some time back about the work of John Clippinger. He talks about language as grooming, and points out the pitfalls of what he calls "high register" (roughly, very precise and technical) language which often thwarts collaboration.
The people writing these things may have the best of intentions but I think they often create stress, resistance and resentment that may not be measured but it is very costly.
February 4, 2011
links for 2011-02-04
"The modern business meeting, however, might better be compared with a funeral, inthe sense that you have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothingand would rather be somewhere else. The major difference is that most funerals have adefinite purpose. Also, nothing is really ever buried in a meeting." Hat tip: Dave Pollard.
February 2, 2011
links for 2011-02-02
I wrote before about glorified job titles being offered as substitutes for real rewards... Hat tip to Dwight Towers
Loved this from Chris Corrigan:
I see it all the time, where cultivated and well-raised people stumble in the wild land of chaos and open space. Whether it is the tourist in the forest who complains against the mud or the leader in an organization, community or country (like Egypt) who clings to the illusion of confidence and control and who cannot make friends with the wild and the chaotic.
In the film, Local Hero, Burt Lancaster's oil tycoon employs a therapist to taunt him repeatedly to keep him real. The therapist resorts to ever more extreme tactics, ending up abseiling down the side of Lancaster's skyscraper to emblazon his office window with some excoriating message.
Hugh does a slightly less bonkers and more uplifting version of that, not so much to make you humble as to wake you up. Some of what he says is brilliant, some I wasn't convinced about (I'm wary of the sackcloth and ashes about hours, but do get the value of persistence).
But the main thing is this: it left me with some good questions about what I'm trying to do with my life and how I'm going about it. There's an underlying message about sticking to your passion, cutting out distractions and taking risks. It's the artist's way, and Hugh lives and breathes it.
In our (understandable and necessary) pursuit of High Performance we make the seemingly obvious assumption that we might achieve our objective were we somehow able to eliminate chaos, confusion and conflict. Indeed we have devoted massive efforts designing, re-designing, training and fixing our multiple human systems in the sure and certain hope that someday we will get it right. But our experience to date has not been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed it often seems that the harder we try the worse it gets. Specifically – when we attempt the good old problem/solution approach we discover that the problem solved reveals a deeper and worse one. It seems that our focus has been too narrow, blindsiding us to the deeper puddle into which we are about to fall.I breathed a big sigh reading this, as I think it points to the struggle we face trying to put ordered systems into a world that appears to have other plans. I keep coming back to the thought that everything is connected to everything, and any solution we come up with is necessarily going to be imperfect. So maybe we can invest a little less energy in the fear of disorder and relax our efforts to create perfect meetings or organisations.
February 1, 2011
links for 2011-02-01
If you set aside any prejudice, one way or another, about the Big Society Project, I think "Convene, Curate, Narrate" is quite a handy moniker for change. I especially agree with Steve's idea mocking the idea of a grand narrative.
Some interesting stuff about what makes deliberate practice.