Tuesday, December 13, 2011

That Very Old Fashioned Idea - 'Truth'

I came across a story today (in an AFCEA Intelligence blog) that relates to an abiding interest: Language, Context, and Meaning. Here it is:

A biker is riding by the zoo, when he sees a little girl leaning into the lion's cage. Suddenly, the lion grabs her by the cuff of her jacket and tries to pull her inside to slaughter her, under the eyes of her screaming parents. 

The biker jumps off his bike, runs to the cage and hits the lion square on the nose with a powerful punch. Whimpering from the pain the lion jumps back letting go of the girl, and the biker brings her to her terrified parents, who thank him endlessly.

A reporter has seen the whole scene, and addressing the biker, says - Sir, this was the most gallant and brave thing I saw a man do in my whole life.

- Why, it was nothing, really, the lion was behind bars. I just saw this little kid in danger, and acted as I felt right.

- Well, I'll make sure this won't go unnoticed. I'm a journalist, you know, and tomorrow's papers will have this on the first page. What motorcycle do you ride?

- A Harley Davidson. The journalist leaves.

The following morning the biker buys the paper to see if it indeed brings news of his actions, and reads, on first page:


The headline is ‘accurate’, but totally misleading.  Accurate and misleading! The problem is with the representation (or rather misrepresentation) of the data.  Context is lacking, but knowing the context of the event was a zoo wouldn’t really create a more truthful picture. Looking at the wider context of modern journalism and the newspaper industry might give us a little more insight, but not much. 

The problem is that we are all at the mercy of those who create the representations. This is why my skepticism antenna go on full alert when I hear a term like evidence-based. You’re going to have to tell me a whole lot more about why the data was collected, who funded the project, and how the data was gathered. You might need to let me see and explore the data for myself without your contextual spin.

The root of the problem is that we live in the Age of Propaganda. Spin is not limited to politicians, but is rife throughout our culture. Misrepresentation and hype are not the sole province of PR, advertising, marketing, and pseudoscientists, but are endemic in human relationships. In so many of our business – and even personal - communications we have adopted the language of ‘strategy’, ‘tactic’, and ‘technique’.

And so, in our collaborations let’s not just be ‘accurate’, but truthful (if that sounds old fashioned to you, we should talk). Let’s not waste time and effort in playing language games. Let’s challenge doublespeak (“language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words” - source – Wikipedia), hyperbole, manipulative phrasing, important sounding – but meaningless – jargon, bias, euphemisms, and manipulatively emotional allusions that give us credibility by association – whether deserved or not.

The story about the biker could be read as a joke, and as such, it’s a pretty good one. It could also be read as an object lesson for us all. Am I being na├»ve? Sure, but naivety can open up spaces in which we can freshen up our thinking and conversations; spaces that experience would ignore because they are ‘unrealistic’.
One final word: When I did a web search about the joke, it was interesting how different groups had shape-shifted it to fit their own agenda. Instead of just a biker, I saw “republican biker’, a ‘right wing biker’, an Israeli, a US Marine, and Canadian soldier!  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fascinating Look Into The Connected World

Cisco published the results of a survey back in late September which has only just bubbled up to the surface of my world - The Cisco Connected World Technology Report. Those surveyed were 1,141 college students (age 18-24) and 1,412 employees (age 21-29) from 14 countries: US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Australia.

Getting Information and News
The largest proportion of college students (45%) say their laptop is their primary way of getting information and news. This is followed by the desktop at 22%. For college students in Spain the Smartphone is the primary source (36%) compared with 10% for the total survey population.

The largest proportion of employees (36%) say that their laptop is their primary way of getting information and news. This is followed by the desktop at 26%. More than 1 in 4 of employees in France get what they want from TV. Only 4% in China use TV as their primary source, compared with 22% in both Japan and Russia.

The Internet as a Necessity
55% of college students say that they could not live without the Internet - it is an integral part of their lives. That number rises to 71% in China, and falls to 30% in Russia.

62% of employees say that they could not live without the Internet.  That rises to 78% in China, and falls to 38% in Russia. The US (73%), Brazil (75%), and the UK (73%) are also high scorers.

Importance of the Internet
32% of college students say that the Internet is as important to them as water, food, air, and shelter. That number rises to 81% if you add students who say that it is not as important, but pretty close. 65% of college students in Brazil, and 64% in China say that the Internet is as important to them as water, etc. Only 13% of French students take that view.

32% of employees also indicate that the Internet is as important to them as water, etc. This rises to 69% for Chinese employees, and falls to 6% for those in the UK.

Most Important Technology in Daily Life
46% of college students say their laptop is most important to them in daily life. That rises to 66% in China, and falls to 24% in Italy. More than one-third of college students in Spain (40%) and the UK (36%) say that their Smartphone is most important in their daily life.

37% of employees say their laptop is most important to them in daily life. This rises to 51% in China and India, and falls to 15% in Italy (the desktop is more important to students and employees in Italy). In Australia (42%), the US (37%), and the UK (31%), the Smartphone is seen as more important in daily life than the laptop.

Internet vs. Social Activities
College students: What is more important in daily life, the Internet (40%), going out with friends/partying (25%), dating (13%), or music (10%)? Clearly, the Internet. France is the only country where college students place a greater importance on dating (54%) than the Internet (7%).

Internet vs. a Car
64% of college students prefer to have access to the Internet than a car. That number rises to 85% in China and 84% in Japan. In Russia (63%), the US (54%), France (53%) most students would prefer access to a car.

Facebook vs. Social Activities
39% of college students say that spending time with friends is most important on a typical day. 27% of college students, however,  put keeping up to date on Facebook above dating (10%), listening to music (10%), and going to a party (2%). College students in Spain (54%), Brazil (50%), India (45%), and China (41%) give most importance to keeping up to date on Facebook.

Social Media Distractions
43% of college students admit to being distracted or interrupted by social media, IM, phone calls, or a desire to check Facebook 3 or more times in a typical hour. That rises to 54% in Italy and falls to 12% in Japan.

For old baby boomers like me, some of the results can seem mysterious and strange. Some can give rise to concern (e.g. the levels of distraction and putting checking Facebook over dating a real human being), but I'm not going there. It's nearly Christmas, and I'm looking forward to playing with a new iPad and Smartphone (maybe). I'll start worrying about the future of the human race again next year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reading 'Steve Jobs'

I wasn’t going to post about Steve Jobs, but one of the things I did over the Thanksgiving holiday was to read SJ’s biography written by Walter Isaacson.  I doubted it could maintain my interest for very long – especially as I was reading it as an e-book which is not my preferred way, and because I never really liked the Job's persona – but it did. It was a compelling read.  Jobs was a complex person who could drive people to fury and despair while also being wonderfully energizing and inspirational. The lives of complex people always make for good reading –at least for me - because they take you onto the battlefield where internal, interpersonal, and external forces engage in a dramatic fight for dominance. 

There is no doubt that Jobs was an arrogant, highly-charged, controlling, and narcissistic perfectionist who could be abusive, even cruel.  According to Isaacson, “The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary.  It hindered him more than it helped him,” although he did get people to do things they never dreamed possible.  Through the force of his will and playing by his own rules (what others called his ‘reality distortion field’) he would make things happen – not by his own ability to invent, but by the attractiveness of his vision,  and his mastery “at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future.”  Here are a few of my takeaways from the book:

Collaboration:  Job’s didn’t organize Apple into semi-autonomous divisions – a mistake made by companies like Sony, AOL, and Time-Warner.  Instead, he closely controlled his teams and “pushed them to work as one cohesive and flexible company" with one profit-and-loss bottom line for them all. He was most fond of face-to-face meetings where ideas could be tossed around, but he was always in ultimate control. His product launches were well known for their presentations, but in everyday meetings, he hated Powerpoint slides.  His argument was that if you needed slides in a meeting, you didn’t know what you were talking about.   

Perfectionism:  SJs adoptive father had taught him the importance of craftsmanship; to drive for perfection even with the look of parts unseen by users e.g., the circuit board.  Jobs not only brought a powerful and engaging vision to the company, but also an obsessive eye for detail. One of his early mentors, Mark Makkula, had persuaded him that people do judge a book by its cover and so he gave a laser-sharp focus to the user experience.  Colors, materials, shapes, and textures needed to convey creativity and professionalism. He might become best known for his contributions to product design.     
Product: Jobs was a product man.  He said many times that he wasn’t interested in profit and wealth per se (although he could be somewhat contradictory on that score).  Profits were good because they enabled you to develop more outstanding products.  He accused John Scully (who was recruited by Jobs in 1983 to be CEO) of putting profit before product.  Macintosh lost to Microsoft,” he said “because Scully insisted on milking all the profits he could get rather than improving the product and making it affordable.” 

Intuition: “I never rely on market research,” said Jobs.  What was important was an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer.  His talent was for imaginative leaps rather than  extensive information gathering and mental processing.  He didn’t believe in giving customers what they wanted.  What resonated with him was Henry Ford’s view that if had asked customer’s what kind of car they wanted they would have said a faster horse.

Simplicity: He had been a student of Zen Buddhism, and he loved the Zen gardens in Kyoto.  Zen minimalism led him to aggressively cut out anything from a product that was non-essential, even though this could be extremely challenging for Apple engineers.  But the simplicity he was after came from understanding and conquering the complexities, not ignoring them.  Simplicity is very hard work.

Breadth: Jobs wasn’t narrow in his interests. Religion, art, music, design and technology all played a part in shaping his vision. He said, “I like living at the intersection of humanities and technology.“

Focus: When he returned to Apple – 10 years after being pushed out – Jobs cut 70% of Apple products.  In one meeting he drew a box on a whiteboard and divided it into four quadrants.  He labeled the two columns Consumer and Pro, and the two rows Desktop and Portable.   He wanted one great product in each quadrant, nothing more.

Continuous Innovation:  Jobs was not a person to stand still. He admired artists like Bob Dylan and Picasso who were always re-inventing themselves.  One of his rules was never be afraid to cannibalize yourself. Tim Cook (current Apple CEO) said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will . . . So even though an iPhone might cannibalize sales of an iPod, or an iPad might cannibalize sales of a laptop, that did not deter him.”

Integration & Unity: Jobs wanted a tightly packaged of hardware and software.  Rather than creating an open system, he decided on a closed system that would provide a seamless and simple user experience.  It was a risk, but it paid off:

“Even with a small market share, Apple was able to maintain a huge profit margin while other computer makers were commoditized. In 2010, for example, Apple had just 7% of the revenue in the personal computer market, but it grabbed 35% of the operating profit.

More significantly, in the early 2000s Job’s insistence on end-to-end integration gave Apple an advantage in developing a digital hub strategy, which allowed your desktop computer to link seamlessly with a variety of portable devices.”

Today, when it seems that a decision can’t be made without a metric, I admire Steve Jobs for his imagination, courage and tenacity.  In other words, his daring leadership.

Monday, November 14, 2011

With whom am I working, please? Person or process?

Many commentators talk about the shocking levels of worker disengagement.  According to the results of one Gallup survey published earlier this year only about 27 percent of workers worldwide are satisfied with their jobs.

There are, of course, many factors contributing to this phenomenon, but I want to highlight something that has been on my mind for some time.  I am concerned that our work cultures (and our wider cultures, for that matter) have become technique and process-obsessed. When I go to a restaurant, I am very aware that I am being absorbed into a well crafted process for greeting, sitting, and serving me.  When a salesperson calls me, I can hear the clanking of the process he or she is following, and the techniques most likely to be employed to get me to ‘Yes’.   I am fully aware of the value business processes bring to efficient operations, but when technique and process become all-pervasive in our interactions with one another we’re in trouble.
Let me back up. By process, I mean a sequence of steps/procedures taken to achieve a defined result.  By technique, I mean a specific method, routine or skill for accomplishing a task.  Technique and process are closely interlinked – a technique can be part of a process or a technique can be made up of processes. From now on, I’ll talk about processes and techniques as PTs.

The problem with PTs in our interactions is how reductive and alienating they can be. PTs are all about ‘ends and means’ so that in a PT pervasive culture we can easily feel that we are being manipulated as a means to someone else’s end. You don’t interact with me as a person, but as a means to your end.  I only become of value if I help you meet your goal. I seek to be known as an individual and relate to you; you seek to apply calculated, routine, and predictable procedures – devoid of context - that you think will lead to your desired outcome.  

In a PT world, understanding of complexity is a distant second to application of pre-programmed thinking and actions. These types of interactions are, of course, alienating and dehumanizing, and unfortunately management has become synonymous with PTs.  To try and escape engaging with real people, we have only succeeded in destroying emotional engagement and breeding cynicism.

In managing complexity and getting the very best from our people, we are increasingly dependent on collaborative relationships.  Process and technique will always be important to getting work done, but let’s take a more sophisticated and mindful view about where they add value and where they undermine its creation.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Get the Collaboration Passion!

John Abele co-founded Boston Scientific in 1979.  When I was thinking about passion for collaboration, he was the guy who came to mind. This video is of a talk he gave to TEDMED back in 2009. A wonderful way to spend 18 minutes. If you've seen it before, watch it again! Vimeo.com/12049487

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Culture of Appreciation: From' What' to 'Why' Questions

I recently picked up a report called Organizing Work for Innovation and Growth: Experiences and Efforts in Ten Companies. It was published by VINNOVA (the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems) in October 2009. The focus question for the report is: How do companies work in practice to create organizational conditions that promote innovation, competitiveness, and growth? 

One of the chapters is called Creating cultures of appreciation: Organizational innovation through employee well-being by Tony Ghaye and Ewa Gunnarsson.  One of the key messages in the chapter is that to create a culture of innovation we need to ask appreciative (positive) questions. In the view of the authors, we shouldn’t be surprised if questions beginning with ‘Why’ tend to lead to deficit-based (fault-finding) conversations, and by changing the conversations we can change the actions.  ‘Why’ questions tend to be associated with critical thinking which can be detrimental to innovation. ‘What’ questions tend to be more appreciative (and reflective) in nature. Both critical and appreciative questions are needed, of course, but the weight has tended to be on the critical side.

Ghaye and Gunnarsson give 8 examples of the kinds of questions that can promote a culture of appreciation:

1.       What is giving you most joy and satisfaction in your work right now?

2.       What were you doing recently, in managing your time that enabled you to use your strengths?

3.       What actions were you taking when you were successful at prioritizing those things that you are really good at doing?

4.       What was happening when you found yourself thinking, that really worked well?

5.       What did someone say, or do, to make you feel that your professional experience was greatly appreciated?

6.       What did you do that prompted a colleague to say, ’thank you. It’s nice to be respected’?

7.       What were you doing that prompted a colleague to say, ‘It’s great working here. It’s nice to be valued’?

8.       What did you do that enabled a colleague to say, ‘That’s different. I hadn’t thought of that.’

The questions we ask are instrumental in focusing our attention onto assets or deficits

These particular questions are mostly geared to individual appreciation and reflection, but their true value would emerge when they promote appreciation and reflection in a team.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Will Digital Natives Be Technologically Literate?

Yesterday, a headline on one of my iGoogle pages caught my attention: Main Street to Silicon Valley: We don’t even understand PDFs. The post was written by Jessica Stillman on gigaom.com, November 2, 2011. 

The post highlights the results of a poll commissioned by the software firm Nitro coinciding with release of their latest Pro PDF reader. It found that 45.7 percent of a representative sample of Americans are either only somewhat familiar with PDfs or are not familiar with them at all.  According to Nitro, this means, “Don’t assume, train.”  Nitro was shocked by the result, and so was I.  Are we as technologically sophisticated as we like to think?
We all live in information bubbles, and in this very complex and pay-attention-to-me world we only have the capacity to live our lives in a relatively small number of bubbles without being overwhelmed.  Through my work in virtual teaming and collaboration, one of the core information bubbles that forms part of my reality is the technology information bubble, but that is not the case for everyone.  Unfortunately, many of us assume that everyone else shares our bubbles (especially if we are passionate about them, as most tech-enthusiasts are).

This got me thinking about the question: Would greater knowledge about PDFs have made the 45.7 percent more technologically literate? And, what is technological literacy, anyway?

One of the assumptions I encounter a lot is that when the new generation enters the corporate arena there will be few - if any - issues with using the latest and greatest technologies to get work done   (technology use for digital natives is as natural as breathing air).  You just have to look around you to see youngsters everywhere texting and social networking.  My four year old grandchild – who can’t read yet – has no problem downloading TV shows to my iPad.  And so, the evidence supporting technological literacy is right before our eyes; or is it?

It seems to me that being skilled in the functionalities of new technologies (e.g., texting or instant messaging, downloading or sharing) or understanding what a PDF is doesn’t actually mean that much.  The critical question is: Does this this person have the competencies to employ the power of appropriate technologies – independently and with others – to create, access, analyze, process and communicate information and ideas – for improved problem-solving, decision making, and innovating?  

If we just think of technological literacy in terms of skill in the use of tools and functionalities or understanding of technological lingo we’re missing the bigger picture and potential.  Given my view of technological literacy, I’m not convinced digital natives will be as far along as some people might think.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Distortions: The Gift of Skeptical Colleagues

Those of us who spend time thinking about and enabling collaboration talk a lot about the importance of trust.  Trust really is very important, but what I want to do here is to highlight the importance of distrust or, at least, skepticism in successful collaboration.

In any collaboration, people make judgments and take decisions, but to what extent are we aware of the potential errors of judgment and choice our minds can put in our way?  Recently, I wrote a post on cognitive biases, and I want to continue that theme here.

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow - which I recommend to anyone – and the core message is that we are not as rational as we like to think we are – even when we have all the information we need, and the logic is simple, we can still be very wrong.  Let me begin by describing a core model in the book.

Kahneman divides cognition into two parts: System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the fast, intuitive, effortless part of the mind often running on simple heuristics (rules of thumb); it runs on automatic pilot – we have no sense of voluntary control.  System 2 by contrast is slow, controlled, and more deliberative. On seeing a face, we don’t need to expend a lot of mental energy in determining that it is an angry face (System 1).  If we are asked what is 17 x 24, System 2 is called upon; we need to expend mental energy and follow rules and procedures for calculating the answer.  While System 1 can be very useful in situations requiring swift judgment and decision making (it is right a good deal of the time and often gets its way despite System 2) it is prone to mental traps, what Kahn calls cognitive illusions. Let me describe a few of these illusions:
Affect heuristic: Making judgments and decisions guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking - expert, professional intuitions do not all arise from true expertise.

Anchoring: When people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity – before estimating that quantity – the estimates stay close to the number considered, e.g., when asked was Gandhi more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.

Availability illusion: People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they retrieved from memory (often put there by the media)
Focusing illusion: Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation.

Framing: Participants asked to imagine that they have been given $50 behave differently depending on whether they told they can ‘keep’ $20 or must ‘lose’ $30 even though the outcome is the same. We dislike losses much more than we like gains of equivalent size. Losses loom larger than gains.
Priming effect: Exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words can be evoked. If you have recently heard the word EAT you are more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP. If you heard WASH you are more likely to complete it as SOAP.

Substitution: When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one, usually without noticing the substitution, i.e., we often revert to using a simplifying heuristic to try and solve a complex problem.

What you see is all there is: Making predictions based on what can be a momentary coincidence of random events; the exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error. We are prone to think the world is more coherent and predictable than it is, and downplay chance. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence.
There are many, many more.  What are some lessons for us?

We are not as rational as we think we are. The mind is a system for jumping to conclusions, and we are prone to be far more confident in our conclusions than we should be.  We need cognitive diversity in our collaborations; people who can challenge the coherent stories we make up about how the world works.  We need people who can sometimes disrupt our automatic pilot heuristics in System 1, and lead us into the more deliberate, effortful world of System 2.  Basically, we need each other to help recognize and manage our illusions – to be skeptical when we feel most confident.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beyond Peace and Harmony to Real Collaboration

Many teams suffer from an oppressive preference for peace and harmony. Don’t get me wrong, I like peace and harmony, but it can breed complacency, laziness, neglect, and stagnation.  When conflict, disagreement, ambiguity, and doubt are suppressed in a group – explicitly or implicitly – the most likely outcomes are a high level of passive-aggressive behavior and a superficial consensus.

I’ve just started reading Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. In 2002, Kanheman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for work he had done with Amos Tversky on decision making (work that helped launch the field of behavioral economics). What has engaged me in the book so far (and I’m convinced there is a lot more) is the way he describes his collaboration with Amos Tversky. Here I quote from the Introduction:

“Both Amos and I were critical and argumentative, he even more than I, but during the years of collaboration neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said. Indeed, one of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other.”

It is wonderful to see how they found ways to use their differences in approach to take the work forward. I also like how Kahneman describes them both as critical and argumentative, but that was understood to be part of their collaborative process, not something to suppress.  I notice in some Western cultures (I’m thinking particularly of the US and the UK) that arguments are taken as a sign that a relationship is breaking down. We need to understand that it is the accompanying behaviors that turn an argument toxic rather than the argument itself.  

Much of the advice I see about handling conflict on a virtual team (and here I switch to the more emotionally charged term ‘conflict’) can be summed up as: deal with it immediately.  I have a lot of sympathy with that view.  Virtual conflict can easily become toxic because of increased opportunities for misunderstanding, and the longer time it takes to handle conflict constructively.  But . . . before adopting ‘immediate response’ as a universal principle, it might be best to understand the type of conflict being surfaced in the virtual team. 

Here are some conflicts that I think need to be given a chance to ‘breathe’ because new insights and possibilities might emerge:

Data: Conflicts about data gathering, interpretations, relevance and importance.

Interests:  Conflicts caused by the perceived incompatibility of needs and wants

Process: Conflicts about tasks- what to do, when, where, and how

Structural: Conflicts caused by forces outside of the team, e.g., organizational policy changes, or changes in the economic environment.

What about Interpersonal Conflicts (e.g., conflicts arising from different personalities, styles, cultures, values)? From my experience, learning about each other needs to be upfront and ongoing. Everyone on the team needs to have their emotional antennae on full power because these types of conflicts are often masked or even hidden on virtual teams.  Unless brought to the surface and acknowledge quickly these conflicts can quickly become toxic.

Whatever the source of disagreement/conflict the only productive ways forward are built on respect, patience, curiosity, and learning – not knee-jerk suppression or denial.

Think about what Daniel Kahnneman says above: “neither of us ever rejected out of hand anything the other said.”  Right there, you have respect, patience, curiosity, and learning.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A night of celebration - EFMD award ceremony

We recently attended the EFMD Award ceremony in Maastricht, Holland, to pick up our Excellence in Practice Award for our partnership with ArcelorMittal.

The award ceremony was a great evening, filled with lots of opportunities to meet and network with some leading edge thinkers and personalities within the L&D industry.

The awards are actually part of a larger event held by the EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development), called the 2011 EFMD Executive Education meeting, which provided a beneficial insight into current learning and training trends being used by multinational organizations. We were glad to discover that we seem to be ‘ahead of the game’ when it comes to virtual delivery, which was the central theme of this year’s conference.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bias Awareness For Better Collaboration

I am all for helping students of all ages engage in problem-solving – alone and with others – but is something missing in the process?  If there is one area of study – apart from Dialogue - I would like all students to undertake it is Cognitive Bias. How can we collaborate effectively – or even live well together - when we have so little individual and collective awareness of the mental filters we use for acquiring and processing information.

What is a cognitive bias? Mostly, the term is used negatively although the needs of a specific context may determine a positive or negative evaluation (a tendency to make fast decisions may be harmful in many situations, but advantageous in others). In general, a cognitive bias is a mental filter formed by our own experiences (and our evolved comfort and discomfort zones), that distorts perception leading to poor interpretations and judgments.  Let me highlight 15 that cause trouble for most of us:
·         Anchoring: Tendency to make a final judgment in the same direction as an initial judgment even when conflicting data accumulate
·         Availability cascade: Believing in something because we hear it mentioned repeatedly (“repeat something long enough and it will become true”)

·         Choice-supportive bias: Remembering our choices as better than they actually were

·         Confirmation bias: Searching for and interpreting information to confirm preconceptions

·         Clustering illusion: Seeing patterns where none actually exist

·         Egocentric bias: Recalling the past in a self-serving way

·         Framing effect: Being overly influenced by how information is presented

·         Fundamental attribution error: Over-emphasizing personality-based explanations for others’ behavior while under-emphasizing influence of role and situation

·         Illusion of control: Overestimating one’s influence on external events

·         Overconfidence effect: Excessive confidence in one’s answers to questions

·         Planning fallacy: Tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task

·         Self-serving bias: Interpreting information in a way that benefits one’s own interests

·         Stereotyping: Applying expected characteristics for a group to an individual member

·         Sunken cost fallacy: Continuing to invest (to recover past costs) when the likelihood of success is minimal (throwing good money after bad)   

·         Wishful thinking: Overestimating the likelihood of a pleasing outcome

If you want to see a more comprehensive selection of cognitive biases see the List of Cognitive Biases on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Virtual Work: Increasing, but a Necessary Evil?

In December 2010, Brandman University had Forrester Research conduct a survey of 135 senior leaders and hiring managers in some of Americas Fortune 500 companies.  These were supplemented by a series of telephone interviews in January 2011. The survey report is called Virtual Work Environments in the Post-Recession Era:

Here are a few data points:

·         56% of hiring managers expect that virtual teaming will steadily or greatly increase in their company

·         61% said their company will allow more people to telecommute or work from home in the next 3 years

In terms of the challenges faced by virtual team managers:

·         57% said building trust among employees

·         49% said communicating effectively

·         43% said managing projects and deadlines with employees not physically present

To be effective, virtual workers need:

·         61% said solid communication skills

·         53% said an ability to self-pace and work independently

·         51% said taking accountability for their own work

The primary motivations for the increase in virtual teaming and working are:

·         61% said cost containment

·         59% said recruitment
While the majority of leaders and managers believe that virtual working will increase, it tends to be seen as a ‘necessary evil’.  Many see virtual collaboration as a barrier to worker accountability, creativity, and innovation.

Whenever I hear the term ‘necessary evil’ in business it usually means there is too much management (push) and not enough leadership (pull).  Do we have to wait for a new generation to trigger a management revolution?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Agile Learning

There are different perspectives on what social learning (or what I tend to call agile learning) is, and at the risk of adding more confusion or uncertainty to the mix, I thought I would stir in my own flavoring. 
The domain of social or agile learning concerns the:
·         Use of new media and collaborative technologies

·         To create and leverage knowledge exchange communities   

·         For accelerating operational and transformational learning in distributed individuals and groups
Let me deconstruct this a little.
Technology: The new media provide ever expansive digital spaces for accessing, co-creating, and sharing of ideas, knowledge, and know-how. We have always learned from one another through talking, listening, observing, and imitating; now we have technologies like public and private social networks, microblogging, podcasting, videocasting, photosharing, social bookmarking, wikis and RSS to exponentially increase our ability to learn together.

Knowledge: I use ‘knowledge’ in a very broad sense to include: data, facts, information, expertise, theories, concepts, models, stories, feelings, visuals, blogs, experiences, principles, processes, procedures, know-how, feedback, and insights – anything that increases the capacity of someone to perform better.

Learning: Rather than the one-way transmission of expert content to a learner (the “I teach, you learn model”), social learning facilitates non-linear engagement with distributed knowledge.  It enables higher levels of self-managed learning with increased relevance to real-time issues. Sometimes the learning will be specific to an individual learner and at other times to a wider group. The learning might be of an operational nature (e.g., changes in how to perform a task more efficiently) or transformational (e.g., changes in values, beliefs, mindsets, and worldviews).
Some Tips
·         To make the business case to senior executives, you might want to change the name social learning to, for example, agile learning or rapid learning 

·         Get real top-down organizational support & commitment beyond the short-term

·         Define the synergistic roles of HR, Learning & Development and IT early

·         Think open learning communities as an organizational principle – you need a sense order and serendipity/cross-pollination

·         Identify champions and role models for seeding and nurturing social learning (to create critical mass)

·         Integrate social learning with existing technologies; keep access and participation simple, non-burdensome, and mobile-friendly  

·         Leverage existing communities of practice and collaborations for sandbox experimentation

·         Try starting with formal learning (push learning) on social learning technologies, and then blend in the more informal (pull learning) elements later

·         Create and communicate simple rules of engagement  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Remote Working & Virtual Teaming: Understanding the Difference

One of the challenges of working in the management field is that definitions can be very fluid, and that any interpretation is open to interpretation. There are times when we just have to say, “This is our working definition of . . . does this fit with your understanding?”

One area of confusion is between ‘remote working’ and ‘virtual teaming’, and so let me try and add some clarity.  The key distinction is in the level of interdependence between those engaged in doing the work. 

Remote working is when people are performing tasks at a distance from corporate HQ or other employment center where employees are physically co-located. They work and communicate via technology for all or most of their time, but not necessarily with each other. Let’s say we have 10 programmers working from home who all report to the same manager. Reporting to the same manager doesn’t mean the programmers are dependent on each other for performing their tasks, or that they share the same goals, objectives or even projects. Interaction between these remote workers may be minimal (weak ties), or only on an as-needed, ad hoc basis. Some managers may want to create something of a community for their remote workers (e.g., for sharing best practices or reducing isolation), but this isn’t a necessity for getting work done.

Virtual teaming is when people are working together via technology to achieve a shared goal, and they are highly dependent on one another for achieving this goal. Specific roles and responsibilities will be divided among team members, and high levels of cooperation, coordination, and communication will be needed between them (strong ties).

Some people will throw a spanner into the works by talking of remote teams.  That's when a conversation needs to take place because do they mean a group of remote workers or a virtual team? There are, of course, shades of grey – sometimes remote workers may be asked to work as a virtual team for a specific project. Likewise, virtual team members may find that certain of their tasks can be performed autonomously.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Before You Climb the Collaboration Mountain: Identify Risks Upfront

I often work with groups of smart people who can’t collaborate. Why is it so difficult? There are, of course, multiple reasons, some of which have to do with individual egos, mindsets, skills, and behaviors, as well as a history of bad experiences in the past.

What I find most often is not a lack of good intentions or goodwill, or a surfeit of anti-collaboration behaviors, but a lack of awareness and respect for the causes of collaborative pain. Smart people believe that it should be relatively easy for them to come together and solve problems (after all they are smart), but often their expectations are dashed. Greater realism and awareness can empower people to collaborate by raising the level of risk alertness in the group.

Chris Huxman and Siv Vangen developed the concept of collaborative inertia, and they see it as happening when, “the output from a collaborative arrangement is negligible, the rate of output is extremely slow, or stories of pain and hard grind are integral to successes achieved.” (1)

Be alert to risks associated with:

·         Overly idealistic views that see collaboration as always desirable

·         Differences in organizational cultures, processes, tools, and policies represented in the group

·         Different interests and goals

·         Likelihood that benefits will only be realized long-term

·         Likely complexity of collaboration structures and processes

·         Likelihood of political maneuvering, game playing

·         Differences in professional languages, practices, and cultures

·         Differences in fluency of the group’s working language

·         Tensions and conflicts already existing between members (the burden of the past); lack of trust; competition for scarce resources

·         Sharp differences in power and authority levels

·         Pronounced skill level differences in using technology

·         Too little understanding and connection with key stakeholders, sponsors

·         Poor likelihood of maintaining group continuity

·         Collaboration fatigue among members

There will always be unknown risks and uncertainties, but with a greater awareness and respect for possible risks, a group can be more proactive and vigilant.

1.       Managing to collaborate: the theory and practice of collaborative advantage by Chris Huxham & Siv Evy Vangen.  Routledge, 2005.