Friday, December 28, 2007
In a recent article entitled Ambiguity Promotes Liking for the New York Times, Marina Krakovsky reported on a piece of research conducted by Michael Norton at Harvard Business School. The research examined perceptions of attraction between people on online dating sites. What Norton and his colleagues did was to have people who were arranging dates via an online dating site to rate the attractiveness of the other individual before the date and then do the same thing post date.
What they discovered was that people are much more likely to assume that people are attractive and similar to us online in anticipation of the date as opposed to the reality of the first date, on which the team discovered daters were much more likely to down rate their dates considerably where as before they had a fairly rosy view of them from the largely ambiguous data provided online.
Norton explains what is happening “People are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles” creating their own reality from ambiguous data. The example given in the article is that if a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers “the outdoors” refers to nude beaches.
This is a beautiful example of a typical mode one and two response to ambiguity - ignoring the ambiguity and creating their own reality and expectations, in other words filling in the gaps with their own model of the world.
Whilst this is just an irritation for people trying to find a partner, when it comes to political issues like taking a nation to war over ambiguous data or ignoring ambiguous data on the flight deck of Florida flight 90 which plunged into the Potomac in Washington killing 75 people, or ignoring ambiguous market data and plunging a company headlong into disaster, things are more serious.
Part of the problem is that we train people to plan for the things that they can see. We don't teach them how to spot ambiguities and know when they are making assumptions.
One of the most requested topics we have been asked to provide an organisational change / development guide about has been on how to overcome resistance to change. When I asked what the purpose was behind each of the requests the answer was fairly unambiguous and the same in every case; we are engaging in organisational change and whilst people can see the need for the change for all the other departments in the company they don't see why they need to be included. Resistance to change, it would appear, is the number one concern of those having to manage / lead change and development programmes.
Having given this some thought, and still being a researcher at heart I would like to propose the following research question (which turns the question around):
What has to happen in order (what are the factors that are necessary and sufficient) for people to start to resist change?I have asked the 900 people in our org change / development community and I will post the results just after New Year.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Friday, December 21, 2007
Just a question.
Have you ever tried to put a cat in a box? If not, imagine trying. If you have tried to put a cat in a box you will no doubt have experienced a cat turning itself into a large and somewhat frantic and highly inconvenient star shape as your arms are shredded to a bloody mess in a flurry of teeth and claws.
And yet place a box on the floor and leave it for any time and what happens? Turn around to fill the box and you will doubtless find it already full of cat.
It's amazing how many calls we get because 'our staff are resisting the change programme'.
Just a thought. Not that this has anything to do with leadership of change, or ambiguity or anything.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
"S/he is always negative"
"S/he is always positive"
"What's with all of the negativity?"
"Why can't we just be positive about this?"
What happens inside when someone walks into your office or calls you up and says "We have a problem?" I will lay 10 - 1 odds on that you have a sinking feeling or something similar. Join the rest of the human race.
A problem arises when the following unquestioned associations are frequently arrived at:
- Problems = bad = failure,
- Being positive = nice/good = success.
One of the worst things that you can be seen as in any business is someone who is has failures (this is seen as the person being a failure, which is interesting and faulty logic). The next worst is being seen as someone who just sees the negatives, the problems that exist. One way to be left alone and not get invited to meetings is to stop being positive and start to see the problems in things. I won't take long in most corporate environments for you to become blissfully meeting (and promotion) free!
Many corporate (and governmental) cultures are now so full of spin that no one really knows what is true anymore and as a result many largely suspect most of what is said, especially by the management is spin - a polite word for lying.
The effect of all this positive glossy 'don't bring me problems, you are too negative' culture? Eventual crisis usually. The most immediate affect is that people don't really know what's going on, what the reality of the situation is. If they don't know what is really happening then they can't make good judgments, solve the most urgent problems and make great decisions. Hiltler so berated his commanders when they either provided a critique of his tactics or gave him any bad news that in order to save their careers and in many cases their skin, the rule became never to provide a critique and never ever tell him of any losses. As a result he was committing divisions to battle that were so depleted that they had zero tactical impact or in many cases simply didn't exist any more. I have seen similar situations in many organisations where every project works (according to the evaluations conducted by the project owner), where large programmes keep going as per the plan because anything else would show that the plan (and therefore the authors of the plan) was wrong, even though all the data suggest that the plan now needs to be changed or even scrapped. The vast majority of projects are admitted to be failures long after everyone (privately) really knew that things weren't working. This isn't the effect of hindsight.
We have tracked a number of projects where the warning signs that things need to be changed were clear to the project participants and others. During interviews people would say things like "this is madness, it isn't going to work, but I am not going to be the one who is seen as the barer of bad news." When you interview a number of people who all say very similar things in the same company you do start to realise that there is disease in organisations where critique and critical thinking is seen as being negative which can get you labeled as a blocker or a problem.
When I interviewed a group of successful entrepreneurs what was interesting in this context is not that they never made any mistakes not that they had no failures. Indeed quite the opposite was true, they spoke at length of the failures and mistakes and importantly what they had learnt from these mistakes and how they had used to learning to turn failure into success. When you think about it when a child is learning to walk, for example it doesn't give up the first time it falls over. It just keeos going and keeps learning. It is only later in life that they get the idea that feedback from failure is a failure in its own right. Feedback, honest critical feedback is a necessary component of learning and it is only though learning that organisations and ourselves can be successful as we navigate territory that is ambiguous and uncertain. To deny the organisation and others that feedback is to condemn it. Without critical feedback development becomes slow and at worst stops completely.
Monday, December 17, 2007
In the area of leadership and problem solving we have concluded some of the research we had been conducting around leaders' perceptions of how successful they are when making decisions in ambiguous spaces, where the leader considers that either they were uncertain what the problem was or where the solution path was ambiguous and considered to be a risk.
During the period of 2001 – 2007 and whilst I was working at Cranfield University I had the opportunity to talk with senior managers and leaders (161) from a number (42) of different organisations. I was interested in the problems that they had solved, especially the difficult and ambiguous problems they had encountered. I asked them to tell me about any problem or problems they had encountered over the last 5 years where they had no idea either, what the problem was and/or how to solve it. Them I asked for an estimation of success of the solution and to what they attributed the outcome to.
I then took the problems as they described (they agreed a written version of the problem) them and took them to their manager (where there was one) or leader, their peers, team members and their direct reports. The first thing I wanted to know was did these other people recognise the problems as reported? The next was did they recognise the solutions as reported? Similarly I then asked them for their estimation of success of the solution and to what they attributed the eventual outcome to.
The results are interesting. Of the 161 leaders interviewed 155 (or 96.2%) reported that their problem solving had been totally successful in that the solution(s) that they had applied had worked. Only 6 leaders considered that their solutions to ambiguous problems had not worked either at all or partially (This number is distinct from and does not include the problems that the leaders reported as being too hard or too difficult to solve that they had never even got to formulate or apply any form of solution). Of those 2 reported that the solution had failed, not because of any deficiency in the solution but due rather to other issues like politics or that they had moved on and the next incumbent had derailed the project.
The interviews furnished close to 350 different problems from the leaders. Of which 173 were universally agreed by the others to be ambiguous problems that they recognised. The rest fell into two broad camps. Either the others didn’t recognise the problem at all and couldn’t comment on it, or they recognised the problem but considered that it was not ambiguous and that the company had a system for solving that the leaders appeared not to know about.
With the remaining 173 problems (from 161 leaders) the others considered that 42(24.2%) of the problems had been successfully resolved. The remainder were considered to be either total failures, that the solution got ditched as unworkable or that the solution(s) resulted in outcomes that were as bad as or even worse than the original problem. In short it works out that 75.8% of leadership solutions to ambiguous problems fails.
When I took these results back to the leaders (with a revolver) most of them disputed the findings, about a quarter reluctantly agreed that things hadn’t actually gone as they had expected. Interestingly about 20 percent of these blamed someone else for the failure.
A bit of a problem really. At an address I gave to a Police Leadership Conference in 2007 titled (somewhat tongue in cheek), ‘Leadership problem solving causes more problems than it solves’ I made the quip that it might be an idea to keep leaders away from ambiguity as they just mess it up. On the front row of the lecture theatre the top brass started to look a little uncomfortable when a voice from the lowly ranks at the back shouted out ‘as they cock up certainty as well it doesn’t really leave them with very much to do, does it?”
Saturday, March 10, 2007
The higher the level of emotional resilience an individual has the better they are likely to handle disadvantageous and ambiguous situations. Emotional resilience is also a strong indicator of a number of attributes, including:
- a person's ability to solve problems in emotionally charged and ambiguous situations,
- their level of persistence, especially in difficult circumstances,
- their latitude towards diversity, both of other people and differing situations
- the ability to analyse, weigh up and take risks,
- the ability to collaborate,
- as well as an individuals level of autonomy.
Simultaneously similar work was being carried out by the author in 2002 - 6 whilst training disaster managers in a number of countries around the globe. The aim was to develop a system to improve the reactions and problem solving abilities of individuals and teams given the job of managing and leading in natural disaster and post terrorist attack incidents. These are situations which by definition are high in ambiguity, emotional stress and often personal physical danger. Not the ideal environment for high quality problem solving, however one in which such quality is required as people's lives often depend on the solutions.
The importance of emotional resilience in problem solving, especially when any solutions derived are critical to an individual, company or group, can not be understated.
Emotional resilience comprises of
- Emotional Regulation - the ability to recognise and control (reduce or increase) our emotions at will, (yes it is possible!)
- Behavioural Control - the level of ability to be able to determine and regulate our outward behaviours especially when we are in a heightened emotional state,
- Emotional - Cognitive Switching (ECS) - the ability and speed at which we can move from our awareness of and concentration on internal emotional events to engaging with logical, cognitive (thinking) and meta-cognitive processes.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Outside of the current debate about the measurement of emotional intelligence, a useful definition for emotional intelligence is:
An ability, capacity, or skill to perceive, assess, and manage the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups.
This is worth thinking about in the context of leadership, problems solving and ambiguity. Defining EI as an ability, capacity or skill suggests that ones EI can be raised or developed. Mayer talks much about this and one of the central arguments about EI is whether it is a fixed attribute or whether it can be developed. Notwithstanding this, my argument here is that the ability to perceive or recognise our emotions can be developed (or raised) as can the ability to control and manage those emotions.
Further, that if emotions can affect our behaviours, interpretations and thinking then those behaviours, interpretations and thoughts are more likely to be historically based reactions rather than contextually sound actions based on some form of logic. For example a person who is frightened or in some other emotional state is more likely to react differently to a situation than if they were in a more stable, emotionally neutral state where they could apply a logic not contaminated by emotion. The idea is that emotionally intelligent people can identify what emotional state they are in at any time and understand the affect this is having on their perceptions of the situation, their behaviours and their cognitions. People who are not as emotionally intelligent are more likely to be at the mercy of their emotions in that they will colour and change their perceptions of reality, their behaviour and the way they think and think about their thinking and emotions without being aware of this.
We all probably know leaders like this.
In my next post I will explore the affect of this on how leaders deal with ambiguity.
Oh yes what is the picture all about? The Amygdala at the centre of the brain are almond-shaped groups of neurons located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. Shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. More about this later.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
The main problem they mused was that people were following orders blindly, not challenging and that there was a total lack of creativity in the workforce.
Solutions abounded about how to fix 'them' and what should be done to solve the problem.
When asked what it is they are doing to increase their own tolerance to ambiguity, develop their own creativity and challenge people in a developmental way there was silence. Indeed if any of us honestly ask ourselves what we are doing to increase our own tolerance to ambiguity and increase our creativity and critical thinking we would draw a blank.
The first issue probably is that we just hadn't thought about it. Once you do start to think about it the second issue then naturally comes forth - just how on earth do you develop your tolerance to ambiguity? Over the next few blogs I will be exploring just that. How can we all get better at dealing with ambiguity?
Back to the meeting - we explored the effects and affects of emotions on problem solving, ambiguity, perceptions of us and them and critical thinking - evidence based thought. It was widely agreed that the key to al of this was understanding our own emotions and the effects they have on our reactions and thinking; emotional intelligence if you like.
So 90% of the meeting was talking about leadership and how to create a more agile, ambiguity tolerant leadership below the board. The other 10% of the time was spent at the end of the meeting reacting to the news that the responsibility for training of new recruits was being removed from this group and was being given to a central agency.
"Our founder would turn in his grave if he knew what was happening"
"We need to stop this before it goes any further"
"They need to be shown the red card"
"This is outrageous how can we indoctrinate them with the right culture if we are not doing it - we need to do something about this now."
The next blog will concentrate on emotional intelligence - what is it and what does it do for us?
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
I thought that you might like this. I have been asked to provide a workshop to help develop a bit more tolerance to Ambiguity in a large organisation in London. I agreed and the job of arranging it fell to the organisational HR department.
I was asked by them to provide:
- A full rationale for doing the workshop
- A list of all the outcomes of the workshop
- A full by the minute breakdown of the programme 'so we know what to expect'.
- A risk analysis of everything that could go wrong and a statement of what I would do to prevent each item.
- The total cost and a statement of the value this would bring to the company
- A list of all the resources used and why each would be used
- A chapter and verse briefing for the participants including a full breakdown of every exercise so that 'there were no nasty surprises'.
- A full CV and a statement of expertise
- Details of indemnity insurance in case 'anything goes wrong'.
- Details of any first aid / medical qualifications I hold
- Details of how to evaluate the outcome to 'ensure compliance' after the event.
Saturday, February 03, 2007
I have been helping a group of managers in a large corporation learn a series of different problem solving techniques. Three of the managers are by their own admission very risk averse. In the words of one of them "I need to know what is happening and I hate anything happening I wasn't expecting, absolutely hate it. I make sure that everyone in my team brief me everyday and anything that goes out of the group only goes through me."
It has been interesting watching this group of managers engage with a series of problems and the process. There are a number of observations worth making:
- The first is that when compared to the rest of the group what constituted a problem was very different. For example a great worker was identified who was the most productive in the firm. A discussion about them started and it was discovered that because she was so outstanding she kept her own hours. Often preferring to work out of the 8 - 6 hours of the office. Sometimes she would be seen working at weekends too. These three managers would have stopped such practices and made her conform to the 'normal' working hours. Such leniency was seen as a risk and therefore a problem. 'The thin end of the wedge' according to two of them.
- The second observation was that people prejudge a problem based on the amount of risk they perceive is inherent in the problem. So their definition of the problem (see previous posts about reality and problem solving) was altered radically dependent on how much risk and uncertainty (which were the same for these three managers) they thought the situation contained. In one case we studied all three of them started to engage in flight behaviour. When explored they saw the situation to be so uncertain either they engaged in displacement behaviour or outright denial. "No one can solve this it's just ridiculous". The answer to this by another (non-risk averse) manager was "Are you kidding this has happened here. I dealt with it last year. They were dumbfounded.
- Another observation about how risk aversion changed the problem solving process is that the range of possibilities of the problem definitions was a lot narrower and 'safer' than for the rest of the team. All of the categorisations of the problem were already part of the common knowledge. Unlike the rest of the group non of them came up with new problem definitions. Interesting once they had settled on a problem definition moving them to other possibilities was hard.
- This lead to all of their solutions being ones that they had previous experience of working. Not one solution was experimental, they were all solutions that were historical, tried and tested. When solutions from others came up that were novel and had never been tried these were seen as too much of a risk. "But what if it doesn't work" and "Prove that it will work and then I'll go along with you".
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
The first reality is that of self. Our perception of our selves forms a reality and helps often to inform how we will react, interact and create the second reality of situation which we perceive. In other words we have an internal reality and an existential reality or that of experience which is informed by our internal reality.
So if the totality of our reality is constructed from our internal representations of our experiences coupled with our constructed reality of our experience of self and the meanings we place on these, together with the (learnt) thinking strategy we are currently using; it is not going to be a surprise that we all have different realities.
Let me give you an example:
This morning I took my kids to school and it had been snowing. Much excitment, snow angles and snowball fights on they way to the school.
When I took my son in to his class his teacher said "He can go out and play in the snow for a while if he likes in the playground. We will call them when it's time to start." Big from my son and out he trots to play with his friends.
When I took my daughter to her class (all the same school) the teacher "No one is to go out, you must all stay in. I don't want you all getting wet." Big from my daughter (Who by the way calls her teacher Miss Devil!)
Two different teachers two very different frames of thinking and each with very different realities. The outcome two very different solutions each the product of their own realities.
I could be tempted of course to ask which is the correct reality, however this is either / or thinking and clearly both exist and are correct for the individual concerned.
My interest is:
a) How a persons thinking helps to construct their reality and how this in turn frames their thinking and therefore how they then define the problem and then once defined the strategy they use to find a solution. Often, I would propose, once the problem is defined (without much concious thought), the solution appears to be axiomatic to the individual concerned.
b) What place the emotions play in such problem definition and resolution.
c) What happens when there is a conflict of realities, thinking and emotions (my daughter and teacher),
d) Equally what happens when there is an agreement of realities (my son and his teacher) - how does this effect problem solving, and
e) How to 'free' up the problem solving as much as is possible from the reality frames created by people? I don't believe this is ever totally possible - a bit like being totally objective!
My answer thus far has been for people to explore with a frame of open discovery learning - exploring the possibilities with an attitude of being there to learn what we can - about the situation (reality 2) and more importantly ourselves (reality 1).
I am exploring other solutions to this. More to follow!
Monday, January 22, 2007
So what is reality and how can you get to it? Why does it matter and what's the purpose behind the question?
Here are some thoughts on these questions. In the best traditions of awards we'll tackle these in reverse order.
The purpose behind questions about reality in problem solving is that it is all too easy to end up solving the wrong or a non - existent problem. Let me give an example from some work I have been doing recently in a large organisation. The scenario is that the Director of HR has a problem. The problem as she saw it was that a member of staff was breaking one of the organisations many regulations. The offence was that the individual in question was discovered to be running quite a nice consultancy, thank you. He was it appeared putting his talents to use earning more in his spare time than he was working for the organisation.
There were no complaints from within the organisation in question about this particular employees time keeping or work. Indeed he was considered to be amazingly productive having a first rate track record of developing quality products in time frames no one else could match. He had many creative ideas and those he settled on were almost all winners. In anybody's book this employee was a real asset, a star employee... except to was breaking the rules. He hadn't asked permission from the Director of HR. The HR director also knew that this employee kept his distance from HR and had on a couple of occasions been reported to have questioned the efficiency, thinking and ability of this department.
When interviewed the HR Director was clearly upset about this individuals behaviour. and (and this is important) was having an observable negative emotional reaction to him.
I am sure you can guess the HR directors solution to the issue was bearing in mind that the only offence committed was that he hadn't asked permission to do work outside. There was no evidence that he was using the organisations resources or doing anything that was in competition with this organisation.
Yes he was sacked leaving a lot of people in the organisation incredulous at his sudden departure. Both the HR director and the (ex) employee were interviewed.
First lets look at the rationale of the HR Director:
Q: Why was he sacked?
A: He broke the regulations.
Q:He was considered to be the most productive and creative employee xxxxxx (the organisation) had.
Pause at this point she started to look uncomfortable
A: Look I don't make the regulations and he broke them.
Q: Some people think xxxxxx have lost one of their best employees and that includes all of the heads of departments.
A: Yes but if you let one get away with breaking the rules it send the wrong message out.
Q: What was his reason for breaking the rules.
A: I'm not sure, greed I suppose.
Q: Did you ask him why he was behaving like this?
A: Er well no not really it's obvious isn't it?
Q: Did he give any explanation?
A No not at all, which is typical of his arrogance.
A: Yes he was very arrogant.
Q: In what way?
A: He thought he knew it all. He thought he was superior to everyone.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: He was always questioning every thing and criticising.
Q: Did you like him?
A: I didn't dislike him (she coloured up). Pause He was very critical you know and he broke the rules, he was a maverick, not a team player.
Q: Would it surprise you t0 hear that he was regarded as being one of the leading lights in his area and around the company he was seen as being brilliant. The sorts of comments I have had include and I quote "He was amazing, a real legend around all of xxxxxx." "He had droves of people coming to him form every area of the business. He was so busy it was difficult to get to see him." "He worked so fast. Once he had an idea if you left him to it it would just happen". "He was very funny, I liked him. He hated time wasting administration and committee meetings. We found that as long as we let him get on with it things would just happen as if by magic. If he had to go through a committee he would struggle as they would slow things down and change them. "
A: No reply
Q: Why was he sacked?
A: I think I have had enough of these questions. He broke the rules and this is confidential to the company and I am not going to discuss it any further.
And so the interview ended.
The (ex) employee was interviewed:
Q: Why were you sacked?
A: A couple of reasons I think. The regulation reason was that I broke some rules about doing other work without getting permission which is fair doo's. The underlying reason I think had more to do with xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx (HR director). I got the feeling she wanted rid of me. The way it happened was odd. She was clearly worked up and started by saying "I'm not as stupid as you think I am". She then said she had investigated me and found that I was doing work outside and I hadn't asked her. She appeared to be offended that I hadn't asked. This wasn't a clinical sacking. I said that it can't have been much of an investigation as I hardly kept it a secret. Indeed I had previously asked for her reference under the companies enterprise scheme where employees can use a room set up to help people set up their own business. She refused as she said I was too busy.
I had then asked her if I could go part time so I can develop my external work and she refused.
Q: Had you criticised her openly
A: (Laughs) I suppose, what I actually criticised was the nature of the thinking of HR. It has a bureaucratic view of the world. Let me give you an example. After a recent employee survey they got feedback that there was too much bureaucracy. Their response was to set up a committee with minutes and everything to fight bureaucracy! They even developed a policy about bureaucracy. Yes I made a joke of that and other things they have done.
Q: Why were you doing other work?
A: I suppose I have always done this. It's my time, it's not in conflict with xxxxxx, in fact it has brought a lot of work in and help me develop my thinking. It is very easy to get quite insular in this business. My last boss at xxxxxxxxxx (another company) encouraged it as it widened our thinking. I suppose they money is nice but that's not it, I have many interests and love doing stuff. I'm not a 9-5 person and love keeping busy.
Q: You don't appear too upset.
A: I miss my friends at work but I'm very busy and earning more so it's ok. I just know that y departure has caused problems for the group which I am sorry for because I like the people there.
A nice example of different realities coming up with different solutions. What I am finding interesting at the moment is how the emotions effect people's perception of reality and the causal chain that this creates in problem solving and perceptions of risk and ambiguity.