Friday, December 28, 2007

Filling in ambiguity to find a mate

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.

Resilience and resistance II

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.

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

Being too positive - the Hitler Syndrome

"Don't bring me problems bring me solutions."

"S/he is always negative"

"S/he is always positive"

"No problem"

"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:
  1. Problems = bad = failure,
  2. Being positive = nice/good = success.
Many managers and leaders don't want to hear about problems, they want to hear about success and they certainly don't want to tell their bosses about problems that they have, they would far rather let them know about successes, especially about successes that they brought about. Unless that is of course to tell of someone else's problems and failures, the reflection being that "Look there was a mistake I wouldn't make, idiot!"

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

Leadership decision making causes more problems than they solve!

Sorry about the gap. Things have been really busy as centre i has taken off. A lot has happened in the area of ambiguity, especially in the areas of leadership, complexity and decision making /problem solving. Over the next few weeks I will endevour to catch up.
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?”