Thursday, September 06, 2012

Hermetic Learning and what we didn't let the Romans do for us

What we didn't let the Romans do for us.

A few weeks ago I took my ten year old son Joe to Vindolanda, the Roman fort situated next to Hadrians Wall. The remains of the fort are complete with sewerage systems, fresh running water served to almost every brick built multistory building on the site, hot baths, pubs, shops, weapons factories, farriers, everything in fact we take for granted these days minus electricity and gas really. 

Vindolanda was build c AD 300, 1712 years ago and was one of a series of such forts. Each fort was connected to a network of proper all weather roads complete with drainage and a complete set of traffic regulations. 

'So what happened when the Romans left 'my son asked?
I had to think.

What happened when the Romans did pull out was that we the indigenous Britons  not only ignored the technology left behind but dismantled their buildings and roads to build huts! It took us over a thousand years to get back to similar levels of sanitation and general living standards.

This is a wonderful example of a hermetic or non-permeable learning system whereby learning available outside of the current system and set of constructs is ignored and not even recognised as something to learn from. This isn't so much a case of reinventing the wheel, it's more like throwing the wheels away because we are too busy developing new ways of dragging things around.

I travel a lot and last month I drove through Africa. 11,000 km from Durban to Capetown, up through Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and back into South Africa. Each country was as different as it was possible to be. You crossed the border and it was like stepping into another world. The distance of less than one hundred yards could make all the difference between home made brick built houses with windows, fire places and sanitation or poorly constructed mud huts. People sitting at the side of the road begging, to productive small businesses sprouting up everywhere. Desolate bush to productive and well managed farms. Squalor to well decorated and organised villages all within a few hundred yards of each other and this isn't down to national poverty rates. The transition from Zambia to Malawi for example couldn't have been more stark. In terms of GDP Zambia ranks as the 139th highest in the world according to the latest figures from the IMF. Malawi is 4th from the bottom of the list at 180th and yet you would not know it looking at the difference between the countries. Zambia is largely run down, pothole strewn and has all the hallmarks of a failed state. Malawi is neat, clean and everyone is an entrepreneur, with smart roadside shops and amazingly organised villages. 

I also travel a lot from organisation to organisation and government to government. Each one is different, and like the early Britons and the populations of the countries I visit, I see and experience the same hermetic learning systems where people fail to walk next door and learn. I marvel when I get appalling service in a restaurant, or end up in a poorly managed hotel for example. Do these people not visit other restraunts and hotels? Do they not see what would transform their business? No, would appear to be the answer. it would appear the Romans did sod all for us. Not because of them, but because we didn't get it. The system was too advanced for us to make the leap and think, 'clean water direct to the house and sewerage systems' are neat ideas lets copy. Nope our response was to dismantle the technology so we could chuck the stones at each other, go to a well for our water and poo in the river. We only learn things that are in our system or close enough to it for us to grasp, even if it is given or left to us on a plate. 
Now about the current economic and political situation....

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Internal Tension: Compliance v Entrepreneurialism

I was talking to a CEO the other day who wanted his people, particularly his senior managers to 'stand on their own two feet' as he put it. In short he wanted his people to become more entrepreneurial, creative, innovative and to be better critical thinkers. This is probably one of the more common requests I get in terms of senior management development and is a core activity of mine as it has at it's heart the ability to deal with ambiguity.

Successful acts of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism in particular are defined by the individual's ability to hold, cope and be persistent in situations that are highly ambiguous. Few true entrepreneurs create businesses using a step-by-step 'it's all mapped out' approach. Rather they feel their way forwards, frequently changing direction, often changing their business to meet prevailing conditions and succeed.

For example an indian restaurant set up in an out-of-town cinema complex just outside Oxford about five years ago. It was designed as a high end, sophisticated and elegant eatery. The business struggled for years. The problem is the restaurant is in a concrete cinema complex right next door to a very popular 'eat-as-much-as-you-want' fixed price chinese buffet. The chinese buffet would have queues outside whilst the indian was empty. A quick look in the vast car park outside was all the data you needed about the socio-economic profile of the typical customer to the complex, these are certainly not high end vehicles. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. After struggling for years the business changed tack and is now an eat-as-much-as-you-want fixed price indian buffet. It is now a popular business with a reasonable turnover. They changed their business strategy, (eventually) and appeared to have saved they day.

The problem, in many organisations and companies is that most managers grow up and are promoted for compliance and regulating people, not for being maverick agents of innovation and change. Most organisations require layers of agreement (and meetings) for any change to occur. Being a creative and innovative entrepreneur, in many organisations is a bit like trying to melt an iceberg with the aid of a soggy box of matches.

So, can you change someone from being an agent of compliance into an entrepreneurial being. The short answer is yes, in many (not all) cases. However if the organisational systems promote compliance and regulation this is very hard to achieve and will certainly create 'drag' in the entrepreneurial aspirations of the company.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Psychology of Ambiguity 3: Availability cascades

One of the issues most people face when they have to deal with an ambiguous situation is separating out new world facts and beliefs from old world facts and beliefs.

A new world fact is a new truth that has come about because of a change.
An old world fact is a truth that was considered to be true before the change, but is no longer true as a result of that change.

When a change occurs it takes time

  1. for the change to be noticed, and
  2. for the new rules or facts / beliefs to become obvious.
As a result of this lag many people continue to believe in the old world rules and facts even though they no longer apply. 

As these old rules and facts usually still have popular currency they can grow in strength in times of change even though they have now been replaced or changed. 

An availability cascase is a psychological phenomena whereby a belief gains increasing credibility the more popular it becomes and the more we hear about it. If we start to hear about something from a number of different sources we are much more likely to believe it even if it is no longer true. In effect the facts become self-reinforcing. 

Some common popular misbeliefs brought on by an availability cascade would include things like:

  • Shaving causes hair to grow back thicker and stronger. It doesn't.
  • Men think about sex every seven second. It has never been measured.
  • Sugar causes hyperactivity in children. There is no scientific evidence for this. In fact double blind experiments have shown no change in behaviour.
Have a look at the wikipedia list of common misconceptions most of which have been brought about by availability cascases. This effect is even more pronounced in ambiguous situations.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Motivate or Manipulate?

I was running a workshop for managers last week and as often happens in leadership and management courses, a discussion ensued about how to motivate people. As the discussion developed it became increasingly clear that some of the managers, whilst using the term 'motivate others' they actually meant 'manipulate others' into doing things they don't want to do through some form of systematic reward and punishment protocol. The real question was "How do I get people to do what I want them to do".  This often also means "How do I force people to do what I want them to do?"

So I thought I would do a short blog on 'motivation' to highlight the difference between motivation, manipulation and using force of any nature, including rewards and punishments.

My first question is: "What does it feel like to be genuinely motivated to do something?"
Yes that feeling; the excitement and drive. The sense that you really want to do this, often regardless of some extrinsic (external) reward.

My next question is: "What does it feel like to be forced or manipulated into doing something?". Quite a difference my guess is.

It turns out that there are some core factors that create a motivated state:

The main contributing factor to becoming motivated is that the task has to be meaningful to the individual. So what makes something meaningful?

  1. External Validity. Firstly the task has to make sense to the individual on the level that they know how it fits into or contributes to the advancement of some goal. they actually agree with. This may of course include a personal goal such as promotion or inclusion in a CV for example.
  2. Global Validity. If the task passes the individual's external validity test, the task then has to have global validity in that the individual has to believe that this is a good and valid thing to do to. In other words is a worthy cause or goal? Is what they are about to contribute to valued by them.
  3. Internal Validity. Thirdly the individual has to understand what to do and how to it, and feel that their skills and knowledge (expertise) is being utilised correctly and are valued. Basically that they are not being used.
  4. Enjoyment. Lastly will they either enjoy doing it, or enjoy having completed the task, or enjoy the kudos of having been part of the process?

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Psychology of Ambiguity 2: Ambiguity Bias

You have a choice. You are at work and you have to make a business decision between 3 options each of which will take the same effort:
Business Option 1 will almost certainly make you $10,000. It is quite likely (over 80% probability) this option will work and you will make the money.
Business Option 2 could make you $20,000. However you no idea what the probability of this option working is.
Business Option 3 could make you anything. You don't know how much it might make or what the probability is that it will work.

You have to make a decision right now or option 1 will disappear. Which option would you take and why?

The Ambiguity Bias or Ambiguity Effect is a bias where people are affected by the lack of information or the amount of ambiguity inherent in a situation. In other words most people tend to prefer known situations even though they might not be the most advantageous. People tend to prefer certainty over ambiguity.


Baron, J. (2000). Thinking and deciding (3d ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ellsberg, D. (1961). Risk, ambiguity, and the Savage axioms. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75, 643–699.Frisch, D., & Baron, J. (1988). Ambiguity and rationality. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 1, 149-157.Ritov, I., & Baron, J. (1990). Reluctance to vaccinate: omission bias and ambiguity. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3, 263-277.Wilkinson, D.J. (2006). The Ambiguity Advantage: what great leaders are great at. London: Palgrave Macmillian.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The psychology of Ambiguity 1: Cognitive Dissonance

How do you react when faced with something that you don't understand and appears to conflict with what you already believe or understand to be the case? 

I was recently working alongside some emergency service leaders during a live incident (live coaching). One leader (Silver) was faced with a sudden and unexpected crowd of people moving into an enclosed area within which an operation was was taking place. As far as everyone had been informed this area was secure and no one, let alone a crowd should have been able to access it.  The commander on the ground (Bronze) informed Silver (our leader) that approximately 40-50 youths had entered area without warning and the officers on the operation were facing public order situation on top of the existing operation that they were trying to execute. The Bronze commander asked Silver if they should abort the operation as they were heavily outnumbered. 
The Silver commander, who had planned the operation realised that if they withdrew they were unlikely to be able to go back at a later date and execute the operation. In short the operation would fail. 
He decided to order that the officers on the ground should continue as planned. 

This is a classic case of the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance occurring in an unexpected ambiguous situation.  

Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and or values and external evidence that is contrary or calls into question their internal beliefs, knowledge, experience or values.

This discrepancy between the internal and external state creates psychological and emotional discomfort, or dissonance. The mind then works to adjusts inorder to reduce the discrepancy and create order out of ambiguity. In many cases it does this by ignoring or reducing the importance of the external data and going with their existing beliefs, knowledge, experience or values as occurred in this situation. 

Such a reaction maintains the principal known as cognitive consistency and reduces the cognitive dissonance. This is a typical reaction to ambiguity, especially under stress. 

The outcome of the above situation is that the Bronze commander followed orders, the incident got out of hand, the operation failed badly and a number of officers and youths were injured, 4 seriously. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Are they making 'efficiencies' in your organisation?

'Do more with less'. 
'Making efficiencies'. 
'Being more effective'. 
'More businesslike and professional'. 

Sound familiar?

This is the story in many many companies, organisations and services around the world. Certainly, in just about every organisation I step foot in at the moment I meet people who's work has 'streamlined' or 'rationalised'. The effect for most workers is that they have no 'spare' time. They are largely moving from one task to another, “back to back without the time,” as one employee told me this week “to even draw breath”. 

As ‘spare time’ is eased out of the working day in the name of efficiency so does the ability to stand back and see what is really happening, to take stock of what is working and what isn’t, to get creative and dream (yes dream) up new ideas and have new thoughts and find better ways of doing things. To notice which tasks are really a waste of time and innovate. The very things an organisation under pressure needs the most. Odd that.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The principle of reciprocity between managers

One of the principles I often bang on about in organisations or situations containing significant levels of ambiguity or uncertainty (see the earlier discussion about the difference between ambiguity and uncertainty) is the principle of reciprocity between managers.
The relationships and levels of communication between managers is critical if an organisation or team is going to successfully profit from an uncertain or ambiguous situation.

Fostering positive and professional working relationships between managers, looking for communication blockages and dealing with them and making sure there are active communications up and down the line are all part of this principle.

The number of times I go into an organisation which needs help to deal with an uncertain or ambiguous situation to find that the managers, whilst often well trained as individuals, are dysfunctional as a group and certainly aren't a close knit team in themselves. Petty infighting, managers going it alone, lack of trust and less than helpful relationships within the management team will often de-rail any efforts to get them to navigate and get creative with ambiguity. My team frequently have to get the managers aligned and communicating before we can really get to work. In fact quite a bit of the internal ambiguity and uncertainty is actually created by the management of the organisation in many cases. Too little emphasis is placed on this principle in organisations. More should be made of this in appraisals and competency frameworks where they exist, and it should certainly be a topic of conversation with managers of all grades. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The 6 + 2 Psychological Factors of a Good Leader

There are a number of closely correlating studies examining the psychological factors which contribute to a successful leader. I have just completed a short meta-analysis research review for a client. I thought I would share an outline of the findings of the factors which correlate across most of the studies with a couple of trends in more recent studies.

The 6 Psychological Factors of a Good Leader:

  1. Decisiveness. The ability to make frequent and consistant decisions. This includes the sub-factors of taking responsibility for their decisions, knowing and sticking to the principles and ethics driving their  decision making. Decisiveness is often seen as providing clarity in uncertain situations.
  2. Overall competence. Good leaders are all seen as competent, not just as leaders but also within the realm they making decisions in. They are not just managing any situation but have competence in dealing with such situations and are perceived as having that level of competence. 
  3. Integrity or honest intent. People follow and trust leaders who they believe have the best intent or purpose. Integrity and others trust are usually seen by people as part of the same factor. 
  4. Vision. Often trotted out as a core leadership activity, vision in this case is the ability of the leader to project / articulate a clear, coherent and comprehensible path towards a meaningful goal.
  5. Persistance. Not only are good leaders clear about their goals they keep going and don't give up. This does not mean that they keep on regardless and there is a sub-factor of adaptability especially if a better way is found or the context/situation changes.
  6. Modesty. This is an interesting and surprising factor. Leaders who blow their own trumpet / feel the need to tell others how good they are are frequently associated with being a bad leader. Good leaders are seen as those who praise the right people and give credit to the team rather than themselves.
Current emerging trends

Two additional emerging psychological factors which are cropping up more frequently in recent research are:

  1. Adaptability / agility. This is the ability to deal flexibly with rapidly changing situations and has the sub-factors of the ability to see change as it happens, the ability to hold competing perspectives and deal with ambiguity and rapid change.
  2. Autonomy. This is the ability to stand alone when needed and make their own mind up as opposed to following trends without critical appraisal.