I’ve always lived under the assumption that the question “Why” what the most powerful question. I’m now convinced there is a more powerful question that can unlock change in people. The question is, “What am I grateful for?” I just read this article on The Ladders written by UCLA researcher, Alex Korb, PhD. Alex is the author of the book, The Upward Spiral.
Previously I believed the question “Why?” to be the most powerful question. It came from Six Sigma and the Theory of Constraints thinking process: The Five Whys. The idea was that if I ask why something happened, and then why four more times, I can get to the root of causation in a complex adaptive system. With that knowledge, I then can determine what to change. The challenge with that is that it is rooted in the past, and the future is often difficult to ascertain. In systems theory we talk about “what to change” and “what to change to.” This presupposes that we know that what we are changing to is the right thing to change to and that there is one and only one best answer. The problem that lies there is that there are rarely only one option to change to and even rarer still is that we can know that changing something will achieve the desired effect without unintended consequences in a complex adaptive system (CAS). The only thing that can work is treating the presupposition of what to change to as a hypothesis and continuously adapt our hypothesis until we are actually changing the most appropriate thing to the appropriate target based on current reality of the next set of emerging results, and to do so in small iterative and incremental sets so that we minimize the unintended consequences.
This approach sounds logical on the surface and years of research has shown the approach to be a useful model… until it isn’t.
Enter “The Most Powerful Question”.
The challenge with the “Five Whys” exercise is that is suffers from current reality, negative bias. It focuses on only the negative, and subordinates the negative(s) to the positive. As a result, we often don’t leverage what is working right, and use the positive to reinforce anything that emerges as a good solution. In CAS, these are called reinforcing loops: the stuff that keeps a CAS in its current state, or the stuff that allows the CAS to exist in it’s future state.
This is what makes the question, “What am I grateful for?” such a profoundly powerful question. It helps us see the reinforcing loops that will make whatever future state or future self emerge and exist without recidivism. And while unintended consequences can and will happen, it gives us a framework to become resilient in the future state.
“What am I grateful for?”
Today I am grateful for knowing that most powerful question.
Stuart Scott “Making space for powerful conversations”
After 20+ years in the software business, Stuart tends to look at software development in terms of human interactions. After all, most of the effort that goes into creating, selling, and using software consists of people working with people to serve people. And most of the challenges we face with software have to do with working together, making mistakes together, and learning together. He keeps finding new ways to help people learn together how to work together in ways that amplify their effectiveness – and their enjoyment of the work! He is looking for people who are persisting in deliberate practice of new positive change behaviors to keep projects “Fun Until Done” and restart the joy of new beginnings with each iteration.
SS: Any human system exists because individuals are interacting. A company, an organization, lives and breathes inside those interactions. So, if I’m in the process improvement business, I’m actually intent on improving the quality of human interactions.
When there’s a process problem, it’s a good bet that either a conversation isn’t happening or isn’t focused on the right issues or isn’t including all the right people. For example, people in one department will often get together to discuss how they wish people in another department would interact with them. But they don’t actually reach out to the people in the other department to include them in the conversation about how the two groups will interact.
How do we break this? I like to help groups focus on improving their interactions with other groups, and one tool I like is the “business interaction model.” It helps people identify the other groups they regularly interact with, and examine the quality of each of those relationships.
ES: Yes, because most human interactions seem to live in the interstices, the places where various groups come together in an organization, not inside the bounded categories. I’ve applied the old SWOT exercise of mapping out Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to these in-between spaces. Inviting subcultures or groups within the organization to consider how to improve their interactions through this kind of Interstitial Planning (all rights reserved) seems critical to organizational pathfinding and sensemaking.
SS: I see enormous value in that. First you draw a line on the diagram to represent the connection or interaction between two groups. And then have a conversation about what’s working and what’s not working inside that interaction. This calls to mind a model of human relationships that helped me understand what I’m responsible for in a relationship with another person.
Imagine a piece of paper with two circles for the individuals and a line connecting them. How do we share responsibility for the relationship represented by that line? How much of that relationship am I responsible for, and how much are you responsible for? Most people I’ve asked have suggested that each party is responsible for 50% of the relationship. The person represented by the circle on the left is thus responsible for the left half of the line up to its midpoint, while the person represented by the circle on the right is responsible for the right half of the line. The goal, it seems, is to meet halfway.
In practice though, this approach doesn’t work very well. On any given day, I might feel you aren’t owning your full 50% of the relationship. So I might get annoyed with you because you’re forcing me to do more than my share. The only way the relationship can work is if we always believe the other person is doing his or her 50%.
Clearly there are pitfalls. How about this instead? Instead of saying that “we have a relationship” represented in our diagram by a single line, we can say that I have a relationship with you represented by a line from me to you, and you have a relationship with me, represented by another line from you to me.
In this model, I take on 100% responsibility for my thinking and behaviors in my relationship with you. That’s my line across the white space. My own creation. That means I can have a productive relationship with you without depending upon you for a certain percentage. Similarly, you are 100% responsible for how you choose to relate to me, regardless of my treatment of you.
Now imagine if you brought that conversation into an interdepartmental squabble. It might help those human relationships, which are so often filled with confusion and disappointment.
ES: You might bring the conversation directly into the conflicted space, or you might set it up outside the structure. In the spaces between departments, systems, and cultures, people can dip into a new way of relating, fill up and then return to their respective positions with greater clarity and perspective. Like a support group for people trying to find positive ways to handle interactions at work.
You almost need to be in a different space physically, where you can feel a new energy. That allows you to create what [our mutual friend and colleague] Devin [Hedge] describes as new neural and muscular patterns, in order to go beyond the situations in which the problems originally got created.
“In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas. They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear. To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives.”
SS: Yes, it can help a lot to set up a different kind of “space” for the conversation if you want the nature of the conversation to change. That reminds me of how a group of my process improvement colleagues and I set up a weekly conference call so we could stay in a conversation about our efforts to get the right people involved in the right conversations. Our focus was on how we could contribute in any positive way. That was five years ago, and we still meet and talk even though we now work for different companies. People seem to find a lot of valuable in creating this kind of space for sharing interpersonal experiences and challenges within a business. We remember the power of being honest with peers on a regular basis. Indeed, it’s quite powerful.
ES: You mention positive contributions. With all the focus on organizational cultures, I’m often wondering how we could create structures that identify and support individuals who are good culture-builders. I’m working on one now, Scrum of One, which I’ve been invited to bring to Agile India. It’s a set of practices inspired by my work over the years with artists and arts organizations. These practices don’t depend upon a whole enterprise being oriented in any particular way. It’s both ongoing preparation for the creative individuals who get it as well as a way for enlightened organizations to find them so they can work with them.
What if positive culture-builders became fearless at work? How would business look if we could trust that if a system penalizes them for being authentic, another will be waiting that values them more and is a better match?
SS: You’re talking about raising the levels of personal responsibility. In other words, it’s about deciding what I bring to my relationship with you, regardless of how you are behaving toward me. It’s about reaching across the “white space” between the two circles in our diagram above, instead of just trying to meet you halfway. The motivation for that is not, of course, inside the system.
In organizations, the truly intractable problems span multiple functional areas. They have no single owner, no single cause, they aren’t linear. To address these complex problems effectively, we need to create new spaces for conversation so that we invite people to step in and contribute their unique needs and perspectives. I sometimes call this “creating space for the conversations that aren’t happening yet.”
ES: I can’t wait to see the energy and cohesion that will come when that occurs.
I’ve started using Writing Kit for writing on the iPad a lot more often these days. It supports Markdown, Dropbox sync, has an integrated Browser with DuckDuckGo as one of the integrated search engines. It is distraction free. All-in-all, it is as close as I’ve came to having the perfect on-the-go, in-the-moment everywhere writing tool. It even includes limited integration with Instapaper and Readability. There are three key features that prevent this from being THE perfect writing tool. They are:
Ability to write sections of documents and stitch them together, re-organize them, and compile them into a final document.
The work-arounds that I have used so far have been as follows:
For Evernote references — I either hot-swap to Evernote for iPad and use the “share link” feature to grab a reference to a specific note, or using the browser integrated into Writing Kit to navigate to Evernote’s web client to grab the link to an Evernote entry. Then I paste the link into my document using Writing Kit’s Markup or Insert Link tool. It is a pain in the neck and still doesn’t give me what I want. What I want is to be able to open an Evernote window in a side-tray (Blogsy style), high-light a section of text and insert the text into my Writing Kit document with the link to where that text came from automatically generated for me.
For Zotero — This would be the holy-grail of iPad functionality. What I would like is to open the integrated browser for researching a topic, highlight text in web pages or pdfs, send the bibliographic information along with the captured text to Zotero, be prompted for a description and note about the reference, AND capture the web reference in a specified Evernote note. Then inside my Writing Kit doc, be able to open a Zotero Client in a side-tray (Blogsy style), search for a find a reference, insert the quoted text, insert the note I made about the text, and maintain a markdown link to the Zotero record so that it can be compiled into an inline reference and Bibliography section when I’m ready to compile the document for “print” (usually a blog post or PDF white-paper).
For writing sections and document compilation — I’ll just say, I want to mimic a watered down version of the functionality of Scrivener for Mac and leave it at that.
Overall, though, I am really happy with Writing Kit. I’ve tried Pages, Plain Text, Plainnote, iA Writer, TextTastic, WriteRoom*, and others. I’m looking at Editorial next, but you can only throw down so much bank before you realize there should be a way to get a “free 30-day trial” before being required to buy an app in Apple App Store. That, of course, is a topic for another time.
*NOTE: I really love WriteRoom and OmmWriter for Mac. My favorite of the two is OmmWriter because of the Zen-Like interface, inspirational backgrounds and meditative music. I once got up from writing using OmmWriter and was in deep pain because I had been sitting for over two hours “in-the-zone” and hadn’t realized my back and legs were numb.
Think about this statement: 80% of the people that need your help don’t know they need your help.
Here is another statement: 80% of the people that need to read this blog post will never search for it.
Another: 80% of the people that actually find this post and read it won’t actually believe it. :-/
And another cookie: 80% of the people that don’t know they your help and will never search for this blog post, aren’t even online, don’t search online, don’t subscribe to Internet feeds, read Internet news or otherwise engage in anything online.
Finally, this 80% of 80% (64%) uses 80% of all resources of your organization and only produce 20% of the results.
Not surprisingly, Tony Robbins points out that 80% of businesses go out of business in the first three to five years. Of the the remaining 20%, another 80% will go out of business in the first five to seven years in business. The primary reason is product to market fit… planning and development. That 64% sucking up all those resources at work has a name. It’s name is Mediocrity and it is killing your company.
I’m going to follow this up with a post about where this phenomenon comes from (mostly not the 64%), how to curb and kill mediocrity, and how you can’t kill mediocrity but only contain and minimize its effect.
I’d love to know what aspects are important to the 20% of 20% (The 0.04%) that will read this post. What are your thoughts?
. In researching and garnering feedback, Manoj and I were swapping anecdotal stories of cognitive bias. I’m going to share two here. If you happen to be at Agile 2013, try to catch this session as I know it will be great.
The two examples I want to share where I have seen cognitive bias preventing Agile Adoption are what I’ll call Hourly Estimation Bias and Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. It sounds fancy, but your see it is just a situation we take for granted not knowing its adverse effects in catalyzing necessary changes.
HOURLY ESTIMATION BIAS
This bias can be defined as the need for managers who have not fulling embraced “The Agile Way” of Empirical Evidence in planning and tracking. In Agile practices we tend to shift away from hourly estimation of way, relying instead on relative estimation based on NUTS and Throughput Account measures such as Velocity, Cycle-Time and Lead-Time. While it is often dangerous to apply Lean Manufacturing metrics to Product Development due to the vast variation in effort from Product Feature to Product Feature, when sufficiently broken-down into work units that can be completed in 2-3 days, the law of averages in large datasets takes over giving you a nice Guassian Curve.
The anecdotal story I’ll share here is that managers, being unfamiliar with empirical evidence and having relying on vanity metrics so long, they suffer bias towards the vanity metrics even when we have proven that the Paredo Principle applies to these estimations and metrics… they are only correct ~20% of the time. Or stated another way, vanity metrics of Scope, Schedule and Cost in a complex human system are invariably WRONG roughly 80% of the time.
So why would a manager bet their bonus and possibly their job on something that it WRONG 80% of the time? Familiarity. The brain naturally filters and reduces the world around us into simples terms in order to perform sensemaking. This works when you need to know if a Lion is a threat while walking across the Serenghetti. It works poorly in estimation of complex systems and complex human system. Yet, time and again I have managers that ask: “What is your percent complete?” and “How many hows do you have left?” Why? Cognitive Bias towards the familiar. It turns out we favor five-to-one something we are familiar with over something we are unfamiliar with. Paredo’s Principle strikes again (One-Fifth = 20%).
The second cognitive bias I’ll discuss is a phrase I’m hijacking and twisting, called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction. In a study about diversity in the workplace and the hiring habits of managers, it has been found that managers subconsciously hire people that act and look like themselves (homosocial mirrors), and that they favor candidates that are homosocial mirrors over candidates that are more qualified.
I have seen this behavior present itself in the following more times than I am even aware of. For example, say a manager needs to fill a position with someone that has Agile skills. Together, we look to hire someone internally first because it is seemingly less risky as a person is likely to already understand the political landscape and challenges facing the position. But, what often happens in a command and control environment shifting towards a collaborative environment? We look around the company for a likely candidate and don’t find the right mix of technical skills, domain knowledge and soft skills. We have to hire someone from outside. However, when faced with a marginally competent internal candidate and strong external candidate, managers favor an internal candidate over the outside candidate. Thus, the command and control culture is further cemented into place and change becomes that much more difficult if not impossible.
Soft skills (people skills) in an Agile environment are typically the more important than technical skills and domain knowledge. That is not to say that a person should not have a base competency in the requisite technical skills or domain knowledge; however, we have found that a person with the soft skills of mentoring, servant leadership and lifelong learning can overcome not having strong technical skills or domain knowledge.
So why would a manager purposely choose the lesser qualified candidate?
It’s called Risk Adverse Homosocial Reproduction: a cognitive bias that favors hiring people that are “just like me” in order to make you feel good. This feeling of comfort comes from patterns of familiarity in the Superior Parietal Lobe combined with the fear of the unfamiliar in the Amygdala overriding our ability to reason using logic in the Pre-Frontal Cortex.
Unfortunately, knowing this is mostly useless. Typically, the people that need to know how to steer around this Cognitive Bias the most, are the least likely to know that they need to steer around this Cognitive Bias.
It is also the single, most-challenging, and most-obvious “problem to everyone but the person suffering this bias” that I face when coaching.
We all naturally suffer from it in some small way because it is a natural defense mechanism built into the brain against wild animal attacks. It is also the root of racism, prejudice, and class (Caste?) politics.
The bias is that strong. There is one way to overcome this bias, but it is quite ugly.
Generally, the only way out of hiring bias is through judicious use of external recruiting, allowing internal wannabes to apply for the position through an external vetting agency. Corporate recruiters hate this strategy because they feel they don’t have control over the vetting process, so a certain “make HR feel part of the process” tactic has to be employed. Properly engaged, HR becomes your strongest ally in the process.
I’ve successfully used this technique for overcoming my own bias. The result was being able to work some of the most brilliant people in the business.
What examples of cognitive bias in decision making have you seen?
Someone on Reddit asked about my optimism. My response below:
The state in all times and all places wants a population of despairing, dreary, hopeless, and weighted-down people. Why? Because such people don’t do anything. They are predictable, categorizable, pliable, and essentially powerless. Such people offer no surprises, threaten no change, destabilize nothing. This is the ideal world that the bureaucrats, the plutocrats, and the technocrats desire. It makes their life easy and the path clear. Today is just yesterday and tomorrow – forever. This is the machine that the state wants to manage, a world of down-in-the-dumps and obedient citizens of the society they think they own.
In contrast, hope upsets the prevailing order. It sees things that don’t yet exist. It acts on a promise of a future different from today. It plays with the uncertainty of the future and dares imagine that ideals can become reality. Those who think this way are a threat to every regime. Why? Because people who think this way eventually come to act this way. They resist. They rebel. They overthrow.
And yet look around: we see progress everywhere. What does this imply? It implies that non-compliance is the human norm. People cannot be forever pressed into a mold of the state’s making. The future will happen and it will be shaped by those who dare to break bad, dare to disagree, and dare to take the risk to overthrow what is in favor of what can be.
I realized all this some years ago, and then when you begin to look around and see how the power elites do not and cannot rule, you discover the whole secret to social order. It turns out that they are not really in control, not finally. Then it all becomes fun. It is a blast to see the powerful topple from the thrones they want to sit in so badly. It is a thrill to use and hold technologies that no one among the elite ever gave permission to exist. It is a kick to see how the market — meaning human beings acting with vision toward the future — is so constantly outwitting the arrogant planners who want to freeze history, control our minds, and wreck our world.
To defy them is so simple: just imagine and future better than the present. You become a enemy of the state, and you begin to love every minute of it.
I think Tucker is correct in how all States view optimism. Reference The Jungle, Anthem, 1984, Stranger in a Strange Land, etc. All of these authors were giving us fictional versions of Optimism played out. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, optimism plays an implied key role as part of the John Galt pledge, “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The Pledge implies that man can imagine and create a world of self-sufficiency if left unfettered by governments.
While this looks great on paper, it is true only if you allow God to guide your steps. In Jeremiah 10:23 the Prophet Jeremiah states, “LORD, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.” The research of Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, et al. has been proving this to be true due to the natural wiring of the power of the fast part of your brain (limbic) overpowering the slow part of your brain (Pre-frontal cortex) where logic and reason occur.
Pessimism, usually driven by the limbic system being trigger by some form of fear or the memory thereof, has shown to be 5x more powerful then Optimism in controlling how we think and view the world. This is likely by design as it provides a natural defense mechanism if you are a hunter/gatherer/farmer living in nomadic tribes.
Additionally, optimism has a nasty side-effect of making us puffed up. If you can find ways to temper your pride, such as mindfulness and daily reading of and meditation on the Holy Scripture, you can mostly avoid the trap of pride while enjoying your new found status as non-pliable Citizen.
I approached my gate at O’Hare today and there was a large crowd gathered looking toward the aircraft and tarmac outside. There I saw a ground grew unloading luggage, and two fire trucks with lights blazing. Upon closer glance I realized what the crowd had stopped to watch. The firemen were lined along the baggage ramp from the plane at attention presenting arms. What came from the craft’s belly, was a soldier returning home. The casket, draped in Old Glory, was accepted by the Color Guard and quietly was carried to a carriage. They blew thier air horns in a long call, then raised thier sirens and raced away with the Colors flapping in the wind.
The moment was surreal for me and others. It brought back memories for me of never being able to say goodbye to two men from my platoon in Basic Training.
One, I had fought with both verbally and physically. He thought I was a goodie-two-shoes. I thought he was a stupid swamper from the bayou of Lousianna. Seeing the constant tension, the Drill Sergeant paired the two of us in every possible situation. We never became friends or much more than two guys together in the same situation, but we did learn to work together.
Upon graduation from Basic Training, I left for Fort Gordon. The Cajun remained behind to complete Advanced Indidividual Training (AIT) as an Military Policeman (MP). The other, my bunkmate for the next 12 weeks, became my brother in arms. Both, ultimately went on to Desert Shield and Desert Storm while I went on to monitor North Korea while we had our focus on Iraq.
Neither returned alive.
The Cajun, having saved a lot of his fellow troops, was awarded the Silver Star… postumously.
I wish I could have told him thank you for teaching me the true meaning of the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”.
I turned from the scene at O’Hare and wondered who wasn’t able to say goodbye to this Warrior who paid the ultimate sacrifice…
… and for what?
Because all men, women and children are created equal and deserve an equal chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even Afghans men, women and children.
A colleague posted a question to our support forum with the following question:
I try to keep my Sundays focused on non-work. This evening, like many Sunday evenings, my brain is already attempting to plan my Monday. And then it wants to start working my Monday.
What are your tricks for keeping your off-work time full of non-work thoughts?
The irony is that while he would have posting this question, I was dealing with the same thoughts. Yesterday I was running through all the things I had to do, and all the things I was behind on. “Eat that frog!” kept running around in my head. Do I focus on the things I can just knock and feel a sense of accomplishment, or do I prioritize my work by importance/value and burn it down?
Here is my list of “turn it off” techniques for dealing with “Sunday Anxiety”:
10) Contemplate the Frog. What makes is a Frog? Usually, what makes the Frog ugly is that the Frog is really an “Epic” thing comprising a lot of smaller things. One way to turn the Frog into a something more approachable is to break the Frog apart into those smaller things, then throw those smaller things back into the master list and reprioritize without losing the overall sense that you have to now do those N-number of things to Eat that Frog, but you also get the sense that you will be accomplishing something. You are activating the reward system of the brain.
I try to do this everyday. Sometime I fail. When things are really looking scary, I go work out or do something physical like yard work or chores. The trick is to find something that requires me to arrest my limbic system. (Read “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock)