Taken For Granted

Which animal runs faster, the coyote or the roadrunner?

What I find when I ask this question is that I get some funny looks, and then most people tell me that it’s the roadrunner. The reasons always vary, and I’ve heard some very interesting technical explanations for why roadrunners run faster, which, I was assured, have nothing to with the famous Warner Brothers cartoon. Nonetheless, they conclude that the roadrunner is faster.

In fact, despite what many of us learned as children watching the Bugs Bunny Show, a roadrunner actually runs at only 20 mile per hour, compared to around 40 for a coyote. Unlike the Roadrunner, real roadrunners escape being eaten by flying, not running. However, real coyotes are slightly more skilled in the use of rockets and other high tech gadgets than the fictional Wile E. Coyote.

The problem with things we “just hear” or other information that we’re exposed to so often that we come to take it for granted is that we may never really stop to think about the data. While I doubt very many people believe that real coyotes carry around an Acme catalog and are capable of running on thin air until they look down, the canonical image of a roadrunner for many people is a flightless bird that goes, “Beep, beep!”

Now, the fact is that unless you are being chased by a coyote on a large red rocket (in which case the strategy is to step to one side and let the rocket fly out of control), knowing that a coyote can outrun a roadrunner is probably unimportant. However, in the business world such unquestioned, hidden, assumptions can cause us to miss opportunities or fail to see potential innovations that are right in front of us.

Part of the problem is that creating an unquestioned assumption does not require showing generations of children cartoons for fifty years. A hidden assumption can be created in a matter of minutes by how we describe a problem or present a scenario, and what we automatically take for granted can become as hard to change as granite. On one occasion, I ran a management training exercise in which I handed participants large envelopes containing various items. The participants had to trade and negotiate to get the things they actually wanted. They were unable to complete the exercise because each person became convinced that at least one of the others was holding out on him: no one would admit to having two of the items, apples and leaves, which led to the assumption that those who did have them were sitting on them to force concessions from the rest of the participants. The hidden assumption that everyone made was that the items they wanted must have been handed out in the envelopes. Thus, no one thought to walk down the hall to the cafeteria to get an apple or thought to pull a leaf off the tree outside the window, even though both those solutions were staring them in the face – one person even walked down the hall for a cup of coffee, passing by the fruit bowls!

Identifying the hidden assumptions can be a tricky business since they are, by definition, hidden. Getting at those assumptions is not always all that simple. It requires taking the time to list everything you think you know about the situation, especially since you may not realize you “know” it: the belief that all the items were in bags, for example, was a very difficult assumption for the group to identify. Sometimes, the listing exercise does the job: once everyone puts their assumptions on the whiteboard, you realize that one or more of them just don’t make sense. Frequently, though, that’s not sufficient. In that case, we must do something surprisingly difficult: asking not what would prove our assumptions right, but what would prove them wrong?

Asking the questions that would prove our assumptions wrong turns out to be an unexpectedly challenging task. We want to be right, so we tend to look for the evidence that will support our positions or beliefs: “Of course all the items must have been in bags, I saw the bags handed out,” or “Of course roadrunners are fast, they can run 20 miles per hour! Why do you think they’re called roadrunners?” What we don’t automatically do is ask the questions, “Must items start in bags?” or “How fast are coyotes?”

Organizational cultures are filled with these hidden assumptions, taken for granted and passed from one employee to another. The breakthrough products come when people look past them and ask the questions that disprove what everyone knows to be true. Of course, if Wile E. Coyote had ever thought to question the hidden assumption that he can’t run as fast as the Roadrunner, the ACME corporation would probably be out of business; given their products, perhaps that’s not so bad a thought.

 

It Takes a Process

Large projects can be very intimidating. It’s easy to feel like you are standing at the foot of a very tall and imposing mountain. Working on the project can easily overwhelm even very talented people. It can be hard to feel like you’re making progress when there’s always a lot to do and when it feels like problems are constantly cropping up. When you climb that mountain, it can often feel like there’s always fog ahead of you and behind you so that you can’t see how far you still have to go and you can’t tell how far you’ve come.

When I decided to write my first book, I didn’t jump in and start writing. Even though I’ve executed some very large projects, my first step was to learn a process for writing books. In this case, the process I used came from someone who had written over two dozen books, so I figured he had some clue what he was talking about. I subsequently modified the process by bringing in some of the lessons I’d learned from other complex projects and adjusting it to suit my personal style and to correct a few short-comings.

The trick with processes is that they serve to organize and simplify complex operations. They create structure. Writing a book is complex: there are a lot of moving parts. If nothing else, keeping track of the chapters, what’s ending up in each one, making sure there are no contradictions, that something mentioned in an earlier chapter is followed up on later, and so forth, can easily become nightmarish. However, using an organized system turns that nightmare into routine. Other projects have their own headaches that can by managed by having the right processes in place.

Processes, however, often feel awkward and alien when you’re first learning them. This is like the student in my jujitsu class who once said to me, “I’d never do that technique. It doesn’t feel natural.”

Of course it didn’t feel natural, he hadn’t practiced it! Processes are the same. They rarely feel natural at first. You have to get used to them. Processes also serve both logistical and psychological functions.

From a logistical perspective, a process serves as an organizational structure for projects that have a lot of moving parts. When designed well, the process captures the moving parts, or at least provides a way of making sure that they don’t get lost. Lost pieces of a project are a little like Roger Rabbit: just as he can escape from handcuffs only when it’s funny, lost pieces tend to show up only when it’s most inconvenient.

Psychologically, a good process protects us from having to spend our time and energy constantly wondering what we’re forgetting. This can be amazingly distracting. With a good process in place, even if some things still slip through the cracks, the frequency and severity of problems are minimized and are far less likely to derail the project. A process is, in essence, a way of breaking down a large project into goals and subgoals, while also providing a framework for keeping track of them all. This allows you to measure progress, making the whole project seem less intimidating. Put another way, you’ve at least cleared the fog from below, so you can see how far up the mountain you’ve climbed, and you have the tools to navigate the fog ahead of you.

Processes are not just about accomplishing large projects though. A good process can make it easier for new hires to become productive: for example, having a sales process helps new salesmen know what to say and how to demo the product. In this case, the process is serving to reduce confusion and provide structure to someone who is entering a new environment. By learning the process, they also learn what matters and what does not. Without a process, becoming productive is slower and involves a lot more wandering around in the fog.

Of course, no process is ever perfect. Once you’ve learned the process, you must modify it to fit you and to fix shortcomings. For team projects, part of how the team reaches its most productive stages is by figuring out how to modify the process so that it works for everyone on the team.

You wouldn’t climb a mountain without preparation. Tackling large projects without some sort of process is similarly unwise.

It Doesn’t Look Like Progress

“I can’t believe I need to explain that to this group.”

I might be tempted to mention where I most recently heard that phrase, except that I’m sure I’ll hear it again before long. That’s because it’s a very familiar complaint, one that comes up in a lot of groups. I can recall saying it myself a few times and I imagine that most of you have heard it at least once. If not, well, either that’s a problem or you’ve been incredibly lucky. Odds are, it’s the former. All too often, when that sentiment comes up, it’s seen as a problem for the group.

As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “the strength of the individual is the group and the strength of the group is the individual.” Put another way, groups can be very effective at getting things done. The right group with the right people can achieve great things and be a joy to be part of.  The flip side, of course, is that the wrong group or the wrong people can make for a horrendous experience. How does a group become one of those really effective, “feels great to be part of” teams?

I imagine that some of you are thinking, “Well, isn’t that Forming, Storming, and all that stuff?” Well, yes. But does that tell you anything? Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing) describes a process of relationship development over time. It sounds very clean and neat when described on paper or in a talk, but the reality is fairly messy. The “I can’t believe I need…” questions are an example of that messiness.

For groups to be effective, or, put another way, for two or more heads to be better than one, everyone needs to get at least near to the same wavelength. Group members must go through the process of figuring out what everyone actually thinks about a topic. Again, this sounds very neat and simple, but the reality is anything but.

The tendency is for each member of the group to assume that what everyone wants is what they want. Together with that tendency is the tendency of each individual to assume that if no one is asking questions then everyone else must know the answer and that they are the only ignorant person. For those who like technical terms, we’re talking about False Consensus and Pluralistic Ignorance.

If the group is around long enough, and the members are invested enough in the group, at some point someone realizes that some attitude, belief, or value that they took for granted and assumed that everyone else agreed with turns out not to be so universal after all. At that point, if that person is invested in the group, they might very well express some variant of, “I can’t believe I need to explain that to this group.”

The presence of that statement represents a developing awareness in the group that they are operating with, if not a false consensus, at least an untested consensus. In fact, even when everyone more or less agrees with the broad concept, each individual will tend to view the details in very different ways.

How the group responds to the statement determines what happens next. The best-case scenario is that the statement triggers subsequent discussion that enables the group to develop a real and robust consensus. That new consensus may or not be precisely what members thought going into the discussion. On the other hand, if the group responds by shutting down the speaker, that’s a bad sign: the group is not ready to accept that there is a great deal of variation in how members view a topic or that members may not even agree at all; group members don’t have a strong enough relationship to accept differences along that axis. Should the group respond to “I can’t believe…” by just flipping over to the new point of view, the situation is not much better. The group is substituting one illusion of consensus for another, but not doing the work of learning to address substantial differences (some groups can’t even handle trivial differences without dissolving into pointless argument, which is even worse).

So, if you’ve never heard anyone express the sentiment that they can’t believe they have to explain something to the group, that probably means your group is stuck. On the other hand, if you find that you can’t believe that you must “explain that” to your group, be happy. You’re making progress.

 

 

Winning Was Easy: The Tragedy of Star Wars

Winning was easy young man. Governing’s harder.

                                                 — President George Washington (Hamilton)

 

When I’ve done jujitsu demos, we would often conduct “what if” scenarios: given a situation, how would one of the demonstrators use jujitsu to get out of it? Some of the situations members of the audience would imagine were, to say the least, creative: “You’re on your face, with your arms and legs twisted into knots and …”

The response to such scenarios was always, “How did you get there in the first place?”

Watching The Last Jedi, I had a similar reaction: “How did they manage to get into that mess in the first place?”

For those who haven’t figured it out from some of my other articles, I am something of a Star Wars fan. As I watched The Last Jedi, I couldn’t help but think of it in an organizational psych context. How did the galaxy get from the fall of the Empire and potential rebirth of the Republic at the end of Return of the Jedi, to the First Order and the collapse of the rebellion that we saw in Force Awakens and Last Jedi?

More simply, how did the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke (or is it Snookie?) take power and establish the sort of industrial base necessary to build massive dreadnaughts and the Starkiller Base? One thing we can say with some certainty is that “Supreme Leaders” don’t just waltz in and take power when things are going well. However, when government is (at least perceived to be) not functioning and political and economic conditions are chaotic, Supreme Leaders tend to find much more fertile ground for their promises of order: humans (and aliens, but since Star Wars aliens are functionally human, we’ll treat them all as human) hate organizational ambiguity. Just think about how unpleasant it can be when you don’t know what’s expected of you on the job or how you’re going to get your job done, then multiple that by a few powers of 10.

This suggests that after Emperor Palpatine got shafted at the end of Return of the Jedi (remember, he was dropped down a shaft), the nascent Republic was unable to re-establish a functional government. Without a functional galactic government, when the remnants of the Empire returned as the First Order with Snoke at the helm, they would have found ineffective military resistance and a galaxy open to their message of order.

This is a little surprising: Palpatine had only been in power for roughly 25 years. The Galactic Senate had only recently been disbanded (during Episode IV). The mechanisms of government, as well as the actual people, should still have been in place. Sure, 25 years seems like a long time, but a galaxy is a very big place and cultures containing trillions or quadrillions of people do not change quickly. So again, how did we get there?

At this point we need to go to a very scary place: the prequel trilogies. I realize this may be painful for some, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

What we see in the prequel movies is that in addition to his dark powers, Palpatine is also a consummate politician. Most, if not all, of his manipulations were done using words and political acumen. The Force almost never came into it. In fact, Palpatine’s manipulation of the Galactic Senate, the Trade Federation, and the political system are no different from what plenty of less than scrupulous organizational leaders have done without any magical powers at all. Even Palpatine’s seduction of Anakin Skywalker was done purely through words and a deep understanding of practical psychology. Once Palpatine took control, he did not use the Force to govern; rather, he used the existing mechanisms of governance.

That’s the thing about organizations: no matter the size, they need social mechanisms to keep them functioning. Small groups can work informally with a loose decision-making process. Very large organizations, up to and including Galactic Empires, need a formal structure complete with functionaries and deliberative bodies that can carry out the instructions from the top. Even Palpatine, for all his power, could not rule a galaxy without that structure. The galaxy is just too big and there’s just not enough time for one person to pay attention to all the details. Organizations much smaller than the Empire run into that problem: Tom Watson Sr. maintained a very flat organizational structure at IBM; his son, Tom Watson Jr., instituted a management structure because otherwise the company would have become ungovernable as it grew. Once Palpatine dissolved the Senate, he replaced it with Moffs and Grand Moffs; essentially, middle managers. Even Sith Lords need lieutenants to carry out their orders, at least if they want to have time to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. More to the point, Palpatine recognized that running a galaxy requires a large bureaucracy and that transitioning from the existing mechanisms of the Republic to those of Empire took time. That sort of transition is necessary when implementing a dramatic cultural change.

Palpatine’s organizational changes provoked outcry and rebellion across the galaxy. To be fair, his changes involved altering the existing culture at a profound level, so resistance was to be expected. This is hardly surprising to anyone who has ever attempted even a more benign organizational change, although most fights over that changes do not include duels, battle cruisers, and Death Stars. However, those fights can still be extremely bitter and exhausting for all concerned, for all their lack of special effects.

The original trilogy, episodes IV-VI, told the story of that rebellion against Palpatine’s organizational change. However, the story did not focus on matters of governance or organizational behavior, but on using the Force to defeat Palpatine and Darth Vader. That the Force was the focus is hardly surprising: aside from the fact that lightsaber duels and telekinesis are more exciting that “Organizational Psychology: The Movie,” Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are Jedi. They view the world through the lens of the Force. For Yoda and Obi-Wan, the goal was to train another Jedi capable of defeating the two Sith. Actual governance of the galaxy wasn’t really their primary focus. Like anyone who has a specific background or expertise, there is a tendency to view problems through the lens of that expertise (this article being no exception 😊). This tendency can cause problems when it blinds us to other, equally important, components of the situation, like who would run the galaxy once Palpatine was let go.

The answer, apparently, was no one. We might suspect, as one economist pointed out, that the construction, and subsequent destruction, of two Death Stars was enough to bankrupt the government and trigger a galactic depression. It may be that the recently disbanded Senate was unable to come together and pass legislation, and Palpatine’s governors were not inclined to cooperate. It may be something else. What we do know is that after another approximately 25 years, Luke Skywalker has given in to despair, the Republic is down to so few planets that they can be functionally destroyed by the Starkiller Base, the First Order has control of enough of the galaxy’s industrial base that they can build the Starkiller Base, and the remnants of the Resistance have no resources and no allies. Whatever the message of the Resistance was, it clearly hasn’t been convincing anyone other than the true believers. Similarly, in any organization, it’s important to seek out information from outside the group and find out how your message is being received.

Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, the man who defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, could not recreate the Republic. Leia Organa, princess and general, was apparently also unable to do so. The new government that did eventually emerge was headed by Snoke and his disciple, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. With Snoke’s death, the galactic government is now in the hands of a man with no impulse control and a tendency to throw temper tantrums and engage in the gratuitous use of Force. On the other side, Rey is at least Ren’s equal in the Force. Given Ren’s inability to control himself and Rey’s incredible self-discipline, she’s potentially far more capable than he is. And yet, neither one of them has the training to run a galaxy. Some things require expertise that comes from years of education and practice on top of raw talent. Just trusting your feelings isn’t going to cut it.

Organizations need to think about their needs both in the immediate term and in the future. Thinking about expected changes can help the organization predict what skills it will need. When Palpatine took charge, he knew exactly what to do and had the people in place to do it. Even so, it took him 25 years to mostly complete his personnel changes. The Rebellion was not so well organized, and paid the price. If you wait until the moment you need the skills to start developing them, it’ll be too late. This last point is true not just at an organizational level, but at an individual one as well.

The tragedy of Star Wars is that Our Heroes have spent their time focusing on the Force, as though the Force is what governs the galaxy. Like duct tape, the Force might hold the universe together, but it’s about as good at the actual mechanisms of governance as a roll of duct tape. As with any organization, to be successful the Rebellion needs to identify and develop its core competencies, which includes learning how to govern should they win. Otherwise, the cycle will just repeat. They can only get so far relying on Force.

Trust Your Feelings, Luke

“Trust your feelings…”

— Obi Wan Kenobi

 

Star Wars made it seem so simple: all a Jedi had to do was trust his or her feelings and they would do the right thing. It certainly worked out pretty well for Luke in the original movie (Episode IV), blowing up the Death Star and all. But then came The Empire Strikes Back and it turned out that learning to trust your feelings involved running around in a swamp with a grouchy Muppet on your back.

Feelings are certainly useful, and they can help us make better decisions. However, just as Luke discovered, it’s not quite as easy as Obi Wan originally made it seem. In fact, trusting our feelings in the heat of the moment can often lead to very bad decisions: in a training exercise I was running, one participant was completely convinced that another participant was lying to her. She based this on her infallible instincts, aka feelings. When we debriefed at the end, it turned out he wasn’t lying. He was telling her the complete truth and would have helped her if she’d let him. In general, letting our feelings rule the day works out badly when we’re tired, hungry, frustrated, confused, angry, or even overly happy.  In each of these cases, strong feelings can overshadow judgment.

So, when are feelings useful?

It helps a great deal to train your feelings. The point of Luke running around the swamp may have been primarily to make Jedi training look mysterious, however for serious athletes, constant drills and training serve to develop their skills and hone their instincts. The master fencer picks up on subtle cues of posture and blade position that reveal what their opponent is likely to do next. It is because of their training that they can trust and act on their feelings.

Feelings can be very useful when planning future strategy. When you feel strongly, good or bad, about a particular course of action, that’s often a good clue that it’s worth exploring that action more thoroughly. Why do you feel that way? What about that course of action appeals to you or does not appeal to you? Just to make things more complicated, feeling good about a course of action doesn’t mean that the action will succeed just as feeling bad about a course of action doesn’t mean it is a bad choice. You might feel good only because the action feels safe or you might feel bad because the action involves something new and different. In that case, the correct choice might be to go against your instincts.

When engaged in a long and complex project, be that designing software or producing marketing materials, it can help to pause periodically and admire your work. If you don’t like it while it’s in progress, that’s a bad sign. Pay attention to your feelings: they’re likely telling you something is wrong.

Training feelings can be tough. Athletes do it through many days and weeks of practice. Jedi do it by running around a swamp. In a business setting, sufficiently complex and elaborate training games can serve the same purpose, only with better food and without the humidity. Such games, in addition to their other benefits, are fun and can help build organizational cohesion.

Like Obi Wan said, “Trust your feelings.” But take the time to make your feelings trustable.

Cognitive Diversity? Mr. Johnson is Right!

In Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, “Blazing Saddles,” there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where the inhabitants of Rock Ridge are trying to decide how to handle the crime wave besetting their town. As they meet in the church, Reverend Johnson calls up the various townspeople to speak: Van Johnson, Howard Johnson, Olson Johnson, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Don Johnson, Gabby Johnson, and so forth. After each Johnson says their piece, the next Johnson gets up to say, “Mr. Johnson is right.” The multitude of Johnsons don’t have any particularly creative ideas, but they did come to a very quick agreement on what to do.

I was reminded of this scene when reading Bari Williams’ article, “Tech’s Troubling New Trend: Diversity Is in Your Head,” in the New York Times.

Needless to say, the crowd in Rock Ridge are not very diverse. In the church scene, the high point of diversity comes when Gabby Johnson gives a passionate speech in authentic, if incomprehensible, frontier gibberish. What makes him an example of diversity? Well, all the other Johnsons spoke clearly articulated English. However, even Gabby’s authentic frontier gibberish didn’t stimulate any divergent thought in the group.

Bari Williams’ article discusses Apple’s vice-president of diversity and inclusion, Denise Smith, saying that, “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

Perhaps all 12 men could be named Johnson?

The problem with this concept of “cognitive diversity,” as it’s known, is that it doesn’t work. It might sound good (although even that’s debatable), but if the goal is a team that can come up with varied and creative ideas, “cognitive diversity” by itself is a waste of time. It’s more likely that such a team will come up with fewer, less creative ideas, and more rapidly reach a consensus without considering a variety of options.

Why doesn’t cognitive diversity work? Fundamentally, because we can’t see cognitive diversity. Our minds respond to our environments. What we see around us influences how we direct and use our mental focus: The inputs shape the outputs. A dull, flat, colorless environment tends to be vaguely depressing, while a bright, open, colorful environment tends to be mentally stimulating. When the people around us all look like us, our thoughts tend to converge as well. When the people around us are physically different from us, we start to think in more diverse ways. The group is more likely to come up with more different ideas, and more likely to spend a greater amount of time exploring and developing those ideas.

To be fair, it is harder to bring a more physically diverse group of people together into a team than it is to do so with a same-sized homogeneous group. The more diverse group might spend a longer period in an awkward, “get to know you,” stage before it really starts to become productive. On the other hand, more diverse groups tend to be able to solve a wider range of problems, deal with a wider range of unexpected situations, and generally perform better than more homogeneous groups.

A focus on cognitive diversity just yields homogeneity. If you truly want people to think different, a focus on physical (i.e. race, gender, ethnicity, etc) diversity is the best way to do it.

For the people of Rock Ridge, diversity came as a bit of a shock. They didn’t adapt to it easily, but when they did they were able to find a way out of their predicament. To succeed, they had to learn to break down some walls. Corporations may have to learn to break down a few barriers as well in order to build effective, diverse teams.

Guardians of Disunity

Guardians of the Galaxy 2  features the obligatory chase scene through an asteroid belt. This seems to be a Thing in science fiction movies: Han Solo was almost eaten by a giant space worm flying through an asteroid belt to avoid Imperial ships in The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek did a version of it in Wrath of Khan (okay, it was a nebula, but oddly enough there were asteroids bumping the ship), and so on. In this particular version of the classic asteroid chase scene, our heroes, while trying to avoid getting blown out of space by their pursuers, are also busy fighting over who should be controlling their ship. This does make the Guardians version of the chase just a bit different from the usual. Normally, when confronted by an outside threat, particularly one trying to blow you out of space, teams pull together instead of pulling the controls in different directions. The resulting disaster is both predictable and comical.

Using an outside threat to unify a team is hardly new. Organizations have been doing it for a very long time: sometimes the outside threat is another company, sometimes it’s competition with another department, sometimes it’s just the threat of failing to meet a deadline. No matter which option is used, the results are fairly similar: if the team believes the threat, they put their differences aside and work together. Well, sort of.

When a team faces an outside threat, quite frequently the size of the threat makes the team’s own internal disagreements seem small and unimportant by comparison. This may then cause the members of the team to cooperate instead of arguing with each other. Of course, the disagreements haven’t actually been addressed nor have they magically gone away. They’re still there, waiting to spring back to life like the killer robot in Terminator. If the outside threat weakens, or the team just doesn’t take it seriously, the internal disagreements come roaring back with a vengeance. This can leave the team worse off than it was before.

What if the team does believe the threat? Well, that is still something of a mixed blessing. The good news is that the team may well hold together for a while, sometimes long enough to get the job done. If the external threat is an impending deadline, though, what will often happen is that the team will become so focused on avoiding conflict that they keep failing to hit the deadline. Not hitting the deadline becomes a way to keep conflict at bay: when the team does eventually deliver, then they’ll have to address all those long-simmering issues. Handled properly, experiencing some success may enable the team to do just that.

However, there are some other side-effects to using external threats to hold a team together: team members become less willing to argue with one another about anything, and, hence, are less creative. The conformity encouraged by the outside threat can easily get out of hand. Team members become so unwilling to argue that they start making nonsensical or stupid decisions. This rarely ends well. Even when the team doesn’t go down the full groupthink highway, their decision-making and inventiveness still suffer compared to teams that are unified through inspirational leadership. And, at some point, those disagreements still need to be addressed.

As a way of unifying teams, outside threats have their drawbacks. Getting hit by an asteroid may well be the least of them.

Mirror, Mirror

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?”

 

Magic mirrors have a habit of showing up in fairy tales and legends. The most famous, of course, was the mirror owned by the wicked queen in Snow White. But don’t think that magic mirrors were solely the province of the wicked queen. There were plenty of evil sorcerers, kings, and especially evil grand viziers who had magic mirrors of one sort or another. Given how ubiquitous those mirrors were, one can only imagine that entire fantasy economies must have depended on their manufacture. But that, as they say, is another story.

The interesting thing about magic mirrors is that what they show us is, well, us, with an emphasis on making us feel good about it. That’s the problem with magic mirrors: when we look into them long enough, we might actually start to believe that we really do look that good. If that happens, anything that spoils the illusion becomes a problem to remove rather than feedback that things might not be as they seem.

“Sorry Queen, but it is Snow White who’s better looking by day or night.”

We all know how that worked out.

In a business setting, the magic mirror is the people we work with. When we work as part of a team, we can see everyone on the team: we can see what they do, we react to their work, we hear their words. The one person we cannot see is ourselves. Is our work good or is it poor? Are we behaving intelligently, foolishly, wisely, or carelessly? We can only really tell by how we are reflected in the eyes of our team mates. Without that feedback, we have no point of reference. Sometimes, the mirror doesn’t show us what we want to see.

This mirroring phenomenon is a big part of how a group of people who happen to be wandering in the same direction learn how to come together as a team. We look at others and we see how people act, look, and dress. Because team members always seek some degree of similarity, we try to mimic what we see so that we’ll feel like part of the team. This is especially true when we are new to the team (when everyone on the team is new, each person is doing this. That can make things a bit tricky). Similarity brings the team together, but differences make it effective. The trick is making use of the first without losing the second.

Assuming that each member of the team sees and reflects the appropriate actions, appearances, and behaviors, the team has a much better chance of coalescing and achieving very high levels of performance. On the other hand, if people don’t reflect to one another or, in other words, see too much difference, the team doesn’t come together, members are less loyal, and the team is more likely to dissolve.

Points of similarity can be many things: behavior, clothing, common goals, an outside threat, annoyance at a particular member of the team, skin color, gender, etc. Some of these work better than others. Superficial characteristics such as physical appearance and gender can certainly help bring a team together, although at the risk of creating a more homogenous team. Simply looking at people who look like you might feel good, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to stimulate creative thought; for that, difference helps. As Terry Pratchett observed, we go on vacation so that we can come back to view home through new eyes. Seeing those who don’t look like us helps us consider multiple options and perspectives, an important component of successful products and services.

Bringing a team together against an outside threat has good short-term results, but often only succeeds in suppressing disagreements and preventing the group from learning how to argue effectively and develop consensus. Unifying around annoyance at a particular member of the team creates its own special set of problems. Both of these approaches tend to suppress difference in favor conformity. Common goals, interests, imitating behaviors, and having a common vision work best at building similarity while preserving differences.

How a group unifies then determines who else it lets in. Humans naturally form in- and out-groups, and we are all subject to viewing members of our in-groups more favorably than members of our out-groups. That means that we will tend to favor those who resemble the people around us. Over time, the group will reflect the dominant identifying characteristics: be that skin color, a penchant for puns, gender, style of dress, incisive problem solving capabilities, and so on. The magic mirror is telling us what the group looks like and, by extension, what new members should look like. And, because, we’re human, we are also very good at explaining why our group looks the way it does. In fact, we might decide that there are very good and very serious scientific reasons why it must look that way, and why any other group composition would be wrong. In reality, there may be nothing special about many of the dimensions of group composition other than happenstance.

Indeed, when we recognize the important dimensions of similarity, we can also take advantage of our differences. A key strength of a high performance team is its ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives, to generate diverse ideas, and to explore different and unexpected approaches. Team members must become comfortable along the axes of their similarities and their differences for that strength to manifest.

Just to make things more complicated, not all group members will always recognize which dimensions of similarity are the relevant ones for the group. For example, some people might assume gender or physical appearance is the driver, when, in fact, they are simply coincidental. Part of how a group matures is for members to connect along more significant dimensions than the merely superficial. People who cannot make this adjustment ultimately cannot remain as part of the group. Some will leave after discovering that the group is not what they thought; others will demonstrate their inability to connect along the important dimensions or will demonstrate that they are intolerant of valuable differences and will need to be forced out before they poison the team.

The team is a mirror for each of its members. It’s important to stop and reflect, and then learn to use the feedback correctly. Getting fixated on superficial similarities can break the team and lead to a great deal of bad luck.

 

Don’t Lose Your Marbles!

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to observe participants in an estimation contest. Participants were given a problem along the lines of figuring out how many marbles are in a jar or balls in a pit. Participants then had to come up with an approximate answer based on the information that they could glean from the scenario: for example, they might be able to at least approximately measure the size of the marbles.

I was particularly impressed by one of the groups: they were very analytical. They discussed the problem in very reasoned terms. They only included very few people in their discussion. They came up with a very well-written, very logically developed answer. They were very wrong. While all the other answers clustered around the correct response, this one group had an answer that was so far out in left field that it was in some other stadium.

This, of course, is the challenge in estimation games: it’s easy to make very simple mistakes early on and then run merrily off along a completely wrong, but apparently logical, trail. In estimation games this is pretty much harmless. However, in more general areas of problem solving the same errors that can derail an estimate can also lead to much more significant problems. This isn’t necessarily all that surprising in that real-world problems are much more similar to estimation games than we might like to acknowledge: they often require us to make assumptions, act with incomplete information, make deductions about facts we cannot easily observe, and come up with a best guess at the end. Fortunately, there are some lessons we can draw from estimation games that will improve real-world problem solving, particularly when people are involved. Consider, for instance, any scenario in which you need to work with other people or cooperate with another organization and where your goals are not necessarily in complete alignment.

It’s easy, as the left-field group did, to limit participation in the discussion. In fact, this is often necessary, as too big a group can easily become unmanageable and prevent any productive discussion from taking place. However, keeping the size of the group small does not mean keeping the knowledge base available to the group equally small. Group members need to track their assumptions and the conclusions based on those assumptions. They then need to go out and verify as many of their assumptions as they can: it’s easy to find evidence to support your conclusions; the hard part is looking for evidence that will contradict them. The second is what needs to happen. Identify what information would tell you if you’re making a mistake, and then figure out to identify that information. Speculate. Play “what if?” games.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that marbles in a jar have no motivation (outside of a bad joke about method acting). Situations dealing with people have considerably more moving parts.

An important part of “people estimation” is understanding motive. When dealing with human systems, being able to think about what other people are doing and why they might be doing it is critical. Peter Ossorio, of descriptive psychology fame, makes the argument that in any given situation people will try to make the most advantageous move they can. This doesn’t mean that they’ll always get it right or that they’ll always execute even a right action correctly or effectively. However, it does mean that it can be very productive to consider how other people might view a problem or situation and consider what their likely course of action might be. Consider as well why they might doing what they are doing.

Their reasons might not be obvious, they might not be comfortable for you to think about, and they may contradict some of your basic assumptions, but those reasons exist. Figuring out what they are goes a long way to enabling you to make a better “estimate” and take actions that are more likely to get you to a result that you like. To be fair, maybe the other people involved are stupid or evil; I’ve certainly heard this given as an excuse for not considering their perspective. Ultimately, what difference does it make? They will still take actions, and your success may well depend on your ability to anticipate and work with or around those actions. Approaches which shut down speculation and exploration are most likely going to do nothing more than decrease the accuracy of your estimate.

When dealing with marbles in a jar, being in left field just means that you’ve failed to win a prize. When dealing with people problems, being in left field might just mean that you’ve lost something considerably more valuable. In this case, maybe it’s not so bad if you’ve only lost your marbles.

Caught By The Chrome

Anyone remember the power failure during the 2012 Superbowl? Probably not, for all that it lasted for a whopping 35 minutes, or, as comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “only two months short of New Orleans’ personal best.”

The funny thing about the power failure, however, was not Stephen Colbert making jokes about it, but how a number of people blamed the failure on Beyonce. Did Beyonce have anything to do with it? Well, Beyonce was playing at the time, but that’s about the only connection. I know that a lot people think she’s pretty impressive, but knocking out the power to the Superbowl? Even for Beyonce, that’s a bit much. Nonetheless, the fact that the two events were coincident in time meant that, for many people, there must have been a connection.

This is called getting caught by the chrome: rather than focusing on the actual problem in front of us, such as a power failure, our attention is caught by something peripheral. Sometimes, if we get lucky, that bit of chrome might also turn out to be a symptom of the problem, but not always.

Basically, a problem is composed of three elements: the problem itself, the symptoms, and the chrome. Most of the time, we can’t actually see the problem. What we can see are the symptoms and the chrome. The symptoms are useful: they can lead us to the problem. When you go to the doctor and the doctor asks questions about how you are feeling, she is exploring your symptoms. Knowing your symptoms helps her identify what is wrong with you, or at least sound authoritative when she tells you to take two aspirin and call the advice nurse in the morning.

The chrome is the shiny stuff that’s nice to look at: the things that are easy to see and, because it’s easy to see, also easy to mistake for a symptom or the actual problem. Sometimes we also mistake the symptoms for the actual problem, essentially treating the symptoms as chrome instead of as clues to what is actually wrong.

Now, at least for those watching on TV, whether Beyonce was problem, symptom, or chrome, was probably pretty much irrelevant. But for those actually tasked with dealing with the problem, figuring out the difference is considerably more important.

Let’s consider the case of Tim, newly appointed CEO of big data company Hornblower Software. Hornblower is considered a rising star in the big data space, yet when Tim came in, the company hadn’t produced a product in over a year. The reasons for this varied, freely mixing chrome and symptoms. Was it the engineer who was incompetent and insubordinate, doing whatever he wanted and doing it all badly? Was it the engineer who was competent, but completely unwilling to take direction, making changes as he thought fit? Was it the several engineers who did enough to get by but who weren’t willing to make major efforts on the part of the team? The first guy quit shortly after Tim came in, producing a belief that the problems would all go with him.

There is a cliched scene in countless murder mysteries in which our hero is suspected of the murder and arrested. Another murder then occurs while he’s sitting in jail, forcing the police to grudgingly conclude that maybe he really isn’t guilty. The problems at Hornblower didn’t go away when the first guy quit, suggesting pretty strongly that he was at best a symptom of the larger problem, at worst nothing more than chrome. Well, in that case the problem must the other guy, the one would wouldn’t take direction! After all, as the VP of Engineering put it, “I can’t tell him what to do.”

We can certainly agree that if you have an employee who refuses to take any direction that is A problem, whether or not it is THE problem. In this case, it was also a distraction from the real problem.

The trick to solving the real problem is first to identify the real problem. To do that, you have to get away from the chrome and focus on the symptoms. There were many: the lack of products, rogue engineers, infighting, dispirited team members, to list just the major ones. When did they start? Where did they occur? Were there any common elements? When we take the time to examine the symptoms and identify the boundaries of their occurrence, then we can start to understand the real problem. In this case, the common element was the VP of Engineering, who, it turned out, was either intimidating or ineffectual: those who found him intimidating exhibited low motivation, while those who realized that he was a paper tiger simply ignored him. And while he might have been quite competent technically, he wasn’t capable of communicating with other team members, organizing them, or focusing their efforts. The net result was an ineffective engineering organization.

The only real question left at this point is whether Tim will be able to see past the chrome fast enough to make a difference.

←Older