Life is change - like it or not. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter move in their endless cycle bringing constant change and evolution. We like to delude ourselves into thinking that life is constant - that things never change, but Nature always has the last laugh.
We can fight it. We can spend all of our time and energy desperately trying to resist change. Or, we can embrace it - welcome it with open arms and enjoy all the treasures and experiences it brings.
The tools and skills we need to master to do that - tools like NLP and OODA - are what this blog is all about.
How perception keeps us from seeing things (Video)
In his TED conference presentation, Daniel Pink shared a great example of how we fail to see things that are ‘right in front of us.’
People are given a box of thumb tacks, some matches, and a candle. The objective is to attach the candle to the wall in a way that the candle wax doesn’t drip on the table surface. It turns out that most people overlook the solution for quite a while, often 5 to 10 minutes, before they see what’s staring them right in the face. Here’s Pink’s presentation:
Does the 'Big Prize' Really Motivate Innovation?
Over the past few weeks there's been a lot of discussion and debate over the possible connection between "big prizes", like the Nobel prize awards, and innovation. The arguments presented by people on both sides of the debate make a lot of sense, for the most part, and a valid case could be made for whether or not there is a direct link.
Looking In The Mirror
"Inside every black cloud, there's a silver lining."
In the mirror:
"Inside every silver lining, there's a black cloud."
"Time flies when you're having fun."
In the mirror (frog's viewpoint):
"Time's fun when you're having flies."
C. Kent Wright
"To sway an audience, you must watch them as you speak."
C. Kent Wright
The way our brains process language is, to a large extent, a result of our experience and the resulting mapping between our ‘words’ and reality. For example, if I say the word “quarter-horse”, an image immediately pops into your head. Does it resemble a race horse you’ve seen or does it look like this?
The absolute ultimate in 'body language'-
I'm doing a little experiment in adding audio to my blog posts and I thought it would be fun to use a creativity game that I developed for some of my seminars. The game is called Juxtaposition, and the object is to pick two or more quotations or sound bytes and put them together in a funny (or sad) way, totally out of their original context. If this works, you should be able to click on the red music note to the right and hear a few examples:
Connectivity - Along A Different Dimension
I was recently invited to join LinkedIn - the internet version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. You join, and are connected to trusted members that you know. As you invite other trusted friends to join your connectivity increases dramatically. Right now, just 10 days after joining, my extended network includes just under 2 million people. It's an interesting sociological experiment that may end up having a lot of benefit - it's too early to judge.
My LinkedIn experience started me thinking about connectivity along the time dimension. After all LinkedIn only connects you in the current moment - to other people you know right now. But what about people that you used to know, or your ancestors and their connections?
For example, my grandparents - all four of them - were born towards the end of the 1880's. During my lifetime I had the opportunity to talk to all four grandparents, and to share a lot of time and experiences with some of them. They had a tremendous impact on my life - in some ways more than my parents did. Through them, especially through my memories of them, I can reach back across more than a century to connect to literally another time and place.
What was life like for them? How did they survive without cars, telephones, radio, television, jet aircraft - or even aircraft of any type? My paternal grandparents were stationed on an indian reservation in Montana for several years. To get there they rode the train - a steam locomotive - from Washington, D.C. for days until they reached Helena, then took a stage coach and wagon out to the reservation. I think about their journey everytime I hop on a plane and jet to California or Hawaii from Japan.
President Roosevelt in San Francisco - May, 1903
It seems obvious that change is constantly happening around us and to us. My life, my surroundings, the equipment and tools I use, the people I communicate with, are drastically different than the world my grandparents lived in. Yet, we consistently fall into the trap of assuming that things will remain the same.
Putting A Spin On The News
Facts are facts.
Newspaper reports, while they report ‘facts’ to one extent or another, are not ‘facts’. They are often misleading, sometimes intentionally, sometimes totally unintentionally. The reporters and their editors take the facts of story and position them to serve their own purposes. Typically they want to be informative, or to promote a particular position or viewpoint, or to just plain and simply sell more newspapers.
Take, for example, the case of Broc Bebout. The facts are, as far as I can tell by reading the articles:
- Broc had quadruple-bypass surgery at the age of 39
- He took up bicycling, watched his diet, and paid attention to his health
- He enjoyed another 20 years of good health
- At the age of 59 he successfully bicycled 2,400 miles – from coast to coast in the US
- On the trip back home after his cycling trip, he died of a heart attack
Personally, I found Broc’s example to be tremendously inspirational. Other people may not find it as inspiring. My reaction probably has something to do with my life long preoccupation with bicycling and more recently kickbiking, the fact that as a child I always dreamt of bicycling across the US, and the fact that I happen to be 59 years old. Your mileage may vary.
That being said, Associated Press (AP) put Broc’s story out on the news wires, and newspapers all over the world put their own individual spins on it. As of this morning there were over 271 listings of articles about Broc shown in the Google News search page. All of them had the same set of ‘facts’ to work from, but the way that they reported the story varies dramatically. From many of the headlines you would automatically jump to the conclusion that Broc had undergone heart surgery, then jumped on his bicycle, or that bicycling was the cause of his death instead of prolonging and improving the quality of his life for several decades.
Here’s a list showing the wide variety of spins applied to Broc’s story-
- Heart patient dies day after completing 3,800-kilometre bike ride
- Bypass surgery patient who cycled 2,400 miles has died of a heart ...
- Man dies after completing 3,900km bike ride
- Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trip
- Heart Bypass Man Dies Attack after US Bike Trip
- Indiana bicyclist drops dead 1 day after journey across America
- Hoosier cyclist dies 1 day after ride of a lifetime
- Heart patient dies the day after a 3,800 kilometre bike ride
- Broc Bebout, he lived and died his dream
- Broc Bebout`s 2,400 mile trip is broke off by the death
- After completing “Trip of a lifetime” bicyclist died of heart ...
- Heart Patient Dies After Cross Country Bike Trip
- Man Dies After 2,400-Mile Bike Trek
- Man Suffers Fatal Heart Attack After Biking Cross Country
- Heart Patient Dies After Biking To Georgia
- Man Dies After Finishing 2,400 Mile Cross Country Bicycle Trip
- Bicyclist Dies One Day After Completing 2,400 Ride Across America
- Heart Patient Dies After Biking To Ga.
- Summary Box: Heart patient dies day after completing 2,400-mile ...
- Bypass survivor dies after completing cross-country bike ride
- Heart patient dies day after completing 2,400-mile bike ride
- Ind. Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trek
- Heart patient dies after 2,400-mile ride
- Ind. Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trek
- Heart patient dies the day after completing 2,400-mile bike ride
- Ind. Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trek
- Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trip
- Cyclist Dies After Cross-Country Journey
- Heart patient dies day after completing 2,400-mile bike ride
- Ind. Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trek
- Heart patient dies after completing 2,400-mile bike ride
- Heart Patient Dies After Bike Trip
- 2400 Miles Later, Heart Bypass Patient Dies
- Anderson biking enthusiast dies suddenly after completing 'trip of ...
This Has To Be Japan
I went to the Robo-One Robot competition in Tokyo last Sunday, and the crowds were very impressive - quite a turn out for a 'geek' event that’s kind of like robot sumo wrestling with walking robots.
The real fanatics showed up early and made sure that they got the seats down in front. The semi-fanatics showed up a little latter and sucked up the remaining seats. The wannabe's, myself included, slept late and showed up just as the fun was starting - but had to stand in back of the crowd.
That's okay for me since I'm just under 2 meters tall. I can usually see over the heads of people in front of me. And, if that fails, I have a Sony F-717 digital camera that does one of those funny contortions between the lens and camera body, so it's easy to hold it up and take photos that wouldn't normally be possible.
But what do you do if you're not as tall as me?
Simple - you stand on a chair. And, if you're Japanese and you want to stand on a chair what do you do?
As I said before, in spite of all the crowds, everyone was extremely polite and respectful - even to the chairs. This is definitely Japan . . .
Every morning on the way to work I walk through a major business complex, and on the right hand side, just next to the building entrance, there's a coffee shop. It belongs to a Japanese chain, not Starbucks or Tulley's - those are across the street and down a ways. Almost every morning, unless I'm uncharacteristicly late, I stop have have a coffee and muffin or some pastry. It's a welcome break, and gives me the chance to spend ten or fifteen minutes just thinking. It has become part of my morning ritual. So much so that I tend to get frustrated and uneasy if I don't have a glass of their iced coffee first thing in the morning.
On thing I've noticed is the big changes that coffee shop chains have made in their operations over the past ten to twenty years. They have really learned how to merchandise the coffee drinking experience - at least the successful survivors have while the others have fallen by the wayside. For example, they've learned the critical importance of location. Not just location, but orientation and how it plays to human behavior. They place and layout their shops to draw people in.
This particular shop, the one I visit every weekday morning, is located right next to the main building entrance. Most people walk down the sidewalk in front of the shop and then make the right turn to enter the building. The shop layout features lots of glass, and doorways that encourage people to zip in and out - almost as if they were taking a short cut. The glass gives a feeling of openness and transparency rather than acting as a barrier. And the shop is always bright and well lit.
The area right in front of the building features a shallow decorative pool and fountain, which while it looks great forces people to walk down the sidewalks in front of the shops. You might even think that it was deliberately planned that way... It's good news for the coffee shop. People walking towards the building main entrance in the direction of the green arrow have this view-
While people that take the other path (red arrow) see this view just before they reach the main entrance-
In the morning some of the customers, like me, want to sit down, relax, and enjoy their coffee at their leisure. But a lot of customers just want to pop in, buy their coffee, and then go on to the office as smoothly and easily as possible. This shop layout obviously has both sets of customers in mind. Lots of chairs and tables situated in small groups or clusters. Yet it provides a clear, open, quick path for the drop in customer that just wants their coffee to take out. I've never taken a talley, but my guess is that more than half of the daily sales are take out - perhaps even more.
Another major design attribute is the choice of colors. Ten years ago all the coffee shops here had white or light cream colored walls, and all the tables had table cloths. At least they started off that way. But, because smoking is still allowed in public places, and a huge percentage of the men and women smoke, the coffee shop walls would quick take on a dingy, nicotine color. Obviously no one ever made the connection between what the smoke was doing to the walls, and the damage it was doing to their lungs. Some coffee shops, like Starbucks, ban smoking inside the building entirely - but provide tables and chairs just outside. Others, Tulleys Japan specifically, have separate smoking areas that are actually walled off much like a fish bowl. In this particular coffee shop, only the counter right at the very front of the shop is labeled "No-Smoking". Luckily most of the smokers tend to sit towards the rear of the shop leaving the front part of the shop free for non-smokers to enjoy. And to aleviate the wall discoloration problem, they picked paint and wallpaper whose color and tint comes pretty close to matching, or complementing, the color of nicotine. It sounds odd, but in actual practice it seems to work quite well.
They've gone to great lengths to give the shop a homey, warm, wood feeling.
Even down to adding table lamps and plants that you would normally find in a living room, or perhaps an upscale library.
Much like the traditional Japanese dividers used in tatami rooms, this coffee shop uses low wooden dividers capped with a short panel of glass. Of course everyone can still see and hear everything that's going on. But it gives the illusion of privacy, and that's really all that's important.
Somewhere along the way, I think about five to eight years ago, the coffee shops switched over to self-service. It makes a lot of sense, cuts down on their overhead - if not their pricing, and seems to work out well. There are times when the staff gets too busy with the crush of customers, to the point that dirty cups and trays stack up filling the return shelves. But that never lasts very long. The customers seem to come in waves, probably driven by the arrival schedules of commuter trains at the station right across the street.
What are the primary attributes?
Somehow they managed to figure out that they are in the 'experience' business. Anyone can sell a cup of hot flavored water. The winners in the game are those that provide the best experience for the customer's money, not necessarily the best coffee. And, for the most part, the price is not a major determining factor.
More on The Box
I was asked about a simple graphic I posted sometime ago that tried to illustrate my view of "Thinking outside the box." So, I thought I would take another stab at it.
Everyone knows the funny definition of an optimist and a pessimist. An optimist looks at a glass of water and decides it's half full, while the pessimist looks at the same glass and decides it's half empty. And then there's the view I usually take, which is that the glass just isn't big enough.
The same thing is true of "thinking outside the box." Some people tend to be "think inside the box" types. They follow procedure. If it isn't in the manual, or in their past experience, then they won't try it, or can't begin to imagine it. Their motives are good. They want to contribute and be successful, as long as it doesn't involve breaking new ground.
There are also the "think outside the box" types - always challenging, never wanting to stick with the status quo. They believe that only the new and untried has significant value. That the future lies 'out there' rather than 'in here.'
There is also a third type. One that rarely gets mentioned, but exists never the less. One that believes in "thinking the box." Their life, their identity, their reason for existence gets tied up in actively preserving the status quo, in making sure the rules never get broken or even threatened.
In my particular case, this trio maps pretty closely to father (think inside the box), mother (think the box), and child (think outside the box.)
We tend to classify roles and behaviors in a binary fashion. Something is either right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative, black or white. To some extent, that's a reasonable and somewhat workable approach - at least we manage to somehow survive that way. Yet in the very act of classifying things that way we make value judgments that drive decisions and behaviors. And once we 'decide' something it's very hard to change it. In fact, the origin of the word 'decide' stems from exactly that meaning:
1a. To settle conclusively all contention or uncertainty about: decide a case; decided the dispute in favor of the workers. b. To make up one's mind about: decide what to do. 2. To influence or determine the outcome of: A few votes decided the election. 3. To cause to make or reach a decision.
INTRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To pronounce a judgment; announce a verdict. 2. To make up one's mind.
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English deciden, from Old French decider, from Latin dcdere, to cut off, decide : d-, de- + caedere, to cut;
In the process of deciding that "thinking inside the box" is right, we automatically classify "thinking outside the box" as wrong. And, we cut off that alternative, that approach, even though we may find ourselves in desperate need of it sometime in the future when we are facing different circumstances. The world around us is constantly changing, mutating, and evolving. Tomorrow's challenges will, in all likelihood, be completely different from the ones that preoccupy our every waking moment at this point in our life.
All the roles, all three of them, are valid and useful - depending on the situation we find ourselves in. We should strive to develop each one of the roles within ourselves, and within our organizations.
All is not what it seems. It seldom is. What we think we experience is often very, very far from what is actually taking place in the real world around us.
Every workday morning, I have a ten minute walk from the bus stop at the local train station over to my office. The buildings in the area are connected by a series of walkways built at the second floor level. The owner of each building is responsible for the walkway in front of their building, and each of them had their architect design their section of the walkway to match their building. Taken individually, the result is quite beautiful, and there is definitely a sense of harmony between the buildings and their associated walkways.
Unfortunately, since each of the buildings has a different design, their walkway designs are also very different. As a result, when you actually use the walkways for their intended purpose - i.e. walking through the complex - the experience is almost jarring. So much so, that every morning on the way to the office, I experience a brief moment of vertigo. Logically I know what's going on - it's totally predictable. Yet, at a gut level there is nothing I can do to control it or avoid the experience short of finding another path to walk to the office.
Here's what happens-
In the morning I walk along the walkway in the direction of the bottom arrow. Where the two walkways join, I have to make a slight turn to the left, take a step or two, then immediately turn back to my right, negotiate the curve, and proceed forward. That might be okay if it wasn't for the fact that the architects selected very different tiles, and had them laid in different directions. So as I transition from one walkway to the next, my eyes are drawn by the mismatched tile patterns, and for an instant I loose all physical orientation. It's a minor irritation. Most people probably aren't even aware of it at a concious level. If it was any more significant, I would stop taking that path. I probably notice it because I am prone to motion sickness.
In the evening, on my way back home, I take the curved turn (to your left in the diagram) and don't experience any vertigo or disorientation at all.
Every few months my wife and I treat ourselves to brunch at a local hotel. The food is excellent, the service is superb, the staff knows us well and greets us by name, and the setting is perfect down to the last detail. We have always had a great time, and look forward to the next occasion.
Last Sunday we went over to the hotel to enjoy brunch, but it just wasn't the same. I felt totally uncomfortable, uneasy, irritated. I felt my blood pressure rising. The food was great, as usual. The staff was helpful and attentive. I knew something was wrong - my body kept trying to tell me something was wrong - but I just couldn't figure out what it was. Normally I would just brush it off - forget about it, but this had me worried. Our infrequent brunch treats mean a lot to us, and I didn't want to lose that. The rest of the day I kept replaying the brunch back, over and over again, in my head - trying to figure out the puzzle. What was wrong?
It turns out that it was my parents. My parents? How could that be? They weren't there that Sunday morning - it was a physical impossibility since both of them are long since dead. But although they weren't there physically, they were definitely there emotionally.
It turns out that there was a tour group from another country also enjoying the buffet. Families, lots of them with young children. Since we're not that far from Tokyo Disneyland, the hotels in our area often host tour groups. And this particular group was definitely enjoying a lot of new experiences. What my eyes were seeing, but my brain wasn't conciously aware of in the moment, was their child like behavior. Stirring their coffee with a knife. Talking with food in their mouths - and having some of it fall on their shirt. Pouring half a bowl of sugar onto their cereal. Playing games with their food...
There was absolutely nothing wrong with their behavior. They didn't make a mess, spill things on the floor, or disturb the other patrons. But, in my mind's ear, sotto voice, my parents were talking to my subconcious saying "behave yourself", "sit up straight", "that's too much salt", "don't play with your food" ... And, obviously, my subconcious and my body were listening to everything my parents had to say. For a few hours on Sunday morning, I was a little kid again being lectured by my parents, and I didn't like it one little bit.
More importantly, if I hadn't been taught to recognize when things like this occur, I might have let the experience taint our favorite brunch treat, or have it spoil the rest of the day, or worse yet, I might have blamed my bad experience on the visiting tour group. The next time it happens, if it ever happens again, at least I'll know what's going on. I can cut to the chase - put my parents out of my head, or take some other action to keep from ruining our pleasure.
Personal Space Paradox
“If you're down and confused
And you don't remember who you're talking to
Concentration slips away
Cause your baby is so far away
. . .
Well there's a rose in the fisted glove
And eagle flies with the dove
And if you can't be with the one you love honey
Love the one you're with”
Love the One You're With
It’s a real conundrum. Today we can chat instantaneously across the globe, but most of us don’t know our neighbor’s names. We send email's to co-workers in a cube just 20 feet away. Time, space, and distance have taken on totally new meanings and definitions.
Physically I’m a ‘big dog’ – just under 2 meters tall (6’7”). You would think that I would be hard to miss. Yet several times a week, in spite of my best efforts, people on the street literally run right into me. Sometimes this happens even when I’m standing completely still – say, waiting for the bus or a train.
Why? What’s going on? It’s not like I’m a ninja or ghost, or that I’m trying to hide.
The plain and simple truth is that while I am there, the people that run into me aren’t. Their bodies are. But their minds and their attention isn’t. They are totally focused on their cell phone – living in that world for the moment – totally engrossed in that conversation, or reading an email, or playing a game. It’s their reality, and the physical world has all but completely disappeared from their consciousness. Then, suddenly, they are jolted back into this world when they bump headlong into me. Funny thing is, they are almost always shocked, and sometimes angry at me for disturbing them.
Think I’m joking? Take the time to watch a few strangers talking on the cell phone. It won’t be long before you see that some of them are talking with their hands, waving them in the air, showing their emotions clearly on their faces, acting just as if the person they were talking to was standing right in front of them. At that moment they are occupying a totally different world – a different space/time continuum. Who are they with? The person on the other end of the phone call – not with you. You don’t even exist for them, at least not for the time being.
Simple Question - Difficult Answer, or Perhaps No Answer
The question for today is, “What is a robot?” It’s a pretty simple, straight forward question – until you start to grapple with it for a while. It’s not as hard as, “What is the meaning of life?”, but it’s still difficult to come up with a meaningful answer.
As you develop definitions it’s always a good idea to test them. For example, if a robot is “an autonomous mechanism, with its own controller, that incorporates movement, and does useful work”, then your common everyday office elevator is a robot. Perhaps it is. . . . I don’t have a real problem with that, as long as the derived definition is useful and practical. I tend to be very pragmatic about things, includiing life in general.
What do people think a ‘robot’ is? CP3O? Ralph124C4U? Robbie the Robot? Does a robot even have to have a physical presence? Can it exist only as a pattern of electrons in the vast ether of the internet – ala agents in the Matrix?
Google has a very useful (at least usually useful) feature that allows you to do a search for word definitions. It returns links to webpages where people have attempted to define the word you’re interested in. For example, ask Google to “define:egg” and it returns these results, among others-
Definitions of egg on the Web:
So, it might be a good idea to ask Google to “define:robot” and take a look at what the most common definitions turn out to be. Try it. I think you might be a little surprised – unless you’re a software developer.
animal reproductive body consisting of an ovum or embryo together with nutritive and protective envelopes; especially the thin-shelled reproductive body laid by e.g. female birds
oval reproductive body of a fowl (especially a hen) used as food
The Learning Zone
While it isn't obvious, it seems to be a critical requirement that any force triggering change in the status quo has to be 'external' to the system itself. Of course a lot depends on how we define the boundaries and members of the system. Looking a particular society from the macro level we might classify college students as members of the system, but when they stage demonstrations and force change on the society they are doing it as external entities - as outsiders from the 'establishment.'
Another critical requirement is that the relative power or urgency of the external force is large enough to overcome the natural inertia of the system - to push it out of the status quo state. This often requires repetitive triggers, or an alignment of the right circumstances.
At some point the need for change becomes stronger than the resisting inertia, and suddenly the system is thrown in chaos. It knows it needs to change, to do something in a different way, but it has no idea what to do. This is a very unstable state, as anyone learning to ride a bicycle for the first time could easily understand.
After spending some time in chaos, hunting and searching for some way to make sense out of the situation, the system will develop a rudimentary understanding - usually by trial and error, and will begin to operate in some new fashion. It is attempting to integrate what it has experienced and observed with its older view of the world.
Once it has developed some workable, if not perfect, strategies for dealing with the new situation, it begins to practice them over and over again. Over time these evolve to the point that it just uses its new strategies without having to consciously think about them.
New Status Quo -
Given enough practice, and a level of comfort with its new circumstances, the system takes on a new status quo. Although it may be significantly different in many ways when compared to the old status quo, as far as change and inertia are concerned, it takes on exactly the same characteristics and behavior.
Although this model is extremely simplistic, it does yield some useful insights. The most dramatic insight is that learning only takes place when the system is going through the Chaos/Integrate/Practice cycle. No significant learning takes place in the two status quo states. That implies that if we value learning, then we need to find ways to welcome chaos as a necessary part of the learning process.
Another significant insight is the need for stimulus from external sources. It's impossible to lift yourself up in the air by pulling on your own bootstraps. If we are committed to learning, then we have to find ways to elicit external stimulus - to put ourselves in harm's way to some extent. Hopefully we can do this in a managed and safe manner, but not to the point that it becomes part and parcel of our own personal status quo.
I've been doing a lot of work recently centered around team building, especially the impact of cultural norms on our ability to build effective teams. It may seem odd, but it appears that our cultural norms - what we perceive to be "common sense" - take precedence over what we have learned in business school or think logically should happen.
Some of the cases I want to explore further include how the NLP observation that "We like people like us" impacts team selection and the resulting dynamics. From a psychological perspective, we tend to bond with people that share our own personal frame - our view of the world. Often we are not consciously aware of it, but it dictates our behavior and our team selections nevertheless.
There are also span of control and leadership/motivational factors worth exploring. For example, why is it that companies from one culture have been extremely successful at building management teams in certain market spaces, and have failed miserably in others while companies from a different culture have exactly the opposite experience?
I also want to explore the core skills and traits of effective team managers. How do they put together, balance, and motivate successful teams. Is their basic profile significantly different from a successful engineer, or sales manager, or manufacturing plant manager? Experience leads me to believe that the answer is yes.
That being said, how are they identified, promoted, and proactively supported so that we can make the best use of their unique talents?
And, how does all this playout in today's highly competitive, global economy?
Missing the Point?
Science News Online published a very interesting article on "Deception Detection" - i.e. human lie detectors - those people that seem to have a special ability to spot others telling lies. There's a lot of good material in the article, and food for thought.
My initial take, however, is that they are missing the whole point - or at least missing a major opportunity. For example:
- Why limit the scope to detecting lies?
- Why not broaden it to detecting emotions, or detecting mindstates?
- What special skills or abilities do the successful human 'lie detectors' have?
- More importantly, are those skills and abilities trainable?
- Can we train others to model their behavior and become more effective communicators?
In a now-famous study from more than a decade ago, about 500 Secret Service agents, federal polygraphers, and judges watched 10 1-minute video clips of female nurses describing the pleasant nature films they were supposedly watching as they spoke. Half the women were instead watching what Ekman calls "terribly gruesome" medical films. The legal-system professionals were asked to determine the truth by reading the women's faces, speech, and voices.
Ekman and his coauthor Maureen O'Sullivan of the University of San Francisco motivated the women to lie by telling them that because nurses shouldn't be bothered by gory images, their believability related to their future career success.
Most of the observers uncovered lies at only about the level of chance. One group, however, outperformed the others. The Secret Service group had a better-than-chance distribution, with nearly one-third of the agents getting 8 out of 10 determinations correct, the San Francisco psychologists reported in 1991.
O'Sullivan now says that her further studies of federal agents, forensic psychologists, and other groups of professionals indicate that a very small percentage of people are extremely good at spotting a phony. "We always found one or two people who were very good," she says.
It seems to be human nature to over design things. It doesn't matter if it's an automobile, a software application, a cell phone, or a business model. We tend to think that more complex is better. So, we keep adding in additional functions. But as complexity increases, reliability and robustness tend to decrease. The more complex a system becomes, the more likely it is to crash and burn unexpectedly. And by increasing complexity we are also increasing cost.
Nobody understood this better than Earl 'Madman' Muntz. He made his fortune(s) by simplifying. Figure out what component, or process, or organization isn't really required and eliminate it.
The thought has frequently occurred to me that companies, and governments now days could definitely benefit from a liberal application of Muntz's strategy-
"Muntz was a smart merchandiser, and he knew that his competitors' jibes could be turned to work to his advantage. He knew that his TVs were not built of cut-rate parts - in fact, his receivers were carefully engineered to be at least as reliable as the competitors' sets that cost twice as much - and they would perform just as well, so long as you stayed in a strong-signal area.
And how did Muntz get his circuits designed to be so inexpensive? He had several smart design engineers. The story around the industry was that he would wander around to an engineer's workbench and ask, "How's your new circuit coming?"
After a short discussion, Earl would say, "But, you seem to be over-engineering this - I don't think you need this capacitor." He would reach out with his handy nippers (insulated) that he always carried in his shirt-pocket, and snip out the capacitor in question.
Well, doggone, the picture was still there! Then he would study the schematic some more, and SNIP... SNIP... SNIP. Muntz had made a good guess of how to simplify and cheapen the circuit."
Thinking the box
Perception - Some thoughts
Perception is really interesting. Our senses, primarily our eyes and ears and to a lesser extent our nose, skin, and tongue, feed us signals. We try to make 'sense' out of it all by constructing mental models of what we think those signals actually represent. When we succeed in putting together a model that doesn't consistent break down, we put a label on it called 'reality' and then try to judge other signals or behavior based on our model.
If something fits our past experience, then it reaffirms our model, and we say that it 'makes sense.' On the other hand, if something doesn't fit our mental model, then more often than not we are likely to reject it. We say that it doesn't make sense, or that the other person doesn't have 'common sense'.
But how accurate is our 'perception' to begin with? Suppose we see a drawing as it evolves. First we might see some shape like this-
At first glance it's almost impossible for us to figure out what is being drawn. It might be a person, or a map, or almost anything. This particular shape kind of resembles the map outline of a small country.
Then as the drawing evolves we get more and more information to try and fit into our mental model-
And, based on our past experience, we quickly recognize that a small black dot inside a larger oval shape is often a creature's eye. Based on this new information, we narrow the field to 'creatures'. The unknown figure might be an animal, a fish, or even an alien from another galaxy - but at least we 'know' that it is some sort of creature.
Now we have an ear! That narrows the field considerably. We go from the universe of all possible creatures down to only those with ears of some type. This is beginning to resemble my dog - Austin...
Then we get more information - this time the new hint is tusks. Immediately we know that it's some sort of elephant.
At this point, most people feel confident that they know the answer - its an elephant, and they already know what an elephant is. They mentally stick an 'elephant' label on it, and stop looking.
This raises a lot of questions for me -
- What is the minimum amount of information for us to make a match?
- Are some people more likely than others to match quickly with an absolute minimum of information?
- How often do we mis-match?
- What do we ignore when we mis-match?
- What opportunities do we fail to recognize because we match too quickly or easily?
- How far can we stretch the limits of perception and recognition?
- How much of perception is based on cultural and social conditioning?
- How transportable is perception across language and cultural borders?
- Do inventors and some outstanding business people have a mental matching problem that causes them to look deeper than others?
Making your mark on the world...
We all have the same understanding - right?
You hold a long, long meeting. You spend hours getting everyone to participate, voice their opinions, discuss and debate. You leave no aspect of the deal unexamined. Everyone's exhausted, but they all shake hands, commit to implementing the agreement as soon as they fly home, and leave smiling.
Then, a few days, weeks, or months later, you begin to suspect that things are going astray. Everyone claims to be doing exactly what was agreed to, but somehow their 'understanding' of the agreement is very, very different from other participants.
What's going on?
Here's one take on it. Although this example is based on cross cultural differences, it applies just as well to a group that is made up of just one culture. I ran across this simple test in a newspaper article back around 1983. Unfortunately, I have long since lost the original article and can't give the author well deserved credit. I've applied this test to mixed groups of Japanese and foreign managers over the past twenty years, and the results are amazingly consistent.
First, I explain some of the background behind Japanese kanji. The fact that they were originally pictographs - rough drawings of objects like the sun, moon, water, etc. The Chinese kanji were then borrowed and modified by the Japanese.
This is the Japanese kanji for 'field' like a rice paddy. It's kind of easy to imagine how the original shape was developed by looking at a real rice field, especially looking down from a hillside.
I always make sure to check to see if everyone understands the concept. If they have any questions, then it's important to take the time to clarify before proceeding.
Then I introduce the kanji for 'power'. You can easily see the strength represented by the character, in many ways like a muscular arm or powerful leg.
Again, I take the time to confirm everyone has the same understanding.
The next step is to explain how the combination of the two kanji characters form the kanji for 'man'. Easy to understand - man is the 'power' of the 'rice field'. It's man (or more often woman) that lays out the fields, does the plowing, planting, and harvests the rice.
Everyone is still on the same page and has the same understanding....
So, kanji started off as pictographs - rough drawings or sketches of things or actions. Kind of like Western stick figures used in simple cartoons.
Let's imagine for a moment that the Japanese kanji for man is a stick figure like the one at the left. Seems pretty easy and straight forward to imagine.
If I ask you, for a moment, to imagine that the kanji stick figure is actually a walking man. And I ask you to give me your immediate impression, without a lot of thinking or logic, just your gut feel.
Which direction is the man walking? To the right, or to the left of the page?
With surprising consistency over the years and with hundreds of subjects, roughly 80-90% of the Westerners say the man is walking to the right while 80-90% of the Japanese say the man is walking to the left.
Everyone has their own explanation after the fact. Some of the Japanese feel that their choice came from the fact that they often write from right to left. Other Japanese feel that the kanji character looks like a man carrying a heavy weight on his back almost pushing him into the ground, so he must be walking to the left. The most common Western rationale is also writing style - this time from left to right. Another Western explanation is that the power part of the kanji for man resembles a man's knee raised to walk to the right.
All of that is fine, but they are all rationalizations arrived at after the fact. A critical point is that everyone had a gut level impression, a core belief, before they gave any concious thought to the answer. Left unexamined and unexplored, they would have acted on that core belief only to find that they were 180 degrees out of sync with their counterparts.
A Broader View:
Is this unique to cross cultural communication? No. The same problems and disconnects come up everyday in business and social settings even when all the participants share the same cultural background and heritage.
How do I avoid this type of problem? It's impossible to totally avoid this type of problem. It's a basic characteristic of human nature. You can, however, become sensitive to its existence, recognize it when it appears, and take action to get things back on course before the situation gets completely derailed.
All too often we focus on the surface level meaning of words that we use without questioning the underlying assumptions. Everyone wants the company to be 'profitable', but one group may feel that implies a higher share price or bonuses while another group may feel exactly the same word implies long term stability and employment. One person may feel that 'family' implies children, commitment, group membership, and a social infrastructure while another may feel the same word only implies a level of security or social respect.
The Telephone Game
When I was a kid one of the popular party games was called the 'telephone game.' We'd all sit around in a circle. The first person would whisper a few short sentences in the ear of the next person. They would have to repeat it to the person next to them, and so on around the circle. When it got to the last person, they would announce what they heard. It never, ever, came close to the original message, and was usually so distorted that it would evoke belly laughs from all the players.
Funny kids game...
Of course, it never happens in the real adult world... does it?
Happens all the time! Every single message, every attempt at communication between any two beings suffers from the same problems and gets degraded in one way or another. Yet, we like to believe that it doesn't.
The president of the company decides that their strategic direction needs to be changed. He talks to the COO. The COO talks to the regional VPs. They talk to their direct reports. They talk to the mid-level managers. They talk to the individual managers. They talk to the employees. They talk to the customers and suppliers....
Do unto others as....
The 'Golden Rule' says that we should "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Doesn't that assume that they want or desire the same things that we do? Doesn't that imply that we can satisfy them by giving them what we want? Does that work? Aren't their needs, wants, and desires different from ours?
Here's a good example: I grew up in the United States - Southern California to be more precise. As a result, I love peanut butter and jelly. Crunchy peanut butter spread on thick covered with gobs and gobs of grape jelly. For me, it's 'soul food.' Just the thought of it brings back childhood memories so strong and vivid that I almost think I'm back there for a moment. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in Chiba, Japan. Her particular brand of 'soul food' from her childhood includes sticky white rice, natto (a type of crushed fermented soybean mash), and a pickled sour plum. It wouldn't make much sense for me to serve her a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, no matter how great I might think it tastes. Nor do I want to chow down on natto - far from it. I can, however, fix her some natto and hope that she will get the message and buy more crunchy peanut butter for me....
The same challenges, and opportunities, come up in business almost every day. An engineer designs a new product that he (or she) thinks is absolutely fantastic, then wonders why it doesn't sell. An investor picks a stock and invests a bundle because they really 'like the company' when they should be investing in companies that other investors will like enough to buy the stock from them at a premium.
So, what's a better Golden Rule?
How about - "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them."