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Category: Opinion

Judgment

“The word that is too often missing from leadership studies is judgment.  Everybody involved in the business is desperate to appear scientific: academics because they want to get research grants and consultants because they want to prove that they are selling something more than just instinct.  But judgment is what matters most, and it is hard to measure.  It takes judgment to resist getting carried away with one quality (such as decisiveness) or one measure of success (such as the share price).  It takes judgment to know when to modulate your virtues and when to pull out all the stops.”

Schumpeter – The Economist June 8th, 2013

 
We know that even wise and experienced leaders can make appallingly bad choices with catastrophic results.  This is often because their judgment has been clouded by an untempered ego, they have ignored the warning signs, and they have sought and received unreliable feedback.  These problems seem easily remedied but many organizations are ill equipped to help their leaders take such measures.

Letters

I wrote a letter a week over a 15 year period starting from age ten.  Over the years, what started as a chore became a pleasurable activity.  Curiously, the discipline of filling two sides of a sheet of A4 every Sunday morning, whether I wanted to or not, became a welcome challenge: How can I make the recitation of a week’s mundane events interesting?

Part of the joy of letter writing involves the choice of materials, such as the writing paper and writing implement.  Of course no one cares about such things these days, since the advent of the word processor.  In fact, with the exception of Christmas cards, no one relies on “snail mail” for personal correspondence any more.  After all email is so much quicker.  Besides, with one’s entire life posted on Facebook and Twitter for the world to see, what is there to write about?

I think we have all lost something through this transition to electronic correspondence. Firstly, the ability to quickly draft and immediately re-draft everything we write creates a much more edited result.  I think it makes us less transparent, or at least it allows us to present a sanitized version of ourselves which would have been much harder to accomplish with pen and paper.  Secondly, and I realize that this contradicts my first assertion, dashing off a quick email or Facebook post entices some of us to be much more superficial and even flippant in what we say.

Third and most importantly, we deny each other the tactile pleasure of receiving a letter in the mail that has required thought and effort on our part.  The physical labour of writing, the choice of paper and pen, and even which stamp to use.  No one else will get a letter like that – it’s tailored for the recipient.  Even the time taken for delivery allows the delightful possibility that our news is no longer news.  And of course we miss out on the best part of letter writing: receiving a reply.

Contrary

I recently read about Alice Stewart, a pioneering industrial epidemiologist whose work on the dangers of low level radiation was aggressively opposed by the establishment.  Because she was pitted against a powerful lobby group, her work was starved of funding in Britain, and she was frequently shunned by her peers.  Nevertheless she persevered and was finally vindicated when the permitted levels of radiation for the public was reduced by two thirds.

What I found particularly interesting about Alice Stewart’s approach was her partnership with a statistician by the name of George Kneale, whose job it was to prove her wrong.  As the evidence mounted, he became less and less able to disprove her findings, thereby lending more and more weight to her claims.

In our anxiety not to be proven wrong we are tempted to surround ourselves with people who agree with us.  We seek out those who will “like” our Facebook posts, leave supportive comments on our blog, and re-tweet our 140 character views of the world.  Isn’t it more important to find people to critique our work so as to help us find our errors, and in so doing quickly put us back on the right track?

Wisdom

Barry Schwartz, Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, makes the following statements about wise people:

  • They know when and how to make exceptions to rules;
  • They are good at improvisation, necessary because problems tend to be ambiguous and ill-defined;
  • They possess and use moral skills in service of others; and
  • They are made and not born.

A propos the last item, he believes that they gain wisdom through experience.  In a work context, they need encouragement to try new things, permission to fail, and opportunities to find wise mentors.  If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that all of these things are close to my heart.

Schwartz says that practical wisdom of this kind is less common in our culture today because of our over-dependence on rules and incentives to protect against error.  Each time something goes wrong, we layer on more rules to ward off disaster and we tweak incentives in the hope that employees do the right thing out of self-interest.  In doing so we reinforce the notion that employees cannot be trusted to do the right thing on their own accord.

Relying on rules and incentives takes discretion out of the hands of employees.  It also gives them fewer opportunities to practise wisdom, and discourages them from acting wisely.  Is it any wonder then that low morale and mediocrity is so pervasive in our institutions and corporations today?

Debunked

Alex Osborn, co-founder of legendary advertising firm BBDO, is credited with inventing the concept of brainstorming – the synergistic process by which a group can produce more ideas than all of its individual members working alone.  This idea has been embraced wholeheartedly by corporations worldwide since its introduction in 1942, and continues to be widely used today.

“There’s only one problem with Osborn’s breakthrough idea”, says author Susan Cain in her book Quiet.  “Group brainstorming doesn’t actually work.  One of the first studies to demonstrate this was conducted in 1963.  Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, gathered forty-eight research scientists and forty-eight advertising executives, all of them male employees of 3M, and asked them to participate in both solitary and group brainstorming sessions.”

“The results were unambiguous.  The men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group.  They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually.”

“Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion.”

I find it astounding that this myth was debunked fifty years ago and yet corporations still insist on using brainstorming and focus groups for idea generation today.

Susan Cain continues: “The ‘evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham.  ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’”

I couldn’t have put it better.

Susan Cain.  “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”.

Coincidence

The day after my last post, I came across something that coincidentally brought together my last two themes: Increments and Fail.

Economist Tim Harford tells the story of the British Olympic Cycling Team’s success in the track events where they won seven of the ten available gold medals at London 2012.  While many reasons can be given for their success, Tim highlights the efforts of sports scientist Matt Parker, Head of Marginal Improvements for the GB Cycling Team.  He is credited for helping to identify various ways in which the Team could improve their performance, including:

  • Heated Pants, which helped keep the athletes’ muscles warm while waiting for the race to begin;
  • Cleaning bike tyres with alcohol to give them better grip for a faster get away; and
  • Devising ways of helping the athletes to recover during the one hour wait between the semi-final and final races (GB athletes often achieved faster times in the finals vs semi-finals, whereas the competition generally recorded the opposite).

Searching out these marginal improvements helped the GB athletes dominate in the velodrome.  Tim suggests that we can all use similar techniques to find ways of improving everything we do.

But when we become too engrossed by incremental improvements, we can fool ourselves into believing that the sum of many little successes equals one big discovery.  We would like to think that investing in low risk/low cost endeavours is sufficient.  However the truth is that small efforts rarely win big prizes, London 2012 notwithstanding.  Like Venture Capitalists, we must be willing to back long shots, which by definition usually fail.  And that brings us back to the question of how we deal with failure.

Increments (3)

As you can tell from the fact that this is my third post titled “Increments” I love stories about how little things can make a big difference.  Here’s something I heard on a BBC Radio 4 Things We Forgot to Remember podcast titled “The Junkers of Woodbridge Airfield”.  In this story the crew of a Luftwaffe Junkers JU88 night fighter landed their aircraft at an East Anglian RAF base in July 1944 because its navigator mistook it for a friendly airfield in Northern Europe.  The rookie crew’s simple navigational error had thus handed the Allies a huge gift that would save thousands of British aircrew from death or capture in the final year of the WWII.

I’ll leave you to listen to the podcast to appreciate for yourself the enormous significance of this little event.  Suffice to say once again that we should be unsurprised to find significant things come from unexpected places.

Fail

An article in today’s paper postulates that parents who try to keep their children from failing actually cause them to fail.  The writer points out that it is only when kids fail that they have the opportunity to truly learn.  Helping a child pick himself up when things go awry teaches him perseverance and makes him resilient.  That sounds plausible to me.

As I was thinking about this some more, I came across another article:

“If you believe that your talents are inborn or fixed, then you will try to avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of your limitation. People with a fixed mindset like to solve the same problems over and over again. It reinforces their sense of competence.”

Hey, that sounds like me.  I don’t believe that all talents are inborn, but I do like solving the same problems again and again (take my job for instance).  The author goes on to give the de rigeur athlete’s example:

“Michael Jordan, arguably the world’s best basketball player, has a growth mindset. Most successful people do. In high school he was cut from the basketball team but that obviously didn’t discourage him: ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’”

So it’s a growth mindset that my children and I need.  He ends with one final piece of wisdom:

“In business, we have to be discriminating about when we choose to challenge ourselves. In high risk, high leverage situations, it’s better to stay within your current capability. In lower risk situations, where the consequences of failure are less, better to push the envelope. The important point is to know that pushing the envelope, that failing, is how you learn and grow and succeed. It’s your opportunity.”

“Why You Need to Fail” by Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review

Learning

Never stop learning.  While playing a PGA Wii game at my brother-in-law’s party this Christmas, I was reminded of a story I heard about Tiger Woods in his early days.  On the penultimate day of a tournament his problematic swing had caused him to slip down the leaderboard.  His coach suggested an exercise to fix the problem.

That evening, instead of going out with his friends, he spent several hours in front of the mirror in his hotel room working on the exercise.  He was up early the next morning to spend another couple of hours honing his technique before starting the day.  He won the championship.

If champions seek out instruction and take every opportunity to learn, we probably should too.

Constraints

“In 1966, soon after the Beatles had finished work on “Rubber Soul”, Paul McCartney looked into the possibility of going to America to record their next album.  The equipment in American studios was more advanced than anything in Britain, which had led the Beatles’ great rivals, the Rolling Stones, to make their latest album, “Aftermath”, in Los Angeles.  McCartney found that EMI’s contractual clauses made it prohibitively expensive to follow suit, and the Beatles had to make do with the primitive technology of Abbey Road.

Lucky for us.  Over the next two years they made their most ground-breaking work, turning the recording studio into a magical instrument of its own.  Precisely because they were working with old-fashioned machines, George Martin and his team of engineers were forced to apply every ounce of their ingenuity to solve the problems posed to them by Lennon and McCartney.  Songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “A Day in the Life” featured revolutionary aural effects that dazzled and mystified Martin’s American counterparts.”

Ian Leslie.  “The uses of difficulty”.  Intelligent Life Magazine.

I am sure we can all think of situations like the one described above where people have done their best work when pushed into a corner and faced with apparently insurmountable odds.  While I cannot think of a situation when this has been true for me, I know from recent experience while tackling a creative endeavour that imposing sensible limits in my project remit and choice of tools has helped me to achieve better results.  It does not matter whether the constraints are due to circumstances or self-imposed.  And contrary to what our instincts suggest, constraints may be our best friend.