When I was at my Military Intelligence Officer’s course in the mid-1980’s, our coursework was almost completely focused on encountering Soviet armored divisions storming into Germany’s Fulda Gap, despite the fact a) that battle had already been thoroughly planned and we weren’t going to add any insights, and b) it was clear at that point that the Cold War was shifting to new venues. Within four years of that time the Berlin Wall had fallen and I was in a war in the Middle East.
Here’s another example of how organizations have been resistant to change: In the hilarious memo below, written in 1935, Col. Hoffman – a member of the Army Air Corps – objects to taking “Equitation” (horsemanship) classes in part because he fails “… to see that horses have any place in the science of aviation”. Unsurprisingly, his request was denied.
It’s not just the military however. We humans are terrible at change. It frightens us – a fact that deserves some consideration given the fact change is coming faster than ever.
Luddites were people who smashed machinery they saw threatening their jobs. Now it’s a term used to describe hopelessly backwards-looking people who think they can beat back technology. Nobody wants to be called a Luddite.
When the first railway opened, detractors said that the human body was not meant to travel at 30 miles per hour and could possibly melt at that speed (similar concerns were voiced about super-sonic flight several decades later).
The newly-invented telephone was claimed by some to be an instrument of the devil. Versions of this accusation have been voiced about virtually every other new communication method, except for the fax machine – which may in fact have actually been an instrument of the devil (word of the fax machine’s death has not yet reached the HIPAA-regulated medical community: “no we can’t email your health information directly to your personal, password-protected email address, but we can send images of that same medical info to a fax machine located in a high-traffic area at your place of work”).
It’s easy to be smart about bad ideas of the past. But we humans repeat our mistakes. Here are some changes that are coming:
I’m in a Mastermind group. You might think that a Mastermind group is comprised of villains who are hatching fiendish plans of world domination, or even superheroes planning to thwart them, but you would be wrong. In fact, it’s much cooler than that.
Mastermind groups have been around for a long time, and are small groups of peers who come together to hold each other accountable toward their respective objectives and help members solve problems.
Recently, our group has been discussing and (imperfectly) practicing the concepts found in the book The 12 Week Year – a concept where annual objectives are tossed out the window in favor of 12 week objectives. I’ll be writing more about this concept in a later blog post.
There’s more to the 12 week year than compressed time horizons. I won’t cover it all here, but obviously recommend you check it out. However let’s focus on just one aspect from the book, and what I like and don’t like about this powerful quote:
If you read my About Me page, you will see that it ends with this: “Finally, I am an optimist. It’s an exciting time to be alive”.
I thought that now would be the perfect time to revisit optimism – not just as a way of viewing external events and avoiding despair, but as a way to impact events. Let’s start with three well-known characters: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet.
Last week, the Gates Foundation released their annual letter. Since Warren Buffet gave the bulk of his wealth – $30B or so – to the Gates Foundation in 2006, Bill and Melinda addressed this year’s letter directly to Warren. I recommend you read through the letter in its entirety.
In one part of the letter they touch upon why they remain optimistic about many of the major health challenges facing the world. This optimism runs contrary to rampant pessimism. For instance the statistic below:
Bill puts it well here:
“One of my favorite books is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It shows how violence has dropped dramatically over time. That’s startling news to people, because they tend to think things are not improving as much as they are. Actually, in significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”
Optimism (and pessimism) perpetuates itself. While the political world has become practiced in leveraging fear, that approach doesn’t work as well in the private sector, where leaders create outcomes based upon the shared belief and passion of their teams.
Which leads me to a related point: the importance of active optimism, or “applied hope”. Before I get into the provenance of this phrase, let me drop one last (telling) quote from the Gates letter, this line specifically from Melinda:
How many times has this happened to you?
There’s a group of people in a conference room, and someone is presenting to that group on a plan that they are proposing. You are not in that conference room. You are on the phone.
This is you on a conference call
During the presentation, the presenter says things like this:
- “As you can see, this number indicates that we should move these things right here over to this part of the operation.”
- “Look at this number here! Quite surprising!”
- “As you can from this area, we have some work to do.”
Meanwhile, you’re not exactly sure which slide they’re on.
I have been on the receiving end of these presentations throughout my career. As a result, I’ve become pretty focused on doing the following. For the sake of your presentation’s success, I recommend you try to adopt these same practices, if you don’t already.
What would you accomplish if you were more disagreeable?
The term “disagreeable” has all sorts of negative connotations. Someone who we refer to as disagreeable is understood to be ill tempered and unpleasant. But there is another way to look at the term – a more literal way.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath, talks about the willingness to move ahead with an idea without “social approval”. Here’s a recap of a recent talk he gave at a business school:
“Combined with a sense of openness and discipline, a willingness to “follow through even in the face of social disapproval” is critical. He illustrated this with the growth of IKEA in the 1950s, which persevered with an unlikely concept of unassembled “shipped flat” furniture from a then-unpopular lower-cost source of labor (Poland). It wasn’t just that Sweden was higher cost, but also that the furniture establishment rejected his disruptive model.”
I want to share with you two examples of being disagreeable. The first is about Rick Barry. Gladwell did a great podcast on the topic of Rick Barry and his famous free throw style.
Rick was one of the great basketball players of all time. He led the NCAA and the NBA in scoring during his career. And over the course of his storied professional career he had a free-throw percentage of 89.3%. The thing was, he shot his free throws “granny style”.
Rick figured out that the granny-style of throwing a ball was more consistent, and physiologically more natural, than the common method of shooting free throws. Can you imagine the abuse Rick took throughout his career as he stood at the line and shot his free throws this way? Check out this video:
Consider this description.
“Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.”
Which of the below descriptions do you think is more likely?
1. Linda is a bank teller
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement
If you selected number 2 – that Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement – then you would be like the vast majority of people, regardless of their education level. You would also be wrong.
If you look at the options without thinking too much about the description that preceded it, you would quickly see that the idea that option 2 could be more probable than option 1 is totally illogical. Expressed as a Venn Diagram, “Linda as a Bank Teller” is a big, huge circle, and “Linda as a Bank Teller and an active feminist” could only be a small circle within it. It’s impossible for number 2 to be more probable than option 1.
This common mistake is one of many cognitive quirks we humans have that cause us to make errors in judgement. This particular one is an example of the Representative Heuristic, where we overcompensate for some random fact that causes us to make a mental shortcut to a destination that seems likely, but is wrong. Like many groundbreaking cognitive bias insights, this one was the work of the psychology world’s dynamic duo: Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose years of collaboration are the subject of the latest book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project.
I probably have read a number of articles that referenced Kahneman and Tversky’s research over the years without really registering their names. However, when Kahneman wrote a book that made much of their academic research accessible for the general interest reader (me!) a few years ago, I took notice. Here’s a video that highlights some of the main themes in Kahneman’s book.
In an ever changing business environment where leaders are confronted with every sort of barrier to success – competition, limited resources, fire drills, regulation, and so forth – there is one huge barrier to our success which we are only in the earliest stages of understanding: our minds.
The explosion of social psychology insights has been a recent phenomenon. It was less than a hundred years ago when many psychology “experts” adhered to the concept a phrenology, where a person’s personality and character could be determined by evaluating the shape of the skull. To say that humanity has come a long way since then is an understatement.
Phrenology chart. Use with caution.
Much of our insights over the past few decades have demonstrated what we humans are up against. Our brains have evolved a number of biases over the millennia and frankly, many of them were more useful for our distant relatives who had to fend off frequent attacks from wild animals, bad weather and local enemies.
The evolutionary distance between those relatives and ourselves is small. The fact that we spend more time answering email messages than our caveman forefathers shouldn’t kid us about how similarly we confront threats.
One of the differences however is the explosion of incoming information and associated uncertainty.
To help ourselves assert control in such the face of chaotic information overload, we humans consistently exhibit Confirmation Bias – the inclination to seek out and attach emphasis to information which confirm our previously held beliefs. A cousin of confirmation bias is “selective perception” – a similar habit of avoiding emotional discomfort by selecting only information friendly to prior viewpoints.
I’m always interested to hear stories with confirmation bias at play, and I recently ran across one that is a classic business blunder we might relate to. The key here is to not feel superior when you read this. These were smart people who were stuck in a confirmation loop that you may very well be in yourself right now.
The story came via the Fortune Power Sheet, and concerned a story that writer Geoff Colvin had written about Sears, which based upon recent announcements appears to be in a painful death spiral:
If you’re reading this, then you successfully made it through Thanksgiving without being killed by a family member during an emotional discussion about the recent presidential election. Congratulations! For those of you who attended a big Thanksgiving banquet where everyone voted the same way, then you either enjoyed a triumphant dinner with a generous helping of vindication to go along with your pie, or you participated in an emotionally draining group rage where fury and angst edged out “thankfulness”.
This election, more than any I can remember, has created deep emotional divisions. But as George Costanza brilliantly pointed out in a Seinfeld episode, “we’re living in a SOCIETY!” And as members of a society, we need to work together.
But that’s easier said than done when you’re annoyed (ok – really annoyed) about people who proudly wear the political colors of the opposing team. In fact, a related issue comes up in business quite a lot, where partners can bad-mouth the other party so much that the partnership exists only as a business contract, but not as an actual partnership.
And so you find yourself at a dinner table or in a conference room with people who you’re annoyed with before they speak. What are you to do?
The key is to establish the “human moment” apart from the subject that creates the divisions (work/politics/religion/whatever).
Let me share a current event example, and then provide an approach I learned a while ago that has come in handy for me a number of times.
First of all, what formal group of people have demonstrated themselves to be in such a state of permanent conflict that they can’t seem to get anything done? If you guessed “Congress”, then you’re on the right track. One of the troubling facts of American political life is the increasing numbers of Democrats and Republicans who view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being”.
So it was with great interest that I read in a recent version of Fortune’s daily Power Sheet, written by Geoff Colvin, this story:
Probably all of us remember that one English class (or composition class or whatever your school system called it) where the teacher was a stickler for good content and rigorous adherence to the published school writing policy. We learned to construct our arguments following accepted formats, demonstrate the difference between our work and the work of others, and to cite the sources we used by including footnotes and bibliographies which listed the metadata (tech term!) associated with each source – the author, title, publisher, the relevant pages, etc.
It turns out that in our business culture, citing your sources – or, even more importantly, knowing them – is perhaps a lost art but could separate the unserious from the serious.
Since I am always interested in how the world is changing and how globalization is affecting much of that change, it was with interest that I read this article about a town you never heard of: Veles (population: 45,000) in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In the recent US presidential elections, much was written about the proliferation of “fake” news sites, which spin fake stories to excite partisans and drive social media shares, clicks, and ad revenue. It turns out that the town of Veles specialized in this cottage industry during the recent US presidential election. Here is a quote from a creator of just one of the 100 fake news sites in Veles:
There are a number of classic fables that I enjoy because they are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. They’re classics for a reason. One story that we’re all familiar with is The Emperor’s New Clothes written by Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen in 1837.
As you recall, the Emperor is tricked by two weavers to believe that the magic clothes they created for him were the finest in the land but could not be seen by anyone unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. For this reason the Emperor can’t admit to himself that he can’t see his clothes, so he proceeds to parade before the townspeople as naked as the day he was born. The townspeople, also not wanting to appear hopelessly stupid, go along with the charade until a child – too young for the artifice and pretense common among adults – points out the obvious: the Emperor is, in fact, naked.
The video below is a snippet of such a moment from the movie Big. The key point is around the :20 mark when Josh Baskin, played by a young Tom Hanks, nervously raises his hand. You remember it:
There are three things I love about this scene:
- I love that Josh is ignoring the blather about market growth and segments and immediately begins touching, turning, and trying to figure out how the toy works. I have a suspicion that many people don’t exhibit curiosity in how their product works in the actual world after they leave the office (or even while they’re in the office). Its good to remember that the financial results are the output, but the product is the input.
- After the pompous marketing executive finishes presenting his business plan to the executive team, they give him a round of applause. It heightens the insular, self-congratulatory nature of the group.
- The real magic of this scene however is when Josh states the four magic words: “I don’t get it”.