06.Jul.2017 Yes, It Applies To You

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Defence mechanisms around behavioural change

To effect behavioural change, you have to get people to accept that there’s something about their current behaviour that needs changing. And that’s when you’re likely to hit the ‘that doesn’t apply to me’ defence mechanism.

So, you tell people that 90% of drivers think that they’re above average, as an example of people overestimating their own abilities, hoping they’ll realise that they’re likely to be in the 90%. In fact – partly because people overestimate their own abilities – many people will think, ‘I’m in the 49% of drivers who justifiably think that, not the 41% who overestimate’.

There are two close but different statements here:

[1] ‘People sometimes think/behave irrationally or sub-optimally, and should examine this and change’

[2] ‘I sometimes think/behave irrationally or sub-optimally, and should examine this and change’

If you’re trying to get somebody to believe [2], [1] is much easier for them to accept. If they focus on that, excluding themselves, no behavioural change will take place.

I often see this in interviewing skills workshops, when discussing bias and the need to value processes over gut feelings. It’s easy to get people to accept the idea that, by relying on gut feeling, people often select people similar to themselves, or who make a very good first impression, rather than people who gave evidence that they’ll be good at the job. But the same people who just acknowledged that often argue very strongly that their own gut feeling is somehow different; that they’re an exception.

Why do people do this?

In their book ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me),’ Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson identify two key factors behind people’s reluctance to examine their own mistakes: cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

We get cognitive dissonance when we try to hold two conflicting ideas in our head at once. It’s distressing to most people, so we try to avoid it. An experienced recruiter may feel they make good hiring decisions. But the idea that their gut feeling is unreliable conflicts with this. To avoid cognitive dissonance, they either have to ditch the idea that they’re good at hiring (hard), work out some kind of compromise between the two ideas (hard work), or discount the new idea (easy).

We exhibit confirmation bias when we watch for evidence that supports our viewpoint, and subconsciously ignore, forget or discount evidence that conflicts with it. So, when discussing the value of their gut feeling, a recruiter might easily remember the times their gut led them to a great hire, or ignoring it led to a bad experience. There will be some such examples because it’s not an exact science, and tossing a coin will give the right decision 50% of the time. They’ll fail to recall, though, the times a gut decision went bad. This selectivity is not deliberate. They’re not hiding evidence, they’re just not noticing or storing it in the first place, as it presents itself. So they don’t see any need for change.

I’ve focused on hiring for illustrations, but it’s the same with driving. Drivers remember all the times somebody else drove badly, but forget, don’t notice or downplay the times they did something non-ideal themselves. And believing you’re a good driver and believing you’re somebody who overestimates your driving skills causes cognitive dissonance. There are many other ideas out there where these defences may kick in. Any time we want people to change their behaviour because their current ways are non-ideal, avoidance of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias may work against you.

How can we overcome it?

There isn’t one right way to get past this defence. But there are a number of ways more effective than just showing the common mistake made. The rest of this post suggests a few; I’d welcome further suggestions.

1: ‘Trick’ them into proving they do it

Use a question or short activity to make them demonstrate the problematic thought pattern or behaviour. Take care not to offend or embarrass, though. So, you could get them to answer two very similar questions or solve two very similar problems, with one key (disguised) difference. Would they go to a different shop, three-quarters of a mile away, to save £10 on a £20 item? Would they make the same journey to save £10 on a £1,000 item? If they answered differently in this example, they make value judgements relatively, not absolutely, like everyone else. Don’t tell them that other people answer the question badly, get them to answer it badly here and now. This can bypass confirmation bias, because they can’t easily discount evidence that happened in the room.

2: Assume they do it

Instead of ‘most people do this, don’t you think you do?’, try ‘everyone does this; how do you sometimes do it?’ This can work well in small groups or with some initial, frank examples of how you/some very experienced (specific) person does it. For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, ‘The Dangers of a Single Story’ includes an anecdote about how she, despite suffering because of assumptions based on stereotypes, realised she’d done exactly the same to others. It’s a powerful way to get the ball rolling about how we all do/have done this sometimes. It helps with cognitive dissonance, because they can say ‘well, even people who are really good at this get it wrong sometimes’

3: Do it over time

Rather than asking them to accept right now that they do whatever it is, ask them to record examples of it between now and next time you meet. This can help address confirmation bias, but only if they’re engaged enough with the question to honestly consider it and look out for examples. This method works best with a relatively strong sales pitch on the idea that they could be subject to the issue, but you can impress that all you’re asking is for them to consider that they could be subject to this, not that they are.

31.Oct.2016 What’s in a Name?

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How We Use Categories

As truisms go, ‘to categorise something is to reduce it’ is pretty unarguable. Life is complex, and any time we use genre in music or fiction, or put a name to an emotion, or even use a descriptive label such as a colour, we’re editing out nuance for the sake of convenience. Where does horror end and thriller begin? Where does Green end and Blue begin? We have to make distinctions so we can function without spending hours describing every little thing. But we don’t often stop to think how they shape our thought.

Why Do We Focus Where We Do?

One example is with educational subjects: where does drama end and music begin, or biology end and chemistry begin? When we give a subject a name, we are creating a centre from which exploration and focus on that subject radiates. In a different universe, maybe the subjects are named differently, or the boundaries drawn differently. Maybe what for us is the middle spot between maths and music is a subject all its own, a new centre point which draws in different students, has a different focus, has led to new discoveries and work. Intersections between disciplines are known to be rewarding places to work – imagine if we’d been working on them ever since education began (but then, of course, our subjects’ centres might themselves be intersections, and less-researched.

The Surprising Implications of Re-Framing Topics Slightly

This is an extreme case, of course, and there are often good arguments as to why a subject is centred in one place, but even a slight re-framing could change the focus somewhat. If ‘maths’ were instead called ‘the language of interrelationships in the natural world’, it would still be broadly the same subject, but might have a different, more applied focus. Perhaps non-applied maths would then be part of physics. If ‘biology’ were called ‘life’, it might include a little more philosophy. If ‘art’ were called ‘representation’, it would certainly steer the study of it in different directions. This isn’t to suggest any of these changes should go ahead, but it’s interesting to consider. Where certain changes are going ahead – with good results – is in the area of adult learning. Titles of training courses can often remain unchanged for decades, but when a change is applied it can keep us up to date with the way business culture has changed.

Time Management or Productivity?

Time Management sounds dull. I train it, and I’ve always thought that. It always carries a sense of being for those who can’t get to work on time or meet deadlines, being somewhat remedial. But productivity is something we all strive for. And it’s something we all get to define. Where do you add value? What is your product? Once you’ve defined that, productivity becomes a positive and flexible exercise in getting more of it. Many of the same tools are used either way, but the new focus opens the way for new tools which fit under the new banner, and which are more suited to today’s business culture and the focus of most workplaces. I run productivity courses where I can instead of Time Management ones, and it subtly transforms the focus into something people are happier to sign up for, one that people think they need, and one that gathers around it positive, productive concepts and exercises.

Stress Management or Resilience?

Stress Management: again the term implies you can’t currently handle stress. It also has a dated feel to it. Resilience is a more positive, up-to-date spin. We all have a certain amount of resilience, and it’s a life skill that we could all do continuously developing. And this is an area where positivity is crucial. ‘Resilience’ also re-frames things slightly by focusing on an ongoing set of proactive tools that means we can bounce back from or handle difficulty, rather than a focus in Stress Management which can seem to be about reactive sticking-plasters on individual causes of stress.

Staff Development or Talent Management?

Admittedly, ‘Staff Development’ isn’t as much a staple as the other two I’ve mentioned, but there are a raft of courses with similar names around developing your team and helping them learn, grow and progress. Talent Management again uses a more positive spin, and this time a more strategic one. No longer is this about fixing problems, but about an ongoing process of recognising and nurturing talent and bringing it along in the organisation. Problem-solving (in a development context) is easy to fit under that banner, while still sounding positive.

Making it Work

Admittedly, injury has often been done to learning by putting the name cart before the content horse in learning and development. First and foremost should come the question, what outcomes are needed? But often people are guided by what’s out there, and to get people into the same room we often need a banner to rally around. The examples above show that that banner should be one that’s in sync with the culture we find ourselves in today, and that we should think twice before just going with what we’ve always used.

12.Aug.2016 Framing it Right

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What is Framing?

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A young priest asks his bishop whether he is allowed to smoke while praying. The answer is an emphatic no. A few days later, the priest sees an older colleague smoking and praying, and tells him what the bishop said. “That’s odd,” says the older priest, “I asked the bishop if it was okay to pray while smoking, and he said I could pray any time I liked!”

The two priests framed things in a very different way, but what they proposed was the same thing. We use the word framing because we see reality, and describe it to others, as if viewing a picture. We can never see or fully describe the real thing. We decide where to draw the frame, what parts to put in and to leave out, what parts to relegate to the background or place prominently in the foreground. Like a director using his fingers to frame a scene and work out how to set up his cameras, our choices about framing make all the difference to how we view the world.

The Evidence

Studies have shown this can make a real difference even in circumstances where we wouldn’t expect people to be distracted by semantics. Tversky and Kahneman (1981) framed a single problem in two different ways. They presented participants with an imaginary disease outbreak, which was expected to affect 600 people. Participants were asked to choose between two treatment programmes, which affected the people in different ways:

If they chose Programme A, 200 people would be saved.

If they chose Program B, there was a one-third probability that 600 people would be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.

72 percent of participants chose Programme A, the other 28 percent Choosing Programme B.

They presented a second, separate group of participants with the choice between two slightly differently phrased programmes.

If they chose Programme C, 400 people would die.

If they chose Programme D, there was a one-third probability that nobody would die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people would die.

This time, 78 percent chose Programme D, and only 22 chose Programme C. The problem with this is that Programmes A and C are in fact identical, as are Programmes B and D. They’re just framed differently. But this different phrasing distracted people enough to change the majority preference.

So, the way we frame things is very important, but we often give it little thought. Two different types of phrasing that are crucial in our interactions with others at work and at home are problem framing and solution framing.

Problem Framing versus Solution Framing

When we talk about what’s wrong with our lives and our work, we are framing things in terms of problems. How often have you said, ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m terrible at that’, or ‘I made a mess of this’? When we frame things in terms of the problem, we create a block that discourages us from finding a way to address the issue. If you can’t do something, the implication is that that’s the end of the matter. If you made a mess of something, you are saying nothing about how to clear the mess up or what you can learn for next time.

Solution framing focuses on how we can move forward, how we can address the situation positively. A solution frame for ‘I can’t do this’ might be ‘How can I make this easier to do?’, or ‘How can I get this done?’ For ‘I’m terrible at that’, we could substitute ‘How can I get better at that?’ or ‘How can I reduce the impact of how bad I am at that?’ And we could frame ‘I made a mess of this’ as ‘What can I learn from this experience?’ or ‘What’s the best I can make of the situation?’

Putting Framing into Action

This can seem like semantics, but the words we put on things define how we see them, and strongly influence the actions we take. Remember that in the disease study, people changed their opinions wholesale about the lives and deaths of 600 people, based only on the way options were phrased. Getting into the habit of framing things in terms of solutions can actually lead to more solutions being found. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t press home the gravity of the current situation by outlining the issue first, but if you feel the need to do this, consider building on it by moving quickly to the solution frame.

These examples focus on how you frame things to yourself, but as the young priest and Tversky and Kahneman found, some of the most powerful uses of framing are in how we put things when presenting them to others. If we use a problem frame when highlighting issues to colleagues or friends, it can sound like we’re moaning, and can get reactions anywhere along a spectrum from a joint moaning session to an indignant response to perceived criticism. If we frame the issue in terms of looking for a solution, however, we’re likely to achieve a much more productive response.

So the next time you are thinking about what’s wrong with a situation, or are intending to raise an issue or a problem, stop yourself for a moment and consider re-framing in terms of solutions, rather than focusing on problems.

07.Jun.2016 The Planning Fallacy

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Unrealistic Plans

Construction on the new Wembley Stadium was projected as taking three years and costing £458 million; it took seven and cost more than twice that. The Scottish Parliament Building’s initial estimated costs were around £40 million; final costs were over ten times that. Estimated visitor numbers at the Millennium Dome were 12 million, but only half this number came, meaning that £600 million of lottery money was needed, instead of the £400 million original estimated.

These are just the high-profile cases, but the list of similar overshoots is very long. Our instant reaction is often to focus on how the projects were implemented, but the biggest failure in these and many other cases occurs not in implementation but in planning. In each of these cases and many more, planners fell victim to a natural human tendency: the Planning Fallacy. The chances are that you fall for it too, but it can be avoided, leading to better decision-making and avoiding habitual overruns.

The Inside View

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman coined the term ‘Planning Fallacy’ to refer to the seemingly hard-wired tendency in people to take what he calls the inside view when estimating costs, timelines and other elements of a project. Try it now. Make a quick estimate of time and cost for a project or change at work. Choose something you’ve been thinking about as something that would improve things, and make a rough guess at costs and timelines before you read on.

The interesting thing is not the figure you arrived at, but how you got there. If you’re like the vast majority of people, you looked for relevant experience in your memory and extrapolated from that. Let’s say I’ve designed and tested a training course for a client, and I want to estimate costs and timescales to design and implement a suite of similar courses. Using the inside view, I would take the time and cost from the single course and upscale, multiplying it by ten for ten courses. If I’m cautious, I might add 10% for the unexpected.

But adding an arbitrary figure on for the unexpected is a basic error. Wembley Stadium’s unexpected costs were 100% of the original budget. The Scottish Parliament’s were over 900%! Different projects meet different unknowns. The unknowns are themselves unknown. From our inside view, we can’t know what will come up. Of course, Wembley and the Millennium Dome are larger and more complex than the projects most of us deal with, but while the scale may be different, the extent to which costs and timescales overshoot estimates can vary equally wildly on projects at all levels.

The Outside View

A better way to estimate is to take the outside view. First find a baseline, and then estimate to what extent your project will vary from it. For Wembley Stadium, planners could have looked at similar projects and found statistics for the costs of each. Every project is different, so it can be useful to frame the figures in a relevant way; a stadium might be looked at in terms of cost per capacity, for instance. Your estimate should then be based on the average, adjusted according to how much better or worse than it you expect your case to be.

Wembley might have considered factors like readiness of the site, transport links for construction materials, and the fact that the Wembley arch was an innovative and untried design. Combining these factors and comparing with the projects that gave them their baseline could have given them an idea whether they could expect their project to be more or less costly than those projects’ average. Even if they didn’t want to work out their whole budget from this, they could have estimated costs as usual and then looked at the average cost overrun for similar projects as a baseline, adjusting it according to whether they would be better or worse than average on that score, and adding the result to the budget as a reserve.

In my own example, I would have been better off getting information about larger training programmes’ costs and timescales, and then asking myself whether I was likely to be in a better or worse position. This means that the percentage I’m adding on for unknown unknowns is based on real life, not arbitrary guesswork. If I was designing new materials, and had a difficult client who often moved the goalposts, I might decide I was likely to do worse than the baseline. Given a free rein and working around established topics, I might decide that I was likely to do better. There is still some arbitrary judgement here, but it is now anchored to a baseline drawn from historical information.

Avoiding the Planning Fallacy

Taking the outside view results in much more accurate plans and estimates than taking the inside view. There are two traps here: one is to think that examples such as those we’ve shown involve experts who ‘must know what they’re doing’. The Planning Fallacy is a very human thing. A 2005 study that looked at rail projects between 1969 and 1998 found that passenger numbers were overestimated in nine of every ten projects, by an average of 106%. Although these figures were widely publicised, these results did not improve over that thirty-year period.

The second trap is to think the Planning Fallacy does not apply to you. The people at the head of these rail projects were specifically given the task of planning; presumably in most cases it was for a good reason. They were human, and they fell for the Planning Fallacy; unless you do things differently, you will too. The next time you’re planning a project, look around for information on comparable cases, and consider how your project differs from them. If you can do that, you stand a good chance of avoiding the planning fallacy and making plans and estimates that you can rely on.

30.Dec.2015 Covey’s Seven Habits in 2015

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This blog has a strong focus on introducing new ideas. But we shouldn’t throw away the old ones if they still work. It’s important to review classic ideas and ask how they’re standing the test of time, and they don’t come much more classic than Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective people. The book has sold 25 million copies since 1989, and was named in 2011 as one of the top 25 most influential business management books by Time Magazine. Bill Clinton asked for Covey’s advice after reading it while he was president.

At over twenty-five years old, it’s inevitable that such a popular theory will have been talked about by people who’ve not actually read it. And those people may have talked about it to others, until we end up suffering from the ‘photocopy effect’, like when you photocopy a photocopy of a photocopy… do this too many times and the image starts to get blurred. If we’re to get as much as possible out of this classic model, it’s important that we re-focus on what Covey meant, and ask ourselves how it can help us today.

1: Be Proactive

1989: You are responsible for your own actions, and your own choices. The easy way is to blame – blame circumstance, blame bad luck, blame others – when things don’t go your way. Take the initiative; if something doesn’t work, try something else. Own your decisions, and their outcomes. Realise that the single most important factor in your success is the choices you make.

2015: It’s easy to feel that the power of corporations and governments means that we have no power, but those who feel the weight of their own choices and act accordingly consistently get better outcomes, as much today as twenty-seven years ago. In the age of kickstarter and of hot stories traversing the globe in hours, there are more possibilities than people in 1989 could have imagined.

2: Begin with the End in Mind

1989: Visualise where you want to go before you set out. Understand who you are and what you want from life in order to take steps to get it. If you don’t have a clear idea of where you want to go, you won’t get there.

2015: I believe there is a danger here. Focusing overly on goals can make us forget about the here and now. The destination is important, but more and more people are concerned about the journey. This is more a criticism of how this habit can interpreted than of what Covey meant; we can and probably should set an enjoyable journey as a ‘goal’.

But many do not think of it this way. Goals are often about money, status or achievements, and studies in subjective well-being suggest that these are less important to happiness than most people think. Certainly, begin with the end in mind, but realise that the means we use to get there are ends in themselves.

3: Put First Things First

1989: Do the things that help you towards your goals; don’t allow yourself to get distracted by ‘urgent’ things that don’t. Realise that you are in control of what you choose to spend your time on – make it count.

2015: If there is a change here, it’s in how important this habit is. In 1989, ADHD was not in the dictionary, and there were no facebook or email accounts to check every twenty seconds. Everybody wants a slice of our time; it is absolutely crucial to effectiveness that we choose wisely who or what to give it to.

4: Think Win-Win

1989: Believe in ‘abundance’; life is not a zero-sum game. If you strive to find outcomes that are beneficial to all, your relationships will blossom and you will reap the long-term benefits. Avoid winning at someone else’s expense.

2015: As the gap between rich and poor widens, the importance of this becomes clear. Successful businesses that sustain success have been proven time and again to be the ones that do so with their employees and customers, not at the expense of them.

5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

1989: Diagnose before you prescribe. Your efforts to influence others can have no greater foundation than listening to their point of view first, with empathy.

2015: Again, this becomes more and more important as society changes. We are being sold to, all day every day. If not products, then ideas, versions of events, what to think. And it gets tiring. We genuinely enjoy it when somebody takes the time to find out where we stand before telling us where they stand.

6: Synergize

1989: Realise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Teams working together effectively and with mutual trust and respect can achieve far more than any individual. Look for the ways that those around you can add value to what you do, and vice-versa.

2015: This is an area where the development of the internet has opened up massive new vistas. We can collaborate with others anywhere in the world, and can find like-minded people and create groups like never before. If you want to achieve something, there is someone out there who can help you – you just have to find them.

7: Sharpen the Saw

1989: You are the saw. The world is the trees. If you keep focusing on the world and do not refresh yourself and renew your body and mind, you will become dull like the saw that has sharpened too many trees.

2015: Wellbeing and Lifelong Learning are words on the lips of many; we understand the value of this habit. However, it’s easy to lose sight of it. Learning and relaxation can be fun, but can also be hard work, and taking the time can be even harder.

07.Dec.2015 ‘From All Angles’ Launched Today

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360 Development Solutions is my baby. It’s a consultancy offering training and development solutions that look at things from all angles. It’s mainly me, with associates for specific projects as necessary. I’m passionate about helping people learn and grow in as many ways as possible, hence the name. 360 offers coaching, teambuilding, assessment and selection, and a variety of alternative and blended learning, as well as workshops.

Obviously, 360 charges for services, and I think the rates are reasonable. Even so, I’m going to be giving away some of the expertise that I normally sell. I’m going to be giving it away for free, on this blog. The main 360 Development Solutions site is a commercial site, selling my services, but this blog will not sell anything; what it gives, it will give for nothing.

That’s because I believe that by making connections, by helping people see how they can be more productive and effective, at work or at home, I can show people what I can do. I hope that some people who read this blog will eventually become clients of 360. But I believe that will only happen if what’s here on the blog is useful in its own right, and obligation-free.

The aim of the blog is to give you tools. We use tools to build a shed or put up a shelf, and we use tools to ask for what we want or to tell somebody we’d like them to change what they’re doing. The difference is, most people understand that you should think very carefully about how to use a chainsaw before you pick it up. The tools we use to make decisions and interact with the people around us can be used well or used badly, and sometimes we can use the wrong tool for the job, like using a chainsaw to put up a shelf.

This blog is about giving you new tools for the everyday, for work and for home, as well as helping you hone and enhance the ones you have. Please, use the tools and ideas here however you choose. If you like them, you may wish to check out 360′s website, but you don’t have to. If you find something you like, I’d love to hear from you; please leave a comment.

Terry Pearce, December 2015.