Saturday, November 17, 2012

Feats of memory anyone can do

Joshua Foer: Feats of memory anyone can do.

Great video from Josh Foer at TED Talks in Long Beach California in March of 2012. 

Here is the article that he refers to in the talk.

Monday, November 12, 2012

7Life System: The Simple Structure That Will Change Your Life

Original Post:
By Jonny Gibaud

Today I have been given the honor of sharing with you a simple system that I have found to be an excellent way of structuring goals into an achievable format. It’s easy to follow, doesn’t take long to implement and is flexible enough to work around your life. If you keep an open mind, commit to trying the system for a few weeks and are diligent in its application, I am confident it will help you greatly… it might even change your life.

Learning How to Eat Elephants

We have all, at some point, fallen prey to “New Years Resolution” death bug, where the ambitious goals we set in January are already a distance memory by February. I believe the problem lies with the fact that we try to take on these huge “goals” all in one go. When it look like we aren’t making progress, we become disheartened and give up.

They say if you want to eat an elephant, break it down into small chucks. The same can be said for big, ambitious goals. Taking on the entire goal in one go is setting yourself up to fail. This is what the 7Life System aims to do – create a structure for making the most out of this coming year, while establishing habits that will ensure each day, week, month, year and decade of your life are as equally productive and fulfilled.

What Will This System Do For You?

Many of you have no doubt heard of Pareto’s Law, which states that “20% of all input will account for 80% of all output”

This system ensures the individual reduces the time wasted on things that are not important or core to their dreams and goals in life. The system allows the individual to be more relaxed when things get hectic in the short-term because it keeps them focused on the long-term.

Positive progression is one of the greatest creators of happiness in life, and having targets and goals is the map by which you navigate.

As shown in the graphic above, goals keep you moving in a generally forward direction to your dreams. Although it will never be a straight line, nor would it be any fun if it was, having targets will help you keep moving in the right direction. If you do not know where you would like to be in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years or 10 years, how will you know how to get there. It would be like trying to get to somewhere you have never been, without a map. Having a target to aim for, therefore, is critical so you know what to shoot at. Set your targets and watch as your life aligns to meet those targets.
Integrating Your Goals Into A Structure

The 7Life System is structured as below.

  • 7 Life Principles 
  • 7 Life Goals
  • 7 Before [20/30/40/50/60] Goals
  • 7 Year Goals
  • 7 Month Goals
  • 7 Week Goals
  • 7 Daily Goals

This makes 7Life a top down system, you start at the top and work your way down. Your 7Life Principles are the most important, followed by your 7Life goals, then your 7 before 30/40/50 goals and so on. Let’s begin.

Your 7 Life Principles

If you have never had any personal life principles then it’s probably time to consider setting some.

Your principles are the foundation on which you stand, and if you don’t define them, you leave it to the world to do so for you. The 7Life system has you define seven principles – those core values that state who you are, how you behave and how you operate.

Sample Life Principle: ‘Love People. Love Life. Love Circumstance’

Take some time now to write down your 7 principles that define you, or who you wish to become. These sentences may and will be tweaked as you go on, so just start by getting something down on paper. Writing down your goals is a powerful process. It helps you clarify them, make them real, and etches them onto your subconscious.

Your 7 Life Goals

Don’t worry, your life goals will not be defined overnight. Let’s make a start today at writing some down.

What seven ambitious goals would you like to achieve in your life? I challenge you to dream big here. Think now about what your perfect life would look like, and what it would involve you doing. Then think about what life goals would get you there.

Sample Life Goal: Complete An Iron Man Marathon

Your 7 Before [20/30/40/50/60] Goals

Now we break the goals down into more manageable chunks. Jot down seven goals to aim for in the coming nearest decade, something you will aim to achieve that will help you ultimately achieve your seven life goals. For an example, I am 27, so my next nearest decade is 30. If I want to complete an Iron Man at some point in my life, then I could set the goal of completing a Triathlon before I am 30.

Before 30 Goal: Complete a Triathlon

Your 7 Year Goals

What are your seven goals for this year? The seven things you can aim for, that will help you to achieve your before [30] goals.

You probably see the pattern that is forming as we break down our goals into ever smaller and more manageable chunks. Your seven goals this year should focus on moving you towards achieving your seven before [30] goals, which in turn are focused on achieving you life goals. Again, as an example, if one of my goals was to complete a triathlon before I am 30 then a goal I could set for this year might be to complete a marathon.

1 Year Goal: Complete A Marathon

Your 7 Month Goals

Using the marathon example again, I could set the goal of running a 10 miles this month.

1 Month Goal: Run a 10 Miler

Your 7 Week Goals

For running a 10 miler, this month I could set the goal of running a 5 miler.

1 Week Goal: Run a 5 Miler

Your 7 Daily Goals

What small task can we do today to help us achieve our week goals? For achieving the 5 miles this week I might set the simple task of just putting my trainers on and going for a short run. In doing this I am taking a small but definitive step towards my life goal of completing an Iron Man.

Today’s Goal: Go For A Run

Review Your Goals

Take a moment to look back over all your goals, pick out a few and jot them down in order. You can see how the large “elephant” has now become an achievable series of small streaks. For reference, lets look at the Iron Man goal and how it breaks down:

Life Goal: To Complete An Iron Man

Before 30 Goal: Complete a Triathlon

1 Year Goal:
Complete A Marathon

1 Month Goal: Run a 10 Miler

1 Week Goal:
Run a 5 Miler

Today’s Goal:
Go For A Run

The Flexibility Of The 7 Life System

You don’t always have to achieve all your daily goals, or even all your weekly goals, every single time. Sometimes life gets involved and ruins our best laid plans, no one is immune from this. However this is ok, you can be flexible by using the 7Life System. You need only focus on trying to always achieve your monthly goals, and definitely never miss any of your yearly ones. The daily and weekly goals are flexible, and this allows life to flow a little easier. If something comes up, they can always be shuffled around, put on hold temporarily, or done in bulk.

The KEY To The 7 Life System

The key to this method is REPETITION. Place these goals in descending order somewhere safe and commit to reading them EVERY MORNING when you get up and EVERY EVENING when you go to sleep. On Sundays plan your weekly goals so you hit the ground running on Monday. In the evenings, plan your goals for the next day.

This is where the power of the system lies, where the goals become ingrained in your subconscious and become a part of you, forcing your mind to find a way of achieving them.

I have no doubt this system will change your life…if you allow it to. Now get to it!

Have a fantastic day.

By Jonny Gibaud

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What is systems thinking? (Part III)

Original Post:
By: John Wegner

Part III (Going Further)
In Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, we will end up asking the wrong questions.  We cleverly ask these questions from within our  old intellectual bubble, coming up with “new-and-improved” solutions to problems, however we only end up doing the (same old) wrong things righter. What happens if we apply bigger thinking to business challenges, though?  So there is this thing called systems thinking, so what?

If we think bigger about business problems, we can make a fundamental shift in effectiveness.  I often use our shift in thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system as an example of the difference that a paradigm shift can have on our lives.  So Copernicus said the sun was the center of the solar system, so what?  What did that mean in a very practical sense?   Copernicus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, which was central to Church doctrine.  Kepler, Galileo and Newton followed on, demonstrating with science that Copernicus was right.  So what?  Just try and tell me that the scientific revolution that followed on didn’t make much of a difference to the average person’s life.  Think of the ripple effects.  The scientific revolution… gives us the means to challenge the prevailing institutions of governance…science encourages us to think for ourselves….science revolutionises medicine, technology, art and culture, architecture, food production…..

Similarly, systems thinking is revolutionizing how we organize work and how business does business.  There are examples of how applying systems thinking is making business more responsive to customers, more satisfying and meaningful for people who work there and more effective at what it does.

How do we organize ourselves?  Command-and-control hierarchies are so 19th century.  They are about controlling the business.  As this example from Portsmouth City Council demonstrates, a really effective business will be driven by its customers.  Business decisions will be made at the point where it interacts with the customer.  Often, important decisions are made by those in a managerial role, distant from the customer.  ”Managers know best” is one of those nasty underlying assumptions on which we base the role of a manager and influences how we organize work.  If I’m most effective at work, I should be responding to market demand, not management diktat.

Taking a systems thinking perspective on how a business does business can illuminate the need for transformation; for actually doing something radically different.  Much as Owen Buckwell did at Portsmouth City Council, asking the right questions from a bigger picture perspective will highlight what lies beneath some of the seemingly intractable “stuckness” in getting to real effectiveness.  Government inspectors routinely gave the Council glowing reports, however Owen knew that things weren’t right.  How did he know?  ”Noise” in the system that didn’t come from the conventional ways of measuring the work.  Customers were constantly complaining and Owen was unsettled enough to ignore the positive government reports and instead seek to uncover what his “market” was actually saying.  These government inspectors measured customer satisfaction, for example, by asking questions such as, “Did the tradesman smile when you answered the door?” and “Did workmen clean up after their work?”  They didn’t ask, “Was the problem completely rectified?” or “How many times did the tradesman have to come back to fix something that wasn’t fixed properly at the first visit?”  They were there to provide a service to ratepayers and Owen recognised that this wasn’t happening satisfactorily, so he began to ask the right questions of the customer.  They got the big picture of how the business was performing, which they needed in order to radically transform how they did business.  Owen also had an inkling that people came to work to a good job and he was right.  By handing more operational decisions to those who carried them out, he found that job satisfaction increased.  He took action on the system, not on the people, and shifted how they do business from command-and-control (doing what government inspectors want) to a systems approach (what the customer wants).  In the end, they meet government targets “by coincidence”, but more important to Owen is that they are providing the most effective service to ratepayers.

How do we approach performance management?  Typically, performance management is about asking the wrong questions.  In any case, if we think bigger about it, individual performance management is pretty useless, by and large.  This next example demonstrates Deming’s 95% rule: the best place to look for improvements is the system, not the individuals within it.  Work on the system, not on the people.  If we continue to rely on analytical measures of performance and mechanistic means to make it happen, we will not unleash the kind of thinking and creativity (from everyone) that business needs if it is to survive.  Once again, do we tend to ask the right questions when it comes to performance management? 

Taking a systems thinking approach can uncover root causes of seemingly intractable blockages within a business.  It broadens our perspective and can release us from the kind of inertia that keeps us doing the same things again and again with little significant change.  Take a client of ours who realized that the problem with performance management was not “performance management”.  While consistently figuring highly in “best places to work” surveys, they had a recurring problem with “poor performance”, specifically, that people didn’t feel the organization dealt with poor performance very well.  In many other aspects, the people felt it was a great place to work, but that something had to be done to manage those who underperformed.  In some cases, it got so bad that people were “managed out” of the organization, much to their surprise.  Nobody had told them that they were under performing until it was too late and relationships had sufficiently soured to the point that they were irretrievable.  Listening to this “noise” in the system led the HR Manager to take a systems thinking approach and rather than focus on the individual managers who were not dealing with individual under performers, the root cause was identified as lying within the culture; it was a systemic issue.

A dominant theme in staff surveys was the friendliness of the place.  Digging a little deeper, it seemed that most folks thought that “friendliness” and “performance orientation” were mutually exclusive.  In other words, we can either have a friendly place to work or a workplace that focuses on effective performance; herein lay the barrier to regular and frequent conversations about performance at work.  The systemic belief that addressing work performance would undermine friendly working relationships meant that it didn’t happen often or well enough.  Our work was to assist a shift in the culture to one where “friendly and positive working relationships” were inextricably linked with “performance orientation”.  Rather than dealing with the “problem” of managers who don’t deal with poor performance, the focus was on shifting the whole system so that by the end of our work, everyone was having robust, strengths-based conversations about performance all over the place without damaging positive working relationships.  About half way through our year-long project, we joked with the executive management team, who were grumbling that their staff were now challenging them on their performance, that they would get what they asked for.

In both of these cases, systems thinking forces us to look at the whole, not the individual parts.  It is the job of the modern manager to re-vision their function from one of “controller” to one of “steward”.  The focus is on purpose, values and meaning.  What does this business exist to achieve or create in the world?  What values will guide us in doing this?  How is this meaningful for the people who work here?  It is the role of managers to ensure that the correct conditions exist for these things to be realized, not to tell people what to do.

Julian Wilson, owner of aerospace company Matt Black Systems uses a beautiful analogy in a MIX article on re-designing their business.  To rescue a dying species, old thinking tells us that we should invest ourselves in an intensive breeding program.  New thinking says that we should focus our efforts on ensuring the environment in which the species exists is provided proper stewardship so that nature can take its course and allow the species to flourish.  Eliminate the things in the environment which endanger the species, nurture those things which allow it to thrive.

If, as Daniel Pink suggests, people are truly motivated by the search for meaning, mastery and autonomy, these will come to us in an environment where the conditions allow these to thrive.  Eliminating adminis-trivia and management power games is a start.  This does not mean we leave people to do as they please.  Leaders need to re-vision their roles as stewards of the culture.  It is the culture, or the system, where managers can exert most influence and create the most opportunities for effectiveness, learning and transformation.

A lot of what is currently going on in businesses is not being talked about because it’s not part of the mainstream discourse.  Something is no longer working.  We feel it and we feel there should be another way.  Systems thinking provides us new lenses to see deeper and wider.  We must stop ourselves from repeating old mistakes and develop our abilities to think bigger so that we can go further.  Hand in hand with this, we need also to develop greater ease with the complexity we will see before us and greater confidence to deal with being a little less certain about things.  The effects of the system are there, whether we decide to look or not.

….and if you are someone who appreciates the power of systems thinking when others think you crazy, it can be useful to remember the words that Galileo reputedly uttered when forced by the Inquisition to recant his crazy notion that the Earth moved around the sun: Eppur si muove (and yet it moves).

What is systems thinking? (Part II)

Original Post:
By: John Wenger

Part II (Thinking Bigger)

I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece.  It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.

In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world.  We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live.  When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason.  Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old.  Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble.  If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable.  There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things.  ”Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0″; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.

With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being.  So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble.  In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets.  To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution.  We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that.  When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change.  It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles.  They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed.  After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.

So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!).  For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century.  It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.

So why does this matter?

My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity.  It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away.  It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison.  Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.

Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary).  However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties.  I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B.  We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart.  A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts.  Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’”.  For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else.  Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation.  Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:

  • There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things.  If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
  • Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines.  This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
  • The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
  • Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
  • Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.

All of these guide how I approach my work.  Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically.  In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”.  You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.”  Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face.  In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same.  For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement.  It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business.  Yet, managers still behave like this.  Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place.  It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.

How does systems thinking work?

It’s about working with things as integral wholes.  It’s about thinking bigger.  Water is inherently wet.  We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen.  Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”.  Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts.  Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”.  Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).

In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity.  The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually.  Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my  mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.

Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else.  When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.

Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism.  We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty.  I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”.  Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.

Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.

The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace.  A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal.  In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do.  We isolate bits and try to fix them.  Here is just one example:

How do we hire people? Hire for competencies?  Hire because they look nice?  Hire because they interviewed well?  Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests?  For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”.  Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention.  Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay?   There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire.  They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!).  The system will affect their ability to work well.  What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope?  Think bigger and look at the whole.

If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden.  To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”.  If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or…..  Hire anyone.  Hire people you think are wrong.  You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative).  I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”.  How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones.  In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?

We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking.  Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy.  The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern.  We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant.  Time to think bigger.

…more to come in Part III.

What is systems thinking? (Part I)

Original Post:
by:  John Wenger

Part one (A Way In)

There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side.  The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2.  He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?”  The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow!  Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before!  It’s great, how’s yours?”  Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”

Two points about this:

One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim.  I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water.  However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it.  This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives.  We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on.  They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.

And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there.  It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same.  It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water.  What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2.  That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.

Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.

Why bother with systems thinking?

Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting.  The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity.  This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”.  However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset.  A more sophisticated mindset is required first.  A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.

A transition is occurring, however.  As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming.  We are in between the old and the new.  As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)

When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing.  Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts.  We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves.  Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word.  In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.  We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay.  An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away.  Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so.  Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.

There is another way to see things

Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different.  The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary.  People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got.  We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends.  Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening.  Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening.  Same word, different meanings.  I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one.  Duck 2.0.”  No.  Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions.  The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2.  So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.

If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy.  We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world.  If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester.  Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker.  You see and say things that others think are a little crazy.  Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically.  We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all.  So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred.  I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music.  The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting.  When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all.  This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves.  The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.

Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar.  In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down.  In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure).  They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet.  It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body.  This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.

Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system.  One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters.  If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”.  Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)?  Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement.  Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture.  Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness.  Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose.  They just do what they’re told.

The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough.  Everything is connected to everything else.  Most folks would say that makes sense.  The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.

…more in Part II.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Adopt a Growth Mindset and Stop Fearing Criticism and Failure

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Editor’s Note: This is a contribution by Michelle McQuaid

“There are no failures. Just experiences and your reactions to them.” ~Tom Krause

Ever found yourself working for a bad boss? I was shocked to learn recently that three out of every four people report that their boss is the most stressful part of their job; and that it takes most of us up to twenty-two months to free ourselves of them.

I thought it was just me!

A few years ago I joined a large accounting firm to help them manage their employees. Though they were nice enough people outside of work, at the office, their professional pride in finding errors and vigorously pointing them out made them the worst bosses I have ever worked for!

Every day was a battle of constant criticism and negativity. No matter what we achieved, the focus was always on what we needed to do better.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for feedback and improving what I do at work. I also need to, at least occasionally, feel my efforts are appreciated in order to maintain my sense of enthusiasm and confidence.

After all, we all have a deep psychological need to be respected, valued, and appreciated.

As month after month of this behavior dragged on, for the first time ever I found myself really struggling to get out of bed and go to work. Their negativity seemed to be eating me up.

Unwilling to just quit my job, I started researching ways to deal with my whining, moaning, negative bosses to see if I could restore some joy to my job. Luckily, I quickly discovered the field of positive psychology—the science of bringing out the best in people—and the phenomenon of “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, has found that changing the way we perceive ourselves can dramatically improve our feelings and results.

In particular, two beliefs can make a difference: Can we improve our abilities, or is this as good as we get?

Reading this now, it probably seems like a no-brainer to you. Surely we’re all capable of change! The reality is, though, many of us secretly walk around with a “fixed mindset,” believing that our natural abilities are all we have and it won’t get much better than this.

I’ve lived most of my life quietly worrying that, one day, I’ll be found out. People will realize I’m not as great as they first thought, and there’s nothing I’ll be able to do about it.

These are the textbook thoughts of someone with a “fixed mindset.”

As a result I tend to focus way too much on outcome goals, as though these achievements— youngest General Manager ever appointed at the firm—will protect me and validate me in front of others.

I don’t like to put myself too far out there in case opportunities don’t come, or I fail miserably at set challenges. And even though I try to listen bravely, I really don’t like negative feedback because it reminds me of all I lack.

Dweck’s research shows that people with a fixed mindset often end up disengaging with their problems, become depressed and de-energized, and lose self-esteem when they inevitably give up. Not a great match for bosses who prove their value by the number of faults they can point out.

Thankfully, Dweck’s research has also found a way to challenge these beliefs. By adopting a “growth mindset” I was able to set myself free.

Our ability to change is no longer in any scientific doubt. The lifelong plasticity of our brains means that through learning and effort, we are all capable of improvement and change. Even me.

These are the textbook thoughts of someone with a “growth mindset.”

When I started to talk back to my “fixed” thoughts and remember that every complaint my bosses made was an opportunity to learn and get better, an interesting shift started happening at work: The criticisms lost their personal thorns, and instead I became fascinated by tackling the challenges and soon regained my full confidence.

Having heard my boss’ critiques, I also began to ask, “So I’m understanding you clearly, can you tell me what percentage of our approach is actually working?” You’ll laugh, but nearly every single time the answer was that more than seventy percent of what we were doing was great.

What on earth was I losing sleep about!

But don’t just take my word for it. Studies show that people with a growth mindset are able to negotiate better with others because they’re able to push past obstacles and reach agreements that benefit both parties. Also, managers with a growth mindset are more willing coaches, who appreciate employee improvements. (If only it were contagious!)

If you’re suffering from a “fixed mindset,” and the fear of failure is stressing you out, you can also benefit from Dweck’s work. Here’s how she suggests you turn your mindset around:

1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”

What is your internal narrative telling you when you: approach a challenge? Face criticism?

2. Recognize that you have a choice.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset, as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset, as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

3. Talk back to it with a growth mindset voice.

As you approach a challenge, are you determined to avoid failure at all costs or are you willing to embrace the opportunity to learn?

4. Take the growth mindset action.

Over time, which voice you heed becomes pretty much your choice. Whether you take on the challenge wholeheartedly, learn from your setbacks, and try again is now in your hands.

For me this became a turning point in my career. Embracing my growth mindset, I no longer feared falling short of perfection. Rather in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Do you have a growth mindset?
Photo by Any Photo

Imagining the Tenth Dimension

Imagining the Tenth Dimension - 2012 Version

Not easy to get through, but pretty mind bending if you can make it.  I think my favorite dimension is the 6th...  Yeah.  That's the one that is the most exciting on the surface.  Anything is possible.