Friday, 24 May 2019

How do we replicate talents?

Stop for a moment and consider everything that you know. Think about all of the knowledge that is in your mind. How did it get there? All of the facts, experiences, skills - almost everything that makes you 'you', at least in terms of your abilities and personality, is the sum total of your life experience.

When you were born, your brain was a relatively undifferentiated, densely packed lump of neurons; nerve cells which can pass information between them. Through a process called 'Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity', the neurons in your brain began to connect together. STDP is a process for connecting neurons where there is a synchronisation in their firing pattern.

Let's play a game. Imagine that on a table in front of you there are five boxes:

One of the boxes contains some coins, the others are empty. How do you work out which box has the coins in?
Simple, you say. You pick up each box in turn and shake it. Or you feel its weight.

The test really is simple, but without STDP you couldn't do it. Your choice depends on the timing between your action and the reaction from the box. What would happen if you shook box 4, but the rattling noise came from box 1? And then when you shook box 1, box 5 rattled? That would be confusing, right?

The synchronisation between your action and the reaction from the external physical world is the basis of how all of the neurons in your brain became connected.

Imagine a skill or talent that you have mastered. How would you teach that to someone else? You might demonstrate the skill while they watch. How would that help them to play a musical instrument or drive a car? You might try to describe what to do. You probably know how that works out - most of what you're doing is outside of your awareness, so you can't describe it, because you don't even realise you're doing it.

Does everyone have to learn through their own trial and error? Or can we accelerate that process, fine tune it to replicate talents more quickly and efficiently?

Without realising it, you give out clues about how you perform the skill, clues about how your neurons wired themselves together as you learned the skill. Those clues are revealed in two ways, through your behaviour, and through your language, but not through what you say, the clues are in the way that you organise and structure your language, and you won't even be aware that you're doing it. While you think you're describing what you do, you're enacting the skill through the way you translate your personal experience into language.

By understanding the structure of that translation process, which linguists call a transformation, we can 'reverse engineer' your learning process, take out all of the elements which are not directly relevant and design a highly specific, customised learning process which then enables us to transfer that talent to anyone else.

In practice, the process is quite straightforward, though it does require multiple interviews of multiple role models, cross referencing, testing and a technical understanding of the structure of language. It's all easily learnable though, and the approach will give you a very different experience of working with your colleagues and clients - hearing what's really going on for them at a deeper level rather than reacting to what they're presenting at the surface.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

You can have a fast solution, or a good solution, but you can't have both

I've found that many organisational cultures - which of course means managers and leaders - favour people who are reactive, solution focused, ready to act to solve customer problems.

This is killing innovation.

The underlying culture seems to be based on the idea that the customer is the most important person in the business, and this simply isn't true. For a start, the customer is not part of the business, they are an external connection. You don't owe them anything, and they don't owe you anything. You give them products and services, they give you money. It's a fair and equal exchange. When you start to treat that customer as if they are important, that exchange becomes unequal and unfair.

"But without customers we don't have a business!!"

Yes, you do. When you start treating customers as if they are important, you become biased towards the customers who demand attention, and since you have limited resources, your attention is no longer allocated fairly. For every individual customer who gains an advantage through discounts, concessions, better service, rushed orders etc, you actively disadvantage another customer. If you were that customer, would you be happy with a lower quality of service just because someone else was shouting louder?

If you called your internet provider to complain about slow service, how would you feel if they told you that other customers in your street were more important?

No, the most important people in a business are not customers - the most important people are the employees. You take care of the employees, the employees take care of the customers. Simple.

What has this got to do with innovation?

Believing that customers are the most important people makes managers react to customer problems. The pressure to react quickly and decisively makes managers think they know what to do, that they have 'good solutions'. A culture of firefighting emerges, because reacting to one customer neglects another, and the impact builds like a snowball.

"But we have to solve this customer problem NOW!"

No, you don't. You had to solve it weeks or months ago, but you didn't.

The pressure to act and react causes people to do what they know 'works', because it's what they did last time. You probably have a few favourite recipes, which you could whip up easily if some friends descended for dinner, and you also have some recipes for solutions for common problems at work. You know the 'best' way to get something done because you have your own experience of trial-and-error to fall back on.

When you feel under pressure to come up with a solution, you might even offer a choice - that you can either deliver a fast solution, or a good solution. But not both.

Imagine you're taking a loved one out for a very special evening. You go to a very good restaurant. Do you demand to know where your food is, two minutes after ordering? Of course not, you know that high quality food, caring preparation and tempting presentation take time. All of these things are important enough to wait for.

Now imagine you're staying out of town for work. You need to get something to eat, you don't care what, and you're in a hurry. Do you go to a fancy restaurant? Or do you go to a fast food outlet, where you can get something quickly? Do you complain that your cheeseburger isn't served on a silver platter with a fine wine?

You can fast, and you can have good, but you can't have both at the same time.

The real problem is that we cannot separate a problem from its environment. If you make the same journey to work every day, it's not the same journey. Everything around you is different, each time you follow that route. Believing that it's the 'same old same old' is an illusion that your brain creates, so that you don't have to make an effort in order to interact with the world. You might say that the differences each day are irrelevant, if you still arrive at work. Do you always arrive at exactly the same time? Do you tend to arrive early to give yourself room for delays? Do you tend to arrive on time or a little late because you don't want potential delays to eat into your well earned sleep time? So, right away, you can see that no two journeys are the same, we can only treat them as equivalent if the desired outcome is always achieved.

In organisational problem solving, we have two outcomes. One is to solve the problem, and the other is to learn. I would say that learning is actually the most important and valuable outcome, because it will largely prevent future similar problems. Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

"But we have to act NOW, we can worry about learning later!"

Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.


Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

And one of the most important reasons for this is that by doing what works, what you know, what you have proven in the past, you are repeatedly applying the wrong solution to the problem, because you are applying a solution which worked once for you in a different situation in the past. It's the same old same old. In fact, you are continually recreating the same problems by repeatedly applying the wrong solutions. Because what you're applying isn't a solution at all - it's an idea. A solution is something which you can only know looking backwards. You can only know that your actions resolved a problem by looking backwards. As you look forwards into the next problem, any similarity is an illusion created by your lazy brain.

As a manager, you have to allow people space to find new ways, to create new ideas and to test those ideas the same way that you did - trial and error. That means making mistakes, and so the pain for you is in allowing the space for them to do that. There is no other way. And in any case, mistakes can only be defined as such when you have a specific outcome in mind, an expectation which has to be met. Let go of your expectations and you will create the space for innovation.

If, as a business, you want to keep doing the same old things, year after year, while your competitors move ahead, then keep applying the same solutions to the same problems. At least it's comfortable. But don't say that you want innovation, because that's not possible.

Innovation implicitly comes from what you're not doing.

If You Want Help, Tell the Truth

Imagine the scene.

You have a problem at work. A frustrating problem. A problem involving your colleagues, or your manager, or both. Over time, the problem has become worse.

Imagine that you go home and tell your partner. Or your friends. You vent your frustration at all the things your manager and colleagues are doing that are causing your problem.

Your family or friends nod sympathetically. They ask questions. And, finally, they deliver the sucker punch: they give you their analysis of the situation, and they tell you what to do about it.

Aaargh! All you want to do is offload. Why do other people insist on telling you what to do?

Just to be nice, you reply, "Yeah... but", "You don't understand", "It's different", "I've tried that", and so on.

You might even say, "I've tried everything and nothing works", when what you really mean is that you already know what to do.

So, why are you still talking about it?

Your family and friends have the best intentions when they give you advice. They pick up on the presupposition that you unknowingly transmit - that if you're talking about a problem then logically you have not solved it, so logically you don't know how to solve it. Therefore, they ask you questions to gather facts so that they can perform an analysis and deliver a solution to you.

Your family and friends each offer you a perfect solution to the problem that you have described. So why would you reject their suggestions out of hand?

It's because their suggestions were perfect solutions to the problem that you described. The real problem is that that's not the problem. You didn't tell the truth. You told them only what you wanted them to know.

The same thing happens, of course, when you're trying your best to help someone else. Imagine a colleague, or someone in your team, is telling you about a problem. Logically, they must be asking for your advice, so you draw on your own experience to suggest a solution, a solution which you know will work, because you've done it yourself a dozen times. A guaranteed, sure-fire winner.

Imagine your frustration when they dismiss your solution out of hand, or worse still, tell you what a good idea it is to then do absolutely nothing about it.

Once again, your solution was perfect, but it was a solution to the wrong problem. They didn't tell you the truth. In fact, they may have told you exactly what they wanted you to know, to get you to do what they wanted you to do.

Furthermore, it was a solution to a problem that you once had, a long time ago. It turns out that solving problems stifles innovation, and I'll tell you why in another article.