Archive for January, 2011

Scottish creativity

Epistle To J. Lapraik

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then, tho’ I drudge thro’ dub an’ mire
At pleugh or cart,
My Muse, tho’ hamely in attire,
May touch the heart.

Do read the whole poem.  The link has an English translation as well.


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the string game

There seem to be a number of myths about learning: that it’s fun, that it comes naturally, that once you learn something you never forget it (like learning to ride a bike), that it’s gratifying –  its own reward. The truth is, learning is hell, (which was the alternative title for this post).

We often ask our trainee innovation faciliators to solve a problem we call the string game. We ask them to “manacle” themselves with a piece of string, and then link themselves to a partner by threading one person’s “chain” through their partner’s before securing their wrist. The objective is to separate from your partner without untying or breaking the string, and without slipping the “cuffs” off your wrist. The overall purpose of the exercise is to get people to think about why people need facilitators when they are required to work with other people.

The exercise usually goes like this:
  1. Each pair will start by confidently trying to twist themselves free of each other. They will persist with this strategy even when it’s clearly not succeeding because it’s sort of fun.
  2. Frustration sets in: from total confidence that the puzzle can be solved in a jiffy each pair will declare the challenge impossible. We haven’t got all day, so I tell them it isn’t. They twist and turn some more.
  3. After a while I ask them to stop and define the problem. Someone obligingly describes it as being like trying to separate two links in a chain. This prompts me to challenge them to re-examine and re-frame the problem: “But is it two links?”
  4. They figure out that the solution might have something to do with the loops around their wrists. One pair manages to free themselves from each other. I ask them to tie themselves together again and solve the problem again. None of the other pairs is ever interested in watching the pair that’s solved the problem do it again. Sometimes the successful pair actively tries to conceal the solution from the other pairs.
  5. 50% of the time the pair that’s trying to replicate their solution only succeeds in further twisting up their strings together rather than freeing themselves.

fig.2 emotional ups and downs during the string game

In fig.2 I have tried to describe the emotional states people typically go through during the string game: it takes about 3 minutes to go from total confidence to frustration through to hopelessness; there is a split-second high when you solve the problem which is often accompanied by a Homer Simpson forehead-slapping “d’oh!” moment, after which you stop caring very much, especially when you discover that the solution is quite hard to replicate and learn.

Here are 10 of my conclusions from my anthropological observations of the string game:

  1. People don’t seem to want to learn from each other. They’d rather worry away at a problem on their own rather than see if anyone else has a solution. In fact, in some cultures that would be considered copying or cheating.
  2. People are jealous of  and secretive about their solutions and don’t want to share. Points 1 & 2 seem to go against what David Attenborough says about mammals, that our competitive advantage derives from our ability to teach and learn from each other.
  3. Learning is an emotional roller-coaster. You can experience feelings of confidence, frustratration, hopelessness and, once you’ve found the solution, you may feel like an idiot for not having seen the blindingly obvious answer.
  4. At first the problem seems familiar and the solution obvious, then it seems that this is a new problem with no solution, and most people are ready to give up at this point, and will without some encouragement.
  5. The initial assumptions people make about the problem they are trying to solve are always wrong. I believe this to be a universal truth, although it doesn’t apply to my own assumptions.
  6. If the problem really was “to separate two links of a chain” then the solution people immediately opt for, to try and twist themselves out of the link, is clearly doomed. This in no way affects their initial supreme confidence that they know what to do.
  7. Once you’ve found out what the solution is, it’s often difficult to replicate, and if you do it wrong, you can actually make the situation worse.
  8. If you don’t use the solution regularly you forget it. Faced with exactly the same game six months later, people have no recollection of what the solution is.
  9. Teaching the solution to others is difficult (not least because of points 1 and 2). A manual would probably help, but who reads those?
  10. Calling something a game does not make it fun.

This challenge is a lot like some types of problem one encounters in life (I wonder if there’s such a thing as a taxonomy of different problems?). Certain kinds of situations and tools require regular practice or exposure to really learn how to deal with them.  Things from my life that spring to mind are card games, HTML, Excel; using the computer to watch TV and manage DVDs and video and audio files is a lot more complicated than just using a TV and a DVD player and this is one of the areas where I struggle for technological independence from my partner. Come to think of it, skill sets such as facilitation would fall into this category.  Facilitation requires constant experimentation, learning and practice – and if you do it wrong, you can make things worse.

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I have been in most of the positions shown in Bronze Orientation Day, and the truth is as grim as it is shown here.
Peter de Jager has some more optimistic material on change management. One of his podcasts explains the fallacy of “resistance to change” and makes a number of useful points:

  • There is a misnomer you don’t ‘manage change’ you manage people who undergo change.
  • The Virginia Satir change process model makes sense.
  • “shut up and change” vs. “be the change you want to see in the world” (Ghandhi) “think globally act locally”can  affect your own sphere of influence.
  • The number one myth is that people resist change, which leads to having change shoved down people’s throats. People are happy to change (get married, move house, change job etc.) but are not happy to have changed imposed on them; we resist being changed without having the choice. People will go into the unknown and embrace change at every opportunity.
  • New software and business process fail because of the myth.
  • An organisation that was like ‘Groundhog Day’ would be a nightmare; people could not stand an environment with no change. People need change.
  • “Why should I change?” has been perverted into an act of resistance and ‘not being a team player’.

He says:  “There is a popular myth about Change which leads to some fuzzy thinking: “People hate Change”. The correct response to that thought is mild invective. What people hate, is being Changed without their consent or with no control over the process. When people have control over the change process, they willingly undergo all types of wrenching change. They seek promotions, get married, have kids, learn new languages etc. etc. All huge changes, all sought after eagerly. So much for the notion people “hate” change. A powerfully effective strategy when implementing change is to make the foreign element that triggers the change as internal as possible. In other words, give as much control to those who must undergo the change as you can. This concept is not that unusual anymore. It’s called empowerment.  (Peter de Jager, Managing Change & Technology, 2000)

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I had a boss who pointed out that while project planning tools such as Microsoft Project might be good for building a house (“It’s raining and we can’t lay concrete. What is the impact on cost and schedule?”), they are less helpful for say designing a house (Best use of site, matching client aspiration and budget, the real planning constraints), or for knowledge-intensive projects.

This came to mind when both Dave Snowden and John Seddon made statements about the problems of ‘traditional’ project management being used with systems thinking or complex situations.

This post looks at developments in web-based tools that might be helpful. I had positive experience of using ProjectPlace a good many years ago. I have used some of the software here, but not all of it by any means. There are lots of good sources of advice – my favourites are Web Worker Daily and Robin Good. There is a good list of ‘to do’ software here.
Soft OR approaches have long had tools for managing complex situations but they have received little mainstream attention. Perhaps the most interesting was STRAD , based on Strategic Choice (the book is Planning under Pressure by Hickling and Friend). The software is old, but the thinking is profound.

Mainstream PC-based tools are giving way to web-based ones, such as Basecamp Huddle or AirSet, which may be fine so long as they are not over-used. I’d like to try ProjectThingy just because of the name. Mind-mapping tools can be used for planning e.g. the JCVGantt Pro extension to MindManager, and there is now a wide range of web-based mind-mapping software available.

Perhaps ‘less is more’ when in a complex situation. A combination of Teamly (who is doing what) , Dropbox or Evernote (for document storage), and Doodle (for fixing dates, doing surveys) might be all that is needed, with Rypple for the brave. More radical is BetterMeans – open and democratic project management. There is a vast range of tools for sharing information and holding meetings now. TheCommentor is an intersting one that might help design reviews.

There are signs that Ushahidi is gaining use for wider purposes; it would be interesting to try in an innovation context (with both the pros and cons of ‘interesting’). This starts to take us into crowdsourcing and crowdfunding which is a separate topic for another day.

There must be some software to add to this list – or even software to avoid. Please put them in the Comments

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