Unintended or invisible consequences

Have you ever tried to do a nice thing that went completely pear shaped ? 

Have you ever said something that was taken out of context ?

These are the unforeseen consequences, that surround us every day of our lives. The basic fact is that every interaction is open to misinterpretation. Sounds absurd but I propose it’s painfully true. The fact no one can read your mind or understand precisely what you mean is founded in the variety of life experiences we all have. We all have a “mental rule book” that we inherit/adapt/devise as we live our lives, moulded by our experiences and more importantly, our interpretation and responses to them.

Management and the unintended and invisible consequences

We are a modern culture of goal driven and result focused beings, rushing towards completion. The result is that there is entry level and management and the erosion of the middle.

The loss of the middle
The rush to completion culture, that is modern life, results in an erosion of the middle. Think about it, there is a devaluing and almost loss reflected by the middle layers of our work place and lives. This doesn’t mean that the middle layers don’t exist anymore because they do and if anything there are more of them. What has happened is the middle has expanded all while an erosion of its substance/quality has occurred. The middle has become a waiting room with no intrinsic value, just a place on the way to somewhere else. We are all trying to be/get somewhere else and therefore are focused forward and not in the present. It’s like people who are so busy, thinking of the next thing say, that they actually aren’t listening. They are actually, just frantically scanning /searching for the next sound bite to hang their comments upon. This type of hollowness is symptomatic of the erosion of the middle. This layer has become what I call “fluff” taking up a lot of room but with no real substance. The term busy work, tends to be made for this middle layer. So why has this happened?

Apprentice easy to learn hard to master

I remember buying a backgammon set when I was very young which had an instruction booklet with it. The instructions/rules were rather simple but it ended with this statement “easy to learn but hard to master” this line always resonated with me because I was a moratore’s son and knew that most things are easy to learn but really hard to master. The mastery of a skilled task takes time, time to encounter all possibilities and time to develop responses and reactions to them.

How many of us have learnt things, passed the exams and only years later, does the penny, actualy drop? Only then do we see for the first time what the concepts heart or the true nature of the knowledge was. Maths is littered with these sort of realisations, trigonometry is one.

Trig Wiki
I remember being told by a professor at university, when I was demonstrating and discussing with him how we learn and teach. He replied you only really learn something when you have to teach it, when you first learn anything, it is really just a getting to know you exercise, like a first date. This introduction allows you to pass an examine but really only superficially introduces you to the concepts involved. This initial exposure familiarises you with specific terms and basic concepts, so when you actually need to know and teach that lesson you can find the solution more easily and make it part of you.

The act of learning is greatly enhanced by teaching, why? The answer is simplicity itself. Everyone sees and exists in the world differently, these differences mean that when you learn something and try to understand it, you frame it in familiar and logical steps, for you anyway. When others try to learn and understand the same lesson they will also try to make sense of it according to their life view and understandings. So it’s obvious that when teaching you will find a continuum of how others perceive and try to understand the lesson. Some will think very much like yourself, others slightly differently and still others will need vastly different points of reference to come to terms with and understand the lesson. Good teachers must and can rephrase and explain things in a variety of ways, this necessity is what makes teaching the best way to learn because it stretches us to examine what we “know” from other perspectives and points of view.

The unforeseen consequence of teaching is you learn much more completely. This takes time and understanding.

So why do we rush to “completion” ?
Our modern culture is densely populated with 5 year plans, strategies, expectations, milestones and the list goes on and on. Every minute of every day in our lives is under constant scrutiny both internally and externally. We must develop and attain certain milestones within culturally expected time frames or we seem to be ineffectual or below the curve.

There is no room or time for mastery, we learn and we move on. The modern view is that “the now” is only a stepping stone to a future goal. The worth of the journey seems lost to us and only the allure of promotion and success is our goal. We have become tradesmen, with no patience or will to develop into master craftsmen. Society accepts the passable, to feed instant gratification and speed. The respect and value of craftsmanship and quality has become subservient to efficiency and greed. The attention span of the modern world is framed by sound bites and popularity poles.

Bread and Circus rule the day, with distractions and being seen as cutting edge, objectives in themselves.

Think about your workplace, how many times do we heard “they’ve been in that dead end job for years”, “they have no ambition” these statements maybe true but only partially so. The fact maybe that the worker derives get pleasure and satisfaction in developing their skills beyond acceptable and into the realm of mastery. Yet we don’t acknowledge this, we only see the same person in the same role, and evaluate this as “what is wrong with them?”

The absolute irony I noted while I was working IT, no matter how expert and skilled the programers were they were never “appreciated” as much as management. In fact it was sad to watch true masters of coding, having to become management so they could earn more money and get some appreciation. The actual engine which kept the company in business was devalued because they were content applying their craft. The ironic topper to this observation, was that graduates who had studied coding, just used coding to get a foot into a company, so they could quickly move into the management streams. Does the saying “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”, spring to mind.

Words of wisdom from my father an old muratore “It takes hardly any extra effort to do a good job than a bad one.” This is very true, when you actually think about it, how much time, effort and money has been flushed down the toilet by bad projects with little or nothing to show for it?

The unforeseen consequence of our modern society is we rush to our goals and loose sight of the reasons and real benefits why we started in the first place.

There seems to be a disconnect between the limbs and the governing body, the brain. The “new talent” needs mentors to help and aid learning of best practises, while the “wiser” and older ones need the vitality of youth to physically accomplish the task and encourage new exploration into possibilities.

Companies are run like the military, chain of command, need to know and follow orders. They should be run as a biological system or organism, where there are feedback systems with more than one way to elicit change, the nervous system for rapid responses (management) and the endocrine system for slower invasive moderation (cultural).

Natural Flow

I’m a morning person – I like to get my chores out of the way first so that I have more options later in the day. There are others who are night owls, their flow is to stay up later and get things done and then sleep in a little later the next day. These patterns are an example of our natural flow.

Natural Flow SketchFor example, I am writing this post on a Sunday morning because it is the first time this week that I have had the energy and time to do it (after work during the week is harder for me).

How does this impact us at work? When working with other people, how often do we stop to ask them about their preferred ways of working. It might be terrible of me to schedule a 7:30am meeting with someone who was a night-owl – but highly effective if that other person was like me and was able to start early. On the other side, how often would we speak up and say that we don’t do our best focused work after 5pm?

We have natural flows and rhythms of working in many other ways

  • Our conversation habits – the gaps we leave between when we start speaking and others have finished (these are also influenced by our geographic culture)

  • The ways that we perform repeatable tasks (such as filling in time sheets, drafting emails, transport between and to/from offices)

  • Ceremonies such as how we start meetings, where we sit/stand how we make tea or coffee

  • Engagement flows – how we greet people and get started with conversations and work items

We are subconsciously observing a lot of these flows whenever we interact with others, but there is a risk that we are misinterpreting our observations. I have also not given my own natural flows much thought aside from the morning person observation already mentioned. I am about to start working on a few small projects with some colleagues and will try having a conversation about preferred working styles in the next month – a good future topic for this blog.

Misconceptions are harder to correct than lies.

We all do it, take things out of context, only read the summary, sound bites, hearsay and even don’t listen carefully or fully enough to truly understand. These lapses of focus and concentration can sometimes lead to misconceptions about certain things in our lives. These misconceptions are often not noticed because we actually don’t realise they are misconceptions until we expend some effort in discovering them and correcting them. Misconceptions are like cracks and in the foundations they can range in size from minor hair cracks to major structural fissures. It is only when we begin to build upon them that we start to notice things aren’t quite correct or aren’t quite how they should be.

Like the denial of an alcoholic we often fail to recognise the misconceptions we carry and blindly follow and heaven help anyone who tries to correct them, for us. The simple fact is, that lies on the other hand are far easier to identify and therefore correct. Think about it lies or false concepts often hit a brick wall of reality where things don’t add up. At this point there are usually glaring and obvious inconsistencies, so we begin to dig deeper. Once we begin to examine the facts and look carefully at the lies or false conceptions, we are actually prompted into awareness of their existence. To a vigilant mind, lies and false conceptions are like acids corroding the understanding of the world; while misconceptions are like caustics, slowly undermining it. Acids burn when it touches our skin so we become painfully aware of it quickly and address it by washing it off, to correct the situation. Caustics also causes damage yet we do not feel it burning our skin so a caustic solution can continue to burn you without you every knowing its present.

Misconceptions are more subtle than lies, yet they skew or pervert our perceptions of the situation in much the same way. Misconceptions behave in a caustic way because we don’t realise they are misconceptions at the time. If someone told you today was Monday, when you knew it was actually Tuesday, you’d know it was an untruth or a lie; yet if you woke up thinking it was Monday, you could actually plod threw the whole day and never realise your mistake. You may even argue that the day was in fact Monday, with some vigour. In this situation your misconception would only come to light if you needed to work with a date oriented task.

Misconceptions like misunderstood lyrics can be rather difficult to shift and can actually lead to differing outcomes.

So how can we stop them? Well we can’t actually stop them, the best we can do is reduce the opportunity for them to exist.

Some thoughts on how to reduce the misconceptions:

1) Definitions are the foundations of communication, therefore when using jargon or sound bites paint the frame work of their meanings, in your context. It wouldn’t be the first time people glaze over the meaning of a word because of embarrassment.

2) When ever you use information from another field or discipline be aware that your audience my not be cross the subtleties of that area or field. Again context or the lack of a common context may allow misconceptions.

3) The opportunity for miscomprehension lies in life experience of your audience, the more homogenous the crowd the more specific, focused and jargon biased you can be. The trade off for easy of “communication” is an increase in potential misconceptions.

As a member of any community if you truly wish to discuss, debate and explore possibilities you must define, scope and frame the context of the discussion point. Only when we’re on a firm footing of known concepts and defined language can we have the freedom to truly communicate and explore ideas. Most people find the grunt work of defining and framing boring but without shared concepts, language and communication fails and falls into disagreement and argument.

Have you ever debated/argued with someone only to find the disagreement was solely based upon a subtle difference in the definition of a word. Words are not just words they carry with them subtile overtones of meaning which vary for each of us depending upon when, how, where we heard them and what they meant to us.

I hope these thoughts about misconceptions may aid in avoiding them.

Expectations

Imagine a discussion between managers.

Manager A – ‘How do think person X is performing?’

Manager B – ‘Doing a great job – understands what the need is and then delivers the outcome every time.’

Manager A – ‘Thanks – sounds good, I’ll count that as a ‘meets expectations’ in the review.’

Manager B – ‘Well, actually, I think that X exceeded my expectations – did you know that they have 5 years of delivery experience under their belt? I think that we are under-utilising X.’

Manager A – ‘Yeah – but they’re not really leadership material – I don’t think they will ever get above their current level in the company.’

Manager B – ‘That’s not their expectation – X has high potential, depth of experience and took this role to learn more about our part of the company. Have you had a discussion with X about their career goals and experience?’

Manager A – ‘Umm, Yes – but they don’t seem to be leadership material, I guess they will be disappointed…’

A and BThis imaginary conversation contains many examples of expectations – One manager has high and the other low expectations of person X and person X has high expectations of themselves. I believe that people are capable of living up to our high expectations and also of living down to our low expectations and whatever our expectations are, they will sense and comply.

This is an important insight – our expectations are similar to assumptions and can be very tricky to surface. This means that they will become part of our subconscious and we are likely to transmit our expectations in ways that we cannot easily control such as body language, tone and our sentence construction.

So what can we do about it?

Any time we think that someone is doing an average or poor job, take a moment to reflect if it could be a bit of confirmation bias (that we always thought they were only capable of average or low quality and we have been selective in our observations to support this view). If this is the case, then imagine the best performer you have met and that this person has the potential to be just as great. Of course this applies in our non-workplace relationships as well – so we can get plenty of opportunities to reflect and practice in safe environments.

If we are not certain that a major factor is our own expectations, then find a couple of other people and sound them out about the person in question. Be very careful with this approach, because it is very easy for other people to pick up your expectations of others and answer in ways that will add to the confirmation bias.

In summary, expectations could be a major factor in productivity in the workplace – I wonder what would happen if everyone believed that their staff and colleagues were capable of achieving awesome instead of mediocre?

The perils of Sound bites and the human mind.

The human ability to learn, take facts and abstract, invent and then innovate is very impressive. All these possibilities and then more so. We live in a world of information abundance, we google, we search and we condense, all with the goal to assimilate knowledge and be able to function.

The sheer amount of data, facts, ideas and interpretations of data, available to any of us, has had a profound impact upon the way we all function and behave in our day to day lives. The ‘data explosion’ impact ranges from work, socially, ‘family and friend’ and even our own development and the way we see ourselves.

Think about it, the amount of stuff we are exposed to is increasing every year, books added to the web, new research, new facts, new ideas, new concepts etc. etc… The human animal is a marvel but to cope with an inundation of information we fall back on the tried and true method of filtering the incoming data to make sense of it. We all do it and some better than others. The very process of filtering means we, collate, prioritise, group and rapidly make evaluations upon the various pieces of information bombarding our senses. The mind grasps at straws and we often jump to rapid conclusions and interpret the apparent facts according to our own experiences and world view. This is a very efficient way to process information and to be able to make informed decisions. So what’s the problem with this system of behaviour?
Now to answer this, allow me to briefly cover optical illusions.

The classic examples of the brain being fooled by optical illusion such as the rabbit/duck illusion,

IMG_4338
are testimony that we all do it. In an effort to make sense we rapidly jump to conclusions, very handy when trying to pattern match. Evolutionarily speaking one of our greatest abilities.

Wikipedia defines an optical illusion (or visual illusion) as being characterised by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. Information gathered by the eye is processed in the brain to give a perception that does not tally with a physical reality of the source.

There are three main types:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement), and

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

Pathological visual illusions arise from a pathological exaggeration in physiological visual perception mechanisms causing the aforementioned types of illusions. A pathological visual illusion is a distortion of a real external stimulus and are often diffuse and persistent.

Physiological illusions, such as the afterimages following bright lights, or adapting stimuli of excessively longer alternating patterns (contingent perceptual aftereffect), are presumed to be the effects on the eyes or brain of excessive stimulation or interaction with contextual or competing stimuli of a specific type—brightness, colour, position, tilt, size, movement, etc.
Optical illusions are often classified into categories including the physical and the cognitive or perceptual, and contrasted with optical hallucinations.

Of all the optical illusions, the ones I wish to focus on here are the cognitive illusions.

Cognitive illusions are assumed to arise by interaction with assumptions about the world, leading to “unconscious inferences”, an idea first suggested in the 19th century by the German physicist and physician Hermann Helmholtz. Cognitive illusions are commonly divided into ambiguous illusions, distorting illusions, paradox illusions, or fiction illusions.

1. Ambiguous illusions are pictures or objects that elicit a perceptual “switch” between the alternative interpretations. The Necker cube is a well-known example; another instance is the Rubin vase.

2. Distorting or geometrical optical illusions are characterised by distortions of size, length, position or curvature. A striking example is the Café Wall illusion. Other examples are the famous Muller-Lyer illusion and Ponzo illusion.

3. Paradox illusions are generated by objects that are paradoxical or impossible, such as the Penrose triangle or impossible staircase seen, for example, in M.C Escher’s Ascending and Descending and Waterfall. The triangle is an illusion dependent on a cognitive misunderstanding that adjacent edges must join.

4. Fictions are when a figure is perceived even though it is not in the stimulus.

Now allow me to put forward the idea that as we become increasingly time poor and information burdened we increasingly begin to filter, even to the stage that we become unaware of it. This is where it can get dangerous.

I’m not talking about optical illusions jumping up at you in the workplace or in your day to day lives but I am talking about the way we all reduce information and events into “byte” sized pieces. Think about it, we dot point things, prioritise, we use jargon and, my pet hate, we make up acronyms. All in the name of efficiency and understanding. We have become a sound bite culture in an attempt to make sense and deal with all this stuff.

So what’s the problem? Well the reduction and filtering is. Think about it, reducing something means leaving something out or changing the original to a more compact form. Filtering means to sort something and then to determine what’s most important and then effectively ignoring other things to varying degrees.

When I was working in a laboratory I was told the story of a technique which was written up in a scientific journal. The Professor in our lab was trying to repeat the described technique and tried repeatedly, only resulting in failure. He followed the outlined procedure to the letter but to no avail. He ended up deciding to ring the parties concerned and found out that they had actually written in their original paper, that after a certain step in the process, they had gone to lunch for 2 hours. The scientific journal thought that this was not needed and removed this notation from the final publication. The irony was that without the 2 hour pause in the procedure the technique didn’t work at all.

Sound bites can be just as dangerous because often you don’t know what has been filtered out and things can be taken out of context.

To highlight just how misleading sound bites can be, consider an ecological study conducted by a friend of mine. He was collecting data on the kangaroo densities in a particular area and some of the variables which he looked at included vegetation type, terrain, lightning strikes etc. Now when he processed the data statistically there was a very strong positive correlation between the number of kangaroos and the number of lightning strikes. We joked that kangaroos obviously sprung up from lightning strikes; ridiculous but supported by the statistics. The real reason was that lightning strikes meant that a tree was burnt or a fire started. This meant that the native vegetation sprouted regrowth, which was tender and plentiful attracting the kangaroos into the area. So without the extra information about fire and Australian ecosystems the data could be misinterpreted.

I propose that in the course of dealing with an influx of information by reducing it to dot points, catch phrases and sound bites, we can filter things to the extent that their true nature can be lost.

I also think that this culture of sound bites can lead to ambiguity, distortion, paradox and even fiction, like cognitive optical illusions.

So next time, you’re making sense of information or trying to convey and teach, remember to check if any of these are possible :

1. Ambiguity – Can your abridged version have alternative interpretations or be perceived in more than one way?

2. Distortion – Are any parameters you’re touching upon, affected by how you choose to focus on them?

3. Paradox – Can your abridged version lead to a cognitive misunderstanding resulting in a paradoxical or impossible conclusion?

4. Fiction – Can your abridged version be perceived incorrectly?

So when you’re tempted to sound bite a concept or idea just remember Benny Hill “Never Assume because you make an Ass out of U and Me”.

Often clarity is aided by multiple perspectives (yes my sound bite).

Sound bites work because the brain is driven to define reality based on simple, familiar objects, it creates a ‘whole’ image from individual elements but this is also a potential problem. This is the reason taking them out of context can be very dangerous and some people do it on purpose to discredit valid concepts or people… a slippery slope.

 

Appendix

Three main types of optical illusions explained:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

315px-allisvanity
One of the most well-known literal illusions is the painting done by Charles Allan Gilbert titled All is Vanity. In this painting, a young girl sits in front of a mirror that appears to be a skull. There isn’t actually a skull there, however, the objects in the painting come together to create that effect.

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement)

IMG_4364
The checker shadow illusion. Although square A appears a darker shade of grey than square B, the two are exactly the same.
IMG_4365
Drawing a connecting bar between the two squares breaks the illusion and shows that they are the same shade.

IMG_4366
In this illusion we see square ‘A’ and ‘B’ as not the same colour, but when the image puts the two square next to each other; they do appear to be exactly the same colour.

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

345px-my_wife_and_my_mother-in-law
Cognitive Illusion Image – My Wife & My Mother-in-Law. Do you see a young woman or an old lady?

Wikipedia Optical_illusion
Study.com Lesson What are optical illusions; definition; types
Lecture-optical-illusion-perception
Wikipedia Sound_bite

Sound Bites

If you take only one thing away from reading this post – it is a caution to be very careful with taking only one thing away from any interaction.

We are evolved to filter information so that we only need to focus on things that are important to us – that’s why painters can put a few brush-strokes on a canvas and we can interpret it as a person walking on the beach in the distance.

Person on BeachWe filter without realising it – if we did not filter, we would be overloaded with information and find it very difficult to proceed.

When we have a conversation with someone, we imagine that they understand everything that we say in the way that we intended for it to be meant. The only thing that we can be certain of, in fact, is that the person will have interpreted what we said in the way that made sense to them. Of course what makes sense to the other person might or might not be aligned with what we actually intended.

One time, I came away from a conversation wondering why the person had started to debate the pros and cons of scrum when I had been meeting with them about something else. On reflection, I realised that my job title at the time contained the word ‘Agile’ so that person thought that I was only speaking about scrum teams and the delivery process. It was likely that the other person had a very different definition of agile – mine is a very broad one and includes Lean, Cynefin, Design Thinking and many other useful ideas and approaches. Others might define agile as ‘scrum’ and not much more for all sorts of reasons. This means that the other person was filtering my part of the conversation through a ‘Kim is here to talk about scrum’ lens which led to a complete misinterpretation of what I was asking about.

How does this relate to the title of the post ‘Sound Bites’?

We in the Lean and Agile communities have discussed and investigated many concepts and are in the habit of using short descriptions for very complex ideas. Within the community, I can say something like ‘I like to use the Cynefin Framework to help me determine which approaches are compatible with the system that I am working with’ and lots of people would understand what I meant to say. But I have spent a lot of time reading about these ideas, attending conferences, speaking with experts and trying them out so the following terms are loaded with deep meaning;

  • Cynefin Framework
  • Approaches
  • System

These terms are at risk of becoming ‘sound bites’ – the main thing that an audience hears and therefore believes is the main message. They could then try and apply one of the concepts, or an extrapolation of these ideas and end up with a completely unexpected result.

This is not the first time ‘sound bites’ have happened in our human history. For example, Bob Emeliani wrote a great post recently about Frederick Winslow Taylor and how people partially applied his Principles of Scientific Management and ended up with a sub-optimal result.

What can we do about the problem with ‘sound bites’?

We need tailor our conversations to our audience. In a group of deep experts, it is fine for us to use our shorthand terms and jargon – but in a mixed group or with non-experts, it is as if we are teachers providing all the answers to students and not teaching them how to learn – so our words are ripe for misinterpretation.

Now that you have read this post and therefore interpreted it in your own ways, I would be very interested to hear about your experiences with sound bites, or what the term ‘sound bites’ means to you.

Please leave a comment or find me on Twitter: @kb2bkb

Ladders

Thanks to an ‘off the cuff’ comment from @semanticwill about ladders of inference, I started to think about it a bit more deeply.

We each have a rich set of different experiences in our lives that make us who we are. When we make assumptions about statements that others make, we can ‘race’ up our ladders of inference – this can happen on both sides of the conversation.

Our Ladders of Inference are Uniquely Our Own

We are advised to ‘walk back down’ our ladders of inference when we make assumptions, but what I had not thought about much was that some ladders can be short and others long. So if I am working with someone else rung by rung to unpack our assumptions, I should not be surprised if one of us only goes a couple of steps and the other many more.

Obliquity

Thank you to Dave Snowden for his pointer to this John Kay post in a recent Cognitive Edge blog. It is a long read and I highly recommend making the time to read it.

Building on my recent post about the Gradient of Misinterpretation, we can be better off if we move indirectly towards a goal.

Many Paths to an Outcome

Here is my version of why obliquity can be good.

  • The first path taken is direct and leads us to our expected outcome of a box
  • The two middle paths lead to good and not-so-good outcomes, we are still looking for a box, and we find other things on the way that might be better
  • And the last path takes us under the mountain – sometimes other pathways are not so obvious

So how does this relate to the gradient of misinterpretation? It comes back to ambiguity, if we are a little ambiguous about what we want to achieve and how we describe it, then the pathways we take to understand it can take us to more interesting places.

 

Innovation and Misinterpretation

Misinterpreting something is often seen as a  bad thing – there is another way to look at it.

It is not possible to know for cetain if we have understood another point of view fully, because we are ourselves and not someone else – so there is always some degree of misinterpretation.  The other extreme is when we get something wrong such as interpreting a red traffic light as ‘go’.  The gradient of states in between could look something like this.

The Gradient of Misinterpretation

Between shared understanding and embarrassment lies the potential for innovation and new ideas.  This is one aspect of what we are trying to leverage when we use brainstorming – someone says one thing that helps us to think of something else.  It also works well on Twitter – the text limit forms a constraint that limits shared understanding.  If we can avoid going too close to embarrassment and wrong, we get a fertile field for new ideas.