We should all beware of experts

gingerCEOs and senior business leaders are increasingly placing their trust in experts such as academics, consultants and technical experts.   A 2011 report from the Edelman group points to a dramatic rise in leaders turning to ‘credentialed spokespeople’, so-called experts. But is ‘expertise’ really all it’s cracked up to be?   In 1984 The Economist set a challenge to four different groups to predict what the stock market would look like in ten years time. The groups were made up of four former finance ministers, four company chairmen, four Oxford University students and four London dustmen. Ten years on, who came closest? Of course, it was the dustmen, with the finance ministers trailing in last place.   A study of 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over a 16 year period on issues ranging from the fall of the Soviet Union, oil prices, the Arab Spring and 9/11 showed that the so-called experts got no more right than a monkey randomly sticking a pin in a board.   According to Noreena Hertz’s fabulous book Eyes Wide Open, a 2012 challenge run by The Observer pitted a team of professional investment advisors against a ginger cat called Orlando. Whilst the professionals studies the stock market and used their decades of experience to select winning stocks, Orlando made his choice by pushing a toy mouse onto a grid of numbers.   At the end of the year, Orlando ended up with an impressive 11% return, compared to the ‘experts’ measly 3.5%.

As Hertz says: “experts are taken at face value simply because they are perceived as being expert.” She points to a recent experiment in which a group of adults were asked to make a financial decision while contemplating an expert’s advice. An fMRI scanner measured their brain activity as they did so. What happened next shocked the researchers.  When faced with expert advice, the independent decision making parts of the participants’ brain effectively switched off. An experts speaks, and we stop thinking for ourselves. In her book, Hertz calls for greater consideration of what she calls ‘lay experts’ – those people with skills and experience from the front line.   “Traditional experts come to the table with particular skills and knowhow,” she says. “They are valuable, yet all too often they make their pronouncements from on high, without sufficient mindfulness of context or local conditions. Lay experts, on the other hand, have their feet on the ground. This means that they are capable of delivering insights that those looking down from up top, however qualified, may never discover or volunteer.” We need instead to tap into what Nobel prizewinning economist Friedrich Hayek describes as “the dispersed wisdom of those on the ground.” They may not have the PHDs and the fancy job titles but they almost certainly know what’s best.   When faced with a challenge, expensive consultants are not always the answer. And I’m speaking as a consultant, so I’m effectively saying, don’t hire me.

Why your next project is doomed from the start

wednesdayYou have an important meeting next Wednesday. Your boss sends you an email to say the meeting is being moved forwards by two days.   So do you put it in the diary for Monday or Friday?   This was a question posed at an excellent talk on ‘the science of time’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week.   I, as well as about 50% of the audience put my hand up for Monday, but the other half insisted it must be Friday. So why the discrepancy? And who’s right?

Well there’s a psychology at play here.   If you see events in the future as moving towards you (maybe it’s something you’re not looking forward to, like a dental appointment or a difficult meeting) you’re more likely to process the message as the event moving further towards you.   In this case, you’d assume the meeting was now on the Monday, giving you less time.   However, if you see events as you moving towards them, you are the one thrusting ahead and therefore the event moving “forwards by two days” will feel more distant, hence Friday. Try it out with your colleagues.

The presentation last week also touched on what is known as the ‘planning fallacy’ – the tendency for people and organisations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have experience of similar tasks over-running.   Imagine that you were given two tasks to complete – one quick but boring and the other time-consuming but rewarding. Now imagine that you could do one tomorrow and one in six weeks time, what choice would you make?  Most of us would choose the quick/boring task first. We’d put the time-consuming task off in the (mistaken) belief that by then we’d have more time. But of course, we rarely do.   We don’t take into account the fact that in six weeks time there will be other unexpected things taking up our time, and that we’re likely to be just as busy as we are now, if not more.

The planning fallacy, first coined by economist Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking Fast & Slow, can be seen everywhere in business, and indeed in government where ambitious budget and spending forecasts routinely fail to take into account delays, obstacles and unexpected events.  Here’s a quote:   “When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on rational weighting of gains, losses and probabilities.   They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios for success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.”   What I learned last week is that, whilst we tend to exaggerate our own ability to forecast the future, we tend to be more pessimistic about the forecasting of others.  If I asked you to predict how long it will take you to complete a detailed task, and then asked an uninvolved observer to say how long they think you would take, the observer would almost certainly choose a longer, and probably more realistic, timeframe.

It’s worth us communicators understanding the impact of the planning fallacy, but we probably also fall under its spell just as easily. Company strategies, annual plans, change projects all come with timelines attached, but be honest, how often are these timelines realistic?   Project managers are notoriously over-ambitious when forecasting. I can barely think of a single project I’ve worked on that’s delivered on time and budget. Perhaps the trick, when forecasting how long something is going to take, is to ask someone else how long they think it will take you and use that figure. It’s probably more accurate.

When even clunky PowerPoint works!

cancer_cellsAt last week’s always-stimulating Hay Festival I attended a talk by an eminent biochemist entitled ‘Demystifying Cancer’.   It was basically a PowerPoint presentation and what’s more, the speaker broke almost every rule in the ‘how to use PowerPoint’ book. Lots of slides, too much text, Comic Sans font, clunky clip art and basic animation.   Not, perhaps, the recipe for an informative and engaging communication session.   However, it was fantastic – a lesson in how to communicate a complex subject and to make the message stick.   I left the session with a whole new level of understanding of this massively complicated area. I could explain to my daughter how cells mutate, I understood how tumours form and I felt uplifted by the advances in science.   The impact, of course, was because the speaker was so engaging.   His well-rehearsed presentation was stunning in its simplicity and compelling in its delivery. But it wasn’t just about the presenter.   It was a triumph for PowerPoint too.   Yes it was a completely amateurish set of slides, clearly put together by someone experimenting with all the buttons on the PowerPoint task bar, but the content was designed to be simple and in that context, the simple home-made look of the slideware fitted the occasion perfectly.   Arrows moving uncomfortably across the screen seemed to work, flashing garish red text highlighted key points beautifully and the shockingly awful clipart images introduced humorous metaphors at just the right time.   Well done professor.

Earlier that morning I finished reading a book about ‘simplicity’ and how to overcome the “crisis of complexity” that is sweeping across our lives and workplaces.   This is something us communicators can relate to only so well, even though we’re often the ones creating the complexity by communicating too much. Here’s a good quote from the book*:  “From jury instructions to user manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of over-explaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.”   Bravo.  The book introduces three principles of simplicity – empathise, clarify and distil.   We comms people can relate to the second and third but I wonder how much credence we really place on empathising with our audience – understanding other’s needs and expectations.   Not enough I think.   My next book, also picked up at Hay, is all about Empathy so I’ll read it and report back my findings!

Funny enough, when I returned from Hay I started on a new project. What’s it all about? Simplification. 

* Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn

Why disengaged workers take the biscuit

CookiesHere is one of my favourite stories about employee engagement. I can’t remember which book I read it in so apologies for the lack of reference.   Anyway, researchers took two groups of volunteers and placed them in separate rooms to complete a repetitive cognitive task that required concentration (something about pressing a button on a keyboard when they saw a particular set of numbers appear on a screen).   In the first room, the volunteers were greeted warmly and thanked for their participation by the researchers, who then explained the tasks and asked the group if they had any questions.   On the table in front of the volunteers sat a big plate of warm cookies and the group were told they could help themselves after completing the tasks or choosing to stop. The researchers then left the room.   In the other room, the second set of volunteers were given exactly the same task and offered an equally tasty plate of warm cookies to eat at the end.   This time, however, the researchers simply read out a list of instructions and left the room.

What happened next amazed the researchers.   Not only did the first group do much better at the cognitive task but they also stuck at the job significantly longer than the other group before tucking into the cookies.   The people who were welcomed, well briefed and invited to ask questions were more ‘engaged’ with the task – so much so that their productivity was superior and so was their willingness to see the task to the end.   They could resist the lure of the cookies far longer than the second group, who gave up pretty early.

The only difference between the two groups was in the way they were treated by the researchers. The people in the first group were treated as individuals. They were made to feel welcome and asked for their feedback and questions.   They were smiled at and thanked. And this made the difference.   Even that minor level of ‘engagement’ led to the team performing better and being more conscientious about the job they were asked to do.   The other group, with just a clinical one-way briefing, had no ‘reason why’ when it came to the task and, well, they couldn’t be bothered in the end.

This experiment highlights the very thin line between engagement and disengagement but it also shows the benefits of a smile and a kind word.   I often use this story with managers to emphasise that sometimes it’s the little things that matter.   It also offers a low cost way of testing engagement – put some warm cookies in the office on a busy day and see how fast they go!

Vision statements are like Fridays

FridayI’ve just read a book about a bloke who wakes up one morning, realises that everything on the TV and radio is bad news and then wonders where all the optimists are.   Intrigued by the question, he resolves to identify and track down the world’s biggest optimists to find out what makes them tick and why everyone else isn’t like them.   On his journey – via Bill Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, politicians, psychologists, sports stars and a fair bunch of nutters – our hero enters the world of neuroscience, transcendental meditation, high finance and religion.

Most of us, at the end of the day, tend to be optimistic about things we can control.   Most of us believe our children will go on to be successful.  Most of us think we’ll be healthy in our old age.  Most of us believe we can avoid accidents.   And as we prepare for a new year, most of us will genuinely be optimistic about achieving our new year resolutions.   But while we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re often less so about other people.   People tend to think their own financial situation will improve even if they think the overall economy will not.   People have enormous belief in their own ability to whether storms and avoid loss.   Why is this?   And if it’s true, why do we see overt optimism as a sign of weakness or naivety?

Apparently when you ask people to rank the days in the week in terms of preference, they rate Friday higher than Sunday, even though Friday is a work day and Sunday is not.   Saturday is always tops, but why do people prefer Friday to Sunday?   The answer lies in our unique human ability to imagine.    Friday holds promise.  It offers anticipation for the weekend ahead.    Sunday may be a day of rest but we all know that lying in the back of our minds is the thought of work the next day.   I don’t know about you but I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day.  Christmas Eve holds magic and excitement.  And optimism.

In the workplace, optimism flows freely from boardrooms and business cases – we will achieve our vision, we will deliver the change programme, we will meet our objectives, we will deliver sustainable growth etc.   Why are leaders so optimistic?  Especially when history tells us that most change programmes fail and that most visions are never realised.   I’ve seen some ambitious business cases in my time and I can hardly think of a single one that has lived up to expectations.    One of the reasons behind this ‘blind’ optimism is that we focus purely on the things we want to change, and we assume that by changing them we’ll all be better off.   It’s that Friday feeling.

There are two problems with this.   First, while we have a natural optimism bias about things in our control, we have a natural pessimism bias about the things that aren’t.   So the people writing the business case or vision statement may well feel optimistic, but those observing from the side may not share the same excitement.   So when you try to engage the pessimists, you have your work cut out.   Secondly, when we set out on a change programme to ‘make things better’, we assume that by doing so we’ll enjoy the benefits on a quid pro quo basis (fix this blockage and we’ll be xxx amount better off).   The problem though, according to Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, is that “we underestimate how quickly and easily we adapt to new circumstances and we fail to incorporate such adaptation into our forecasts”.    We may be optimistic about starting a new job because the pay is higher.   So we focus on those things that will change (more money!) and that makes us optimistic.  However, we don’t take into account that we still have bills to pay, we still have problems to deal with, we still have to get up on a cold Tuesday morning, we still have office politics, we still have to load the dishwasher.    We may be optimistic about the weekend on a Friday but we all know that not all weekends live up to expectations.   Vision statements are like Fridays – full of hope, expectation and optimism.   But there’s always a Monday round the corner.

The Hundred Languages of Childhood

child-skyEver since watching Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on how schools kill creativity, I’ve been determined not to let school get in the way of my daughter’s education.   I love Sir Ken’s analogy of schools being industrial when they should be agricultural.   Our school models, he says, are linear rather than organic.   We teach children what to think, not how to think.   We put them on a production line, feed them facts and test them to death to see how much they remember.   Where’s the creativity in that?    I once heard Michael Morpurgo talk about why he hated school.  He said he was always told off for looking out the window.    “But why”, he said, “that’s where the world is.”    I came across this wonderful poem by education pioneer Loris Malaguzzi.   I think it pretty much sums it up, but the uplifting finale provides inspiration to all of us.

The Hundred Languages of Childhood By Loris Malaguzzi

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

ways of listening

of marvelling of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

A hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way.  The hundred is there.

Why we remember songs not strategies

Rush_2112In the car this morning I listened to an album I haven’t heard for probably 30-odd years (2112 by Rush).   Now, it was great to listen to some vintage Rush after all this time, but what was really striking was the fact that I found myself remembering the words and singing along ( I couldn’t reach Geddy Lee’s pitch but I gave it a good try).   How could I remember the lines of songs I haven’t heard for three decades?   I then turned on the iPod and found myself singing every single line of Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love.     If you asked me to write down the lyrics now I’d struggle to remember the first two lines, but put me in the context of the song itself and it all comes flooding back.    Why is that?   Why do song lyrics stick?

Here, the context is everything.   The human brain holds about one billion neurons, which combine to make over one trillion connections, and each connection helps to store multiple memories.   Our brains prefer to store data in patterns, so music provides a simple, handy ‘package’ of data – words, sounds, tunes, inflexions, tones, narratives etc – which can be stored in pattern form.    Revive the memory of one part of the pattern (the music) and other parts will be retrieved (the lyrics).   Our early ancestors knew this when they told their stories on the savannah.  The ability to pass down traditions, beliefs and knowledge to future generations was vital to preserve the continuity of the tribe, but the spoken word was unreliable and easily forgotten.   If a tradition was to survive over many generations it would need to be ‘packaged’ for passing from one person to another in a more reliable way – say through a powerful visual image, a story or a song.    So tribes would develop chants involving alliterations, repetitions and rhymes that could be easily remembered and repeated.   This tactic of preserving knowledge and tradition is still employed by aboriginal tribes in Australia and others around the world.

So those of us in the business of getting messages to stick have surely found the answer – put the company strategy to music?   Well, don’t laugh because some companies have done it, but it doesn’t have to be quite as drastic as that.   Music does tell us something about the way we remember and how we can exploit our brain’s fondness for connections.   I’m reminded of a story I was told many years ago on a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) workshop….

The annual sales conference of a struggling photocopier company was fast approaching.   Sales performance was dire and managers were seriously worried about morale.  A rival company had recently introduced an all-singing all-dancing photocopier that simply blew away all competition.  It was beautiful, sleek and hi-tech … and most sales reps knew the game was up.  They couldn’t possibly compete with this new kid on the block.    What could managers do to avoid next week’s sales conference from turning into a wake?   The day arrived.   The hall was full of depressed, worried and vanquished reps.   They were expecting a kicking.  Or the chop.    The lights went down.  The dry ice came up.   Two men in brown coats wheeled something onto the stage covered in a sheet.    The spotlight shone brightly as the sheet was pulled away to reveal …… the competitor’s photocopier.   There in all its glory, shining brightly, beautiful.    The crowd sat in silence, dumbstruck that here in front of them was the very cause of their depression.  How could the company do such a thing?    Suddenly, at full volume, the hall fills with the first few bars of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.    More brown-coated men walk on carrying (you’ve guessed it) sledgehammers.    The first blow is struck as plastic and metal flies off in all directions.   Then another and another.    As the music gets even louder, the sledgehammersledgehammers rain down on their prey.   The pristine photocopier is now a tangled, battered mess.   The crowd are on their feet.  Some jump on their chairs pumping the air.   The atmosphere is febrile.  At the end of the song, the hammerers slowly walk off, leaving the shattered shell of the competition for all to see.    There’s a pause.    The crowd are excited.    Then the boss walks on, kicking a piece of debris in his path and says to the assembled reps “so, how do you feel?”.     He explains that underneath each of their chairs is a cassette tape and that he’d like them to play it in their cars when they’re out on the road.  It only contains one song, on both sides.   Of course, it’s Sledgehammer.    In the following months, the company’s reps beat all previous sales records.  The company survives and ultimately prospers.

So this is an example of anchoring.   Using a song or a mental image to bring back a memory and catalyze action.   Powerful stuff.   Messages are more likely to stick if they can be attached to a pattern, or ‘schema’.    Think of one thing and it triggers a connection and revives another memory.   Our challenge is to be creative in how we set those patterns, package the message and anchor the experience.    Music and business – not obvious bedfellows but maybe we have something to learn here?