Category Archives: Neuroscience

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.

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.

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?

Why too much choice gets us nowhere

foxI’ve had my head in some neuroscience books over the holidays.   One of the areas I’m currently interested in is what happens to us when we have choices to make.   I’m sure we all instinctively feel that choice is a good thing – the ability to choose gives us empowerment, helps us to tolerate adversity and makes us feel in control.  We value the ability to make choices in our lives and can only imagine how unbearable it must be to be stuck without options, to have no way out.   Psychologists have proven that we feel better when we have choices in our lives.   We even enjoy a meal more if there is choice on the menu.   Those of us growing up in affluent developed nations take our ability to choose for granted.  And no better is this choice-fest demonstrated than in the way we consume information.    I’m old enough to have grown up with only three channels on the telly (in black and white when I was really young) for part of my childhood.     I remember getting excited by Ceefax when it first came out because I could read the news or get the footy scores on the TV without having to wait until the allotted bulletin.   Now look.   The internet and other technologies have opened up a whole new world of choice at our fingertips, and we internal communicators try to replicate this choice with integrated channels, message frameworks and layered content.   We fall over ourselves to gather feedback and opinions, we ask people to complete surveys and we encourage them to tell us what they prefer so we can meet their needs.  Of course, it feels right to do that, because giving people choice makes them more engaged.

But there is a downside to choice, as Aesop’s famous fable of the fox and the cat demonstrates.   Faced with a pack of snarling hunting dogs about to bear down on them, the two animals need to escape.  For the cat it’s an easy decision to make, and he bolts up a tree.  But the cunning fox, blessed with all his knowledge of the various escape options, becomes paralyzed by indecision and falls prey to the dogs.    With too many choices on offer, he suffered from analysis paralysis.     This ‘paradox of choice’ confronts many of use every day.  How often have you stood in a supermarket aisle trying to choose between the 250 varieties of biscuits on offer?   I heard on the radio the other day that most people don’t bother to change their gas and electricity supplier because there’s ‘too much choice’.    Psychologist Barry Schwartz says that the more choices we are given, the less ‘free’ we become because we procrastinate in trying to make the best decision.   So it seems that, while choice is a positive force for good, too much of it can be detrimental.   Bringing it back into our world, I sometimes believe that we are in danger of ‘over-engaging’ our people.   I know some companies that complete their annual staff survey, publish the results and then go back out to re-survey the same audience to ask what they meant and what should be done next!   Sometimes people just want to be asked once and then they expect action.   We can over-do this choice thing because we’re worried about being accused of not engaging with our people.   But sometimes we need the cat not the fox.

The ‘F’ word we just can’t talk about

At the base of your brain are too small almond-shaped organs called the amygdalas.  They sit deep in what’s known as the limbic system, the oldest part of our brain in terms of our evolution – the part that houses our most basic, instinctive and animalistic impulses and reactions.   Our amygdalas play a crucial role in controlling our emotions, especially fear.  They jump into action when we face any sort of threat – like a rampaging bull, a man with a gun or, er, a change programme.    When it comes to stress and anxiety, our amygdalas have a lot to answer for.   The trouble is, like the rest of the limbic brain, our amygdalas can’t answer for anything.   You see, the part of our brain that controls our feelings (good and bad) has no capacity for language.   Language, reasoning, planning and other conscious thought processes originate from the newest part of the brain – the neocortex (which is unique to mammals) or more specifically from the prefrontal cortex – the development of which puts (most of) us humans beyond the apes.    There are two reasons why this is important for communicators.   Firstly, it explains why people react instinctively to change.   When confronted with a threat – as complex changes at work could be perceived – it’s our instinctive limbic system that reacts first and generates stress.    Whilst the organisation is saying “we’d like to give you some details about the change programme” our amygdalas are waving their arms in the air shouting “run away, run away”.   Or “stand up and fight” if you’re that way inclined.    The human survival system kicks in and our behaviour becomes more irrational and unpredictable.   Or predictably unpredictable in some ways.    We might deliver award-winning, well crafted, meticulously planned and clinically executed comms but still find our audience feeling uncertain, disengaged and stressed to bits.   And that’s the key word – FEELING.    How do people FEEL when we ask them to change?  How do they FEEL when they find out they might lose their job?   How do they FEEL when they can’t ask questions?   How do they FEEL when no-one sits opposite them and asks them how they are?   It’s why good change managers (and change communicators) take account of both the hard and soft elements of the transformation.   Ironically, most organisations tend to be better at the hard, logical, practical stuff and not so good at the soft, emotional, behavioural side of change.   It’s the soft bit that’s actually hard.    Unfortunately, our ability to understand the answer to how people feel is hampered by the second reason why this stuff is important.   People can’t tell us how they really feel.    If you’re a parent, how would you put into words the love you have for your children?   If you play sport, how would you describe the feeling of winning?   If you’ve recently had a great holiday, how would you explain that sunset that took your breath away?    Hard isn’t it?   It’s why Olympic gold medallists – when asked how they feel – often say “I can’t describe it” or simple “unbelievable”.   We can’t describe why we love people –  we just do!   It’s because the part of the brain that deals with feelings doesn’t do language.   There’s a disconnect.   It’s also why we sometimes just feel a decision is the right one, without being able to explain why.   It’s why we refer to ‘gut reactions’.   My rational prefrontal cortex may say one thing, but my stomach FEELS something else.   Scientific evidence seems to suggest that ‘gut feel’ decisions made in seconds are often better than those taken after hours of rational analysis.   The advice to “go with what you feel” can often produce the best results.    In comms-speak, it’s why our first draft is usually the best one.   All of this puts effective change communication even higher up the agenda of must-haves for successful organisational change.    By understanding what people go through and anticipating how they may feel we can play our part in softening the impact of the change – controlling those screaming amygdalas!    We can put extra effort into explaining the ‘reason why’, we can manage the expectations of our leaders, we can train our line managers to provide support and empathy, we can take steps to address questions quickly, we can bring people together, we can help them articulate how they feel, we can time our messages to better reflect where people are on the change curve, we can use language that reflects their emotions.   When I run change comms workshops, I must use the ‘f’ word – FEEL – a hundred times.  I keep stressing it because I think it’s important.  I can’t explain why. I just do.

Why your next team meeting should be up a hill

I have a t-shirt on which is printed the slogan “Better a rainy day on a hill than a sunny day in the office”.    OK, it’s not going to win awards for originality but the sentiment appeals to my love of the outdoors and of hill-walking in particular (I’m working my way through the 214 fells in the Lake District – part of my rather obsessive blokey love of lists.  I reached 63 at the weekend).   Anyway, I blogged a few months ago about the healing powers of the outdoors – a scientific phenomenon called biophilia – and how we humans are predisposed to be attracted to wild places as a cure for stress and anxiety.   But it seems there is some evidence in neuroscience that a good walk can make you more creative.    The thing is, thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time – hundreds, thousands of them come and go, some stay around for a while others pop in and out in seconds.   We can’t possibly evaluate and connect up the infinite number of thoughts, memories and hunches that fire away in our brain at any one time.   Great ideas and insights come when neurons, or thoughts, collide and a connection is made.   One way to increase the chances of that happening is to ‘free your mind’ (stay with me, I’m not going all hippy) by removing yourself from the day-to-day tasks of normal living, changing your environment and avoiding the physical stimuli that would normally drive your thinking – the office, TV, bills, the in-tray, email, newspapers, internet.      Some of the greatest innovations in history have come from ideas that have appeared when the thinker is not actively ‘on the job’, like in the shower, in the bath (in Archimedes case), on a walk or when reading a book on a totally unrelated subject.    In his best-seller ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, Steven Johnson recounts the story of French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare, who suffered a distinct lack of ideas while sitting at his desk one day, so he went for a stroll and found that “ideas rose in crowds”.   In his autobiography, Poincare tries to explain the sensation using an analogy of atoms hooked to a wall, stuck in some form of logical configuration when the mind is consciously addressing the subject (or problem) at hand.   But when the environment changes, and the brain is ‘resting’, the physical action of walking literally loosens the atoms and shakes them from the wall, flashing them in every direction, where they collide and lead to connections (and possibly new ideas) that would otherwise never have occurred.   We sometimes call this serendipity – the apparent random connection of thoughts and ideas when we’re least expecting them.    Many organisations already offer ‘creative spaces’ where teams and individuals can go to brainstorm ideas and ‘be creative’.   These will often have brightly coloured walls, bean bags, some toys and the odd rubber chicken.  Nothing wrong with that (although some ‘innovation rooms’ I’ve seen leave a lot to be desired) but in my view they don’t go far enough.   To go further, you need to go further.    Go for a team walk.    Arrange a hike up a hill or alongside a river, talking and debating as you walk.   I’m always amazed at the ideas I come up with while I’m struggling up a thigh-burning incline or walking along a ridge at 3,000 feet.    I’m thinking of starting up a company offering facilitated idea workshops ‘on the move’.   Mmmm, I like that idea –  take a team up a hill to solve a problem.   Not only would they probably come up with some great ideas, but they’d bond like never before and feel better as a result.   This needs some more thought … where are my walking boots?

Why optimism comes naturally

Just back from a week’s holiday in the sun to find my blog had over 500 hits from more than 20 countries last week, so thanks everyone for visiting.  Anyway, I’m feeling refreshed, energised and looking ahead to the Olympics. But it seems that’s not the case with everyone.  According to the latest poll, 53% of the UK public aren’t interested in the Olympics.  I just don’t believe that.  Who are these grumpy cynics anyway? (don’t answer that, I really don’t care). I also read yesterday that most business leaders in the UK are sceptical of the official figures that show Britain in a double-dip recession, claiming that the drop in unemployment and their own order books suggest we’re not in recession at all, and that this run of downbeat official statistics is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what’s going on? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Well, as it happens, I’ve just read a book about optimism. Apparently, we humans are hardwired to look on the bright side (no, really). But whilst we tend to be optimistic about our own futures, we also tend to be pessimistic about everyone else’s! The difference is in the choice and control we have in our own lives. Ask people how they rate their driving ability and most people will rate themselves in the upper quartile. Ask people to rate the likelihood of them getting a serious disease, like cancer, and they will usually put themselves below the national average.  Most people will rate themselves high for their ability to ‘get along with others’. Most people believe their children will do better than the national average at school.  Most people underestimate their chance of losing their job. But most of us can’t be better than most of us, right? Our inherent optimism bias comes down to the way our brain works and how we feel psychologically about the choices we make. Here’s an example. Researchers asked volunteers to rate a number of paintings out of ten. They then picked two paintings that were rated the same (say, 8 out of 10) and asked the participant to pick one to take home. They could only have one, so the volunteer would have to choose between two paintings he previously rated the same. Let’s say the participant chose painting A and rejected painting B. The researchers then asked the same volunteer to re-rate all ten paintings again. This time, the participant (in almost every case) would rate the painting they chose (A) higher and the one they rejected (B) lower, even though they rated them equally the first time.  The study proved the psychological impact of choice. If we choose something, we tend to value it higher. If we don’t feel we have control – like running the finances of the country – we tend to be pessimistic, but if we do have control – running the finances of our own family – we are more upbeat. Now bring this into the workplace. Why are people often cynical and pessimistic about change programmes or delivering on corporate objectives? Usually it’s because they’ve seen previous goals and change programmes fail to deliver and because they’re not personally in control. Give them greater choice and a reason to believe and their natural optimism will kick in. Maybe we should do more to set choices out for the workforce – we could do things this way or that way – and let them have more of a stake in the decision? Companies who have given their employees the choice of taking a pay cut and avoiding redundancies or maintaining current pay levels and cutting the workforce have actually seen their productivity and engagement go up when the employees have been involved in the decision (usually to take the pay cut). Maybe we should thank people more for choosing to work for the organisation?  Optimism can be a powerful factor in business.  Optimists are more productive, more creative and more fun to be around.   They live longer as well.   This isn’t just about employee engagement, this is biology.