Category Archives: Optimism

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.

The future’s not what it used to be

Homo_ErectusIt all started somewhere around 100,000 years ago.  For more than a million years, our early human ancestors had used tools like spears and hand axes.  They had begun to communicate through basic language or signs, build shelters, cook food and kill large animals.   But these early hominids didn’t really ‘progress’.    Despite having brains the same size as modern humans, their tools hadn’t evolved in thousands of years, there was no cultural advancement and no technological breakthrough.  And then it happened.

Human beings started to do something to and with each other than began to build ‘collective intelligence’.   Matt Ridley takes up the story in his wonderfully positive book The Rational Optimist:  “They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals – to share, swap, barter and trade.  The effect of this was to cause specialisation, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation, which led to more exchange … and progress was born.”   Having seen no tool innovation for hundreds of thousands of years, suddenly new technologies gathered pace, thanks to specialisation.   Our ancestors realised that they didn’t have to do everything themselves.   I could specialise in making cutting edge bone heads for spears, while you in the neighbouring community make needles.   I could catch antelope and you could catch fish.  Then we’ll swap.   Ridley again:  “Collaboration between unrelated strangers seems to be a uniquely human achievement. In no other species can two individuals who have never met exchange goods and services to the benefit of each other.”   When researchers tried to get monkeys to barter over the years, the experiments always ended in violence.

So humans developed through increased specialisation, leading to faster innovation.   It was, as philosopher Adam Smith described in the 18th century, the division of labour in all its glory.  But what made our ancestors take those steps in the first place?   To deal with a stranger you need to be polite, to co-operate and show trust.  How did that come about?   Did the answer lie in our unique ability to smile – a small but powerful gesture of trust?   Who knows.   Whatever it was, it worked.   And we have those African hominids to thank for a world in which we can trade all over the world (from kidney beans to kidneys) and share our movements, our thoughts, our photos, our knowledge, our donations, our recommendations and our ancestry with fellow human beings across the planet.   And this willingness – and ability – to share and collaborate is getting stronger with every generation, leading to who-knows-what innovation is lying round the corner.

At the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, when experts were asked to state which invention was most likely to have the biggest impact on the 20th century, nobody mentioned the motor car or the telephone.   Even our generation cannot comprehend what innovation lies ahead and what technologies will be commonplace in the next century.   Increasing specialisation will see to it that work – and the workplace – will continue to evolve and adapt and innovate, but one thing we can be sure of is that the future will be collaborative and organic.   And that’s where we communicators need to pay heed, in my opinion.   We can’t keep trying to manage top-down.    History shows that when organisations get too big, innovation and engagement suffers, in the same way that economic progress suffers when governments try to control too much.   We have to allow the next generation workforce to co-create the communication and innovation – to apply their own specialism.    It means pulling back, empowering, encouraging and empathising.    It means smiling more.   We should concentrate on the meat and let someone else do the fish.   As Matt Ridley says:  “The world is turning bottom-up.  The top-down years are at an end.”

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.