Thursday, 29 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Trial, error and the God complex

TEDCEMBER hasn't been going well for the past few days. I've been watching the occasional video, but not finding anything interesting to blog about. I'm happy to say that Tim Harford's talk - Trial, error and the God complex, is an exception.

In Tim's session he describes what he (or a Doctor called Archie Cochrane) termed the God Complex - The absolute infallible belief that you are right, irrespective of the complexity of the problem. I blogged about something related here. Tim argues that our economy and interactions are too complex to understand, predict and control. Instead he suggests we already have a system for solving complex problems - evolution. Variation and selection. Trial and error.

Trial and error should be encouraged within our social, business and political systems. Criteria for success (and the mechanism of measurement) should be decided in advance. Feedback should be sort and acted upon as quickly as possible - the most important discriminator for a successful evolutionary system is the time taken for it to adapt. Most importantly we as individuals must learn to tolerate failure. Not the monumental failure of our government funded IT projects, but the small, correctable failures that enable us to evolve systems that reliably solve problems of a complex nature time and time again.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Why to Believe In Others

Once again I've had to search through several candidates to find a TED talk worth another blog post, and once again I'm not entirely sure I've succeeded. Viktor Frankl's short talk on why to believe in others was funny, but lacked supporting evidence. His argument, that we should be to overestimate our fellow man's potential, because to do otherwise will result in them falling short of it, does hold some sort of truth. It's a common enough tactic to award someone recognition or rank prematurely to motivate them to "step up, but while I've seen this work, I can also imagine it failing. Unfortunately Viktor fails to elaborate on context or guidelines for applying this type of strategy.

Monday, 19 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: A Police Chief With A Difference

I'm not at all satisfied with todays TED talks. I tried at least three before I found one that sparked sufficient interest to be worth a blog post, and even then only just. In "A Police Chief With A Difference", Kiran Bedi talks about how she got a job as Inspector General of Prisons after giving the Indian Prime Minister a parking ticket. The only bit I found worth repeating is her assertion that crime isn't addressed by preaching, it's address by reflection. I wonder whether and this approach can be used to transform people in target driven or otherwise dysfunctional organisations.

TEDCEMBER: Using Our Practical Wisdom

Barry Schwartz's TED talk on practical wisdom didn't throw up anything new, but it's nice to know that other people share my views on target driven behaviour. He also argued the case more clearly than I typically do, so that's at least something I can learn from. Barry starts his talk by expressing that there is a high degree of collective dissatisfaction with how our institutions are run. He's not wrong. If it's not the bankers, it's the politicians, or the police or the press. And don't get me started on the education system or health service.

Depressingly the typical response to these kinds of revelations are more of the very things that cause them in the first place. More rules, more incentives, more targets. The problem with RI&T is that they demotivate, demoralise and distract the skilled professionals who would otherwise be doing a good job, while preventing the incompetent and inadequate from early identification and intervention.

Barry argues that the solution to these problems is the opposite. We need systems that encourage people to demonstrate practical wisdom (the skill and desire to do the right thing) and since this is not how the majority of our institutions are currently organised, we need systems changers and systems thinkers in order to create them. I wholeheartedly agree.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: How To Start A Movement

Today's TED talk by Derek Sivers was fantastic. In 3 minutes and 10 seconds it showed an insight into leadership and the human psyche I had never appreciated. A leader is just a lone nut with the courage to stand out, until he has one follower. The first to follow transforms the lone nut into a leader. The first follower is also an underestimated form of leader. It takes guts to publicly follow a lone nut. When subsequent followers join the movement, they emulate the first follower, not the leader. They don't risk being ridiculed but if they hurry they can still be part of the in crowd, and now the snowball effect really starts to kick in. Eventually the movement gets so big that those late adopters who were afraid of being ridiculed for following the original lone nut now start to feel vulnerable and exposed by not following. That is how you start a movement.

Friday, 16 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Dan Pink contends that the three key ingredients that motivate people to perform cognitive tasks are autonomy, mastery and purpose. I want to learn more about the purpose motivator, so today have been searching for a TED talk to do just that. My first attempt was a waste of time, the second more interesting but not really what I was looking for, the third, Simon Sinek's "How Great Leaders Inspire Action", was right on the money.

Simon proposes that there is a pattern of communication followed by successful leaders, it's the reason why Apple products are so highly desired and why people were inspired by Martin Luther King. Here's the secret. When marketing our products, ideas or selves most of us start with a description of "what", followed by an explanation of "how" and finishing on "why", e.g.
We make great computers. Our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently.
Want to buy one?
Great leaders inspire us by giving the pitch in reverse.
We believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently.The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers.
Want to buy one?
The theory goes that when we pitch a "Why" argument it bypasses the rationalisation part of our brain and gets straight to the part responsible for decision making,  trust and loyalty. When our own views align with of the Why pitch we become pre-disposed to the product. I'm no biologist but this at least passes the sniff tests.

The same argument goes for rallies. People don't go to learn what the speakers have to say, they go for affirmation of what they already believe. Just as those 200,000+ civil rights supporters did from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, we follow leaders when they believe in what we believe.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


Everyone deserves a break once in a while. Today I picked a TED talk I thought would be funny, intending to blog about something else. It's too good to go unmentioned. Next time you have 5.07 minutes to spare and are in need of a pick me up, it's well worth a watch.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Optical Illusions Show How We See

Today I watched Beau Lotto's TED talk on how we see. I learnt that we see things differently depending on the context of what we're looking at and depending on what we've previously looked at. There are all sorts of parallels I could draw regarding how context and prior experience affect perception, but I suspect they'd be pretty thin straw men. You can probably tell I didn't find this talk overly inspiring.

Monday, 12 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: What happens when an NGO admits failure

Failure is a common theme within Agile projects - we understand the value in failing fast and early. The most effective teams operate in an environment where failure is accepted. To do otherwise leads to undesirable behaviour, failures are hidden, learning opportunities are lost, people avoid responsibility, less work gets done. In today's TED talk David Damberger discusses the failure of aid organisations and in particular the Canadian Engineers without Borders programme, so I was keen to see how his organisation treats the subject.

I'm happy to say the answer is with maturity. EWB Canada now publish an annual report and have set up a website where other organisations can openly discuss failure. It wasn't always so. David explains that the driving force came from the engineers themselves, they had to push their management hard to make it happen.

Think about this for a second. 100% of the rain collection systems David put in place in India had failed after 1.5 years due to inadequate maintenance and availability of spare parts. Another gravity fed water system suffered over 50% failure for the same reason. When he spoke to other engineers they had similar stories. The Canadian EWB management team initially preferred to hide this information rather than publish it, even though this would lead to other engineering teams making the same mistakes, wasting both the engineer's generously donated time and supporter's generously donated funds. Worse that this it would have resulted in inadequate solutions for those they were claiming to help.

The issue of hiding or punishing failure is systemic in organisations today. It needs to stop. Congratulations to David for taking a stand.

TEDCEMBER: The Danger of a Single Story

Today I watched Chimamanda Adichie, talk about the danger of a single story. It was well presented, effectively delivered but didn't resonate with me, and didn't need to be 20 minutes long. Her point, that when we have only one story of a person or people, that we create a stereotype that while not incorrect is incomplete; that when a person or organisation is powerful or predominant we have a  much wider set of stories told from different perspectives creating a more accurate representation, all seems so obvious it doesn't need to be said. I checked the comments and I'm in the minority. Maybe I'm missing something.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: 3 Ways The Brain Creates Meaning

Today I watched Tom Wujec talking about how our brains turn information into meaning. I wish he'd spoken for longer, as the subject has more direct relevance to building successful products than any of the TED talks I've watched so far. The reason? It gave me the why. Why we should have walls dedicated to our product roadmap. Why we shouldn't limit ourselves to story cards but include photos, drawings, diagrams, maps and faces. Especially faces.

Why are faces so important? Well it turns out that our brain has approximately 30 areas that process visual information in parallel to form a multi-dimensional mental model. Tom's talk touches three of these. The Ventral Stream - our "what" detector (the part of our brain that puts a name to shapes). The Dorsal Stream, which locates objects in a physically embodied space and the Limbic System which causes emotional reactions. It's the part of your brain that causes you to go "aww" when you see a puppy.

The more dimensions we use when we describe a product, the richer our mental model will be, the quicker and more accurately we'll understand it, the more engaged we'll be while exploring it, the more ideas we'll generate and ultimately the more creative and imaginative the product will be. Faces are important, because like puppies they trigger emotional responses. So product walls should have imagery of people expressing delight, love and even loss, snowboarding in Canada or drinking cocktails in Barbados. A far cry from the the dull, perfectly aligned, text only 6x4 white index cards we see in most SCRUM backlogs.

The good news is there are a further 23 of Tom's videos here. I guess I know what I'm doing in January.

TEDCEMBER: Don't regret regret

I've been eyeing today's TED talk for a while and wasn't disappointed. In Kathryn Schulz's session on not regretting regret, we learn that regret requires both imagination and choice. The more opportunity we can see for a better outcome the greater our regret will be. This is why we regret missing a flight by 3 minutes more than if we miss it by 20, - it's more likely we could have done something to affect the outcome.

The things we most regret are our choices with regards to education, career, romance and parenting. This is probably because these things are difficult to remedy. Our response to regret is surprisingly primitive.

  1. Denial (I wish it hadn't happened)
  2. Bewilderment (I can't believe I was that stupid)
  3. Punishment (I could kick myself)
They are also perseverative - i.e. we keep repeating them over and over. My guess that this is an evolutionary trait from when making any mistake twice was far more risky than it is today.

To appease these unpleasant feelings of regret Kathryn suggests the following coping mechanisms:

  1. Find other people with the same regret - the example she gives is Goggling for regret+tattoo, you'll find 17 million other people with far worse tattoos than yours.
  2. To laugh at yourself
  3. Give it time
She leaves the fourth mechanism to her conclusion - rationalisation (a.k.a. spin). Focus on the positives, and if there aren't any, to remind ourselves that we should feel pain when things go wrong, to ensure we make better choices in future. 

I don't disagree with any of this, but on the occasions when I feel regret and the rationalisation engine kicks in, it usually allows me to move on, but I'm left with a nagging feeling that I've conned myself. There is however a more effective remedy. Empathy. We can empathise with ourselves just as we an empathise with others. So the next time you feel profound regret for your actions, ask yourself what need you were trying to meet when you took your decisions. It's not necessarily an easy thing to explain so I'll finish with an example.

About nine months ago I ran an evening session on behavioural driven development at SkillsMatter. It was the fourth time I'd delivered the presentation, but I hadn't dusted it off for a while so had taken the day of the event off to prepare. About a week prior I was invited to take part in a strategy day for one of my clients. I really like and respect the people at this company and felt honoured to be included. Unfortunately the date clashed with day of the presentation, meaning I would have less time to prepare. I accepted the invitation, and as a result the session was below par. Worst of all the video is available for all to see.

I regret that I didn't prepare properly, that I was lacklustre and that the audience didn't get as much from the presentation as they otherwise would have done. I've certainly learnt a good lesson, but knowing this doesn't make me feel any better. What does help is thinking about the need that I was satisfying by attending the strategy day - my need to spend time with people that I care about, respect and admire. When I remind myself of this, the discomfort associated with the regret vanishes instantly, which is why I believe self empathy is the most effective coping mechanism for dealing with regret.

Friday, 9 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Make Something Good Out Of Something Bad

It's already 01:00 and I have a 06:42 train to catch tomorrow. Unsurprisingly my only criteria for today's TED talk was that it had to be short, and short it was, but even then (excusably) light on content as the presenter, David Hoffman had lost his house and a large portion of his life's work in a fire. Rather than mope he's been sifting through the charred remains and making a film about them because he was taught as a kid,
"You gotta make something good out of something bad."
 I have a feeling this blog post is so bad there's no good to be had. Apart from that I get to go to bed now. gn.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: How many lives can you live?

Today's TED talk by Sarah Kay turned out to be a break from my preferred theme of psychology. In it Sarah describes her childhood desire to live multiple lives (a princess, a ballerina and an astronaut), her disappointment when she realised we only get to live one life and her solution of immersing herself in other peoples stories. The talk (and poetry) were utterly absorbing, and reminded me of three things:

1. Scott Adams (Dilbert cartoonist) suggests the secret of his success not that he's in the top 1% of cartoonists, or top 1% of public speakers, but that because he's in the top 1% of public speakers who are also cartoonists. He's essentially living two lives. I believe USPs are the same thing. To attempt to differentiate ourselves or our organisations on a single USP is unrealistic for 99% of us at least. Easier to find a combination of things that make us unique and attractive even if it narrows our target market.

2. When designing a new product, IDEO form a product team of people with different skills and backgrounds with a flat structure and encouragement for wild ideas (there's a video of their process here). I would like to see backlogs and software prototypes designed this way. The more points of view initially on offer the better. The reality is often the opposite, with a small number of stakeholders, negotiating requirements via a business proxy, and little direct input from end users, development, ops etc.

3. I really should catch up with the guys at Ditto. They run a similar event to TED called campfire. The stories are always great, but what I most enjoy is meeting other attendees. Coming from an IT background it's incredibly refreshing to be amongst actors and musicians, people with significantly different lives and stories.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Carl Honore Praises Slowness

Back in the day, I remember queueing in the rain for cinema tickets. The theatre usually had two films to choose from and if the queue was large, no guarantee that you would get to see either of them. Once tickets had been secured, there was a queue for confectionery, a queue for admission, a 'B' movie, an intermission (with adverts and ice-cream), then finally the main feature. If you couldn't get to the cinema before the feature was pulled, there was no Internet, Satellite, Cable, Blu-Ray, DVD or even VHS to fall back to. Your only hope was that in about five years time one of the four terrestrial channels might put it on as a Christmas movie so you could watch it on the mono, low def, goldfish bowel that passed for TV. As retrospectively painstaking as the cinema going experience was the combination of risk and anticipation meant it was far more exciting than the conveyor belt one we have today. This was the subject of today's TED talk, which kicks off with the soundbite,
"These days instant gratification takes too long"
Carl's point is we're constantly rushing, and that rushing may not be good for us. It may not even bring about the results we want. As example he recalls feeling impatient when reading to his son, the discovery of a book of one minute bedtime stories, and how it takes more than one minute for a child to feel secure enough to tell you about the problems they have had that day at school.

It's an important lesson for businesses too. The systems we work within require slack, not 100% utilisation. Without slack we not only suffer burn out, but there's little scope for continuous improvement. When our brains are actively focused on the job in hand the best we can do is make the existing system more efficient, but for the creative thinking necessary for radical improvement we need downtime.

TEDCEMBER: Daniel Goleman on Compassion

I'm interested in compassion because it's a powerful intrinsic motivator so I picked Daniel Goleman's TED talk on Compassion for todays blog post. In summary, studies show that when we stop focusing on ourselves and pay attention to other people, we're more likely to feel compassions. I was hoping for something more insightful.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Obstacles Are Springboards

Staying with the "limits" theme I watched Amy Purdy's "Living beyond limits" talk today. It was in a similar vein to Caroline Casey's session and just as inspiring. The key message I learnt from Amy is that we should treat our obstacles as opportunities for imagination and creativity. They are springboards to push off, not walls to push against. 

TEDCEMBER: Looking Past Limits

Today's (yesterday's) TED talk was by Caroline Casey and entitled Looking Past Limits. Caroline has a surprise that I won't spoil for you. It's a brave talk that's extremely personal, honest, inspiring and engaging. A reminder to make any presentation personal.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

TED Talk every day in December

Quite often someone sends me a link to a blog, podcast or video that they've found interesting. It's usually while I'm at work, or otherwise engaged. I archive the email and promptly forget all about it, which is a shame. I'm missing out, so I've decided to address the situation. It seems November was the month for doing "something" every day. Writing poems, novels, growing moustaches or video blogging. I've always been a bit late to the party so instead I'm going to watch a TED talk every day in December, then blog about it. Starting with this one...

According to Matt the benefits are surprising. 30 days is the right amount of time to form a habit (or lose one), and by repeating the process each month with a different challenge, your self confidence grows and you become more adventurous. Small changes are apparently more sustainable than big ones. The video was short and sweet - only 3m 37s.

Already looking forward to tomorrow.