Archive for July, 2015

All Your Mental Models are Obsolete

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Even after playing lots of tricks to reduce its energy consumption, our brains still consume a large portion of the calories we eat.  Like today’s smartphones it’s computing power is too big for it’s battery so its algorithms conserve every chance they get.  One of its go-to conservation strategies is to make mental models.  The models capture the essence of a system’s behavior without the overhead of retaining all the details of the system.

And as the brain goes about its day it tries to fit what it sees to its portfolio of mental models.  Because mental models are so efficient, to save juice the brain is pretty loose with how it decides if a model fits the situation.  In fact the brain doesn’t do a best fit, it does a first fit. Once a model is close enough, the model is applied, even if there’s a better one in the archives.

Overall, the brain does a good job.  It looks at a system and matches it with a model of a similar system it experienced in the past.  But behind it all the brain is making a dangerous assumption.  The brain assumes all systems are static.  And that makes for mental models that are static.  And because all systems change over time (the only thing we can argue about is the rate of change) the brain’s mental models are always out of date.

Over the years your brain as made a mental model of how your business works – customers do this, competitors do that, and markets do the other.  But by definition that mental model is outdated.  There needs to be a forcing function that causes us to refute our mental models so we can continually refine them. [A good mantra could be – all mental models are out of fashion until proven otherwise.]  But worse than not having a mechanism to refute them, we have a formal business process the demands we converge on our tired mental models year-on-year.  And the name of that wicked process – strategic planning.

It goes something like this. Take a little time from your regular job (though you still have to do all that regular work) and figure out how you’re going to grow your business by a large (and arbitrary) percentage. The plan must be achievable (no pie in the sky stuff), it should be tightly defined (even though everyone knows things are dynamic and the plan will change throughout the year), you must do everything you did last year and more and you have fewer resources than last year.  Any brain in it’s right will fit the old models to the new normal and put the plan together in the (insufficient) time allotted. The planning process reinforces the re-use of old models.

Because the brain believes everything is static, it’s thinking goes like this – a plan based on anything other than the tried-and-true mental models cannot have certainty or predictability in time or resources.  And it’s thinking is right, in part.  But because all mental models are out of date, even plans based on existing models don’t have certainty and predictability.  And that’s where the wheels fall off.

To inject a bit more reality into strategic planning, ignore the tired old information streams that reinforce existing thinking and find new ones that provide information that contradicts existing mental models.  Dig deeply into the mismatch between the new information and the old mental models.  What is behind the difference?  Is the difference limited to a specific region or product line? Is the mismatch new or has it always been there?  The intent of this knee-deep dissection is not to invalidate the old models but to test and refine.

There is infinite detail in the world.  Take a look at a tree and there’s a trunk and canopy. Look at the canopy and see the leaves. Look deeper to see a leaf and its veins.  In order to effectively handle all this detail our brains create patterns and abstractions to reduce the amount of information needed to make it through the day.

In the case of the tree, the word “tree” is used to capture the whole thing – roots and all.  And at a higher level, “tree” can represent almost any type of tree at almost any stage in its life.  The abstraction is powerful because it reduces the complexity, as long as everyone’s clear which tree is which.

The message is this. Our brain takes shortcuts with its chunking of the world into mental models that go out style. And our brain uses different levels of abstraction for the same word to mean different things. Care must be taken to overtly question our mental models and overtly question the level of abstraction used when statements of facts are made.

Knowing what isn’t said is almost important as what is said. To maintain this level of clarity requires calm, centered awareness which today’s pace makes difficult.

There’s no pure cure for the syndrome. The best we can do is to be well-rested and aware. And to do that requires professional confidence and personal disciple.

Slowing down just a bit can be faster, and testing the assumptions behind our business models can be even faster.  Last year’s mental models and business models should be thought of as guilty until proven relevant.  And for that you need to make the time to think.

In today’s world we confuse activity with progress. But really, in today’s dynamic world thinking is progress.

Image credit – eyeliam.

Serious Business

Looking serious in a hatIf you’re serious about your work, you’re too serious.  We’re all too bound up in this life-or-death, gotta-meet-the-deadline nonsense that does nothing but get in the way.

If you’re into following recipes, I guess it’s okay to be held accountable to measuring the ingredients accurately and mixing the cake batter with 110% effort.  When your business is serious about making more cakes than anyone else on the planet, it’s fine to take that seriously.  But if you’re into making recipes, serious doesn’t cut it.  Coming up with new recipes demands the freedom of putting together spices that have never been combined.  And if you’re too serious, you’ll never try that magical combination that no one else dared.

Serious is far different than fully committed and “all in.”  With fully committed, you bring everything you have, but you don’t limit yourself by being too serious.  When people are too serious they pucker up and do what they did last time.  With “all in” it’s just that – you put all your emotional chips on the line and you tell the dealer to “hit.”  If the cards turn in your favor you cash in in a big way.  If you bust, you go home, rejuvenate and come back in the morning with that same “all in” vigor you had yesterday and just as many chips.  When you’re too serious, you bet one chip at a time.  You don’t bet many chips, so you don’t lose many.  But you win fewer.

The opposite of serious is not reckless.  The opposite of serious is energetic, extravagant, encouraging, flexible, supportive and generous.  A culture of accountability is serious.  A culture of creativity is not.

I do not advocate behavior that is frivolous.  That’s bad business.  I do advocate behavior that is daring.  That’s good business.  Serious connotes measurable and quantifiable, and that’s why big business and best practices like serious.  But measurable and quantifiable aren’t things in themselves.  If they bring goodness with them, okay.  But there’s a strong undercurrent of measurable for measurable’s sake.  It’s like we’re not sure what to do, so we measure the heck out of everything.  Daring, on the other hand, requires trust is unmeasurable.  Never in the history of Six Sigma has there been a project done on daring and never has one of its control strategies relied on trust.  That’s because Six Sigma is serious business. Serious connotes stifling, limiting and non-trusting, and that’s just what we don’t need.

Let’s face it, Six Sigma and lean are out of gas.  So is tightening-the-screws management.  The low hanging fruit has been picked and Human Resources has outed all the mis-fits and malcontents.  There’s nothing left to cut and no outliers to eliminate.  It’s time to put serious back in its box.

I don’t know what they teach in MBA programs, but I hope it’s trust.  And I don’t know if there’s anything we can do with all our all-too-serious managers, but I hope we put them on a program to eliminate their strengths and build on their weaknesses.  And I hope we rehire the outliers we fired because they scared all the serious people with their energy, passion and heretical ideas.

When you’re doing the same thing every day, serious has a place.  When you’re trying to create the future, it doesn’t.  To create the future you’ve got to hire heretics and trust them.  Yes, it’s a scary proposition to try to create the future on the backs of rabble-rousers and rebels.  But it’s far scarier to try to create it with the leagues of all-too-serious managers that are running your business today.

Image credit — Alan

Solving Intractable Problems

muddy converseImmediately after there’s an elegant solution to a previously intractable problem, the solution is obvious to others.  But, just before the solution those same folks said it was impossible to solve.  I don’t know if there’s a name for this phenomenon, but it certainly causes hart burn for those brave enough to take on the toughest problems.

Intractable problems are so fundamental they are no longer seen as problems.  Over the years experts simply accept these problems as constraints that must be complied with.   Just as the laws of physics can’t be broken, experts behave as if these self-made constraints are iron-clad and believe these self-build walls define the viable design space.  To experts, there is only viable design space or bust.

A long time ago these problems were intractable, but now they are not.  Today there are new materials, new analysis techniques, new understanding of physics, new measurement systems and new business models.. But, they won’t be solved.  When problems go unchallenged and constrain design space they weave themselves into the fabric of how things are done and they disappear.   No one will solve them until they are seen for what they are.

It takes time to slow down and look deeply at what’s really going on.  But, today’s frantic pace, unnatural fascination with productivity and confusion of activity with progress make it almost impossible to slow down enough to see things as they are.  It takes a calm, centered person to spot a fundamental problem masquerading as standard work and best practice.  And once seen for what they are it takes a courageous person to call things as they are.  It’s a steep emotional battle to convince others their butts have been wet all these years because they’ve been sitting in a mud puddle.

Once they see the mud puddle for what it is, they must then believe it’s actually possible to stand up and walk out of the puddle toward previously non-viable design space where there are dry towels and a change of clothes.  But when your butt has always been wet, it’s difficult to imagine having a dry one.

It’s difficult to slow down to see things as they are and it’s difficult to re-map the territory.   But it’s important.  As continuous improvement reaches the limit of diminishing returns, there are no other options.  It’s time to solve the intractable problems.

Image credit – Steven Depolo

Hands-On or Hands-Off?

Hands-on Hands-offHands-on versus hands-off – as a leader it’s a fundamental choice.  And for me the single most important guiding principle is – do what it takes to maintain or strengthen the team’s personal ownership of the work.

If things are going well, keep your hands off.  This reinforces the team’s ownership and your trust in them.  But it’s not hands-off in and ignore them sense; it’s hands-off in a don’t tell them what to do sense. Walk around, touch base and check in to show interest in the work and avoid interrogation-based methods that undermine your confidence in them.  This is not to say a hands-off leader only superficially knows what’s going on, it should only look like the leader has a superficial understanding.

The hands-off approach requires a deep understanding of the work and the people doing it.  The hands-off leader must make the time to know the GPS coordinates of the project and then do reconnaissance work to identify the positions of the quagmires and quicksand that lay ahead.  The hands-off leader waits patiently just in front of the obstacles and makes no course correction if the team can successfully navigate the gauntlet.  But when the team is about to sink to their waists, leader gently nudges so they skirt the dangerous territory.

Unless, of course, the team needs some learning.  And in that case, the leader lets the team march it’s project into the mud.  If they need just a bit of learning the leader lets them get a little muddy; and if the team needs deep learning, the leader lets them sink to their necks.  Either way, the leader is waiting under cover as they approach the impending snafu and is right beside them to pull them out.  But to the team, the hands-off leader is not out in front scouting the new territory.  To them, the hands-off leader doesn’t pay all that much attention.  To the team, it’s just a coincidence the leader happens to attend the project meeting at a pivotal time and they don’t even recognize when the leader subtly plants the idea that lets the team pull themselves out of the mud.

If after three or four near-drowning incidents the team does not learn or change it’s behavior, it’s time for the hands-off approach to look and feel more hands-on.  The leader calls a special meeting where the team presents the status of the project and grounds the project in the now.  Then, with everyone on the same page the leader facilitates a process where the next bit of work is defined in excruciating detail.  What is the next learning objective? What is the test plan?  What will be measured? How will it be measured?  How will the data be presented?  If the tests go as planned, what will you know?  What won’t you know?  How will you use the knowledge to inform the next experiments? When will we get together to review the test results and your go-forward recommendations?

By intent, this tightening down does not go unnoticed.  The next bit of work is well defined and everyone is clear how and when the work will be completed and when the team will report back with the results.  The leader reverts back to hands-off until the band gets back together to review the results where it’s back to hands-on.  It’s the leader’s judgement on how many rounds of hands-on roulette the team needs, but the fun continues until the team’s behavior changes or the project ends in success.

For me, leadership is always hands-on, but it’s hands-on that looks like hands-off.  This way the team gets the right guidance and maintains ownership.  And as long as things are going well this is a good way to go.  But sometimes the team needs to know you are right there in the trenches with them, and then it’s time for hands-on to look like hands-on.  Either way, its vital the team knows they own the project.

There are no schools that teach this.  The only way to learn is to jump in with both feet and take an active role in the most important projects.

Image credit – Kerri Lee Smith

The Fear of Being Judged

Punk Culture“Here – I made this.”  Those are courageous words.  When you make something no one has made and you show people you are saying to yourself – “I know my work will be judged, but that’s the price of putting myself out there.  I will show my work anyway.”  I think the fear of being judged is enemy number one of creativity, innovation, and living life on your own terms.  If I had ten dollars of courage in my pocket I’d spend it to dampen my fear of being judged.

No one has ever died from the fear of being judged, but right before you show your new work, share your inner feelings or show your true self, is sure feels like you’re going to be the exception.  The fear of being judged is powerful enough to generate self-limiting behavior and sometimes can completely debilitate.  It’s vector of unpleasantness is huge.

At a lower level, the fear of being judged is the fear someone will think of you differently than you want them to.  It’s a fear they’ll label you with a scarlet letter you don’t want to own.  This mismatch is the gradient that drives the fear.  If you reduce the gradient you reduce the fear and the self-censorship.

No one can label you without your consent, and if you don’t consent there is no gradient.  If you think the scarlet letter does not fit you, it doesn’t. No mismatch.  When someone tries to hand you a gift and instead of taking it from them you let it drop to the floor, it’s not your gift.  If you don’t accept their gift there is no gradient.  But there is a gradient because you think the scarlet letter may actually fit and the gift may actually be yours.  You create your fear because you think they may be right.

In the end it’s all about what you think about yourself.  If your behavior is skillful and you know it, you will not accept someone else’s judgment and there’s no fear-fueling gradient .  If your approach is purposefully thoughtful, you will not consent to labeling.  If you know your intentions are true, there can be no external mismatch because there is no internal mismatch.

No one can be 100% skillful, purposeful, thoughtful and intentional.  But directionally, behaving this way will reduce the gradient and the fear.  But the fear will never go away, and that’s why we need courage.  Be skillful and afraid and do it anyway.  Be thoughtful and scared and do what scares you.  Be true to your heart’s intention and just courageous as you need to be to wrestle your fears to the ground.

Image credit – Paul Townsend

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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