Hit the Attention Button


I spent New Year’s Eve at the local hospital emergency department with She Who Shall Remain Anonymous (SWSRA). She was suffering from a debilitating medical condition which was, fortunately, non-life threatening. She is also a nurse and so has some knowledge of the best treatment for her very occasional incidents and that led us to ring in the New Year in bed 10 of the ED.

Shortly after admission, during initial diagnoses and triage She passed out and this spooked the young nurse attending Her. I was aware of similar occasions in the past and remained calm which allowed me to watch the situation unfold. I could see the surprise on the nurse’s face and she reached over and pressed the red Emergency Button on the wall above the bed.

Immediately a collection of ED nurses and doctors came running in. The degree of focused attention which they all brought to bear for the next 60 or so seconds was palpable. I could see them sizing up the situation based on the limited information available, making observations and processing the patterns from their years of experience. Whenever one of the doctors or nurses did something – calling Her name, shaking Her, etc. all of the other attendees focused on Her response. She quickly revived, the young nurse apologised to the other staff for raising the alarm, and the scene cleared.

In that short period of time I watched a number of people bring years of experience to bear and, I think most importantly, focused all of their attention on the scene – they were ‘fully present’. No one was wondering whether they needed to pick up some milk on the way home, or what the last text message might have said or whether they should complain about the Christmas bonus. The ability to focus attention is not unique to medical emergencies – I see it across all emergency services and many of the armed forces. While emergencies are often life-threatening, they are usually not life-threatening to the practitioner attending. Self preservation is not the driver for the attention which is brought to bear – it is a skill which is developed through application and experience in order to achieve the best outcome under the circumstances.

Attention and focus are also key skills for anyone working in an organisation that is looking improve responsiveness and resilience to unexpected threats and opportunities.

In my own work trying to help people deal with complex situations, I find that outside of emergency services, attention and focus remain a major hurdle. Despite most people’s stated intent of caring about performance improvement or outcomes or fulfilling accountable roles, they are rarely ‘fully present’. A crisis can be useful catalyst to encourage these skills, but a crisis is viewed as an exception and there is no business case for developing skills which are only used in exceptional circumstances.

I do see some very early recognition (or maybe I am just meeting the same niche audience that’s always been there) that attention and focus are useful skills in general – not just during a crisis. The ’emergency’ which impacted SWSRA may have looked like a crisis to the junior nurse, but to the more experienced attendees it was a normal event. If it was a real crisis, the more experienced attendees would have stepped up to another level of focus again.

The message here is the skill of applying attention and focus is not that of an on/off switch – it is an ability to be aware and apply different levels appropriate to the situation. Unfortunately, in many organisations, people do not appreciate the opportunities and threats which are present in a situation and therefore devote little to no attention.

In order to adapt to an increasingly complex environment, we need to be more observant and better able to attend to the dynamics of situations.

Exercise the unexpected.

Learning from Disaster Stories

A blog in HBR yesterday by Dan McGinn featured an interview with the author of a new book about an accident in a harbour tunnel and a discussion of what ‘disaster lit’ teaches about decision making and risk management.

In the interview, are range of risk and learning related concepts are discussed including war-games, repetition, and inherent falibility.

Maybe the blog writer was just trying to find some more interesting, and HBR audience related, issues to link with the book’s promotion. To me, the question about learning from disaster wasn’t really addressed. None the less, the scatter of ideas was a useful indication of the range of thinking that I come across in the risk / preparedness / learning communities.

If anything, the thing that someone ‘learns’ by reading a good narrative about an accident or disaster is to open their mind to the extent that a seemingly well managed environment can turn into chaos – often exacerbated by a collection of well intentioned, though narrowly focused, small decisions.

The book’s author, Neil Swidey, suggests that one thing he ‘learned’ through his research was how much more likely we are to make mistakes that can lead to accidents when we are tired or overwhelmed by extreme conditions.

Both of these examples are general insights and people never ‘learn’ a general insight or principle without some direct experience of the application of it. Even when you experience it once, it’s difficult to show some positive evidence of ‘lessons learnt’.

The most successful approach to ‘learning’ discussed in the article describes the ‘ton of simulations’ which NASA employed to train astronauts and mission control. Such simulations allowed the participants to apply skills in innovative ways and become more adept at responding to challenges through a disciplined application of procedures. This kind of experience helps people to internalise general principles and also find new principles through the patterns that arise over continued practice.

Think about your last training course – how much of it involved listening to narratives about generalisations? When you were tasked to apply a new skill, how realistic was the context?

The more you exercise your skills in a variety of situations, even simulated situations, the more prepared you are to adapt and respond to challenges when they arise. If you can achieve this across your team,  your next incident won’t provide any fodder for ‘disaster lit’.

Training for an unknown future = 70+20+10+?

Impact Challenges

ExpectedLearningI’m currently developing a new product which aims to blend the insights that come from  scenario based discussion exercises with the kind of learning and retention associated with a regular exercise regime – aka muscle memory.

While this work has allowed me to continue to pursue interests in behaviour, decision support, knowledge and cognition, it has also re-introduced me to the world of training and learning systems and it’s been interesting for me to see how practices have evolved over the past 20 or so years.

When I last played in this space, I was influenced by things like ‘Cognition in the Wild‘, artificial intelligence, knowledge management and distributed cognition. Training was an extension of my engineered sense of the world – teaching people how things work. This mindset drove my work founding companies and building products to improve business processes and ‘solve’ management problems with management methodologies…

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Training for an unknown future = 70+20+10+?

ExpectedLearningI’m currently developing a new product which aims to blend the insights that come from  scenario based discussion exercises with the kind of learning and retention associated with a regular exercise regime – aka muscle memory.

While this work has allowed me to continue to pursue interests in behaviour, decision support, knowledge and cognition, it has also re-introduced me to the world of training and learning systems and it’s been interesting for me to see how practices have evolved over the past 20 or so years.

When I last played in this space, I was influenced by things like ‘Cognition in the Wild‘, artificial intelligence, knowledge management and distributed cognition. Training was an extension of my engineered sense of the world – teaching people how things work. This mindset drove my work founding companies and building products to improve business processes and ‘solve’ management problems with management methodologies and IT systems. At the time, organisations were adopting the first big wave of large enterprise integrated IT systems and there was a lot of effort being made to describe the way the organisation worked in terms that could be supported by the IT system.

My experience came from training environments where it was taken as a given that the organisation would work according to policies, processes, methodologies and ‘best practices’ and that the systems would reflect that. Given these assumptions, a more structured environment could be established to ‘manage knowledge’. The companies and products I was involved in at the time were and continue to be moderately successful serving a customer base which still holds on to this view.

Over time however, I found that most organisations failed to make much use of these structured systems views after a new management system was implemented. Life tended to return to the messy world of ambiguity, cultural influences and self motivated behaviours.

After 5 years involvement in large organisation transformation work, I began to understand that messy was normal and could see that high performance came from teams which could be disciplined about being flexible. Being able to adapt to changing circumstances and developing a deeper general management capability which blended specific skills into a more holistic approach to problem solving and delivering outcomes.

In the past few months I’ve re-engaged with learning professionals and discovered that – surprise – my journey was not unique. People who are passionate about learning have been trying to cope with the increasing pace of change in working environments. In most organisations, there are more variations and new work place challenges than ever before. Managers, service providers and knowledge based workers have to deal with real world ambiguity and exceptions and manage messy issues and make difficult decisions without having as much information as they would like.

So how do you train people to be better at working in a situation they haven’t seen before? Well, for a start, you don’t send them on a 3 year training program which is based on dealing with issues which were common 2 years ago. At the other extreme, you don’t train them on the use of a million different tools which they could use in combination to solve any problem – people just can’t retain the knowledge across such a broad range of skills.

Current thinking in the learning and development world is tending towards the magic 70 – 20 – 10 principle. Rely on people to learn 70% of their craft while working, day to day. 20% through feedback, coaching and mentoring. 10% through traditional formal training programs.

As long as you have the basics right, experience – and an ability to relate experience and incorporate new learning as an adaptive process – enables you to keep your skills up to date.

This however, only tells part of the story. In a changing world, experience is useful, but does not provide the perfect preparation – your experience was gained in an old environment while new unforeseen challenges continue to emerge. You need to be able to leverage experience but not assume that it can be applied directly.

In my crisis management work, I have found that people who are successful working in very dynamic environments such as in defence, emergency services and healthcare, develop an ability to apply patterns of experience to help them deal with challenges they have never seen before – this is the key to learning and development in the 21C.

This sentiment was also expressed recently by US Army Major General HR McMaster in a McKinsey interview in which he said “we’re never going to get the problem of future war precisely right. The key is to not be so far off the mark that you can’t adapt once the real demands of combat reveal themselves, and you need leaders who can adapt rapidly to unforeseen circumstances….we train them on fundamentals, we also test their ability to observe changes in the environment and to adjust as necessary so they can accomplish their mission….Rather than using a checklist of individual capabilities, we are evaluating them on their ability to innovate and adapt to unforeseen conditions.”

In order to develop an ability for adaptation,  the 70/20/10 model needs to be supplemented with experience that lies outside the day to day environment. By regularly applying yourself to challenges of greater variety, you can develop a kind of familiarity with the unfamiliar. You get better at knowing what you know as well as what you don’t know.

I often see people gaining new and deep insights during the scenario based exercises which I facilitate. Having to think about making decisions in a plausible but not yet experienced situation leads to a deeper understanding of strengths and weaknesses and reminds people of life’s uncertainties.

Experiential learning is clearly a benefit so why not increase that benefit by increasing your range of experiences – even if it’s just the experience of thinking through what you would do in an unexpected situation.

Exercise the unexpected!

(Flickr photo Darren Kuropatwa)

It’s more complicated than that

tufte-0003pn-10817Yet another scientific correction which finds that a system doesn’t really work the way we thought it did.

I was listening to a podcast discussing research recently published in Nature about the mechanics of memory. Specifically, long term potentiation and the re-enforcing binding between synapses which result in linked networks of memories (kind of).

I’m interested in the whole idea of neural plasticity and dynamic systems of consciousness – you might not be. What I found more universally interesting, was the description of yet another scientific correction – a finding that a system doesn’t really work the way we thought it did.

One of the common patterns I find in science – and even more common in management practices – is the decomposition of complicated (or even complex) systems into simplified views of cause and effect. In the memory discussion above, there had been a long held belief of the critical role of a certain structure of receptor area on a cell. All the memory research had shown that this structure was always involved whenever memory was being formed or damaged – so, it followed that it must be a critical enabler – cause and effect.

In the new research, scientists tried to find out the minimum conditions in which memory could be formed – and in the process were able to create an experiment in which the structure was not present at all. Even though the structure wasn’t there, memories still formed. The simple conclusion was that receptors were more ‘promiscuous’ than had been thought – in other words, that the complex organic system is more adapatable than had been thought. These results require ‘a fundamental change in our thinking with regard to the core molecular events underlying synaptic plasticity.”

Perhaps drawing a bit of a long bow here, but it reminds me of so much of the decomposition / mechanical mindset making conclusions at a level of detail which is part of a more complex/complicated holistic system which is being observed.

Early comments regarding the US President’s Brain Map initiative have similar reservations. No doubt there are a lot of fantastic insights which will flow from investments in this research – but – as many brain scanning studies are finding – beware of black and white conclusions regarding cause and effect.

I see a parallel here with some of the strategic management consulting that I’m involved in. The process of independent observation, insight, discussion and advice can be seen as an exercise in finding the critical receptors in an organisation. Often, the ‘best practice’ and cause and effect logic is presented as ‘evidence based’ and the recommendations which follow involve doing something that adds or changes the structures of the receptors. If you stick around long enough, you often find that the organisation finds a way to improve without any of the critical structures that were proposed. It does this by adapting (sometimes promiscuously!) and the improvement emerges through the complexities of the people operating within the management systems.

The learning from this is to embrace plasticity – in the brain and in an organisational context –  to be aware of the complexity – and to treat each intervention as part of an on-going range of evolutionary experiments rather than a prescription to ‘fix the problem’.


(image:  Edward Tufte, Complicated: yellow, print on canvas, 29 ½” x 29 ½”, edition of 3 )

Makers – Making Trouble?


Anyone following any kind of technology news can’t escape the growing interest or hype in 3D printing. The ‘Maker’ movement is being propelled by the lowering of entry costs of systems which can combine easy-enough-to-use design software with easy-enough-to-use 3D ‘printers’ which can sculpt an object, usually using lasers, according to the design you ‘draw’ with the software. The printed object is becoming price competitive to low volume alternatives provided by traditional large scale industrial processes.

There are a number of heavy evangelists promoting the concept and it is taking on a kind of cool-tech arts & crafts guild image. Chris Anderson, the foresight focused founder and ex-CEO of Wired recently left that organisation to pursue his dream of the Next Industrial Revolution where Atoms are the new Bits. It sounds great to me and for those as old as me to remember, very Jetsons. I can see some of the tremendous opportunities and give full credit to people like Chris who are willing to craft a new personal brand around this concept.

Chris’ move (at least as it’s been reported) reminds me a little of when Shai Agassi left SAP to set up Better Place. I don’t know about the timing of the Maker movement over the Electronic Refuelling movement, but if things proceed, I hope Chris can learn something from Shai’s own journey. After evangelising the concept around the world, setting up a company to show that it was possible, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars, Shai was fired by his board.

Perhaps unlike the electronic refuelling idea, the consumerisation of technology has a more inevitable momentum behind it. On a positive note, there is already a growing market for small, industrial ‘craftshop’ businesses using the technology to provide widgets designed by people who can’t afford the whole at-home-printer set up or who don’t think it is quite easy-enough-to-use. Already you can find small shops willing and able to print you a gun, a bike, an action figure, and even a car.

The big question for me, is – why are we so excited about the Next Industrial Revolution – when we haven’t completed the last?

A couple of weeks after reading Chris’ article about the brave future awaiting us, I read an interesting assessment of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft issues by Paul Marks, New Scientist’s chief technology correspondent. Paul’s opinion was that the complex federated supply chain model used by Boeing was always going to be a high risk because of the lack of end to end quality assurance running through the vast network of suppliers to suppliers to suppliers to assemblers etc..

Ironically, the Dreamliner was slated to be the first, best, biggest, brightest plane every built completely off a shared digital design. It is a great example of a Global Maker. Thousands of ‘makers’ working together, sharing the same software designs and ‘printing’ parts to fit together perfectly like a great Lego set.

While the Dreamliner project did struggle with many technical challenges, the biggest challenge was, and remains, with the human system – not the technology. The people running the workshops have multiple agendas and mixed incentives.

It seems to me that we have here a perfect snapshot of a point in the evolution of society and technology. Unlike Chris Anderson however, I believe that the Next Industrial Revolution will occur in the way that distributed networks of people work together to achieve results which have higher quality and are more resilient than anything they could print for themselves.

Clearly, we still have some ways to go. Viva la revolution!

Resilient Infrastructure – A Win,Win Response to Natural Disasters

Sunrise7 Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/people/sunrise7/

Photo: Sunrise7

bert knot Creative Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/bertknot/

Photo: bert knot 






Over the past month, Australia has experienced record breaking heat waves, bush fire disasters, rainfalls and flooding. Certain parts of the east coast have now had their 6th hundred year storm in ten years. Whatever the causes of this cycle of natural disasters, it is perfectly clear that severe weather will continue to have an extreme impact on national security, the economy and the safety of people around the world.

In Australia, as in many countries, government administration in the areas of emergency management, national security, health and the economy remain largely silo based. Disaster preparedness and recovery are seen as costs rather than investments. As a result, budgets are always under pressure and the traditional likelihood vs impact risk analysis approach is used to justify low levels of preparedness on the grounds of economic pragmatism.

In Japan, a country which also has a history of recurring cycles of natural disasters of wildly fluctuating magnitudes, attitudes are very different. Rather than treating each extreme event as a unique, once off, never to be repeated disaster, people accept the inevitability of natural disasters and act accordingly. As a result, preparedness is accepted as a core aspect of engineering and social planning.

Following the recent election in Japan, the government has announced an economic stimulus package which includes a significant investment in ‘nation toughening’ projects. These projects follow previous infrastructure investments which have not only raised the level of resilience but also facilitated economic growth and supply chain improvements.

In Australia and other countries, government investment and incentives for large scale private/public resilience and preparedness projects would deliver a win, win result. At a small scale, a national network of community ‘bushfire bunkers’ could stimulate regional development and offer protection for those whose evacuation routes have been closed. At a larger scale, flood management infrastructure can be developed which incorporates improvements to transport and irrigation systems.

After another month of ‘surprises’, it’s time to start expecting the unexpected and explore the opportunities for ‘nation toughening’ projects in your country.