Category Archives: decision support

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)

In 2013 we will solve the problem of extreme forgetfulness – again

In 2012 there seemed to be a lot of new content related to understanding human behaviour. From bottom up via neuroscience & biopsychology, top down via social science, social psychology and behavioural economics and middle out via cognitive psychology.

At least it seemed like a lot to me, probably because I was actively looking to feed my own hunger for knowledge in this area.

A look at Google Trends however shows that 2012 was just an average year for ‘behavioural psychology’ headlines compared to the heyday peaks from 2004 – 2006. Closer inspection indicated that this specific phrase is only trending in the UK, Australia, Canada and India. Ahhh – I thought – although American by birth, these days I speak an Australian variation of the Queen’s English and therefore looked for ‘behavioural psychology’ trends.

If you look at the trend for the US spelling, ‘behavioral psychology’, you see that 2012 was a pretty good year for the search term. Maybe the US is just catching up with the rest of the English speaking world, or maybe the rest of the English speaking world has started to use the US spelling for publications. Or maybe something else.

For what it’s worth, if you look at ‘cognitive psychology’ – a search phrase which avoids the spelling issue, the graph looks more like the English result for ‘behavioural psychology’ while ‘social psychology’ searches have been on a definite downward slope since 2005.

While I pursue my Google led education, trend analysis of search terms helps me to visualise the long tail of the usage of concepts which might have been new to me, but obviously have been evolving for some time.

So how do these results relate to forgetfulness? Well, trend and citation analysis can help highlight the mind boggling amount of content that is related to these behavioural concepts which are often described by present day authors and journalists as new and groundbreaking. While the old saying that a wizened guru expert has forgotten more than you’ll ever know about a subject might not be true, it seems quite likely that our collective consciousness has forgotten almost all of the things ever written about behavioural psychology.

Recently, I saw a number of twitter and blog discussions putting forward the view that Nassim Taleb’s new Antifrigility book is old news, repackaged by an attention grabbing popular author with a strong (well, arrogant) personality. Various references were sited to academics, economists and business commentators over years gone by who had posited similar or perhaps more profound ideas but with a less flashy style – from Ackoff to Argyris, Schien to Schon, Snowden to Stacey, Plato to Popper and on.

The pattern of debate sounded very familiar to me – it’s the same one you can find in other contexts related to the study of soft systems in general and human behaviour theory in particular.

This year I enjoyed consuming content by authors such as Duncan Watts, Daniel Kahneman, and Nassim Taleb, I have also followed meme trails back to earlier work done in the early 20th century to the present and can see that each generation carries notable contributors to the field however many of the contributions involve similar concepts perhaps with a different emphasis or nuanced definition (or maybe even just a different spelling).

It certainly doesn’t help when some of the high profile research in the area is found to be fraudulent. None the less, even when there are genuine scientific advances in the study of human behaviour, these advances don’t seem to have much impact on how we behave. We are still blindly assuming cause and effect where there is none and we continue to assume that our decisions reflect choices of control over the environment.

If you follow the behavioural science long tail back up stream you find that successive generations get similar insights from their experience, write it up to fleeting effect and interest, and then it becomes forgotten, certainly by the mainstream and, in many cases, within the social science community itself.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter if someone published a good proof highlighting consistently poor decision making behaviour under rigorous experimental conditions in 1920 or 1940 or 1960 or 1980. If the insight isn’t accepted into the mainstream, it doesn’t contribute to the evolution of knowledge. If the material didn’t catch on when it was published, it’s probably not going to catch on now.

It’s almost a moot point whether the ideas of Nassim Taleb are original if they were never incorporated into ‘common knowledge’. To some degree, in behaviour science, credit must be given not just to the idea but also to the effective communication and adoption of that idea. Without effective communication, we won’t internalise the insight and improve our behaviour and evolve the practice and the theory. Therein lies the great opportunity for those in the business of popularising behavioural practices – you can be successful for the packaging even if your science is weak or your insights were described and published thousands of times before.

I predict that in 2013 the long tail of behavioural science will continue, possibly even with some upwards kinks with new discoveries coming from neurobiology. I’m also confident that we will once again find more proof that we over simplify the world and over elevate our individual roles within it. Once again, we will find this intriguing, and continue the long commentary as observers rather than participants. By the end of the year, we will have traversed the the circumference of the goldfish bowl, and all will be new again.

I hope you enjoy this year’s swim around the bowl.

Strategic Risks and Opportunities to Accelerate!

In the November HBR there’s a new piece by seminal uber guru of change management John Kotter called Accelerate! in which he proposes that organisations formally adopt a second, fundamentally different, strategic system of management to complement their operational management practice.

He claims, and my experience mirrors and agrees, that while traditional hierarchies and management processes do well at keeping the lights on in the short term, “what they do not do well is identify the  most important hazards and opportunities early enough, formulate creative strategic initiatives nimbly enough, and implement them fast enough.” Despite 15+ years of attempts to improve these processes, the pace of change is simply outstripping the ability of this system to cope. Organisation that face real threats or eye new opportunities or compliance requirements try – and fail – to cram through some sort of major transformation using change processes.

Kotter’s been researching, mentoring and watching transformation programs for more than 40 years and it may well be that these traditional change processes (many of which he influenced) did work in the past. In my own 25+ years observing hundreds of transformation programs of different scales, only a handful could be said to have delivered on their original promise. Irrespective of just when the myth may have started to overshadow the reality, Kotter now sees that the old ways are not going to work any longer and is prepared to call the Emperor naked.

His solution, in a nutshell, is to leave the traditional management structure to do what it does best – work on the assumption that your market will remain stable long enough to execute a pre-formulated strategy and ask most people to shut up, take orders, and do their jobs in a repetitive way. This will deliver returns for a while – until the environment changes to such an extent that your strategy is no longer relevant. This reminds me of Stuart Kauffman‘s use of the concept of fitness landscapes in evolutionary complexity.

In parallel with the traditional structure, Kotter proposes that you proactively engage a ‘strategy system’ which uses a structure of a distributed, loosely coupled network of peers across the organisation who’s passion for new ideas brings them together to develop more holistic situation awareness to identify extreme risks and opportunities and iteratively evolve new execution models to deal with those. This more agile approach ties in with much of the current state of the art in complexity and extreme risk management which proposes running many ‘safe to fail’ experiments in order to have the best chance of landing on the next fitness peak in the landscape.

The role of the traditional organisation structure is to facilitate the strategy system and foster new structures which may, in turn, one day evolve (devolve?) into another traditional management organisation suited to the next landscape.

In order to provide some kind of continuity and overall stakeholder / shareholder returns, it seems to me that the Board of Directors or equivalent governance body needs to have an influence on the assurance of informed decision making which sits at the intersection of the two systems.

Peter Whyntie, Executive Director of Compliance Australia recently wrote an article in the Chartered Secretaries magazine entitled “Strategic risk management – the neglected element of ERM'”. The article is behind a membership wall, but you can listen to a podcast summary here. Peter comes from a risk management perspective and, it seems to me, arrives at a similar place. Longer term strategic risks need to be seen through a much wider lens that the traditional risk and control structure found in operations management. The key difference is that strategic risk assessment is externally focused using the lens of your risk appetite.

My impression of much of Kotter’s earlier work is that it has been internally focused around leadership, culture and change management within the organisation. The strategy system he proposes now is focused externally and places the organisation in a role as an adaptor and adopter, resilient to change and co-creating in a complex environment where the distinction between internal and external is being redefined.

The take away from both of these is that you need to be more aware of your external environment and the assumptions you make as to how fit you are to exploit it and survive in it. This will require participation by a broader group of stakeholders who can help to formulate a more holistic common operating picture and show that there are many different senses of common sense out there.

An extreme impact exercise is a good place to start a process which leads you to exercise the unexpected.

Resilience – Synchronisation, Synthesis and Memory

The recent events leading up to and during the Sandy storm in the United States will provide a great deal of fodder to the blogosphere over coming weeks and months – some of it useful. Hopefully some of the experience and insights will register somewhere deep down in  the instincts of the key stakeholders in government and emergency management as well as those who either profited from or suffered losses as a result of the storm.

Encouraged by a professional interest and driven by an inherent obsessive compulsive appetite to drink from the fire hose of real-time data feeds, I was glued to the Twitter feed for many hours. This experience alone was educational in that it helps you to see how, even in such a short message format, the consistency of content and style helps you to develop (or imagine) a cast of characters playing out in a vast story. Emergency management agencies and official government public information channels were quite rightly, measured and clear and projected a trustworthy, capable impression. I found some commentators offered mind opening insightful views, while others were clearly using the storm to push their own, often unrelated, agendas. I developed a sense of what was sensationalist vs what was genuinely incredible.

With my mind still boggled this morning, I saw a blog post by Andrea De Maio at Gartner pointing out that while social media was a good, scalable channel for communication, it didn’t offer any help for strategy development and day to day management. “Proof that social media is nothing else than a tool that many people as well as governments decide to rely upon when something out of the ordinary happens.”  The suggestion I took away was that social media fails to support the development and formation of strategy which occurs during ordinary times when people are “chatting about sport results,  or favorite actors, or how to bake”. In an extreme event, when people “feel compelled to collect and relay information that can help other people, then it is time for authorities to join the chatter, search for patterns, use this additional and powerful channel.”

In my 30 or so years of watching operational and strategic contexts, it seems to me that these observations are not about social media – but rather about business and society and in saying so, demonstrates the amazing and rapid maturation of social media to reflect, influence and co-create business and society.

Unlike previous strategy and execution environments, the technology of social media allows you to listen and partake in a never-before-experienced tsunami of diverse conversations aligned through a consistent underlying theme. In this case it was Sandy, it might otherwise be your customers, your brand, your product or your competitors.

On the surface, this may appear as a very large, very fast, stream of random noise. Research shows that too much noise in our neural networks, in particular too much noise with out of the ordinary spikes, can limit our ability to interpret and retain information. Classic signal-to-noise research confirms this and highlights the ability to cancel certain consistent patterns of background noise in order to improve fidelity of the signal. We do this kind of thing all the time in our own processing of sensory inputs in order to avoid melt-down and pay attention to things which are out of the ordinary. The trick is to know what is noise and what is signal.

Interestingly, new research indicates that the act of identifying something as being ‘out of the ordinary’ is not a fully automatic pattern matching algorithm in our robot-brains but rather requires some of our cognitive attention bandwidth.

A strategy is a set of principles which you can use to navigate a network of possibilities to steer you towards a goal. Our brains have had a lot of practice doing this kind of thing and I believe that social media offers us a glimpse into a network analogy for social interaction which any strategic thinker would do well to understand.

In order to regulate how much attention we pay to certain things, our brain has a way of surfacing things which ‘operational sensor’ think are important. In a grossly simplified way, these signals have a similar challenge to those of Tweets. It may be that our brain has found a way to selectively synchronise multiple impulses, assess the energy of those impulses and synthesise these into an appropriate directed amplification – in the words of the researchers – “We propose that selective synchronization renders relevant input effective, thereby modulating effective connectivity.”

Social media analysis techniques are evolving and, by coincidence or not, applying selective synchronisation concepts. Software developed by the CSIRO in Australia offers hope of improved situation awareness during out of the ordinary, extreme events.

This leads me back to Andrea’s post – in which he refers to the CSIRO technology, but seems to only see the data analysis/situation awareness element and not the bridge towards cognitive processing patterns and human behaviour.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with clients from the bottom up and the top down in the strategy to execution space in commercial organisations and government, including national security and emergency management. I have never seen a reliable, repeatable process for strategy design and successful execution. At this stage of my journey, I believe that is because traditional strategy assumes that we live in a complicated but controllable – ordinary – world and that unexpected events are exceptions. The real world is complex, you’re fooling yourself if you think you can control it. The best strategy is to become exceptional at adaptation and resilience and this requires an out of the ordinary ability to sense emerging changes.

As long as they get a time to reflect, people can learn a lot from extreme impacts – just ask an emergency commander.

The Sandy Social Media experience will be one more set of connections in our collective network of interaction and memory and, in time, we will all learn to manage strategy with selective synchronisation to achieve more effective connectivity.

Expertise, Ignorance, Naiveté and Risk

One of the prerequisites of good threat and opportunity management is to be knowledgeable about the environment in which you operate. Goal seeking decisions and actions are informed by your sense of the world and your influence over it.

For the past few years there has been a growing wave of evidence showing that, in many cases, the confidence we have in our understanding of the world and our ability to control it is seriously misplaced.

A clear message has been emerging from many fields of research including behavioural economics, neuroscience, physics, biology, psychology, and social science – our ability to view the world as a rational, logical model of cause and effect is often achieved by selectively ignoring the clear evidence to the contrary.

Simple risk management methodologies are predicated on an ability to predict the events which may jeopardise the attainment of your goals, judge the likelihood of those events and estimate the impact of their consequences. The effectiveness of these methods is clearly going to be undermined if our predictions are flawed – and I believe they are flawed far more often than most risk managers (and project managers, and policy directors and sales representatives, and …) are willing to admit.

I’m sure this theme will recur in many future posts and for this entry, I’ll just offer a few recent examples where it is being played out.

In Thinking Fast and Slow – Kahneman references a large body of research to support his distillation of the idea that people are guided by two different thinking models – System 1 which is deeply instinctual and focused on short term survival and System 2 which is rational and able to develop complex, even contradictory mental models. System 1 is the default and it serves us well most of the time while we remain in familiar territory. Occasionally we employ System 2 to handle certain challenging thoughts, but this requires a lot of effort and people are inherently prone to conserve energy in case of emergencies (lazy).

The key to making consistently well informed decisions is to have enough experience with a situation that System 1 is guided by repetitive examples over many years while at the same time knowing when to alert System 2 to consider the possibility of exceptions to the norm.

Since reading the book, I’ve found myself seeing System 1 and System 2 examples in a number of other recent findings (and in doing so, perhaps becoming over confident at my own understanding!) – thanks to my Twitter sources for alerting me to these gems.

Last month, David Ropeik wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the New York Times Sunday Review called “Why Smart Brains Make Dumb Decisions about Danger” which discusses recent findings on the architecture of the brain and why this leads us to be so bad at predicting risk factors.

This month, in a piece recorded for the BBC, Jeremy Wagstaff raised the interesting question – “If we can’t imagine the past, what hope the future” – reminding us as to just how little we know of the past – and that’s supposed to be the easy bit!

An article by Maia Szalavitz in the September issue of Time magazine discusses the psychological factors which might explain “Why Misinformation Sticks and Corrections Can Backfire” – rejecting information takes more mental effort than accepting it. Hardly the characteristics of a trustworthy decision model!

The October 6th issue of the Economist reviews a book by Nate Silver called “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t” which offers a range of examples and research exploring the ways in which people struggle to think in probabilistic terms and incorporate  uncertainty into their mental models. He suggests that people learn to keep an open mind and adjust their models to reflect available observations.

Finally and perhaps fittingly, consider this review of a book by Oliver Burkeman entitled “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” – learn to enjoy uncertainty, embrace insecurity and become familiar with failure.

Easier said than done!