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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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Big data and big ethics

My favourite story this week comes from an article published in February in The New York Times Magazine entitled How Companies Learn Your Secrets. Click the link and please read it – it’s mind blowing.

Ok, if you didn’t read it, here’s a summary – Target stores in America developed some sexy analytics to interpret shopping transaction data to create personalised individual marketing campaigns and incentives. So far so good. The market that they were targeting was pregnant women (leaving the pregnant men’s market for future growth opportunities). They were able to establish a sufficiently high correlation of shopping behaviour during the early phase of pregnancy that they could predict a future birth and the creation of a new ‘mother’ customer. Targeted advertising of baby and motherhood products in the lead up to the birth combined with incentives appear to have contributed to a massive increase in revenue for the retailer.

At this point, it looks like one of the already well worn feel good sales stories for big data – give us the IT budget and we’ll give you unheard of growth in revenue.

That probably wasn’t the thought foremost in the mind of the father who went in to complain to his local Target store about his daughter receiving promotions which were age inappropriate and unsuitable for a conservative, I’m guessing, Christian, household. It turns out that the daughter hadn’t told her family she was pregnant – instead, Target brought the conversation out in the open through their personalised marketing!

After the extreme impact of this social marketing gaffe, Target commissioned further research and found that – shock – instead of appreciating their offer of ‘help’, a lot of people thought that it was just too creepy to have a retailer stalking them along life’s journey.

The agile response to this consumer feedback was to include irrelevant promotions along with the targeted promotions so that consumers thought that the ‘right’ products had appeared serendipitously. Whoa!

This story alone would make a great movie – or maybe some future HBR case study in what to do or not not do in FMCG social marketing. Even more interesting to me was the underlying psychology and behaviour theory which suggested the goals for this kind of campaign.

As the article explains, with many useful references, buying habits are hard to break. This is another side of previous comments in this blog about the ease of intuitive, recurrent thinking compared to hard consideration of multiple dimensions and possibilities. From Target’s point of view, if someone always buys milk from their local grocery store it would take an extreme impact to change their default behaviour and buy milk from them instead. No matter how great the marketing, the potential milk buyer simply won’t register the possibility of buying milk elsewhere. Target could try to engineer an extreme impact – maybe giving it away for free or tainting the competitors supplies or……..they could wait for mother nature to deliver the event and track that through correlated evidence of behaviour.

Extreme life events such as divorce, death (of someone else – not the customer), and birth, cause extreme impacts and these events create a sufficiently complex environment that the customer will be open to change behaviour and break with old habits. I was already aware of this pattern from my work in crisis management and national security but I never made the connection to buying baby products. It makes perfect sense and best of all, I can speak from personal experience of the complexity introduced with a baby – particularly the first baby.

One of the challenges in educating people about complexity and extreme impacts is the difficulty of conveying that sense of a mind altering experience which sweeps away long held beliefs and assumptions.

Unfortunately, the baby example doesn’t really hold for true extreme risk. As a metaphor it would require that the woman wakes up one morning to unexpectedly find herself 6 months pregnant. In other words, if terrorists bought the same range of products from their local store a few months before an attack, it would make life a lot more simple for the intelligence community (this does kind of happen in a way, but we’ll come back to that later).

So let’s not confuse the discovery of correlation over a large population sample experiencing a regular (although at least initially quite private) event with a low likelihood / high consequence event where you don’t know the population and the events are emergent.

The real extreme impact here was the sudden appearance not of a black swan, but of a discount retailer playing the role of a stork.

Where does ‘convenient’ stop and ‘creepy’ start? I guess we can thank the commercial imperative to help provide us with some of the experiments. In any case, it’s worth considering how your own big data initiatives will play out and whether you will be perceived as using this power for good or evil. That’s an extreme risk.

Grasping for goals, reaching for the straws

Surprise, surprise, evidence is emerging to show that people (i.e. us humans) have evolved higher cognitive abilities in our pursuit of goal driven outcomes. Neurophysiological, neurobiological, neuroimaging, and computational studies march on but this turns out to be old news – a 2001 paper entitled An Integrative Theory of Prefrontal Cortex Function offers some evidence which supports the hypothesis that ‘goals’ are an integrative concept that can bring together a range of cognitive mechanisms. In the author’s words “The PFC is critical in situations when the mappings between sensory inputs, thoughts, and actions either are weakly established relative to other existing ones or are rapidly changing.” This sounds a lot to me like a crisis situation or one where the situation awareness is weak and the decisions are critical.

If you know your goals, then presumably, you’re well placed to maximise your mental efforts towards a clear mission in life – right? Well, as usual, the thorny issue arises as to whether you know what you think you know. Some researches in 2008 reported in Nature that in some situations, your brain makes up its mind up to ten seconds before you realize it. More and more studies are highlighting the fact that, in order to keep us sane, our conscious view of the world is inherently flawed – by design. Even the PFC command centre is highly dependent on the synthesis of inputs which the subconscious is offering up, complete with bias and unexplored assumptions.

Which leads me back to my current favourite subject of risk assessments. An interesting book which came out in July this year called Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty helps the cause by promoting a useful definition for a measure of risk awareness.

At the heart of risk intelligence lies the ability to gauge the limits of your own knowledge — to be cautious when you don’t know much, and to be confident when, by contrast, you know a lot.

The author, Dylan Evans, has a deep pedigree in the psychology of estimation and he has applied this to the psychology of risk estimation (building on Kahneman and Tversky). He has commercialised his research and is spreading the word out on the hustings. You can even do a free test on his web site to find out your own ‘risk quotient’. I’m only offering this up as I apparently have a ‘high’ RQ of 78.85 which puts me in the upper quartile of the 28,677 people who have taken the test.

I think it’s important to get the Evans message out because a lot of risk management today is based on the fundamental notion that you can plot risks according some qualitative scale of likelihood and consequence. This is fine for controlled environments with high stability (until they fail catastrophically – more of that later), but it is often applied to the wrong environment. The more we can show people how naive most of this is, the better.

I do however wonder whether the RQ rating might lose it’s subtlety and be seen as an ability to predict – it’s more of an ability to restrain yourself from being wrong so often.

Putting these threads together, we have an amazing goal seeking brain which is directing you through your subconscious and allowing your conscious mind to imagine it is in control and knows what these goals are. Occasionally, as a reminder of your naivety, the subconscious allows the conscious to make a fool of itself all in the interest of the underlying complex resolution towards strategic goals. Sounds a lot like most of the tiered organisational management models I’ve seen.

I’ve been holding back in what would otherwise be a continuous reference to the work of Dave Snowden. Suffice to say that risk management techniques designed for complicated contexts don’t make sense in complex contexts. Risk intelligence is an interesting look into the complicated, maybe even as it approaches the complex – but it is itself a false comfort in the real complex world where events emerge truly unexpectedly and potentially with a very high consequence.

At least that’s what my handicapped and uninformed conscious mind is telling me….

Social media lost in translation across the generations

Another conflagration of social ideas this week with damage control / high consequence responses to statements by baby boomer male politicians which have ‘shocked’ certain audiences. At the same time, I see corporate CEO’s being encouraged to use Twitter, Facebook and blog in order to provide a more personal, social, face to their company’s brand. Why don’t they? Because in the commercial space, a strategic communication blunder can have an immediate and extreme impact on the share price or customer loyalty. In the political space, you have the opportunity to steer the spin harder and try to recover before the next election. One person’s high consequence may be another person’s routine emergency.

In the US, Mitt Romney is getting a caning for using the phrase ‘binders full of women‘ which has brought a very noisy amount of chatter across all the social media channels. In Australia, the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott was called a ‘misogynist‘ by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Ironically, in trying to use the most serious accusation she could, the PM’s word has now been watered down through the public airing. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary is now looking to ‘update’ it’s definition from ‘hating all women’ to ‘an entrenched prejudice against women‘. Many now attacking Mitt would therefore appear qualified to use the same word.

Leaving gender politics, stereotypes and maturity aside, this episode strikes me more as a simple case of some men of a certain age expressing themselves through a lens of the world as it was when they established their sense of the rules of the game. Sure, the rules have moved on, but it is inevitable that in any cross generational conversation that you’re going to get a clash of mindsets.

This raises some interesting challenges for the drive to socialise on the internet. In politics, there are minders and advisors who have a full time job to try and teach their master the language of the day and remain vigilant to recover or ideally prevent the smallest faux pas. The corporate affairs units of most commercial organisations are a much leaner operation than those found in politics and the marketing people pushing social media usually operate at a few degrees of separation removed from company Directors and senior executives.

I read an article recently (forgot where) encouraging large company CEO’s to become more active in social media in order to give their company’s brands a more personal, social, dimension. The author (from a younger generation) was keen to point out that 90% of all social communication is ‘safe’ from any risk to brand reputation. I suspect the reason for that percentage is that there are hardly any large company Directors or senior executive who are exposing themselves through these channels. If there were, I think you’d find a lot more examples of the kind of perceived slip ups that politicians are making.

Initially this could well lead to high consequences but I wonder if, over time, people would start to recognise that these are the views of a person three to four times your age who might have a lot of experience and ability but carries the inevitable weight of a familiarity with the past.

Until social media conversations mature, there will remain an extreme risk that underlying intent may be lost in translation.

Big stories bringing people together and creating communities

Read an interesting post by Tim O’Reilly on LinkedIn recently entitled – It’s Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing in which he looks back at the history of his technology publishing company and finds lessons just as relevant in the ‘new’ social marketing world.

Anyone who has worked across multiple fields and practices is familiar with that feeling of deja vu when you see similar ideas and themes being expressed in slightly different language but espoused as being unique to one community – or individual.  I’ve had the opportunity to work across many different horizontal and vertical markets in my career and am often frustrated by the communication issues which arise between people who insist on looking at things through an inward looking, narrow, ‘tribe’ perspective.

Similar challenges arise when you are trying to market a general or horizontal solution – most people would prefer to see an out of the box, recognisable vertical solution rather than having to put the effort into applying the general solution to their specific circumstance.

When I have seen positive results, it has usually been with the promotion of a cross cutting concern which is of interest to a wide variety of people but which has not yet become ‘core’ to any one tribe. I believe that there is a unique inflection point where a new concept can act as an intervention to bring people together and, with sufficient momentum, create a new community of interest. Sometimes, the intervention involves introducing a bigger concept which encompasses and unifies multiple fields. As long as the higher level is not too abstract to appear as another horizontal solution, there is an opportunity to create a new, broader, composite vertical market.

In Tim’s words:

We tell big stories that matter to a community of users, and together we use those stories to amplify a message that we all care about. Framing ideas in such a way that they include and reinforce the identity of a group of people who might not previously have seen themselves as part of the same community allows everyone to tell their own story in a way that adds up to something bigger than any one of them might tell alone.

While he is using the language of the broad technology community, I believe the same sentiment applies across the evolution of all fields of human endeavour. Indeed, in hindsight, I’d say that most of my career has been driven by the pursuit of such emerging big stories, looking for opportunities to bridge entrenched domains into that ‘something bigger’. Trying, wherever possible “to find people and technologies that are worth paying attention to, and to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with others, who then carry it even further.”

Sometimes the big stories are not compelling enough to generate the energy required to form a new community. Sometimes the stories are taken up and amplified beyond anyone’s imagination. Either way, it’s a fantastic journey and one which social media will accelerate.

In Tim’s view, “the secret of promotion in the age of social media isn’t to promote yourself.  It’s to promote others.” Well, I guess, I’m doing my bit by promoting Tim!

Who are you promoting?