Reclaiming Conversation and Culture

1998 isn’t that long ago; ok it’s 18 years but it was the first time I visited San Francisco.  It was then  the most beautiful, vibrant, engaging and creative city I’d ever clapped eyes on.  When I think of the place I think of great punk rock bands like Rancid, Jawbreaker, Green Day, the fantastic City Lights bookshop, Amoeba records in Haight Ashbury, Sushi Castro, Zeitgeist, Citizen Cake…the list goes on.  I now have family living there so I drop in from time to time but rarely find myself as excited as I was back in ’98.

The gentrification of San Francisco is driving the creative and artistic side of town out to more affordable areas.  The hip areas are now inhabited by the equally creative technology professionals.  In 2010 I visited a café that made a big impression on my fist visit and was horrified to see that the life had been sucked out of it.  The place was full, but the majority of patrons were alone and gazing like Zombies at their MacBook Air’s or iPhones.  I struggled to reconcile the almost morbid atmosphere with the loud, brash and irreverent establishment I’d encountered 12 years earlier.

41ixPNQCjeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bit by bit over the last few years I’ve begun to make a connection.  Anybody who visits this site will know that I enjoy Nicholas Carr’s writing on how evolving technology is impacting on us, and not always for the better.  I recently finished reading Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and reckon it could be one of the most important books published in the last decade.   There is far too much in the book to discuss in this piece but I’ll address a number of areas that resonated with me.

Take this quote from a young man who would rather talk to someone via text message as it gives him the best chance of editing himself.

“Someday, someday soon, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Horrifying.  But today there are countless teenagers and young adults who no longer have the ability to sit down, look somebody in the eye and have a good old stoush over something that’s bugging them.  Instead they prefer to sit in different rooms and sort out their issues via sms or Whatsapp.

Turkle conjures up other remarkable quotes from people whose interactions have changed dramatically as a result of technology.  Here’s another clanger:

“What would be the value proposition of disagreeing with each other face-to-face?”

Somehow I don’t think that Sherry Turkle went off and crunched the numbers on the “business case” for that one.

People are no longer comfortable sitting on their own in a quiet moment and digesting various aspects or issues in their lives.  Instead they tend to reach for the phone and go to Facebook, twitter or a news feed.  This has led to “a loss of empathy and a diminished capacity for self-reflection” which seems to inhibit our creativity.  Turkle supports this with a quote from Picasso who said that “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

Having worked in some very high-pressure environments with self-styled creatives I’ve rarely witnessed something genuinely ground-breaking or unique being produced.  More often than not the end-result is stock and no different from the competition, and that’s largely down to the fact that the people have very little time to themselves to think in an “always on” professional environment.

Many people feel that one of the primary benefits of being able to readily access information online is that they are no longer obliged to practice and learn things off by heart.  They no longer look to read passages of text or news articles in depth preferring to scan and get the general gist of the content.  It’s a practice known as “grazing”.  The main problem with grazing, according to Turkle is that “it makes it hard to develop a narrative to frame events.”

Turkle introduces the reader to a graduate student who noted that relying on e-memory meant that she did not retain enough information to contribute to a class discussion when she left her computer and notebook at home.

“Having access to information is always wonderful, but without having at least some information retained in my brain, I am not able to build on those ideas or connect them together to form new ones.”

There are some tasks in life that require embodied learning, and nobody wants to have to Google CPR on their iPhone next time some next to them has a heart attack.

With the advent of blogging and online news many find themselves as equally

Sherry Turkle
Sherry Turkle

drawn to the below-the-line comments as much as the actual article itself.   The comments are more often than not a mix of sagacious comment, encouragement and downright nastiness.   I don’t have any access to research on below-the-line commentary but have noticed that there seems to be a direct relationship between nastiness and anonymity.   The ability to remain anonymous through technology seems to dehumanise and leave people feeling that there is no need to be accountable for anything they say.  For this reason I tend to avoid below-the-line commentary, and whenever I feel the urge to have a peak will only read those where there’s a full name displayed.

In a discussion with a lecturer in MIT about a lecture where students were able to comment electronically about the content presented the lecturer said that “anonymity flattened out the discussion…Real people have real concerns and interests…But once the questions are turned into a flat stream of questions and comments without faces…you end up not caring about them.  You care about a question when you know whose question it is.  A question that doesn’t come from a person – it’s only half a question.”  Food for thought then for online editors in the media.  Is there any real value in enabling below the line commentary, and if you feel there is why not adopt a standard whereby only genuine people with rigorously verified identities are able to comment.

As a management consulting professional I’ve observed how technology has diminished organisational relationships both internally and externally through diminished conversations and co-ordination.  Turkle doesn’t delve as deeply into the world of work as I had hoped but then again she could get another book out of that topic alone.

The author isn’t anti-technology and acknowledges that it’s here to stay but it’s well worth examining how it is affecting how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world around us.  How we deal with its impact on our creativity and relationships will take time and could be addressed in a fashion similar to how we deal with issues like speeding traffic or alcohol.  Handle with appropriate consideration, respect and care!










Tactics for Change Managers

A couple of years back I was asked to put together a couple of slides that outlined useful tactics for change managers / mobilisers / business coaches when implementing a new process or way of working.  Most “change management” is fairly formulaic and once a new business design, service or system is in place the human side is ignored.  Anyway in no particular order here are some useful tactics for change managers:

  1. Make the business design viable in the eyes of all stakeholders
  2. Don’t be restricted or trapped by conventions used / adopted / subscribed to from previous projects.  What happened in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it will happen in the future
  3. People need to be mobilised through new experiences – People believe through what they experience, not necessarily through what they see or hear
  4. Give the target constituency a compelling stake in the future of the organisation – there has to be something in it for them
  5. See the situation for what it is and don’t read too much into it either way, i.e. if it doesn’t work accept it and adapt; if it does work, well fine, but don’t get too smug and complacent.  All success is for you client’s benefit not your own self–aggrandisement
  6. Where possible let them design (with guidance / prodding where necessary)
  7. Don’t over-coach as too much coaching will be seen as interference which leads to an unnatural state of affairs
  8. Recognise when you are no longer relevant
  9. Mobilisation without measurement is pointless.  MI should not be work for the client but should be a natural part of the work which helps with its enhancement
  10. Get up to speed with the politics as soon as is practical
  11. Work out who is/isn’t on your side quickly – this is not as hard as it seems and is as obvious as it was your school playground
  12. Don’t be too proud to admit it when part of the business design won’t fly for practical reasons
  13. Recognise when it is necessary to withdraw and live to fight another day
  14. Tell good realistic stories that are not sugar-coated but acknowledge that people have been knocked out of joint and the amount of work required to re-orient them.  That way they’ll accept that you are not a bullshitter but a serious and realistic person
  15. Be flexible and move quickly as the design takes shape.  Ideally a design should be agreed and have the maximum buy-in as is politically possible before mobilisation.  Otherwise you are dead in the water before you start.  Too much change in a design will confuse both the Mobiliser and the client and will lead to a potentially fatal loss of credibility
  16. Don’t shy away from tough conversations.  You are not doing your job if you are having easy conversations all the time. ( You are most likely being taken for a ride)
  17. Welcome negativity and be able to recognise where it is coming from and why
  18. Recognise when you’re being taken for a ride, and don’t stand for it, as they’re wasting your time and your budget
  19. Solutions must be framed in a way that shows new and improved possibilities
  20. Recognise and act on breakdowns immediately – An inability to call a breakdown can have dire consequences further down the line.

So Why Do Most Change Projects Fail?

William Goldman

It’s almost two decades since I completed my primary degree.  During that time  I’ve read countless articles explaining why the majority of change projects fail.  The common wisdom back in the mid-90s was that about a third of them succeeded, and that figure seems to hold firm today.  Of course it’s a complex process and very difficult to sustain- even with the use of Heinkel bombers and Panzer tanks…just ask Adolf, Heinrich and Josef about that one.

The Irrational Side of Change Management which appeared in the McKinsey quarterly in 2009 is one of the better ones I’ve read.  It’s also always worth citing that well-known passage from The Prince where Machiavelli lays out the pitfalls of political and social change – “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success and more difficult to manage” due to those losing out being incandescent in their opposition and those who are proponents of the change being unsure as to how they will benefit.

But for a bit of fun maybe it’s worthwhile having a look at what screenwriter William Goldman said in his classic memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983).  In the section on studio executives and their poor run rates when trying to pick screen plays guaranteed to translate into box office gold he says the following:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.  If there is a Roman numeral I to this book, that’s it…Again for emphasis- NOBODY KNOWS ANTHING.  Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.  Every time out it’s a guess- and, if you’re lucky, an educated one…Did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was offered to every single studio in town- and they all turned it down? All except Paramount.  Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody know anything.  And why did all the other studios say no?  Because nobody knows anything.  And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars?  Because nobody, nobody – not now, not ever – knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office…David Picker, a fine studio executive for many years, once said something to this effect: ‘If I had said yes to all the projects I turned down, and no to all the ones I took, it would have worked out about the same.'”


Skill Fade: Why I Forgot How To Drive at 120 KPH

shutterstock_135168701The car was belting along at 120kph when I forgot how to drive. It was late on a Friday evening as I hit for home after a week on a client site in West Cork. I had the motorway all to myself and decided to take it easy, threw on Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love and shifted into cruise control. The red lights of the car in front were upon me before I knew it. I looked for the brake but my foot didn’t budge. I swerved into the outside lane at the last second, blessed that there was no one else alongside me. Regaining my composure I switched out of cruise and began to fumble with the pedals, my foot-to-pedal co-ordination returning within seconds. On previous journeys I’d noticed a similar lack of facility that lasted no more than a moment when switching back to manual. I had driven on cruise control uninterrupted for the guts of 40 minutes. So what happened?

Similar to anything by Lawrence Lessig, a new Nicholas Carr book invariably leads to my dropping whatever I’m doing and diving straight in. He’s that rare species; a journalist concerned with the nexus of technology and human beings who makes the complex simple and, more importantly, interesting. His latest book, The Glass Cage, is a logical progression from 2009’s The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember. It deals with how automation is leading to the atrophy of human skill and intelligence in both work and our personal lives.

Carr’s essay in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal Automation Makes Us Dumb opens with the following paragraph:

“Artificial intelligence has arrived. Today’s computers are discerning and sharp. They can sense the environment, untangle knotty problems, make subtle judgments and learn from experience. They don’t think the way we think—they’re still as mindless as toothpicks—but they can replicate many of our most prized intellectual talents. Dazzled by our brilliant new machines, we’ve been rushing to hand them all sorts of sophisticated jobs that we used to do ourselves.”

We are not only automating the routine tasks but the more complex and specialised ones too. Carr cites a Harvard Business School study carried out by Professor James Bright which showed that automation had reduced the lot of factory workers to carrying out drab and mundane work devoid of skill thereby reducing them into being merely “pusher[s] of buttons.” This is what British Aviation researcher Matthew Ebbatson calls “skill fade.” Ebbatson was concerned with the effect that delegating more and more cockpit tasks to computers was actually having on a pilot’s actual flying abilities and skills. One of his studies found that “flying skills decay quite rapidly towards the fringes of ‘tolerable’ performance without relatively frequent practice.”

Two aircraft accidents in early 2009 were attributed to human error or “skill fade” as a result of the unscheduled disengagement from autopilot to manual. These were Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo which killed all 49 people on board, and Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1st 2009 killing all 228 passengers and crew.

Due to autopilot pilots now spend more time pushing buttons and monitoring screens instead of actually flying the plane manually. It looks as though the joke that pilots are now glorified bus drivers is more than a little unfair…on the bus drivers. In fact a pilot today spends no more than three minutes holding the actual controls on a typical passenger flight. As a result pilots are making mistakes when the autopilot unexpectedly disengages thereby placing the pilot in a role with which he is now unfamiliar. “We’re forgetting how to fly” were the words of Rory Kay a former top safety official of the Airline Pilots Association. In January 2013 according to Carr, the Federal Aviation Authority became “so concerned…it issued a ‘safety alert’ to airlines urging them to get their pilots to do more manual flying. An overreliance on automation, the agency warned, could put planes and passengers at risk.”

Automation deprives us of the practice we need to build skill in the first place and reinforce what is already there. In effect, it steals our skill, ensuring that we don’t get anywhere near the 10,000 hours of purposeful practice that psychologist Anders Ericsson asserts is the common denominator of elite performers in any pursuit. Ericsson’s studies and findings, that it was practice and not talent that ultimately matters, led to a revolution in how people viewed high performance:

“We deny that these differences [in skill level] are immutable; that is, due to innate talent…Instead we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.”

Carr agrees with this when he makes the point that “automation turns us from actors into observers. Instead of manipulating the yoke, we watch the screen. That shift may make our lives easier, but it can also inhibit the development of expertise.” He introduces the phenomenon psychologists call the “generation effect” which highlights that human beings are more likely to remember words when they have to actively summon them from memory than if they read them from a page. They are also more likely to remember how to carry out a task if they actively try to practice it and make mistakes as opposed to following the prompts of a youtube video. As a person struggles through a task they fire of intricate mental processes which forge new neural circuits dedicated to the activity. This generates skill… “skill that requires exactly the kind of struggle that modern software seeks to alleviate.”

While modern business will jump at automating any task that leads to cost reduction they often do so at considerable risk. Call centre operators look to reduce risk and increase productivity by automating as much of the interaction with customers as possible. For instance, call centre advisors will often speak to customers using canned scripts which direct the conversation and prompt the call centre advisor to ask particular questions. These interactions lack the warmth and spontaneity of a normal conversation. The advisor is biased towards the information being fed through to him on his computer screen, is unable to anticipate the needs of the customer and neglects to trust his own instincts and creativity when problem solving. Worst of all he doesn’t or rather is unable to listen to what really is at stake on the call. They serve up a service that reeks of giving customers what the provider thinks they should want as opposed to what they really want. A labour saving device according to Carr “doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity. It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skills of people taking part.”

The owners of Zappos recognised the damage that scripted interactions were doing to customer service and looked to restore some measure of individual freedom in jobs usually known for the lack of it. Zappos doesn’t monitor its customer service employees’ call times or require them to use scripts. The reps handle calls the way they want to. Their job is to serve the customer, and how they do that is up to them. The turnover at Zappos is minimal and although it’s still a young company Zappos consistently ranks as one of the best companies for customer service in the US ahead of better known names like Cadillac, BMW, and Apple, and roughly equal to brands like Jaguar and Ritz Carlton.

The call-centre example is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous eyebrow-raising studies available which show the skill atrophying effect of software on the more specialised professions of architecture, medicine, and accounting. I’d wager that a college graduate or a newly qualified accountant has a far superior knowledge of double-entry book keeping than the partners of any of the big four accounting firms. In fact, I was recently an interested observer in a meeting when the CEO and CFO of a respected organisation struggled to recall the formula for calculating Contribution – one of the fundamentals of management accounting.

The “Skill Fade” phenomenon is not limited to the professions. As a diver I’ve had first-hand experience as to how the introduction of dive computers changed how I approached the activity. Prior to their introduction I was rigorous about planning each dive and used dive tables to schedule each decompression stop. As dive computers calculate decompression stops as you go I found I relaxed my preparation and left things to chance. Needless to say, I’ve been lucky and have never come close to having an accident, but what if one day my dive computer fails mid dive? I am no longer practiced in how to use dive tables, and shudder to think about having to use them to make a decompression stop calculation while I’m twenty metres below the surface of the Irish Sea. I am certain that the instincts and skills that I originally developed are no longer sharp enough for me to assess with confidence what depth and for how long I’d have to carry out a decompression stop. The consequences – getting decompression illness i.e. “The Bends” – are potentially fatal.

As a keen triathlete I’m suspicious of the over-reliance of many athletes on heart-rate monitors. If my heart rate monitor is telling me that I can continue to perform at a certain level while my body is telling me otherwise I know whose counsel I will ultimately follow.

Nick Carr has hit another home run with The Glass Cage and I’ll leave the last word to him:
“Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labour, but it’s the work itself – the means – that make us who we are.”

Gilbert Enoka and the All Blacks

The Wallabies recent last play capitulation to the All Blacks in Brisbane brought back the horror and heartbreak of a similar scenario played out last November at Lansdowne Road. The All Blacks showed incredible composure to rescue the march against Ireland when they broke out of their 22 and put Ryan Crotty over in the corner.  It’s easy to whine about New Zealand and how, more often than not, they get every break going, but if there are better examplars of “High Performance” in world sport, never mind rugby, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.  This morning’s Telegraph profiles their mind coach Gilbert Enoka and how his influence has seen the All Blacks snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Low Cost at What Cost?

Anyone who wants to write a book on Service Innovation or indeed improve their own services would do well to keep an eye on Tyler Brulé’s  The Fast Lane column, which appears every Saturday in the Financial Times.  In a piece called “The High Price of Low-Cost” he slams both Lufthansa and Air France-KLM  for launching low cost spin offs and muses on the resulting damage to their brands.

“I fear this will force more passengers into a joyless experience that does nothing to win loyalty and competes purely on price.  Managers at European airlines tend to shrug and suggest that offering less for less is the only way forward .  This however is not a strategy, and nor is it a sustainable business model.  Good brands compete by innovating with their products and services and turning customers into loyal emissaries.  Short-sighted companies risk the possibility of destroying their brand altogether.”

With this in mind I wonder if companies who outsource services ever muse on the potential damage that they are doing to their own brands.  I appreciate that it makes sense for companies to outsource when they do not have the internal capability and there’s a new process involved.  When a company outsources an already existing process the outsourcing partner rarely comes up with a process that, in the customers eyes, is an obvious improvement regardless of the potentially superior technology involved.  In most instances they merely “lift and shift.”  The push for lower cost merely leads to more of the same, with virtually no commitment to any form of innovation.

The Death of Numbers-Based Performance Management

Here’s a link  along with accompanying video – to a very interesting piece from Strategy and Business with regard to ineffectiveness of the majority of Performance Management systems in operation in today’s organisations.  The authors show that ranking people on a numerical basis leads to a “fight or flight” response from the recipient that more often than not does not have the effect desired – improving performance.

On the issue of feedback the authors had this to say:

“It is taken for granted that feedback motivates everyone to perform, and that top performers find it particularly useful. None of this is true. Although those with a growth mind-set react more positively to it than everyone else, typical feedback is not motivating, rewarding, or pleasant. According to one study, everyone hates it.”

The authors posit that a more effective approach eschews actual ranking and involves a structured conversation approach that adopts the principles Carol Dweck introduced with the “Growth Mindset” thereby focusing on continuously learning and trying to develop challenging goals.