Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard

Taking notes in long hand might sound a bit old school, in fact some of us were probably pretty good at it when we were in school. These days we probably go into a meeting with our tablet or laptop booted up and type away a summary of a meeting or update bullet points on a spreadsheet or email. If we have been put through a barrage of PowerPoint we may just request a copy of the presentation and use that as our notes. Scribbling notes on a foolscap page is literally a lifetime ago. That is not a good thing.

Several studies have looked at how note taking impacts on how we understand and retain information. One recent study by Princeton University looked specifically at how note taking using a laptop compared with long hand. The laptop note takers scored poorly and were associated with impaired learning and a reduced grasp of conceptual issues, when compared to their long hand counterparts. The shallower processing involved when we just retype what we hear compared to the more complex processing it takes to physically sketch and write notes is suspected to be at play here, or as psychologists call it, Levels of Processing Theory.

If you are hiring someone who will be customer facing, a business analyst or integration specialist, ask about how they take notes. A good note taker will be able to describe their own style, be that their own methods they have developed over the years, mind maps or something more formal (the Cornell Method).

Good note taking requires someone who can identify key words, is organised and can get into the flow of what is being discussed. These are all key skills if you are hiring someone to capture customer requirements, understand a business process or detail what was committed to in meetings.

If you do hire an analyst and are wondering how they are getting on, take a look at their notes. It could be a window into how organised and up to speed they are in their project work. As part of staff induction, splash out on a good pen and fancy jotter. It is not just a perk, it also reinforces the importance of note taking, by hand. If someone asks you for a copy of the presentation you just gave, you can assume they will recall very little of what was discussed. That may or may not be a good thing.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

If you’re happy and you know it.....

So what did you get up to this weekend? If you went to a concert and go every now and again, you may feel better about life. A study from researchers at Victoria’s Deakin University surveyed 1,000 Australians and found that those who attended any sort of communal musical experience, be that a festival or just a night out dancing reported higher levels of satisfaction with their lives.

This is probably no surprise. Most cultures have a tradition of people meeting up and belting out a few tunes, from the Cheile House in Ireland, to Jamming Sessions in more modern times, to singing at Sunday Service, to rhythmic rituals in ancient or indigenous cultures. Shared communal musical experiences have always been with us and according to Deakin University for good reason - our emotional well-being.

However, in recent times, musical experience has become much more personalized. We have our own playlists on Spotify, shuffle our MP3 collections or stream our favorite artists on YouTube. There is less of a shared musical experience and more of a niche  individual one. That is not all bad, it reflects our choice and preferences.

Many organisations which look at staff well-being have devised appreciation days, team building events and other initiatives to motivate and create a buzz. There has been a move away from the once common company or department night out.

You are now more likely to lift a work colleague over a wall on a team building day than you are to show them a near perfect Moon Walk routine on the dance floor. According to the people at Deakin University, we may need to swing the pendulum back a little and have a few more nights out, be that to concerts or just a night on the tiles, and do so regularly.

If for all kinds of logistical reasons, company nights out are hard to organise, create a scheme where your department regularly has subsidized concert tickets or allow staff to leave early / come in late to make attending events feasible. This could work both ways, staff get a perk and organisations get a workforce that is more satisfied with life.

As artists find it harder to get revenues from singles or album sales (because of the aforementioned Spotify), more and more are now touring. There has never been a better time for live music. Encourage people to leave the playlists at home, pack their dancing shoes or air guitar and enjoy their music.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Figuring out Feelings

Understanding well-being and how we feel is very much in our consciousness. Organisations now see staff well-being and personal happiness as key components of a sustainable way of working and a big influence on staff retention. At a societal level we are concerned about how stressed and unhappy our youth are, how lonely our elderly might be and the increasing suicide rates in many developed countries. If we had a way of measuring and trending how people feel, that may go a long way in designing early intervention programs and reviewing the efficacy of the various initiatives deployed by organisations and society itself.     

I read something which got me thinking a little more about this. Researchers at the University of Manchester and Indiana University have put some science behind this idea of  ‘sentiment tracking’.

They looked at how global emotion and mood, as measured via something like Twitter, could predict stock market activity. They investigated whether measurements of collective mood states derived from large scale Twitter feeds, correlated to the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) over time. They analyzed the text content of daily Twitter feeds by two mood tracking tools, OpinionFinder that measures positive vs. negative mood and Google-Profile of Mood States (GPOMS)

Their results indicated that the accuracy of DJIA predictions can be significantly improved by the inclusion of specific public mood dimensions. If you want to predict closing prices on the Dow Jones, have an eye on the Twitter feed.

This raises some interesting questions about how we look at social media data or activity. It may justify a more qualitative approachWhen it comes to social media marketing, we may need to look at how our followers feel, rather than just counting them.

While causation and correlation could be difficult to nail down, there is perhaps something in this for the Data Scientists among us. There is a plethora of online content generated by users across all forms of social media, text, images, video. 

Parsing online content and cross referencing this with behavior may create some predictive tools or highlight some change in public mood. Looking at which emoticons are used and how frequently may be one place to start. Too many ASAPs in emails might signal someone under a little stress, lots of work emails sent at night or weekends could be from someone on the road to burnout. 

The take away is that with a focus on the Internet of Things, we could be relying on devices to tell us more about the world and how we live our lives. However a lot of this information could already be out there, we just have to look for it.  

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Too Much Information

We are all familiar with TMI, Too Much Information. Usually we hear it when we are exposed to some gory or elicit detail we’d rather not hear. It has however a more serious application when it comes to how we make decisions.

In these days of big data, ubiquitous connectivity and apps at every hands turn we often have lots of data about the choices we need to make in life, be that at work or at home. Too much information however can impede our ability to make decisions.

On the face of it, this is counter intuitive. We like to think that more information drives smarter decisions; that the more details we absorb, the better off we'll be. Knowledge is power and information feeds knowledge.

However when presented with loads of facts, we have difficulty in selecting out the items that really matter, it takes time and effort that we may not have. Worse still, the key pieces of information that should influence our decisions remain hidden and unused.

Malcom Gladwell makes this point in his book Blink. He tells a story about Cardiologist Lee Goldman at Chicago's Cook County Hospital.

Goldman used some statistical rules which mathematicians designed for telling apart subatomic particles. He fed a computer data of hundreds of files of heart attack cases and crunched the numbers into a “predictive equation” or model.

Four key risk factors emerged as the most critical tell tale of a real heart attack case:
1. ECG (the ancient electrocardiogram graph) showing acute ischemia
2. unstable angina pain
3, fluid in the lungs
4. systolic blood pressure under 100

Previous to this Cardiologists took quite an amount of time looking at patients, got information on weight, gender, lifestyle, how they came to be admitted, what their living conditions were at home. Goldman got Cardiologists to park their instincts and thirst to find out everything about a patient and used his 4 simplistic reference points. 

Outcomes improved on wards and fewer of the patients who were sent home from ER represented back at a future date with a heart attack. Using four simple facts that mattered led to better decisions.

Gladwell makes another point on how knowing less can improve our decisions. Not quite as serious as heart attacks but still interesting. For years it was believed that women could not play in orchestras as well as their male counterparts. Men dominated the ranks. 

Then someone had the bright idea to put in a screen for auditions where the musician was only heard and not seen. The blind audition was born. The number of women in major US orchestras increased fivefold. Decision makers knew less about their applicants (their gender) and now made their call on what was the core question, how well someone could actually play.

The take away is that when you have a decision to make, look at the information available to you. Try to critique what is important what and what is background noise. Write down the facts that influenced your decision, were these the facts that really mattered? Try to resist gathering KPI after KPI just because you can. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Anger Management

Some leaders in work or on the sports field (think Roy Keane or Bill Belichick) use anger as a tactic to get people moving, cut out mistakes and improve performance. And whatever you may think of it, it has been known to concentrate minds and get results.

I recently read a paper that put another perspective on this. In the Journal of Applied Psychology, Ella Miron-Spektor looked at how witnessing an angry outburst can dampen lateral thinking and blunt creative solutions.

Miron-Spektor works at the William Davidson Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management. She got engineering students to imagine being a customer service agent and they were given a written problem to solve. Before working on the problem, they listened to another customer service agent talking to a customer. In some cases this conversation was neutral and well mannered, in other cases it was hostile and had plenty of anger from the caller.

Students who heard the angry call, did better at problems that required analysis and diligence. The anger did focus minds on the task in hand (justifying Keane and Belichicks approach). However, these students performed worse at problems that required lateral or out of the box thinking (the candle problem).

Miron-Spektor then looked at the students emotional state and suggested that witnessing the angry exchange led to people being more defensive. People were keen to avoid punishment or being the target of anger. She felt this could cause them to narrow their focus on the immediate task in hand and get it complete, thereby avoiding anger. This narrowing of focus however closed their mind to broader solutions and hence a dip in performance for lateral thinking.

The takeaway here is that if we want people to think creatively we may need to provide an environment where they feel secure and don’t witness other people on the receiving end of abuse. If you want your software developers to complete their unit test plans, have them sit near the customer service people, if you want them to come up with the next big idea for your product, keep them well away from any conflict zones. 

This ties in with other studies which show that narrowing our focus (
 such as through bonus schemes) kills creativity. In the open office and shared work spaces most of us now have, avoiding angry out bursts might be hard to do. Allowing anger, be that from co-workers or customers, to become part of the office landscape can create a risk adverse culture and blunt our approach to innovation or problem solving. 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Bad at saying 'No'? That's a probem

I read a good article by Peter Bregman about how to say 'No'.

This is a very under-rated skill to have. Saying 'No' is vital to keeping work and customer expectations at manageable levels.Failing to say ‘No’ when we instinctively know that we may not be able to deliver is a bad move that can come back to bite us over and over. What ensues is usually a lengthy and awkward process of realigning customer expectations and eventually telling them ‘No’. In the meantime, you probably have damaged customer relationships, frustrated staff and wasted time figuring out how to limit the damage.

This happens quite a bit in software start-ups that code their own product. Feature creep can set in and it’s easy to say ‘Yes’ to an important client when they inevitably ask for a function or change request. At start-up phase pretty much any client is an important client.However, you will find yourself making promises you can’t keep, burning the candle at both ends (working late / weekends) to come good on commitments when you should have said ‘No’. That leads to endless firefighting where you neglect the basics of making sure your strategic business systems are running properly (sales pipeline, support documentation, credit control, cost benefit analysis of activity).

Key staff will get demotivated at constantly working under pressure or jumping from one ‘priority’ to another and probably leave (if you have more than three priorities, you don't have any). You will more than likely rehire in a hurry because you need someone straight away. Because you have taken your eye off the ball on the fundamentals of the business you may neglect your sales process, prospect call backs etc, so the clients that made the initial request now become even more important (as other sales haven't grown as planned ). It then gets even harder to say 'No' to their next change request. On and on it goes.

If you are a start-up company in firefighting mode or constantly find yourself avoiding calls from clients, end up working weekends, late at night, ask yourself how often you have said ‘No’ to a request in the last week. Chances are it’s not very often. There is nothing wrong with being busy and firefighting, just so long as it’s for a strategic or commercially sound reason. If it’s purely because you could not say ‘No’, then it’s a problem. 

As someone once said, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions', failing to say 'No' might be just laying another stone on that road for your projects or organisation. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

It's not as bad as you think

Part of the human experience is to find ourselves in embarrassing situations. We have all been there. In the pub we have knocked over a drink, had the odd wardrobe malfunction, or made an embarrassing mumble when giving a speech or presentation. 

You wish the ground would swallow you up. However, it may not be that bad, research now suggests that we generally overestimate the extent to which our actions or appearance are noticed by others. This phenomenon has even been given a name, The Spotlight Effect.

ProfessorThomas Gilovich, at Cornell University gave the spotlight effect its name and did some of the early research in this area. In one study he had participants put on a t-shirt showing a large picture of Barry Manilow’s face, (deliberately embarrassing) and then briefly go into a room filled with students. After each participant left the room, he or she was asked to estimate how many people in the room would be able to remember who was on their t-shirt. The students in the room were also asked if they could remember who had been on the t-shirt.

Participants completely overestimated how many people would remember they wore an embarrassing Barry Manilow t-shirt. Gilovich followed this up with a further study to see if the spotlight effect extended not just to people’s appearances, but also their actions. He put people into groups to discuss inner city problems. At the end of the discussion each person estimated how the other members of the group would rate their contribution and the performance of other group members. In most cases people overestimated how much attention had been paid to them when they were speaking.

According to Gilovich this happens because we are completely focused on ourselves, what we are doing and how we look. We have trouble appreciating that other people might not be that interested in us. Ever had an embarrassing post or picture put up on Facebook but never got the ridicule you initially expected? We focus on our own profile way more than others do.

Gilovich found evidence for this self-consciousness or self-focus when he ran the Barry Manilow t-shirt study a second time. On this occasion half the participants waited for 15 minutes before they completed their estimations. By delaying the estimation process, the experimenters gave the participants time to get used to wearing their shirts. Once the participants got used to their shirts, and became less self-conscious about their fashion infringement, they were no longer as aware of Manilow’s face, and neither did they assume that everyone else would notice it.

You have probably seen this yourself where the day after an embarrassing haircut or black eye, we are sure the whole world is pointing and laughing, but a few days later when we have got used to the face in the mirror, we think everyone else has too, even though many of the people we meet are seeing if for the first time.

The next time you make that mistake in public, don’t feel you have to blush and hide. You are probably the only person who was really paying attention to your calamity. But this is a two way street. For the same reason we also have to understand that when we make a witty remark or wear what we think is a cool or clever t-shirt, we may not get the attention or compliments we think we deserve. People aren’t paying as close attention to our appearance and actions as we are. Like us, they are too busy paying attention to themselves.

Being aware of this Spotlight Effect is important. Hanging on to or continuing to focus on your embarrassing mistakes can impact on your self-esteem and how you think of yourself generally. The best response is to smile, even if it comes out as that weird smile of embarrassment and admit that it was a cringe worthy experience. Then let it go because people who display embarrassment at their social transgressions are also the most prone to be liked. We like honesty.

The take-home message is perhaps this. When you find yourself mortified, be aware that other people simply don't pay as much attention to you as you think they do. Your slip up will not loiter long in the memory and that peculiar stain on your shirt or character won’t be the hot topic in the canteen. 

Your legend will not be secured on the basis of one particularly brilliant or embarrassing remark. It is not that you won’t be noticed, just that people do not brood over your actions you as deeply as you do. In other words, while you're stuck on your current problem or predicament, everyone else has already moved on. Shine the spotlight somewhere else, it will make you feel better about yourself. 

You are your Habits

Aristotle once said "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". If you want to know why your life is where it is today, look at your past habits. Better still, if you want to know where your life will be ten years from now, look at your current habits. Our levels of exercise, diet, work routines and pretty much everything else we do on a daily basis decide much of our future success and current choices.

A 2006 study by Duke University found that up to 40 percent of what we do every day is driven by habit rather than deliberate decisions. The autopilot kicks in as soon as we get out of bed and includes how we dress, what we do for lunch, how we greet the family when we get home from work, how much time we spend relaxing, playing or chatting. Eventually bed time routine takes over and the day is done.

This raises a simple point. If you want to change your life, (be that career, fitness levels or work life balance) your habits should be first port of call. There is no shortage of self-help books that will tell you how to quit a habit, start a habit, what sort of habits exceptional people have. It is all very interesting stuff, but in reality how difficult is it to create a new habit or better still, ditch a bad one?

Habit formation research from University College London suggests that there is no one standard length of time required for a habit to form. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. It will come as no great surprise that this period of time depends on how hard the new activity is and how much effort and commitment is required. Getting your 5 a day of fruit and veg might be a little easier and quicker than learning Chinese for half an hour every evening.

The research does suggest however that, for most new tasks the 66-day mark is when repetition becomes automatic and the habit takes root. These researchers did note that if you’re going to miss a day from your new found daily routine, skip a day that is further along in the 66-day period, since the pay back for habit formation counts more in the early days.
Another tip in learning a new habit is not to go for the complete personal makeover. Especially coming up to New Year it’s tempting to go for it all in one fell swoop. You start changing your exercise, diet, how you work etc. That is a lot of new behaviour to adhere to, especially in the critical first 2 months. Changing one habit can be difficult enough and is no mean feat so don’t spread yourself too thin and try changing everything at the same time.

CharlesDuhigg, has written an interesting book on habits, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Duhigg uses some good examples to explain how habits work. He looks at N.F.L. coach Tony Dungy, who, with lots and lots of practice, taught his players a small number of important moves they could perform without thinking, particularly at crucial moments in a game. When the players were exhausted, autopilot kicks in and everyone does their job. You don’t have to be an NFL line-backer to appreciate this. Pretty much the same thing happens when we get home after a night out, maybe feeling a bit groggy, take off our shoes and socks and barely know we did it.

As well as personal habits, we also have shared social habits. Some of these have been around for generations, such as shaking hands when we meet. Others are continually changing. We have seen this in the recent past where wearing a seat belt in the back seat of the car is now a well ingrained social habit; it was a very different story in the 1980s. These habits are changed by policy makers altering the norms in our society. This is the same principle behind de-normalising smoking via bans in bars, the work place and some public areas. The idea is to make not smoking the default social norm and hope that becomes our shared habit or custom.

Having habits is ultimately a good thing. They allow us to do routine tasks without wasting mental energy or having to make the same decisions over and over every day. Habits also allow us to operate within acceptable social norms so we can function as a society. Ultimately we humans are creatures of habit and it’s a case of trying to have more good habits than bad habits and being aware of how to change the habits we don’t want. List your daily habits and see which ones you want to keep. Bet you have more habits than you realise.