The party after the war

party after the warI hope that one day soon we will hold the party after the war.

If the war ever ends. (Remember how it didn’t in 1984?)

Even if the war ends, there will be more wars.

And all tomorrow’s parties.

Our pandemic war is an example of Satir’s model of change.

With only the silver lining that adversity may lead to growth.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting — all of us are waiting — for the party after the war.

And perhaps during the partying, and for some time afterward we will forget the war.

Until, once again, we remember it all too well.

Photograph “Two British sailors and their girlfriends wading in the fountains in Trafalgar Square on VE Day” from the collection of the Imperial War Museums.

How to work with others to change our lives

change our livesHow to work with others to change our lives

I belong to a couple of small groups that have been meeting regularly for decades. The men’s group meets biweekly, while the consultants’ group meets monthly. I have been exploring and writing about facilitating change since the earliest days of this blog. So in 2021, I developed and facilitated for each group a process for working together to explore what we want to change, and then change our lives.

Each group spent several meetings working through this exercise.

What happened was valuable, so I’m sharing the process for you to use if it fits.

The process design outline

It’s important for the group’s members to receive instructions for the entire exercise well in advance of the first meeting, so they have time to think about their answers before we get together.

Exploring our past experiences of working on change in our lives

We begin with a short, three-question review of our past experiences working on change in our lives.

These questions give everyone the opportunity to review:

  • the life changes they made or attempted to make in the past;
  • the strategies they used; and
  • what they learned in the process.

This supplies baseline information to the individuals and the group for what follows.

The questions cover what:

  • we worked on.
  • was tried that did and didn’t work.
  • we learned from these experiences.

We each share short answers to these questions before continuing to the next stage of the process.

For the rest of the exercise, each group member gets as much time as they need.

Sharing what we would currently like to change in our lives

Next, we ask each person to share anything they would currently like to change in their life. This includes issues they may or may not be working on. Group members can ask for help to clarify what they want to change.

Exploring and discussing what we are currently working on to change our lives

Next, each person shares in detail which of the above issues they are currently working on, or want to work on, to change in their life. This can include describing their struggles and what they are learning, and also asking the group for advice and support.

Post-process review

Exploring long-term learning is important. So, after some time has elapsed, perhaps a few months, we run a post-exercise review of the outcomes for each person. This helps to uncover successes as well as difficulties that surfaced, and can also lead to additional appropriate group support and encouragement.

Here’s an example — what I shared and did

Things I’ve tried in the past to make changes in my life that didn’t work

  • Trying to think my way into making changes w/o taking my feelings/body state into account
    e.g. trying to lose weight by going on a diet.
  • Denial—doing nothing and hoping the change will happen.

What I’ve learned about successful ways to change my life

  • Anything that improves my awareness of feeling or body state can be a precursor to change: e.g. mindful eating or emotional eating.
  • Creating habits: e.g. brushing my teeth first thing in the morning; setting triggers (calendar reminders, timers for meditation or breaks).
  • The habit of daily exercise, regular yoga, which improves awareness of my body state.

Three issues I worked on

  1. Tidying up and documenting my complicated life before I die.
  2. Meditating daily.
  3. Living more in gratitude; developing a daily practice.

My post-exercise three-month review

  1. I’m happy with the way I continue to work on the long-term project of tidying up my office, getting caught up on reading, and documenting my household and estate tasks. To help ensure that I work on it every day, I created a simple spreadsheet with columns for various short tasks that advanced my goals. Checking off time spent on one of these tasks each day shows me I’m making progress, and this feels good.
  2. I created a buddy system with another group member who wanted to meditate more. We send each other an email when we’ve meditated. This has greatly improved the likelihood I’ll meditate every day.
  3. After trying a simple daily gratitude practice, I decided to let it go for the time being until my daily meditation became a fully reliable habit. Sometimes, small steps are the best strategy!

Detailed instructions

Interested? OK! Here’s how to run this exercise.

First, explain the process and see if you get buy-in from the group about doing this work. It’s helpful to explain that each person can choose what personal change they want to work on. There are no “right” or “wrong”, or “small” or “large” personal change issues. Any issue that someone wants to work on is valuable to that person, and that’s all that counts.

I think it’s helpful for everyone present to participate, rather than some people being observers, but ultimately, that’s up to the group to decide.

Well before the first meeting, share the following, adapted to your needs, with group members.

Working together to change our lives – the first meeting

“We’ve decided to work together on what we are currently trying to change in our lives. As we will have about an hour for this work at each session, we’ll need two or more meetings for everyone to have their turn.

For the exercise to be fruitful, we will all need to do some preparatory work before the meetings.

Our eventual focus will be on what we are currently trying to change in our lives, and how we are going about it.

We’ll start with questions 1) and 2) below, which are about the past. Please come with short (maximum 2½ minutes total per person) answers to them. Please answer question 3) in 90 seconds or less. At subsequent meetings, we will spend much more time on questions 4) & 5).

Please come to the first meeting prepared to answer the following three questions:

==> 1) What have you tried to make changes in your life that didn’t work? What have you learned over the last 20 years?

==> 2) What have you learned about successful ways to change your life over the last 20 years?

Don’t include childhood/teen lessons learned, unless you really think they’re still relevant to today’s work.

Remember: a maximum of 2½ minutes for questions 1) and 2) combined!

==> 3) What would you currently like to change about how you live your life? (You might not be working on it. You can ask for advice if you want.)

Be as specific as possible in your answer to question 3). Your answer should take 90 seconds or less! (But we’ll provide more time if you want or need help clarifying your goals.)

Working together to change our lives – subsequent meetings

At subsequent meetings, we’ll each take turns to answer questions 4) and 5) below. You’ll have as much time as you need to answer these questions and partake in the subsequent discussion.

==> 4) What are you currently working on to change in your life?

==> 5) How are you going about making the changes you shared in your answer to question 4)? What are the struggles and what are you learning? What advice would you like?”

Running the meetings

At the first meeting, you’ll typically have time for everyone to share their answers to the first three questions. Keep track of the time, be flexible, but don’t let participants ramble. It’s very helpful for the facilitator to take brief notes on what people share. If there’s still time available, I suggest you/the facilitator models the process by sharing their answers to questions 4) and 5) and holding an appropriate discussion. Use subsequent meetings as needed for every group member in turn to answer and discuss these two final questions, and write notes on these discussions too.

The post-exercise review

When this exercise has been completed for everyone, I suggest the group schedule a follow-up review in a few months time. If your group starts with check-ins, it can be useful to regularly remind everyone about the review and ask if anything’s come up that someone would like to discuss before the review meeting.

Before the post-exercise review, let group members know that the facilitator will share their notes for each person in turn, and ask them to comment on what’s happened since.

At the start of the post-exercise review, explain that this is an opportunity to share information — discoveries, roadblocks, successes, etc. — without judgment. It’s also a time when group members can ask for ideas, advice, and support from each other.

Finally, you may decide to return to this exercise at a later date. After all, there’s mucho be said for working on change throughout our lives. The above process may be the same, but the answers the next time may be quite different!

Have you tried this exercise? How did it work for you? Did you change/improve it in some way? I’d love to hear your experience with it — please share in the comments below!

How to provide new experiences at meetings

new experiences at meetingsHow can we provide new experiences at meetings? Not new F&B, decor, or glitz. Something deeper.

Here’s a story…

A memorial service

Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.

People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.

The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”

We talked about her guilt at surviving. We gave her the gift of listening. Afterwards, she looked better, and perhaps she felt a little better too.

New experiences

We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.

It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.

Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.

Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.

Fear of new experiences

To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:

“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.”
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

This universal fear is the reason the meeting industry continues to struggle with incorporating new experiences into events. Often, we sidestep the issue and tell ourselves that some novel venue, decor, food and beverage, or lighting will provide attendees with “a new experience”.

We choose to forget that magic happens outside one’s comfort zone.

And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.

The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!

How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings

There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”

It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.

Here’s what to do instead.

Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.

Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.

And doing this isn’t hard! I, and many others, have been designing and facilitating such meeting environments for decades. Here are the books I recommend that explain what you need to know and how to implement. And here’s how to make it easier for attendees to risk having new experiences at your event.

If you want to know how well this works, take a look at the randomly chosen participants’ comments about my events over the last thirty years that appear in the sidebar of this blog.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

If I can help you in any way create an environment for new experiences at your meetings, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Original image attribution: Flickr user tauw under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Achieve success one small step at a time

achieve success one small step
I’ve written frequently about facilitating change. Despite attempting to practice what I preach, I still sometimes fail to create a desired change in my life. Here are two recent examples that led me to realize that I need to achieve success one small step at a time.

1) Meditation and gratitude practice

For 26 years, I’ve been a member of a small local consultants group that meets monthly. Recently I’ve been facilitating a set of meetings to work on changes we want to make in our lives. This involves figuring out what they are, and supporting each other in making these changes a reality.

To model the process, I went through it myself first with our group. Two of the changes I wish to make are maintaining a daily meditation practice (something I’ve struggled with for years), and creating a daily gratitude practice.

My group made two good suggestions for creating these desired changes:

  1. To maintain my daily meditation practice, I committed to meditating for a minimum of five minutes per day without fail. This is much shorter than my old time goal. I also gained a group buddy who wanted to meditate more frequently. We would send each other an email when we’d completed our daily meditation, helping us to keep on track.
  2. For a gratitude practice, I decided to write down daily three things for which I was grateful. I found some small cards and a box for them, and kept these on my desk.

I have been able to faithfully maintain my meditation practice since our last group meeting. Hopefully, this change will become a habit for me. However, I started to miss days for the gratitude practice. This was a little upsetting, and I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to get back on track.

I realized that attempting to make both changes simultaneously was a barrier to complete success. So I’ve dropped the gratitude practice writing. (I still try to notice moments for gratitude when they arise, and I’m getting better at this.)

My goal now is to work on maintaining my daily meditation practice until it becomes a solid and permanent change. At some point I may increase the minimum time I meditate. Once I feel secure in this change, I will begin work on maintaining a daily gratitude practice.

One success out of two is an improvement! One small step at a time.

2) Tying my shoes

Don’t laugh! OK, laugh if you want; I don’t mind.

My physical therapist recently showed me a cool new way to tie my shoes. (If you don’t want to learn it, feel free to skip the next bit.) When I was a kid, my mum taught me the most common method, as shown in the first 30 seconds of this video.

one small step

The above knot is easy to untie by pulling either lace end. However, over the years, I found that it would occasionally unexpectedly untie. So I added tying the two loops in a half knot. The resulting knot doesn’t spontaneously untie, but you can’t just pull a lace end to untie your shoe; you have to untie the half knot first.

Last month, while fitting some orthotics into my brand new running shoes, my physical therapist saw how I was tying my shoes. She suggested a better method, with one extra step. Watch it in the second half of the same video.

Changing something I’ve done the same way for 60+ years isn’t a piece of cake. But I found it fairly easy to get in the habit of tying the thick laces in my running shoes the new way.

However, the skinny laces in my everyday sneakers are another matter. For some reason, it’s much harder for me to add the extra step with these laces. I got frustrated trying to tie my sneakers in the new way, and it was affecting my running shoe tying muscle memory.

So, instead of trying to make the change in two different places, I decided to give up the new method for my sneakers. Using the new method, but only to my running shoes, is becoming more and more automatic. And I have no problem staying with my childhood method for my sneakers.

Over time, I hope that typing my running shoes the new way will become completely automatic. I’ll have successfully made one small change. Then it will be time for me to work on adding the change to tying my sneakers, achieving success one small step at a time.

Jerry Weinberg’s take

I’ve learned so much from my late mentor Jerry Weinberg. And he had something to say about achieving success one small step at a time. Jerry was a consultant to Ford on the ill-fated Edsel. As he recalls in his jewel of a book, The Secrets of Consulting, the Edsel project was a great triumph. Ford “…installed some terrific new computer systems that ultimately were adopted by the entire auto industry.”

What Jerry realized, twenty-five years later, was that the Edsel was a flop because Ford, scared of all the “better ideas” put all of them into one car. “That approach guarantees that even if each one of the individual ideas is terrific, the result will be a debacle.”

From this experience he derived The Edsel Edict.

“If you must have something new, take one, not two.”

In other words, achieve success one small step at a time.

One small step

Have you tried to make changes in your life and, like me, sometimes failed? Perhaps reducing the number of simultaneous changes you attempt may help you achieve success one small step at a time.

Image “one step behind” by Andreas Schalk under CC BY 2.0 license

The liberation of ignoring sunk costs

ignoring sunk costsAre you stuck in a career or life that you are reluctant to leave because it would involve ignoring sunk costs? I frequently meet people who are, and I certainly understand the temptation. Here’s the story of how I liberated my life by ignoring sunk costs. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same?

The first twenty-five years of my life

My early education environment fed me a fire hose of information that my schools decided I should learn. Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world. So it’s not surprising that I gravitated to studying physics. I ended up with a Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics at the tender age of 25.

I could have stayed in the field, probably got tenure, and been a physicist the rest of my life.

Instead, having fallen in love with Vermont, I left the world of high-energy particle accelerators and multiyear Big Science experiments, never to return. Although some of my experience prepared me for subsequent careers in computer science and consulting, I spent perhaps five to ten years of my life studying and working in fields I have, by now, largely forgotten. Five to ten years of sunk costs.

But no regrets. Although nothing to do with my absence, the field of experimental high-energy physics yielded little interesting progress over the last forty years. I’m glad I left it.

A visit to Korea

In 1996, my family and I visited Korea. Everywhere we went, people asked my profession. They were astounded when I told them I had recently given up being a college professor to concentrate on information technology consulting. In Korea, being a college professor was the highest status you could have. (The two college professors with whom we were staying had their graduate students pick us up at the airport and ferry us around.) The idea that I would give up college teaching to pursue a different career was incomprehensible.

Perhaps if I’d been born Korean and followed the same educational path, my high status would have seduced me, and I would never have left academia. Status is a big reason why people cling to jobs that they hate. Knowing more about myself now, I’m glad I escaped such a fate.

Solar, teaching, and consulting

New careers followed. Abandoning each one required ignoring my associated sunk costs. Yet, in retrospect, there was always learning that fed my future. Managing a solar manufacturing company taught me much about business, which proved vital to my later consulting career. And teaching computer science for ten years helped me slowly become a better teacher, eventually discarding the broadcast-style teaching modalities I had experienced and unconsciously assumed.

Meanwhile, in my spare time…

Ever since I was a graduate student, I’ve felt drawn to bring people together around topics and issues they had in common. I spent most of the next thirty years doing this as an unpaid volunteer in my spare time. My only reward was the mysterious pleasure of feeling good about what I was doing.

What I didn’t realize was that, during these decades I was learning a great deal about successful and unsuccessful ways to facilitate group connection and fruitful learning. Figuring out ways to make the fundamental human act of meeting better, motivated by nothing more than the pleasure it gave me, led me to write a book about what I had learned.

To my surprise, when I published Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love in 2009, I found myself professionally involved in the meeting industry.

It took me half a century, but I finally figured out (for now) what I love to do. And organizations pay me to do it!

Are you stuck?

Are you stuck in a career or life choice that you are reluctant to leave because you would have to ignore sunk costs? Ultimately it’s your choice, of course. For me, being able to walk away from the learning, experience, and status I’ve achieved in various realms has been worth it. If my story hasn’t convinced you, I’ll close with Seth Godin’s thoughts on the subject:

“‘Ignore sunk costs’ is the critical lesson of useful decision making…

…Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.

Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.”
Seth Godin, Sunk costs, creativity and your Practice

Have you ignored your sunk costs, and walked away from a career or life choice? Share your story in the comments below!

Image attribution: Flickr user Falco Ermert, under CC license Attribution 2.0.

Successful change requires integration and practice

integration practiceI find Virginia Satir’s change model to be the most useful of the many models of change. There’s a crucial fifth stage in Satir’s model that people often neglect: the integration and practice phase.

integration and practice
The hero’s journey shortchanges change

Why do people overlook the importance of integration and practice? Well, the hero’s journey is a common way we picture how change occurs. A hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.

At the end of the hero’s journey, everyone involved, just like in fairy tales, “live happily ever after”.

Integration and practice is absent from this monomyth version of change.

Integration and practice is a vital component of change

In reality, integration and practice are vital components of change. You’ve probably experienced moments in your life when you realized that something was or was about to be different: the fourth stage transforming idea/event of Satir’s model of change. I certainly have.

Typically, however, such moments of insight or awareness do not lead to instantaneous change. Think about the times you’ve realized you can/have to/want to make a change in your life.

Some stories about working on change

Here are three stories about working on change in my life:

Losing weight.

Meditating daily.

Asking for help.

Each story includes the awakening moment(s), followed by integration and practice.

Even when we incorporate integration and practice, successful change isn’t guaranteed. Though eating mindfully has maintained my weight loss for 6 years, and I’m now good at asking for help, I still struggle to meditate daily.

As Jerry Weinberg said in his wonderful book Becoming a Change Artist:

Change requires patience. John Stevens tells this story from the martial arts:

Once, a young man petitioned a great swordsman to admit him as a disciple. “I’ll act as your live-in servant and train ceaselessly. How long will it take me to learn everything?”

“At least ten years,” the master replied.

“That’s too long,” the young man protested. “Suppose I work twice as hard as everyone else. Then how long will it take?”

“Thirty years,” the master shot back.

“What do you mean?” the anguished student exclaimed. “I’ll do anything to master swordsmanship as quickly as possible!”

“In that case,” the master said sharply, “you will need fifty years. A person in such a hurry will be a poor student.”‘

Practicing to become a change artist

We all probably hope that implementing change in our lives won’t take decades of integration and practice. So, are there ways we can practice getting better at facilitating change?

Why, yes, suggests Jerry Weinberg!

The title of Chapter 6 of Becoming a Change Artist is “Practicing to Become a Change Artist”.

In it he makes simple suggestions on how we can practice implementing change in our lives, and, in the process, become more open to and expert in facilitating change for others and ourselves.

‘The purpose is to launch your career as a change artist by experiencing some of the theoretical learnings in the “real world,” but in as small and safe a way as possible.’

Here are some exercises Jerry recommends:

  • Go to work in a different way tomorrow.
  • Make a different lunch every day, or make the same lunch a different way.
  • Brush your teeth in a different order.
  • Instead of trying to change something, sit back, listen, and observe. Notice your urge to change things and what happens when you don’t do anything about your urges.
  • Pick one habit that keeps you from being fully present, and focus on reshaping that habit in all your interactions.

Why not try some of these yourself? I enjoy this challenge!

Practicing how to implement change in small ways in our daily lives can help us improve how we facilitate change. Put another way, concentrating on the process of facilitating change, rather than the product or outcome is the way to go.

Image attribution: Close up of a girl training inside a boxing ring by Jacob Lund from Noun Project


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

On our different responses to adversity

responses to adsversityWe all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.

I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:

This was the journey

I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Work on *what* to change, not just managing change

what to changeIt’s tempting and understandable to concentrate on trying to manage change. After all, we are constantly experiencing change, and attempting to manage it is often unavoidable. But never lose sight of the importance of working on what to change.

Read the rest of this entry »

The danger of our drive to make sense

our drive to make senseIn our natural desire to predict the future and make good decisions, we must always stay mindful of the danger of our drive to make sense.

Nick Chater and George Loewenstein propose that evolution has produced a ‘drive for sense-making’. They argue that sense-making…

  • …is a fundamental human motivation.
  • …is a drive to simplify our representation of the world.
  • …is traded off against other ‘utilitarian’ motivations.
  • …helps to explain information avoidance and confirmation bias.

The under-appreciated drive for sense-making, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

Clearly, sense-making is a vital human activity. At a fundamental level, our brains are continuously, and largely automatically, making sense of our sense organ data. At higher levels of thought, we routinely attempt to make sense of situations that confront us. If we didn’t, the world would be a confusing and more dangerous place.

Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. Thus, sense-making is a key ingredient of our ability to plan and make group decisions.

The danger of our drive to make sense

There’s a flip side to our incredible ability to make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Dave Snowden, speaking about tactics used by the foresight community, says:

“The real dangers are retrospective coherence and premature convergence
—Dave Snowden, Of tittering, twittering & twitterpating

Retrospective coherence

Dave Snowden coined the term retrospective coherence, aka Monday morning quarterbacking, when talking about the behavior of complex systems. (See Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making to learn more about complex systems, a domain of the Cynefin framework.) Retrospective coherence means that, in a complex environment, it seems easy in hindsight to explain why things happened. Unfortunately, applying our sense-making abilities to complex systems doesn’t work, since cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.

For those with short memories, the danger of retrospective coherence is that it inspires a false confidence in their ability to make correct predictions. To avoid such inflation of our predictive expertise we need to scrupulously compare our predictions with actual outcomes, and admit our limitations.

Premature convergence

Premature convergence is our predilection to prematurely decide we have found the answer to a problem and stop exploring other possibilities.

Facilitators are familiar with this human tendency, and minimize it by spending adequate time in what Sam Kaner calls the Divergent and Groan Zones.

our drive to make sense
Diagram from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al

Determining what is “adequate” time is one of the arts of facilitation.

During divergence, a facilitator supports the uncovering of relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas.

At some point, there’s a switch to the Groan Zone. Here, the participants discuss what’s been uncovered, develop a shared framework of understanding, and create inclusive potential solutions. At least, that’s how Kaner describes the process, though the Groan Zone has always seemed to me to have a lot in common with what Virginia Satir’s change model calls chaos.

People have proposed many ways to move from groan zone to convergence, and some of them are flawed. There’s no single “right” way to move to convergence. But you’re likely guaranteed to come up with a poor conclusion if you don’t spend enough time diverging and groaning beforehand.

Stop making sense?

Despite the pitfalls outlined above, we are sense-making animals and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Stay realistic about your limitations to predict future outcomes, and take your time moving through divergent & Groan Zone process, and you’ll avoid the dangers of our drive to make sense.

Mostly.