“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.” —Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.
Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.
Events operate by stories
Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.
It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.
For three months now, I’ve meditated for twenty minutes every day.
Personally this is a big deal, as I’ve struggled to maintain a regular meditation practice for decades. I’ve resolved countless times to meditate daily, and fallen off the mindfulness wagon over and over again.
It’s an advertisement and carefully staged, but I wonder if there are lessons for NCDD folks in the largely positive response to this recent Heineken ad:
The resulting conversation was fascinating and instructive. So I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here, and have added links when possible to the participants. I hope you find it a valuable dialog on the important issue of bringing people together across divides.
I loved seeing two people get to know each other quickly before tackling a subject. I don’t see any of the presented issues being discussed during the participant’s time together, so see neither “left” nor “right” changed views. The issue they worked on was constructing a bar and participating in a get-to-know-you exercise.
“Right” viewers may have changed their willingness to discuss their viewpoint with someone on the “other” side, but we can’t assume they were any less willing to discuss differences before being invited to participate in this filming.
After their joint beer, the opponents may keep their original beliefs, although now appreciate someone with an opposing belief.
Maybe our differences continue because no one invites us to discuss issues and we don’t have public places to discuss and work on them outside of establishments selling products.
Yes, there is a lesson in the largely positive response to this advertisement. The general public is not offended by the suggestion that bridging the divide is simple.
For those of us who actually try to address the divide, this can feel like discovering that the Matrix is real–there are few allies to be found because so many people are lost in fantasy.
But that lesson can be misleading. Fantasy can’t last forever. When the world actually collapses, the public response to this advertisement will change. At that point, people will see Heineken as an intoxicant. Cigarette ads used to get positive responses too, but don’t anymore.
Today I enjoyed the pleasure of playing with a three-year-old. Fantasy. Fantasy. There is no point at which people fully escape the instinct to fantasize or the instinct to honor the fantasies of those we love. Reality does force itself upon us from time to time–but not typically at times when we are likely to formulate a response to a Heineken ad.
I’m not seeing this as fantasy. It includes echoes of interactions I’ve had or seen myself. I would say that it doesn’t represent the full range of possible outcomes for such conversations: no one walked out on their bar-building partner, for instance, and there were no heated words. Of course, it wouldn’t include those things: at bottom it’s an ad. Perhaps its value is to get people thinking about the possibility of dialogue—people who’ve never even considered it before.
I was disturbed that there was no dialogue. Before the beer and the bar segment, there were only statements of belief and projections onto the ‘other’. Very sad that they used beer and a bar to seduce us into thinking that the divide could be crossed in that way. If there was anything positive about this ad it was that they were able to portray well several real divides (naming it publicly is a first step towards moving into it and past it) and that people had the capacity and willingness to form relationships even though the divides still exist. We can hope that in their willingness to form relationships that might last, that they could eventually dialogue about their differences.
Be careful about discounting fantasy. It’s one of the ways children and adults deal with reality. Yes, fantasy can be used to deny reality, but it can equally well be used to cope with reality by playing with its elements and making sense of it. When you see a child playing with fantasies, you are quite often seeing a child dealing with stark frightening reality in an oblique but much needed way.
The key to using fantasy to face rather than avoid reality is multiplicity, which is why children will tell the same story dozens of times, with slight variations, to explore a very real danger or concern. For narrative sensemaking to work, there can never be only one story. We’ve forgotten this function of fantasy because Disney and other cultural appropriators have unified and sanitized some of the deep and dangerous stories with which we used to make sense of reality. But fantasy is still a useful mechanism for coping with reality, and there are ways to help people use fantasy to face difficult problems, get new ideas, come together, and thrive.
To build on what Cynthia is saying, fantasy, or dreaming, is also how we envision a desirable future. In fact, it’s essential for imagining what we aspire to.
The social science behind Appreciative Inquiry points to the role that aspirations play in moving towards what we can imagine. In fact, it can be a matter of live and death. Social scientist Fred Polak, author The Image of the Future (1973), found that cultures die when they cease to have a positive image of their own future: “As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.”
I agree with Cynthia and Peggy that fantasy is a tricky topic. To be anti-fantasy is to be anti-human. And yet, to be anti-reality is also to be anti-human. If we believe fantasy should have non-trivial limits, then we need to do the work of specifying those limits.
I also agree with John that it is kind-of-encouraging to see that Pepsi and Heineken bother to address the divide at all. What makes me say “Ouch!” is the uncritical public response to it.
To me, the good situation would be that the ad starts a conversation which makes a constructive difference. I assume that was what Adrian had in mind (and I do appreciate his raising the issue, even if I say “Ouch!”). Unfortunately, the following more public response (which does call-out the fantasy) seems too angry to be constructive:
Honestly, I find it difficult to be surprised that fantasy did not inspire a constructive conversation. The only experiences we share are those of reality, so reality must be the basis of our common language. In public deliberation to solve communal problems, I think we should privilege science (when available) over fantasy. I hope no one interprets that as discrimination, because I do think there are other contexts in which science should not be privileged (e.g. generative, instead of comparative).
There is a problem when people drag the communal conversation into fantasy because they can’t (or don’t want to) learn the science. Three-year-olds who do this face something at least as violent as being forced to go to bed. We expect the conflict to be different among adults. In modern democracies, we even insist that adults who don’t do the science nonetheless have a duty to vote…
Mere voting or empathy will not satisfy me when I bring scientific evidence to a disagreement. I cannot be convinced that truth changes just because I love you, or because you outnumber me. Call me stubborn and unfeeling, if you must, but I don’t think I am alone in this, so I don’t think it would be helpful to dismiss this view.
We should probably not attempt too deep of an examination of a beer advertisement lest we discover that its motives are at root, capitalistic – surprise!
On the other hand the message – as I interpret it – demonstrates a valuable lesson. An important prerequisite to exploring differences of opinions/ideologies, is making sure that we have humanized and legitimized every person holding those opinions. In this ad, I see a brilliant (if truncated) example – for those of you who know him – of Humberto Matujrana’s definition of love; which is granting legitimacy to the other.
True, we did not see where the conversations went after the beer was opened. I don’t think we need to, that, for me at least, is beside the point. What struck me was how the set up of:
needing to collaborate while building something concrete
getting to know the other person in their own words (the 5 adjectives)
appreciation by the other person for positive qualities they see in me
– were all vital building blocks. Once that foundation of connection between two people was in place, it allowed for a different kind of conversation to emerge even though the participants have opposing ideological stances.
The Heineken ad, along with this one from TV2 in Denmark on All That We Share, show that when we humanize the people we have been conditioned to think of as “other”, we are in a much better place to enlarge our collective options, than if we keep thinking of people as fixed sets of characteristics or as believers in this or that system that we personally find abhorrent. They also show a vastly different approach between European and American commercials!
We are all of us, far more complex, nuanced, mysterious and extraordinary than any model or theory. From where I stand, it seems pretty clear that there are very few thoughts that are easily and quickly shared with others that produce an immediate resonance. On the other hand, people very easily and quickly share emotions. It is instinctual (unless life has conditioned it out of us) to feel joy when we see it being expressed by those around us – even if it comes from another species – think the joy we get when our pets are excited to see us. Likewise with sorrow or fear.
My experience as a facilitator is that when we focus on creating the conditions to feel empathy and kindness and friendship towards people, we get a lot farther in opening people to work with diverse and even conflicting viewpoints than we will if we are focusing solely on changing minds. In the Heineken ad, this seems quite clearly shown. The people who stayed for a beer were not sitting down with someone who represented a threat to their ideological position. They were sitting down with someone they had come to respect as worth listening to. And that is something that in my book, is worth paying attention to.
I am aware that what I am pointing to regarding creating the conditions for engagement is anecdotal and does not rise to the level of peer-reviewed science. I invite anyone who doubts that this approach is effective to engage in experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Perhaps working together, we can create a science of collaboration through conversation?
That’s another “Ouch!” because the ad is based on the techniques of conflict resolution experts. That’s right, instead of telling people that disputes which can be resolved through scientific test ought to be resolved through scientific test, conflict resolution experts are telling Heineken (and the world) that these disputes should be resolved through empathy. I’m not suggesting that empathy is not part of the solution, but it’ the easy part–not the actual bottleneck.
I think this is a case of “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and so-called conflict resolution experts having little more than empathy in their toolbox.
Ken, thank you for a thought-provoking post… indeed, “we are all of us, far more complex, nuanced, mysterious and extraordinary than any model or theory.”
your evocative words strongly remind me of one of my teachers… while he may not be so well-known in this community, many of us in the Focusing world are mourning the passing of Dr. Eugene Gendlin, philosopher, psychologist, and extraordinary listener…
As to the connection with this topic… Chris, I’m curious about what you mean, when you say “science”… do you mean mainly the “hard sciences”, such as physics and chemistry?
reason I’m asking, is that it seems that there is a lot of research recently in the social sciences and the human sciences, about such things as confirmation bias — what are the conditions under which people are willing to even consider information that differs from their current belief systems. And so I’m curious as to whether you would consider such research as “science”…
There’s also been a tremendous amount of scientific research in the last 10 years especially, on the subject of empathy, including its role in cognition… so I am not understanding the contrast between “empathy” and “science” as two non-overlapping entities.
But back to some points of agreement… yes, I see the exploration of “reality” (as in, what are our current conditions) as important as the exploration of “fantasy” (what do we want to create). Holding both is key to creative tension, a concept originally formulated by Robert Fritz and later popularized by Peter Senge.
Some eminent scientist have maintained that creativity is also involved in science, though that’s not how we are usually taught to think of as science… and, maybe more to the point here, creativity is key for generating possibilities and new understandings, especially in public policy situations where as much as we might long for it, there is no clear “one right answer” that satisfies everyone’s initial positions.
To come around full circle: the human process of creating new meanings and new understandings was Gendlin’s philosophical interest, which led him to psychology and to Carl Roger’s work at the University of Chicago. Many people are aware of Carl Rogers as the “founder of humanistic psychology”; few are aware that Rogers had a deep and abiding respect for science, and was the first to break the taboo against “intruding on the sacrosanct process of therapy” in order to place tape recorders in the therapy room (with consent from all involved.)
Thus Rogers was able to conduct research by analyzing a huge number of transcripts of therapy sessions; meanwhile Eugen Gendlin had become Carl Roger’s research director. For anyone interested in the kind of listening that supports the creation of new meaning (whether or not you are a therapist), I am including two somewhat technical resources below, along with some more popular resources.
I share Chris’ position that facts established though the application of the scientific method to evidence ought not to be evaluated by popularity polls. However, I think there is a role for empathy-building in laying the groundwork for, on the science side learning why a person is resistant to an inconvenient truth, and on the denial side creating trust that the opposing side isn’t manufacturing false facts for an ulterior motive. An uninformed opinion is not equally valuable as an informed judgment, but the people within whose brains those opinions and judgments reside are of equal worth. So helping them communicate makes sense.
I have participated as a book in a Human Library. It was interesting and rather fun. It confirmed for me Harvey Milk’s urging everyone to be out so that people would understand that yes, they did know someone who would be affected by a proposed law. The tricky part is to keep it from becoming a judgment on a different person’s worth as a human being. I’m not sure the ad got that right. I was more impressed that they were building something together. That is not always possible, and it can create new conflicts, but it is also an excellent way to get past bias.
This has been an interesting discussion. I had not seen any of the advertisements before.
Rosa asked what I meant by “science” as a tool of conflict resolution distinct from empathy. Carolyn phrased it well.
When I wrote “disputes which can be resolved through scientific test ought to be resolved through scientific test” I did not mean that we ought to use psychology to figure-out how to make our opponents’ minds more pliable. I meant that experiments can tell us whether cigarettes cause cancer, or whether human activity is causing the climate to change, or whether the only value women bring to a society is to birth children, or whether gender identify necessarily aligns with development of sexual organs.
A conflict resolution expert who doesn’t know how to design and manage such experiments would be missing something very important from his/her toolbox. Disagreements on these issues are resolved if the science-deniers are busy trying to do better science.
Carolyn suggested that the science-supporter can use empathy to discover why the science-denier instead continues to resist, but then what? The bottleneck is not our inability to see the real pain that science-deniers are suffering–the bottleneck is that we cannot allow that pain to sway our beliefs about the science. The real pain will never go away–there will always be pain–so we ultimately have to say, “Too bad for you, but that doesn’t give you any right to deny the science.”
I am not saying that pain should be ignored, but it shouldn’t be attached to science like earmarks to a bill. There are limits to whom gets to be part of any conversation, and unwillingness to preserve the integrity of social epistemic practices puts one on the outside of a natural limit.
What I’ve learned from moderating National Issues Forum deliberations is to probe for what each person values that underlie their positions because until those are out in the open the conversation cannot move forward. Each individual who denies climate change has his or her own particular concerns.
Some I’ve heard are that it will be used to justify more government intrusion into the individual’s freedom; that it will mean giving up the comforts of modern civilization and returning to a spartan 19th century way of life; that it threatens the person’s job. That allows us to talk about how we might respond to climate change in ways that minimize nanny government or maintain the important aspects of modern life or create new jobs and help workers transition. And the NIF emphasis on acknowledging tradeoffs and recognizing who does not benefit allows us to plan ways to address the pain of change.
I’m not saying that everyone can be brought into a productive conversation this way. But I know from bitter experience that saying “it is a scientific fact” does not get work. I wish it did.
Thank you, Ken, for your wonderful comments. It seems all too easy and common these days to vilify and disregard those who hold significantly different values than we do. As we use the instant one-to-many communication of Facebook or Twitter, we amplify difference as much as we do similarity. Beliefs and intentions built on falsehood and fear are reinforced as much as those informed by fact and science.
Since the Brexit vote, we have seen the consequences of our infatuation with the internet, social media, and those posing as legitimate sources of knowledge. We have significant numbers of citizens who seem unwilling or unable to be in respectful dialogue. Unwilling or unable to learn, unlearn, and relearn.
And so. . . what happens when we break the rules of civil discourse? When conversation is no longer able to influence people’s learning, understanding, beliefs, and action?
And if. . . we no longer have a way through communicated language to create common meaning sufficient to coordinate action together, what can catalyze new sense-making, new shared meaning, and coordinated action towards a shared purpose?
Research into the dynamics of complex human systems suggests an answer. We have tumbled from the presumed stability of the status quo, into a time and space of chaos. We know that simply saying “you’re wrong” or “why can’t you see what I see the way I see it?” Isn’t going to work. We’ve seen the power of a dominant new narrative to dramatically change minds and behavior.
And. . . Our narratives come from our experience. Even as we retreat from the space of civil discourse, it is experience that formed our knowledge, understanding, values, and intentions. It is experience that may catalyze new shared meaning, and make possible new dialogue and coordinated action.
My concern is that we will not collectively choose to walk into the room and build an Ikea bar together with those holding views very different from our own. My concern is that we may only change our thinking and behavior in the wake of a catastrophic event we all experience. One, perhaps, in which many may suffer.
I hope we will choose to walk into the room with An Other. I hope we will choose to experience collaboration, catalyze new meaning, and engage in dialogue for new possibility. Yet hope is not probability.
I appreciate the reality check on the feeling of “See! It is possible to talk across the divide!” I am not quite ready to trash to whole idea though.
Yes, Heineken picked the easiest hot-button issues and people to represent each side in a sensational kind of way. The fact of the matter is that people do exist who have either ill-informed ideas or just plain mean-spirited attitudes toward those who differ from them. We have to find some way to co-exist them too, not just ones who have ideas or attitudes we like. If this simplistic approach gets someone to consider that a trans woman (for example) might be a human being worth getting to know then that is something. The alternative as I see it is to pretend that people with bad (from my point of view) ideas or attitudes don’t exist, which is silly. Or to try to legislate or shame them out of existence, which is scary. I vote for reaching out as many times as it takes.
Even though I think it will never work, I second the motion to reach out as many times as it takes. I am not suggesting that science should never overrule people the way parents overrule a three-year-old. I just think the story shouldn’t end there. Our commitment to each other should go beyond the settling of any particular dispute, and that commitment needs to include a commitment to achieve mutual respect (eventually) no matter how impossible.
Suppose you could ask any test of my commitment to achieve respect for you–not just drinking a Heineken with you–what would it be?
A HT to Chris Santos-Lang who reposted this conversation recently and sparked me to reproduce it here.
We are biased against creativity. Though most people say they admire creativity, research indicates we actually prefer inside-the-box thinking.
“In an article for Slate, Jessica Olien debunks the myth that originality and inventiveness are valued in US society: “This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it.” She cites academic studies indicating that people are biased against creative minds. They crave the success of the result, but shun the process that produces it.” —Sarah Kendzior, The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America
I’ve experienced plenty of bias against comprehensive event design since I began developing participant-driven and participation-rich meetings in 1992. Despite over 25 years’ evidence that such designs improve meetings for all stakeholders, most traditional event owners shy away from exploring change that is creatively significant. Even potential clients who are experiencing some combination of falling attendance, evaluations, or profits have a hard time facing changing what happens at their events.
Can we overcome bias against truly creative event design? Though millions of meetings take place every year, thousands of meeting organizers know how to create truly creative conference designs. The steady rise in popularity of participant-driven and participation-rich designs like Conferences That Work continues.
We can do better than novelty at our meetings. The first step is to acknowledge our bias against creativity, and how we distract stakeholders with novelty instead. The second is to incorporate truly creative design into our events and experience the resulting benefits.
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models. Harold Jarche writes frequently about this:
“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.” —Harold Jarche, the new networked norm
It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.
As a consultant in various fields for 36 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.
Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.
The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power; we can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.
Here’s Harold Jarche again:
“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.” —Harold Jarche, chaos and order
This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and on board. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.
The network era is here, and its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.
The other day I was rereading Idoru by William Gibson, and the following passage spoke to me. It’s a conversation between two teenagers: Chia McKenzie from Seattle who is visiting Mitusko Mimura in Japan in the near future…
Mitsuko was getting her computer out. It was one of those soft, transparent Korean units, the kind that looked like a flat bag of clear white jelly with a bunch of colored jujubes inside. Chia unzipped her bag and pulled her Sandbenders out.
“What is that?” Mitsuko asked.
Mitsuko was clearly impressed. “It is by Harley-Davidson?”
“It was made by the Sandbenders,” Chia said, finding her goggles and gloves. “They’re a commune, down on the Oregon coast. They do these and they do software.”
“It is American?”
“I had not known Americans made computers,” Mitsuko said.
I realized that science fiction is especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time. When we notice this discomfort we tend to unconsciously reduce it in various ways.
In the above passage, the reader casually discovers that a near-future Japanese teenager has no idea that America still makes computers [“It is by Harley-Davidson?“, “I had not known Americans made computers.”]. Reading fiction, it’s easier to notice and put up with cognitive dissonance because — well, because we know it’s just fiction.
One reason I like science fiction is that it’s easier to notice sneakily introduced, provocative ideas about how the world could be different — and then, perhaps, start to wonder what it would be like if the world really was that way.
Ask attendees why they go to meetings and their top two responses are to learn and connect. Remember kids that ask a question, and when you answer it they say “why?”
“Why can’t we go outside?” “Because it’s raining.” “Why?” “Well, water’s coming out of the sky.” “Why?”
So be that annoying kid for a moment and ask: “Why do you want to learn and connect?”
If you play enough rounds of the why game, and ignore the unprofessional but possibly truthful answers — for example: “I’m hoping to get to know an attractive colleague better”; “My boss said I had to and I need a pay raise”; “It’s been too long since I ate fresh Maine lobster” — you will find that the core motivation to go to meetings is to change in some useful way. Change how you see things, and, most important, change how you do things: i.e. behavior change.
So now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s review what Harold Jarche, a veteran educator in the Canadian Armed Forces and now a leading consultant on workplace learning, has to say about the value of public speaking [emphasis added]:
“I do a fair bit of public speaking. But I doubt that much of it has changed anyone’s behaviour. I may have presented some new ideas and sparked some thinking. With a one-hour lecture, you cannot expect more. Yet a lot of our training programs consist of an expert presenting to ‘learners’. Do we really expect behaviour change from this? That would be rather wishful thinking. Learning is a process, not an event.”
“To learn a skill or get better at one you have to practice. Deliberate practice with constructive feedback is the key for long-term success.“
“I conduct face-to-face workshops as well as online ones. For my on-site sessions, usually 1/2 or a full day, I try to cover the basics and the key concepts. We do a few exercises to get people thinking differently. But I don’t expect significant changes in performance as a result of one day together.” —Harold Jarche, no time, no learning
Like Harold, after years of running meetings and workshops I’ve learned that the likelihood creating permanent valuable behavior change increases as a power of the time spent together. By “together” I don’t mean listening passively to an expert talk. I mean working together as a group to learn new skills and approaches and ways of thinking and practicing with constructive group and expert feedback.
We’ve all heard we should be doing these things to maximize the value of our valuable time together — but very, very few of today’s meetings involve even a smattering of facilitated deliberate practice with constructive feedback.
When you think of all the expensive time we continue to waste doing things we’ve been doing for hundreds of years which we now know don’t work — well, I think tragedy is an accurate description of what routinely passes as a “meeting”.
Change is hard. We now know that social production is the way to maximize learning that leads to significant, valuable, long-term change. At meetings, the instantiations of social production are facilitated workshops run by and/or with content experts. That’s what we should be doing.
Not lectures from experts. Stop wasting valuable time at meetings doing that!
Specific Measurable Achievable/Attainable Realistic Time-bound/Timely
The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things…”
So far, so good.
“…which is cute, but wrong.”
Which is where I disagree.
Why? I’ve spent years running personal introspectives: conference sessions for developing plans for personal change that incorporate SMART objectives. Having experienced the development of thousands of these plans, I’ve found that most people struggle to build SMART change goals.
For example, people will say:
“I want to stay in touch with the lab managers in my region.” Rather than “I will schedule a weekly visit to the private lab community website from now on, review the updates, and participate appropriately.”
“I want to treat my staff better.” Rather than “In the next two weeks, I will implement weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, and give them my undivided attention during our meetings.”
“I will get over my fear of public speaking.” Rather than “I will join my local Toastmasters club when it starts up again in the fall.”
Bearing this in mind, let’s go through Neil’s points:
“My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better.”
Um, SMART is not about developing the “best” objectives. You need a separate process for that. Once you’ve come up with relevant goals, SMART becomes a valuable tool to check to see they are actionable. [OMG, I used “actionable” in a post, but it seemed like the right word to use at the time.]
“The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.“
The problem described here is nothing to do with SMART. It’s with managerial process that develops goals for employees but doesn’t include any feedback mechanisms to ensure goals remain relevant. SMART is a tool for testing proposed objectives to see if they’re actionable [did it again]. Period. Blaming SMART instead of poor managerial practices that ignore the reality that continual organizational and environmental change requires timely evaluation of responsive employee goals is like blaming your sneakers for being uncomfortable because they’re red.
“[SMART goals are] entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.”
Nope. Nothing in SMART prevents you from developing goals that are creative, innovative, and capable of exponential value add. If you decide that having Bono spearhead your product launch is going to make your company the next unicorn, SMART is simply going to remind you that your bold objective should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While it may be a downer to realize you’ll need a million bucks you don’t have to get Sting involved, you could otherwise waste a lot of time chasing an impossible dream.
“Finally, [SMART goals are] linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.”
OK, it should be clear by now that I’m separating the limited applicability of SMART goals from the dysfunctional cultures Neil describes where they’re “used” inappropriately. All objectives are developed and exist in a context. Contexts change continuously, so a goal that’s relevant and useful one day can become obsolete overnight. To remain effective, employee and organizational goals need to be responsive to circumstances. Like Neil, I’ve no problem criticizing inflexible performance cycles, spurious, outdated goals, and ineffectual fixed performance reviews.
Just don’t lump SMART goals in with all the dysfunctional managerial gobbledygook. SMART goals aren’t stupid when they’re 1) personal 2) the outcome of effective strategy & analysis, and 3) evaluated, modified, and discarded when appropriate. The sole function of SMART is to check that goals — developed by good process and continually reviewed and updated — are actionable. [Third time’s the charm.]