The danger of our drive to make sense
In 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
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 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.
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.
Contrasting examples of unlearning from Apple
Unlearning is crucial for change, both personal and organizational. Here are two examples of unlearning from the Apple ecosystem: one successful, and one not.
#1 The Apple Watch Workouts app
In 2017, I purchased an Apple Watch. It has improved my life in many ways. In particular, it’s become an essential tool for supporting my desire to exercise daily. The watch’s Workout app tracks my exercise. All I need to do is to tell it what kind of exercise I’m about to start, and leave the app running until the exercise is over.
To pick the right exercise, the watch shows a scrollable list. Here’s what I saw today when I tapped the app:
Right now I’m living at home, and the two workouts I do most often are my daily outdoor run and yoga. So it’s convenient that these options are the first two I see.
This happens because the Workout app learns over time which workouts I use and, to quote from Apple support: “As you use the Workout app over time, the order of workouts is changed automatically to reflect your usage.”
The Workout app learns my preferences, and adjusts its display to show me the most likely workouts first.
My environment changes
Almost every year, I vacation in Anguilla, typically for three weeks. My exercise program there is different. I don’t run (it’s too hot for me!) but I walk daily, followed by a pool swim.
After a few days, the Workout app unlearns my most common home-based exercises and relearns my new routine, replacing the top two items on the Workouts list with the Outdoor Walk and Pool Swim choices.
For the remainder of my vacation, these two options stay at the top of the list.
Alas, all good things come to an end. On returning home, the Workout app unlearns my Anguilla routine and relearns my home routine.
And if my exercise regime changes over time, due to circumstances or location, the Workout app will continue to use its learn-unlearn-relearn routine to display the most likely choices first.
I’m sure that Apple has incorporated other examples of unlearning into its products, but this is one I’ve noticed. Small thoughtful touches like this have helped Apple products and services become market leaders in a very competitive industry.
#2 Apple Mail
Apple doesn’t always get things right, unfortunately. Apple’s Mail program provides a classic example of what happens when unlearning is not an option.
Apple Mail allows you to file messages in folders, a useful way for me to organize the 94,000 emails I currently store. Trying to be helpful, the program learns where you tend to store specific kinds of messages, and after a while, right-clicking a message will pop up an option to move it to the “learned” preferred folder.
This is a generally helpful feature — except…
Once Apple Mail has “learned” where to file an email, it won’t unlearn that choice!
Furthermore, there’s no way to manually reset Apple Mail’s choice!
For example, let’s say you’ve been working with Marce, a client’s employee, for some time, so you’ve been moving Marce’s emails to a folder for that client. After a while Apple Mail helpfully offers to move emails from Marce to that client folder. So far, so good. Then Marce moves to a new company, and you continue to work with them. Now you’d like to file Marce’s emails in a separate folder for the new client. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you manually file Marce’s emails in the new client’s folder, Apple Mail will forever continue to suggest moving them to the former employer folder!
You will have to move email from Marce to the new employee folder manually every time, remembering every time not to choose the (wrong) default Apple Mail continues to suggest.
This is a drag, and a product flaw.
It surprises me that the Watch software incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn into its memory-limited program space, but Apple Mail on the desktop, where program size is not an issue, only includes the learn piece.
I’ll conclude with a few observations about the wider value of unlearning in organizations.
Most organizations need to innovate constantly, due to changing circumstances. Innovation doesn’t just involve coming up with new ideas. Innovation also requires a willingness and ability to cannibalize or destroy existing products or services; i.e. to unlearn what used to work, and relearn what is now relevant.
Building and supporting an organizational culture that incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn is, thus, essential for the organization’s continued relevance and survival. Kodak was unable to unlearn that film was no longer a viable market for the size the company had become, or relearn how to switch to a digital imaging world. Apple, on the other hand, maker of the iPod, the most successful music player, poured energy into the development of the iPhone, a whole new product area that, while eventually cannibalizing Apple’s iPod sales, made far greater profits than if Apple had stayed with what they first built.
Do you build learn-unlearn-relearn into your personal and professional life? Share your story in the comments below!
Some models of change are better than others
How can we work on facilitating change in our lives?
If we want to facilitate change in our lives, having a model of how change happens can be very helpful. But which model? To facilitate business change, there’s an entire industry of well-paid organizational change management consultants who use different change models. And though we may not be aware of it, we all carry around some kind of model in our head about we make changes in our life.
Some models of change are better than others
In this post I’ll describe four common change models. The first three are simplistic and sometimes misleading. In the corporate world, they have been responsible for significant employee misery. For personal use, these models have little utility.
Did I tempt you to skip to the genuinely useful change model that follows? Resist the temptation, because you may recognize one or more of the first three models in a wide variety of situations you’ve experienced. Discovering that an ineffective change model is in use can help you notice unproductive corporate and personal environments.
You can find more information and insights on these models in Jerry Weinberg‘s excellent book: Becoming a Change Artist.
The Diffusion model of change
The Diffusion model of change is a fancy way of saying “shit happens”. Change simply diffuses into our lives somehow. The word “diffusion” implies that change propagates, perhaps via social contact or some other process, throughout a group of connected people. But this change model doesn’t really add much to our understanding of how change can occur.
The Hole-in-the-floor model of change
The Hole-in-the-floor model of change implies that a carefully designed, top-down, controlled process can create an instant change. This is a common model in organizations, where high-level executives meticulously plan a change “that will go into effect on January 1”. Here’s Jerry’s drawing of how this supposedly works.
Traditional conference designs also adopt this model. Somehow, the inspiring keynote will instantly change attendees’ lives for the better.
Obviously we can make plans to initiate change. The biggest flaw with the Hole-in-the-floor model of change is the unrealistic assumption that change can occur instantly. In the vast majority of cases, however, change takes time. The model also implies the existence of controlling changers who can instantly change the passive changees. Even if the changer and changee are one and the same, we all know how difficult it is to make an instantaneous change in our own lives.
The Newtonian model of change
The Newtonian model of change tries to improve the Hole-in-the-floor model by adding a sort of human physics, fancifully based on Newton’s first law of motion. The concept is that you can push people to change, and the resulting change will happen over a time that depends on how hard you push. The harder you push, the quicker the change will take place. Naturally, the Newtonian model assumes that to change in a certain direction, you must push in that direction
Unlike the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model at least recognizes that change takes time. But what the Newtonian model of change overlooks is that when you push people, they often push back, or move in a completely different direction. Like the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model assumes that you can control people by pushing them in the direction that the controllers want them to go.
Jerry Weinberg also describes a variant of the Newtonian model: the Learning curve model. In this model, an S-shaped curve replaces the Newtonian model’s linear change over time. The above criticism applies to both models.
The Satir model of change
The Satir model of change was developed by the founder of family systems therapy, Virginia Satir, and described in her book The Satir Model, published in 1991.
Unlike the previous models, the Satir model describes multiple major stages of change, and what each stage of change feels like. The previous three models are clearly limited when applied to understanding how personal change happens. In contrast, the Satir model is universal; it applies to both personal and organizational change. It also suggests what kinds of interventions are appropriate in each stage.
Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change, which I’ll briefly outline. [Steven Smith supplies a longer summary, and Jerry’s and Virginia’s books go into more detail.]
A foreign element disrupts an old status quo. Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event allows a period of transition away from chaos, via integration and practice, towards a new status quo.
To help clarify this model, here are two examples of each of these elements, adapted from Jerry’s book.
Old status quo examples
- You have a bad heart and smoke two packs a day, but play racquetball intensively once a week to compensate.
- Your product development team has stagnated over the last few years, and really can no longer produce anything innovative.
Foreign elements examples
- You have chest pains when playing racquetball.
- A competitor announces an innovative product, and your development team has no idea how to respond.
- You start playing racquetball left-handed, and only with certain opponents.
- Your company’s old reliable product starts developing problems. Team members don’t show up at meetings or answer messages.
Integration and practice examples
- You give up smoking and racquetball and start walking four miles a day.
- The company purchases new tools to assist in product development. It also purchases training to go with the tools, and provides time for people to attend.
New status quo examples
- You discover how much you enjoy walking, and how many creative ideas you get about work problems while you walk through the neighborhood.
- All the development team members are using the new tools. Almost weekly, someone discovers a new way to use a feature and shares it with other team members.
The Satir model is useful because it delineates the major stages of change, and the human response to change. The model reveals that feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos. Keeping in mind that change is unsettling is key to devising change strategies that actually have a chance to work for human beings! (Conversely, noticing that I’m feeling unsettled is a reliable sign that something has changed or is changing in my life.)
Final thoughts on models of change
Until you understand how change occurs, and how it affects the people and organizations involved, you won’t be successful blindly applying prescriptive models of change, like the first three models I describe above. Yet again, I’m grateful to the late Jerry Weinberg, who taught me so much.
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
Three criteria for working with others for change and action
How can we successfully work with others for change and action?
During the last eight months, I’ve been striving to save a tiny liberal arts school, Marlboro College, from closure. I’ve felt compelled to do this work, not only because the school sits at the heart of rural Marlboro, Vermont, where I’ve lived since 1978, but also because I taught there for ten years (1983-1993) and have a deep affection for the College’s rare form of education.
Someone could write a book about the twists and turns in this struggle, but it won’t be me. Instead, I’m going to share three criteria I uncovered about how to successfully work with others for change and action. When I say “successfully”, I’m not talking about whether “my” side won or lost. Rather, these are pragmatic criteria that can make the process of working with other people on a social or political goal somewhat easier and more productive.
1. Be sure that fundamental motivations are aligned
Attempting to work collaboratively and fruitfully on a complex issue? Take a little time to find out whether your potential collaborators share the same fundamental motivations as you!
It’s tempting to quickly accept any offer of help. At first, all seems well. Sometimes, though, it turns out that a potential collaborator who shares your goals has fundamentally different motivations. I’ve learned that when peoples’ motivations aren’t sufficiently closely aligned, friction and disharmony eventually surface.
When this occurs, you’ll realize that a significant amount of the time and effort spent building the collaborative relationship has been fruitless.
Of course, no two people have exactly the same motivations to work together on a project. Minor differences are often irrelevant, or resolved quickly. Deciding whether fundamental motivations are aligned, therefore, is ultimately a judgment call. However, ignoring motivational differences, no matter how severe, is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.
2. Check that people are willing to work
Watch out for folks who are quick to share opinions about what should be done, but always leave the work they propose to others.
For example, during our campaign, many people made suggestions about legal grounds to sue those planning to close the school. Their ideas were plausible on the surface (certainly to a non-attorney like me). But they never offered to contact an attorney and discover whether there was indeed a legal case to make.
Those of us who did spend significant time talking to attorneys discovered that most of the proposed ideas were not good ones. Because we didn’t want to telegraph our legal strategy, it was difficult to openly repudiate the suggestions. The spate of proposals continued.
Ideas are welcome. Some supporters with good ideas simply don’t have sufficient free time to work, and that’s fine. But ultimately, someone needs to do the work of researching the plausibility of ideas and turning them into action. You may need to tolerate those who frequently opine without offering to do the work — but don’t spend too much time appeasing them.
3. Be able to work well with others in the group
There are numerous ways that folks who share common goals and motivations and are eager to work can still fail to collaborate successfully. I’ll mention a couple here.
One interesting requirement is a nuanced appreciation of confidentiality. When you’re working in an informal fluid group, you need to have a clear communal understanding of whom to trust with what. In my experience, some people don’t grasp the need for this, and don’t think through the consequences of passing on information given to them in confidence. Though I’m sure everyone’s made this mistake one time or another (I certainly have), someone who routinely breaks confidentiality is not a prime candidate for successful collaboration.
Personality clashes can be another collaboration breaker. For example, over the last eight months, a few people who had useful expertise and experience became more trouble than it was worth to work with because they unpredictably blew up at group members. Dealing with their outbursts significantly reduced the limited time working group members had available. Consequently, there was a reluctant but necessary passing of the ways.
There are, of course, many other factors involved in facilitating large-scale change. Even when a seemingly coherent group forms to address important issues, it still can be difficult to work with others for change and action. I hope the three criteria shared above help you use your energy for social and political activism more productively.
Unlearning is crucial for change
Unlearning is crucial for change.
We often think of change as additive. We become wiser by “learning something new”. What we often overlook is that changing our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions involves unlearning as well as learning.
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read & write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”
Unlearning first requires noticing. We are skilled at habituating our circumstances, no matter how unusual. Habituation is valuable because it allows us to adapt to changes in our environment. But habituation also makes it harder to notice that we may need to change our current thinking or behavior.
Thus there’s a delicate balance, a dance, between noticing what is rather than what have become our default ways of thinking, understanding, and acting.
I have spent over fifty years unlearning what people and society told me I was and should be. I’m still on a complex journey of relearning who I am. I work to practice being me in each moment. Change work involves not only intellectual shifts and reinterpretations but also the unlearning of habitual responses to emotional experiences and their empathetic replacement.
So remember, unlearning is crucial for change!
Photo attribution: Flickr user gforsythe and Cathy Davidson
The first hill is the hardest
At the age of 67, after returning from a meditation retreat, I started running daily for the first time in my life. And I soon learned that the first hill is the hardest.
It was summer, and I had no idea what I could do. So I began by exploring without expectations. I dressed in my regular sneakers, some shorts, and a tee shirt. I live in a rural town with 60 miles of dirt roads, so I ran out of my home and down the 600′ driveway. Wanting exercise, I turned left on the town road and started up the hill. Way before the top I was out of breath, so I slowed to a walk until I got to the top. I ran down some of the other side, decided that was enough for the first day, and turned around and retraced my path. I had to walk up most of my driveway.
The total run and walk was a mere mile.
I wondered if I’d ever be able to do better than that.
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My two-word ikigai
The Japanese have a word ikigai, which roughly translates to “the reason you get out of bed in the morning.” Here’s my two-word ikigai:
Do you know your ikigai?
Graphic attribution: The Toronto Star — and a hat tip to Cool Tools for sharing this great graphic.
Facilitating change: The power of sharing our experience
Sharing our experience of others directly with them can be incredibly powerful. Let me tell you a story…
Not long ago, I was working at a multi-day workshop with a 6-person group that included someone I’ll call D. D self-described themself as mentally ill, bipolar, and with psychological issues. They spoke slowly, and described themself as not emotionally available, and often confused about what they said.
D also shared that they:
- Felt isolated and wanted to get better at connecting with people;
- Believed that other people couldn’t easily understand them and didn’t like them; and
- Had a hard time deciding whether to attend the workshop.
D was clearly feeling fragile. Group work can be confrontational at times. So I privately hoped that the other group members would be supportive.
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A healthy organization contains active cultures
“Contains active cultures.” How often have you read this on the sides of yogurt containers? Well, healthy organizations contain active cultures too.
Active cultures — not just for yogurt any more
Just as there are hundreds of different strains of probiotic cultures, there are many ways to think about organizational culture. For example, you might focus on descriptive approaches: an organization’s core beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions about “what is” and “why is”, plus customary ways of interacting. Or, you could concentrate on a behavioral approach: how an organization consistently does things.
Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures the descriptive culture isn’t congruent with the behavioral reality. Ultimately, however you define organizational culture, what interests most people is changing it, hopefully for the better.
That’s where active (aka adaptive or adhocracy) organizational cultures shine.
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