Gamification “makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli”. Education professor Amy Bruckman, coined this analogy in a 1999 paper on game software design:
“Most attempts at making software both educational and fun end up being neither. Fun is often treated like a sugar coating to be added to an educational core. Which makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli. The problem is that too many game designers are using long-outmoded models of what it means to be “educational”.
Game designer and author Ian Bogost makes the same point, somewhat more forcefully:
“…gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.
Bullshitters are many things, but they are not stupid. The rhetorical power of the word “gamification” is enormous, and it does precisely what the bullshitters want: it takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.” —Ian Bogost, Gamification is Bullshit (2011)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is most classroom practice astrology? David Bowles thinks so.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I have a doctorate in education, but the field’s basically just a 100 years old. We don’t really know what we’re doing. Our scholarly understanding of how learning happens is like astronomy 2000 years ago.
Certainly the vast majority of my education consisted of the learn-from-lectures education model that still largely dominates schools and conferences. Was that true for you too?
We can’t even agree what kind of astrology to use
In addition, society’s three fundamental desires for children’s education drive our primitive ideas about classroom practice. As laid out in Kieran Egan’s thought-provoking book, The Educated Mind, these desires are:
making good citizens;
mastering certain bodies of knowledge; and
fulfilling each student’s unique potential.
Politicians, researchers in education, teachers, and citizens continue to argue about the relative importance of these noble goals. Unfortunately, Egan shows that you can’t satisfy all these ideals simultaneously because they’re mutually incompatible!
What we do know about effective meeting and classroom learning
Lectures are a terrible way to learn. Knowledge is not a “thing” one person transfers to another. Rather, knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known; knowledge is “created” through this relationship.
We learn predominantly socially, not alone in our minds. Rather, we learn in social contexts, through mind, body, and emotions.
Learners create knowledge; they don’t receive knowledge.
We learn best by actively doing and managing our own learning.Not by listening and watching.
In other words, learning is a process, not a transaction. Research shows that the vast majority of our important learning occurs via self-directed activities and while interacting with others.
Astronomy, not astrology
At the end of the 19th century, astrology, a pseudoscience in vogue for over two millennia, was finally replaced by the science of astronomy. The meeting industry, as we know it today, began about 350 years ago. The research about how we learn most effectively is decades old, and still hasn’t widely infused into classroom and meeting practice.
Astronomy finally replaced astrology as the predominant way to look at our world. We need to replace the astrology of current meeting and classroom practice with the astronomy of effective learning.
Are you old yet? (Click on the image to watch the skateboarding professor, who’s my age.)
I turned 69 last week. My body and mind do not work as well as they used to. Oh for the days, long gone, when I went to bed, fell asleep immediately, and woke up eight hours later feeling refreshed! My stamina starts to drop at five pm; no more long productive bouts of late night work.
Traveling extensively for my meeting industry work, I’d meet hundreds of new people every year, and used to be pretty good at remembering their names and how and when I met them. Not these days.
There are all these little aches and pains that weren’t there before. Standing up from a chair is harder than it was. Standing after kneeling on the floor is unexpectedly difficult at times.
Here’s a standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers.
I will meet online with your class for free.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, much education has moved online. One small silver lining of this disruption? It’s a good time to invite guest presenters into your online classroom.
As an experienced facilitator and designer of participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, I love to share what I’ve learned during my four decades in the meeting industry. No pitches or selling anything.
You won’t get a canned presentation. Rather, we’ll discuss beforehand what you and your students want and need. A session on a specific syllabus topic you choose? A freewheeling Ask Me Anything about meeting design that delivers optimal learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes? Or a session that we build on the fly in real time to respond to what’s top-of-mind for your class that day? (I love doing those.)
You get to choose.
I hope you’ll take advantage of this standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers. Contact me to set up a mutually agreeable date and time!
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.
All of us require relevant knowledge to work in today’s world. Harold has developed models, frameworks, and practices for creating knowledge management systems that meet our individual unique wants and needs.
“For the past several centuries we have used human labour to do what machines cannot. First the machines caught up with us and surpassed humans with their brute force. Now they are surpassing us with their brute intelligence. There is not much more need for machine-like human work which is routine, standardized, or brute. But certain long-term skills can help us connect with our fellow humans in order to learn and innovate — curiosity, sense-making, cooperation, and novel thinking.”
Harold’s guide covers the value of trusted networks, communities of practice, and increasing insights through informal and social learning. It introduces the concept of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), and his core sensemaking framework: Seek > Sense > Share. Finally, the guide provides concrete examples of PKM approaches developed by various friends and colleagues.
As a original thinker on these topics, as well as leadership and organizational learning, Harold’s writings have influenced many of my posts over the years. A quick read, his free guide is well worth the download!
Why would you want to share information, not hoard it? In today’s cutthroat business environment, isn’t exclusive knowledge synonymous with power — and the ability to make money?
Well, if you’re a stock trader or house flipper, maybe. But I’m a consultant who has long subscribed to Jerry Weinberg’s Seventh Law of Marketing: “Give away your best ideas” and Credit Rule: “You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit”, from his invaluable book The Secrets of Consulting. (More of Jerry’s pearls of wisdom can be found here.)
Skeptical? Well, here’s an alternative historical perspective from a completely different source, a 1926 article about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen, uncovered by Jeff Jarvis and described as “…a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.”
“Stop. Stop the presses.”
I’ll let quotes from Jeff’s blog post tell the tale:
“‘The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,’ Fuhrmann writes…
‘And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.'”
“And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers.”
“Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.”
—Jeff Jarvis, Stop. Stop the presses.
During my decades as a consultant I’ve followed Jerry’s advice about giving away your ideas. (As I’ve been doing in this blog for ten years now.) As he explains:
“I do everything possible to encourage my clients to take over the work I’ve been doing. They usually give me direct credit, but even if they don’t, they love me for my generosity. This increases the chance they’ll give me future business, or recommend me to others.”
—Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 11, The Secrets of Consulting
Finally, as a meeting designer I’m convinced that using meeting formats that facilitate and support sharing amongst peers of relevant information is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings.
Share information; don’t hoard it. Whether you’re a community of practice, a consultant, or a meeting designer, this simple aphorism applies!
In 2005, I joined a men’s group. Eight of us get together for two hours every fortnight. One man chooses a topic and leads the meeting. A couple of months ago, Brent offered the following life story exercise via a preparatory email sent in advance: