Sunday, March 09, 2014
This is another one of the posts that got pushed aside from a book review because the topic was thorny enough that it needed its own post. This post was largely sparked by The Fifth Discipline, but has its roots in other books as well. More importantly, team learning is at the heart of how every organization becomes better and more effective.
I've spent much of my life working on learning and teaching. I've always wanted to help folks understand the skills they need (See the Shepherd's Guide, for instance). I've tried to help folks think about problems differently (See the Psychology of SharePoint Adoption and Engagement). I've researched instructional design (See Efficiency in Learning). I've learned about how adults learn (See The Adult Learner). Learning how individual adults learn and how to teach them has been a passion of mine for a long time.
However, helping teams learn is something very different. It's more about team dynamics and trust than the skills of teaching (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy). I've done my share of research and thinking in this area, too. There's a long list of books that talk about leadership of teams, innovation, and efficiency, for instance – Leading Change, The Heart of Change, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Heroic Leadership, Good to Great, The Advantage, etc.
Individual learning is about pedagogy, andragogy, instructional design, and principles of learning and teaching which have long been studied. Certainly individual teaching can vary by topic and by the learner, however, the long history of training individuals in skills and knowledge has created a relative wealth of information about how to do the individual instruction well. The profession of instructional design has arisen because there are people who have focused on learning about learning. As with other professions there are good and bad instructional designers, however, the fact that there's a more-or-less established professional discipline is an indicator of the level of maturity in designing solutions for individual learners.
Learning individually is a different set of skills than team learning. There's a sense of emergence that comes with team learning that's like the way that fish school and birds form flocks. There's no single characteristic that identifies when a group of fish become a school or birds become a flock. Nor is there a central coordinating intelligence that defines that fish should school or when birds should flock. It just happens. This is very similar to the way that teams learn. In many cases, there's no one thing that triggers teams to learn.
There are certain conditions that are optimal for team learning. There are themes for how teams are able to become effective at learning as a unit. Some of those themes are:
- Trust – Trust is the great lubricator in teams and is also a prerequisite for vulnerability (as I explained in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy). Trust may seem like a strange theme until you realize that it's important to be vulnerable in order to learn.
- Emotional Intelligence – Certainly teams learn about what it is to do the technical tasks of their work, but more importantly they learn how to work together. It is not working together in the sense of the mechanics but rather from the point of view of the sensitivities of one another that must be considered for everyone to effectively contribute. (See Emotional Intelligence.)
- Identity – Good teams learn to connect their personal identity with the identity of the team. The more that people are able to form a shared identity with the group the less internal fighting and positioning will happen – and therefore the team will be more effective and will learn more.
In the discussion of learning themes above, there was the inevitable slip into a discussion about how teams learning is measured. The desired outcome of team learning is that the team will be more effective. As a result team performance is a rather obvious measure of how a team is learning. That is, the team that is performing better is probably learning better, or so the thinking goes. However, how do you determine which one is doing better?
One can compare the results of two teams and decide which one is doing better. Although that isn't as simple as it would seem – except for two very important challenges.
First, no two teams are solving the same issue with the same resources so getting a calibrated comparison is difficult. The teams have different people, with different experience and skills, thus different resources. Without a control group, it is hard to tell what the normal performance would be – so it's hard to measure how well the team performed compared to normal.
The second challenge is that success on a single project is a short term metric and teams are most frequently together for several projects. That means that we need to sample their performance on enough projects that we're sure we're getting a representative sample of their work, not a one-time blip.
If we look at measuring a team's effectiveness for solving a particular problem, it can absolutely be that the team wasn't well aligned to solve that type of problem, or there was a mental block, or some other unforeseen barrier. Most organizations, while they desire teams to have excellent success every time, don't expect it. The expectation is that every person and every team will have projects that are challenging for them. The trick is, that measured across the long term, the team should be able to deliver reliable results on a wide variety of projects most of the time.
If your organization believes that every team should succeed every time, then perhaps the organization isn't challenging its teams to solve new and novel problems. No professional baseball player bats perfectly. No organization succeeds on every initiative. Failure is always an option – and is necessary for success.
If we look at long term measures, it's hard to take corrective action in the short term if your measures are long term measures. In fact, team learning is itself a long-term measure. You can't measure learning directly. You're measuring effectiveness through measuring specific results. That's three derivations away from where you started. You can't measure the rate of change of effectiveness – which is the rate at which the team is learning. In fact, you can't really measure effectiveness – although, you can measure the results that were achieved. Learning is the rate at which the effectiveness of the team is changing. Effectiveness is the rate at which there are successes in projects.
A Good Example
Years ago I read and reviewed The Wisdom of Crowds. It was a book about how crowds can be either very smart – or very stupid. One of the things I wrote about when I reviewed it (which wasn't in the book) was about the Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin. Kelly Johnson's team cranked out some of the most sophisticated and radical aircraft designs of his era. The important part of the Skunk Works was the way the team worked together. If the assembly team had trouble getting a part to work, the engineer and the machinist would meet on the floor, the engineer would "fabricate" a piece of cardboard and tell the machinist to make the part in the shape of the cardboard – and then return the cardboard shape to the engineer so he could draw it up later. That's a team that's working well.
There was no accusatory finger-pointing going on. Instead, everyone was lending their experience to the project and working towards the common goal, rather than remaining focused on who didn't do their job or who was to blame.
Kelley Johnson is arguably responsible for a very results-focused environment that didn't allow "the blame game" to be a valid option. Everyone knew what they were doing was intensely difficult, so there was no point in focusing on failures. Much of their work was considered impossible. Consider the SR71 Blackbird, the aircraft that could fly higher and faster than a missile fired at it. It's incredible to think that that aircraft could be created with the technology of that era.
Creating the right environment for team learning to flourish requires utilization of the themes that were discussed here, possessing the character to create the right environment, and implementing the techniques to keep the team together despite difficult circumstances. While it may be difficult to measure the ability for a team to learn, it's not impossible to do if you have leaders with the right passion and emotional intelligence of their own to be able to discern how to lead the team.
Sunday, March 09, 2014
Originally published on 8/21/2005
Most users of SharePoint Portal Server rapidly become enamored with the ability to add new fields (containing meta data) to documents in the document library. All of the sudden it becomes possible to associate information to a file beyond the file name that we've been limited to since the beginning of the computing era. However, few users have the opportunity to understand how this meta data is used by SharePoint for searching. This leads to problems when users decide that it's necessary to use SharePoint Portal Server Search to search on information contained in a field that they have added. In this article you'll learn how SharePoint uses document library fields to create properties which are searchable and how to enable searching on those properties.
The Power of Properties
SharePoint Portal Server's search facility really works in two different ways. First, there's the full text search. This searches across all of the text in every document that is in the index. This search is what most people think of when they think of SharePoint's search capability.
Second, there is the property search. During the indexing process, the IFILTERs which extract the text out of the documents put property information into special property buckets which are kept separate in the index so they can be searched separately. This allows you to set properties in your Office documents such as department, project number, author, keywords, etc., and then you'll have the ability to search on those fields individually. You can use the search engine in SharePoint to search for documents where the department is engineering and the project is 123. Where a full text document search for engineering and 123 may find hundreds of entries because the words engineering and the number sequence 123 appears in many documents, a search via properties may yield the 10 or so documents that are truly relevant to your search.
Properties are what most people believe that they are creating when they create a new field in a document library. That's not actually true. The meta data fields in a document library don't have anything to do with properties directly.
Office Does a Slight of Hand
However, during the edit process Office perform a little slight of hand. It takes the information you enter in the meta data fields for the document library and makes corresponding custom properties in the document. The net effect is that although you've only created fields in a document library, you're documents now have custom properties.
These custom properties are picked up by the indexing process (more specifically the IFILTER for Office documents) and they are placed into the search index. You can then use those properties by making them available via the advanced search page in SharePoint.
However, this also means that non-Office documents don't share the same relationship between fields in the document library and the properties of the document itself. So if you're trying to develop a searching mechanism for documents like TIF documents or PDFs you'll find that setting up a meta data field for those document libraries won't allow you to search for those documents directly via their properties. You'll still be able to organize the information
Setting up a test
Now that we understand the basic mechanisms of how SharePoint uses meta data and properties let's demonstrate how it works. Here's what you need to do to set up the demonstration.
- Create a site. For instance, I used /Sites/Test.
- Open the Shared Documents library by clicking on the Quick Nav Bar link to Shared Documents.
- Click on the Modify Settings and Columns link in the left bar.
- Click on the Add a new column link
- Enter a name in the Column name box. You can select any name you would like, I used Rob, Try, and IntranetJournal as my field names.
- Click the OK button.
- Repeat steps 4-7 for any additional columns you want to create. I repeated the process two additional times to get my two additional fields in.
- Click the Go Back to "Shared Documents" link to return to the Shared Documents Library.
Putting it to work
Now that you have a document library with custom fields, you can create a few new documents. Here's what to do:
- Click the New Document button on the task bar.
- Enter some basic text in the document. (This text can be anything you would like.)
- Click File-Save.
- Give the document a name and click the Save button.
- Enter the meta data into the fields which are displayed. You should consider entering different text than the text you used in the document.
- Click the OK button.
- Close Word.
- Verify that the text that you entered is visible in the new fields on the document library.
- Click the document you just created in the document library list and click OK to the warning dialog if necessary.
- Click File-Properties. Notice that the meta data properties from the document library appears.
- Click the File Properties button. The standard Word document properties dialog is displayed.
- Click the Custom tab.
- Note that the meta data that you entered for the document library also exists as a custom property of the document.
- Click OK to close the properties dialog.
- Close Word.
Now you have a document in SharePoint with properties so you can go setup the search for them.
Ensure that the Document is Indexed
Before you can search on your new property you have to first ensure that SharePoint has indexed the document. This is done from the Portal by following this procedure:
- Open the SharePoint Portal
- Click on Site Settings in the navigation bar on the top of the window.
- In the Search Settings and Indexed Content section, click the Configure search and indexing link.
- In the Content Indexes section, click on the Manage content indexes link.
- Hover over the Non_Portal_Content link, drop down the menu via the arrow on the right, and click Start Full Update.
- Wait for the Last Update Status for the Non_Portal_Content index to display the word Idle. The page will automatically refresh itself.
Set up the Properties for Search
We had to ensure that the document was indexed so that the new properties would appear. During the indexing process the IFILTER which processes Word files automatically created new entries in the SharePoint Search Property list for the properties which were discovered in the document we just uploaded. The final set of steps are to enable the properties on the advanced properties page. To do this follow these steps:
- Open the SharePoint Portal.
- Click on Site Settings in the navigation bar on the top of the window.
- In the Search Settings and Indexed Content section, click the Manage properties from crawled documents.
- Click the plus sign to the left of urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office.
- Scroll down to one of the names of the fields you added to the list above (and verified became a property). Click the property from the list.
- Check the Include this property in Advanced Search options checkbox.
- Click the OK button.
- Click the Return to Portal link at the top of the page.
- From the Start Menu select Run and then type in IISRESET and press return.
- Click the magnifying glass to the left of the drop down list containing the text All Sources.
- Expand the drop down underneath the Search by properties: label to see that your new property is available to be searched.
You can now search SharePoint Portal Server for just the field you added in the list . Of course, as you have seen, you're actually searching the property that was added to the Word document, but the effect is the same since Office is managing the transition to the document properties.
Sunday, March 09, 2014
[I'm reposting a handful of articles which are no longer available on the Internet as blog posts so that they're not lost forever.]
Originally published on 6/10/2008
One of the challenges with most portals, including Intranets is maintaining relevancy of the information that the user sees and interacts with. You'll hear a ton about search relevancy but relatively little is said about what is displayed on the home page. Some organizations approach the home pages as simple landing pages, a place for links to other places. Others try to serve up relevant content but all too often there are substantial portions of a corporate intranet home page that just aren't relevant. If you're in Indianapolis, how important is the company picnic taking place in New York?
In our information overload culture we've gotten adept at blocking out advertising and other non-content items on a page and still ad blocking software is in widespread use. We can filter information ourselves but the more we can filter information for users the better they like it. The more focused we can make our content the better the user experience. Luckily SharePoint has several ways that we can deliver customized content to users and groups.
One Size Fits All
Perhaps in some things one size does fit all. Golf balls are regulation size so in that sense one size does fit all. However, in most things we want to be unique, expressive, and interesting. If you don't believe me walk into mall and notice the wide array of mobile phone covers that are available. There's enough face plates that you can have any color that you want. That's not all. Your mobile phone should be unique like you so there's holographic screen protectors, and other kinds of "bling bling" to make it unique.
While I can't advocate putting "bling bling" on the home page of your portal, one cannot ignore that individuals are just that – individual. They need different information at different times and for different reasons. Part of developing a portal is focusing on development of a solution that adapts to the major groups of users and tries to meet their specific needs.
In SharePoint there are three basic ways of accomplishing this as discussed in the following sections.
Perhaps the easiest way to manage personalization is to have the web parts that you include on your page manage the personalization themselves. Whether it's a web part for the weather that asks for your ZIP code and remembers it from visit-to-visit or a web part that remembers your search preferences, web parts in SharePoint can have personalized information that allows users to personalize their unique preferences – if the web parts support it.
Although the easiest to manage In-part Personalization does have the disadvantage that the web part itself must be coded to support the personalization – it's not something that you can add in later. The out of box personalization support in SharePoint means that support for personalization in the web parts that you develop is transparent. Literally, there's only one attribute that changes to make a property of a web part work for user level personalization.
In part personalization is great for web parts that you create – however, it simply doesn't work for some third party solutions and some of the out of box web parts. It also can negatively impact performance if there are a large number of users customizing a larger number of web parts on a page. As a final note, this is truly personal personalization, meaning that it must be done on a user-by-user basis and it must be done by the user. That means most users won't take advantage of the functionality unless the web part makes this process very easy.
Peacock of Parts
A somewhat more challenging approach, but one that offers the ability to layer on personalization no matter who wrote the web part or when they wrote it, is the targeting engine in SharePoint. Targeting in SharePoint is best known through the MOSS audiences implementation. Audiences are compiled groups of users to which web parts and information can be targeted to. The implementation of audiences is on top of a public interface called IRuntimeFilter2. Without going into too much detail, it allows you to add additional editing controls in the editor zone and supports the events necessary to make sure that these extra editing controls receive their data back when the properties are saved. They can then be validated.
Once targeting is enabled (through having a value in the correct property) the IRuntimeFilter interface (which is a part of the IRuntimeFilter2 interface) is called to determine whether the web part should be displayed on the page.
The net effect of the personalization framework is that SharePoint can show or hide web parts to individual users or groups of users. This means that you can have a web part that is only displayed to operations team members (even if the rest of the organization has access to the data). Similarly you can surface or hide information based on the time of day, or any other criteria that can be tested.
This is a great strategy when you have a way that you want to be able to filter all of the web parts in the system. So showing different things based on location, time of day, or other criteria will work great. If you need to change what information is displayed in the web part – such as the weather for Carmel, IN vs. Daytona Beach, FL – this isn't the strategy for you. Although you can show or hide a ton of web parts – one for each city. It's really not practical.
Pages for People
Another, lower tech solution, which requires neither web part support for personalization nor the SharePoint targeting infrastructure is to have each user have their own page. With MOSS My Sites are available which do essentially this. Each user can have their own personal portal starting page. However, the challenge with this is that changes are hard to implement across the system. If each user has their own page just adding a new web part to the portal means adding one web part for each of your users – if you have 10,000 users you've just turned a simple change into 10,000 operations.
Still, the greatest flexibility is offered by having each user have their own page so that they have the flexibility to configure the page exactly as they would like – without concern for impacting other users.
Drawing the Target
In reality there may not be one answer to how you want to personalize your web part pages. In order to produce consistently relevant content to users you may need a variety of strategies. You might create different portal sites for each of the different departments so that users have the option to see content relevant to their department, implement My Sites for a personal view, and customize the home page so that the current weather conditions and predictions for the user's current location are shown. There isn't a single right answer to getting the right content to users at the right time.
Having a set of tools that allow you to filter and direct the information that users see is essential to driving relevance and therefore driving engagement in your portal. Go target your users.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
Over the last few book reviews, including The Fifth Discipline and Dialogue Mapping, I've managed to collect a few random thoughts that I've decided that I want to share as blog posts. They're important thoughts about what I've been reading and thinking about – but they don't fit neatly into the other thoughts of a book review. One of the side effects of being random thoughts is although they're rooted in some of the previous book reviews, there aren't always as many direct ties to readings as you might be used to in my posts. This post is about the difference between a discussion and a dialog.
As I detailed in my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, you must trust to feel safe and you must feel safe to be vulnerable. To create intimacy – even in a team – you must be able to be vulnerable. Learning is an inherently vulnerable process. By learning you're changing who you are. You're changing your perception of the world and you're changing how you experience reality.
Learning is Important
In successful organizations there's an aptitude for learning. The organization itself supports learning. This isn't to say that the organization has a tuition reimbursement program but rather the organization supports learning inside of its walls as well as outside of it. Employees are encouraged to make small mistakes and learn from them.
Learning is one of our essential skills that has allowed us to adapt over time and become the preeminent species on the planet. It's essential for our survival. However, all too often organizations calcify and stop learning. The negative reinforcing loop (snowball) gets rolling with a lack of trust which creates the lack of vulnerability and so begins the cycle of a lack of learning, adaptation, and ultimately survival as an organization.
Perhaps it seems like a hyperbole to say that a simple lack of trust in the organization leads to such a grim result, however, most of us have seen organizations where there is low trust and because of that no one feels like they are safe enough to speak the truth. Because no one can speak of the emperor's new clothes there's no learning and thus no adapting to a changing environment. In biology organisms that don't adapt are largely made extinct. Change is a natural part of the process.
The Meaning of Dialog
Some organizations, with a penchant for fancy words, like to say that they want to dialog about an issue – but most organizations just say "we need a discussion about that." The words seem similar – similar enough to be synonyms, however, there's something special about a dialog. In a discussion there is persuasion and positioning. In a dialog there's a quest to reduce the number of blind spots. There's a desire to elevate the conversation to the highest point allowed by bringing together multiple perspectives and honoring each perspective. A dialog is much like the Socratic Method in goal – to find the truth – but is simultaneously different because the approach is to prevent people from becoming entrenched in their positions. Where the Socratic Method drives folks into defending their position, dialog invites participants into the common space of solution solving.
Dialog, while protected in less industrialized cultures, has all but been eliminated in industrialized countries. Dialog is prevented by "defensive routines" according to Chris Argyris. These are like ruts in the road that keep pulling folks back to a Socratic Method where you become entrenched in a position and the other person must drag you out of your position kicking and screaming. I've seen these "defensive routines" in my consulting career over and over again – though admittedly I've never seen any literal kicking. In my work, no matter how carefully I construct a comment to not injure an ego or expose someone politically, I frequently find that pointing out an opportunity for growth often triggers defensiveness.
There are tons of things that I could do better. I could do my follow ups with other people better. I could show love to my family better – and more consistently. I can jump to conclusions with less veracity. Or better yet, I can try not to jump to conclusions at all. I can become more mindful that others' answers are sometimes better than mine. When someone points out these things, no matter how gently, I'll feel somewhat defensive. It's instinctive. We don't want to face our weakness.
As one of my clients commented recently, "Because you're a consultant you've seen more things and know what works. However, it leaves us (as your client) feeling bad that we don't know what we're supposed to know." This person was courageous, she said what most of my clients can't. They're being defensive, not because of the delivery, but because they feel guilty that they should know how to do their job.
Have you ever suggested something lightly, only to have a very strong reaction from your child? We know what it's like to be defensive – and that it means that we probably need to investigate more fully. As a parent we know that if we push a little and get a strong response there is something going on that we need to dig more deeply into. We all feel vulnerability at some point – as Brené Brown points out in Daring Greatly. The trick isn't whether or not you're going to make someone feel vulnerable – and potentially defensive. The key is to create an environment of safety that creates the opportunity for them to be more vulnerable.
Physicist David Bohm states that dialog is for "revealing incoherence in our thought." He further quotes Bohm's three conditions for dialog: Suspended assumptions, open regard for the other participants as colleagues, and a facilitator. These factors are important.
Suspending assumptions allows us to carefully consider every possibility and every comment. Suspending assumptions allows us to take a step back from our position and to challenge it ourselves rather than having others challenge it for us. Assumptions are the work of what Thinking: Fast and Slow would call System 1. It's the automatic system that doesn't want to force the need for deeper consideration – and it doesn't want us to know that it's doing this.
Open regard for the other participants is, in other words, having a modicum of respect for the others that you're working with. While respect isn't the same as trust, they are related. Respect has to do with a certain level of esteem for the other folks. Buddhists might say it differently. To them it might be expressed as compassion (see Emotional Awareness) - a respect for them as other living beings. Trust is a belief about another party. Competence trust, as covered in Trust & Betrayal, says that you believe that someone is generally competent and has a set of useful skills – they are competent. Thus competence trust and respect for someone being able to do their jobs are roughly equivalent. Regardless of the precise definition, dialogue requires a certain level of respect for those involved.
The last condition is a facilitator. Generally speaking, this should be a separate, uninvolved party. This prevents the facilitator from becoming embroiled in the conversation and triggering defensive routines in others – or having their own defensive routines activated.
Dialog is a strange thing. It seems so similar to the Socratic Method that many meetings run with, but somehow it's different. It minimizes the defensive routines and allows us to feel safer. As we feel safer we are more able to think more freely and more importantly the freer we are to learn and ultimately learning is important to our survival individually and as organizations. The next time you end up in a discussion in a meeting perhaps it's worth trying to convert it to a dialog.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Book Review, Professional
Somewhere around the seventh grade I read a short story by Kurt Vonnegut titled "Harrison Burgeron" from his book Welcome to the Monkey House. The story is a fictional account of a future world where everyone must have the same intelligence, physical ability, and beauty. The title character is blessed with many strengths and is burdened by governmental attempts to reduce his abilities to the norm. The story is a glimpse into what happens when making everyone fall to the least common denominator. Sometimes it feels like we're all being held back to the lowest common denominator.
This memory came to me as I was rereading The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. I had read it years and years ago and realized recently that I couldn't remember much about the book. One benefit of the rereading was that it has been recently updated and revised with new content – content that makes the book relevant today.
If this book is about the fifth discipline, what are the other four? Well the five disciplines, according to the book, are:
- Personal Mastery
- Mental Models
- Shared Vision
- Team Learning
- Systems Thinking
The subtitle of the book - "The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization" – means that it's also important to consider what a learning organization is. A learning organization is an organization that's continuously growing, adapting, and changing as it learns more about itself, the environment, and the future. This is as opposed to an organization headed by one person who steers the ship and once they're gone the company is ultimately headed for doom without it's leader – as Jim Collins found out in his research and cataloged in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't. A learning organization is one where the concepts have become so engrained that the leader becomes mostly irrelevant – that is, they've set the organization up for such great success that they aren't needed any longer.
In truth, Singe didn't deliver the goods in The Fifth Discipline as to how to create a learning organization, so I'll cover that in a future blog post – for now, we'll cover the five disciplines which are covered in the book. The disciplines start with our old friend, personal mastery.
A virtual prerequisite for organizational learning is the need for the people in the organization to have a commitment to personal mastery. In Singe's view, personal mastery is about clarifying what's important to us and ensuring that we see reality clearly. From my perspective, there are different components of personal mastery. There's certainly the aspect of clarifying importance – however, I see this really as becoming more in touch with yourself and who you are at your core.
I sometimes say that it took me more than 30 years to become comfortable in my own skin. It took that long for me to really get to like the person I was and to have the confidence to stand out and be myself. In that is anaspect of self-confidence, but the statement is really much deeper than that. It was a semi-conscious decision to like myself. It's a decision to integrate self-images which surfaced the things that I did well and self-images of where I'm weak. It was about accepting that I'm a good person – but far from perfect.
Clarifying what is important to us is both difficult and elusive. It's difficult because we spend so much of our lives just getting by. We don't think about what we truly want – we think about what we can have. "If you can't be with the one you love honey, love the one you're with" – as the song by Stephen Stills goes. We dream of winning the lottery or being promoted at work – but how does that get us what we want? If you ask most people, they'll say that winning the lottery will allow them to do what they want to do. They won't have to go to their job.
However, if you survey lottery winners, more often than not, in a few years they end up unhappier than when they won the lottery. Why? Because they quit their job and did their hobby. That's not bad – except they stopped having fun with their hobby because they did too much of it. They quickly became bored with life and didn't know what to do with their time to fulfill it. As The Me I Want to Be and How Children Succeed say, we need challenges to live.
Clarifying what is important is also elusive because what we want will change over time. Starting my career I wanted to create great technology solutions for people. I wanted to come up with innovative ways to solve problems. However, over the years I've come to realize that if you build a better mouse trap the world won't beat a path to your door. That realization has led me to be more interested in how to help people see that they can do something to improve their condition. Said differently, I want to help people unlearn the learned helplessness – as I discussed in my reviews of The Paradox of Choice, and Who Am I? (The topic also appears in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries).This means a lot more focus on how people work, how our brains work, and how groups of people interact. I still love using technology to solve problems. (See How This Developer Solves a Puzzle.) However, for years I've been shifting to solving the problem of getting users to use the solutions I create.
I mentioned in my review of God Loves You that knowing something and accepting it emotionally are two different things. You can integrate your image of yourself intellectually but still struggle to accept it emotionally. Through my divorce I got connected to a 12 step program. One of the things that I got to experience is how the program helps you realize that you do have things to work on – parts of who you are that need to become better. And, that just as you are not all good – neither are you all bad. Somehow you work on getting better – and being a better you – while accepting that you're not a bad person.
One of the challenges of applying a program designed for addictions to people with "high bottoms" is that it's often difficult to get to the point of sufficient trouble to really deeply explore how to become a better person. Said differently, the pain of changing has to be less than the pain of staying the same.If your life is mostly going well, there's little incentive to look deeply to understand who you are – and change it. Addicts often have low bottoms. The loss of a marriage, an arrest, losing their worldly possessions – however, most non-addicts don't have that level of pain in their lives.
Perhaps the greatest realization in a 12-step program is that you're never recovered – you're always recovering. You must make a conscious effort each day to be better than you were the day before. And as Brené Brown would say, that takes courage. (See Daring Greatly.) It takes courage to be vulnerable. Ultimately personal mastery is the journey to become a better person every day. The journey towards personal mastery is the reward. The reward shows up in how you see the world, how you interact and respond with it. Having a growth-oriented mindset (see Mindset) is a powerful mental model which can drive you forward.
When Gary Klein set out to talk to fire commanders about how they directed resources at a fire, he expected that he'd find a rational decision model in action. Highly educated experts with great experience would evaluate all of their options and chose the best choice. However, what he found, as he documents in Sources of Power, was far from that. What he found is that fire commanders couldn't describe how they were making decisions – but they absolutely didn't use evaluative approaches to determine which solution was the best one. They kept saying that the answer just came to them. It was intuition. However, intuition is hard to teach, so Klein didn't give up. Over time he built an awareness that the fire commanders were working from a complex set of mental models – a set of beliefs about how fires behave and what their causes must look like.
Because of this, the fire commanders could run a simulation of the situation in their heads and ultimately decide whether a course of action would be successful or not. More often than not, their simulations were right. What they expected to happen did – and if something that they expected to happen didn't, they would pull back, reevaluate the situation, and plan to attack the fire with a new perspective on the cause and how it should behave.
We all have a set of mental models that we use to interact with the world. Thinking, Fast and Slow says that we spend most of our time in a sub-conscious operational mode where our underlying beliefs will quietly guide our decisions without our conscious awareness. Think about your last drive. How many red lights did you encounter? Most of us couldn't answer that questions because we're not really consciously perceiving our world. We're operating in "automatic" mode.
The Fifth Discipline talks about mental models as deeply ingrained assumptions that govern how we work. If we fundamentally believe that we're not able to fulfill our desires, we'll sabotage our success – especially when we get it. We may find that we espouse one set of beliefs, but our behaviors are different – we know that we want to believe something, but that we actually don't. As Singe points out, if I believe that people are basically trustworthy, but never lend friends any money or things – then perhaps my true belief is different than that people are basically trustworthy.
You can shut down the hidden power of mental models in your world by making your mental models explicit and verifying that the mental models that you believe you have are the mental models that you really have. Mental models gain their power because they are unconscious and unclear. The more that you understand yourself – including the mental models that you're operating with - the more effective you'll become.
At a personal level, in order to flourish, you'll need to trade in or trade up some of your mental models. If you believe that you can't get what you want or that you're not good enough – you'll want to change those models. Many adults who grew up in poor homes expect that they'll struggle with finances – and so they do. This is irrespective of the money that they make.
Professionally, if your mental model is that canal shipping is the best way to ship things and the train will never be practical, you might find yourself trapped in the past. In Indiana, the state defaulted on some debt for the completion of the Wabash and Erie Canal. As a result, the state has a prohibition on debt. One broken mental model about transportation changed a different mental model about whether it's OK to carry debt – or not. That moment created a crystalizing event where the politicians of the day decided that they had a singular vision about whether they would ever default on a state debt again.
Having a model of your own is a great start, but it's not the end. You need to ensure that the others in the organization share the same models – or at least some of the same models. If you don't, you'll find that your energies are being wasted by misalignment.
Consider for the moment how different sources of light are useful. An oil lantern might be visible from a 1000 feet away. A more focused light source from a lighthouse can reach out 28 miles (~170K feet). Sure, there's more light energy there – but more than that, the lighthouse uses a Fresnel lens which focuses the light along the horizon. It's 40 times more intense at a given distance for the same power. An even more focused beam of light in the form of a laser is 900,000 times more efficient than a lantern. A laser can shine to the moon and back – or even cut metal. The more focused you can make things the more powerful they can be. It's true of light and it's true of organizations.
So how do you get to a shared vision? Well, there's a technique that you may want to try. It's the 5 Why's. It's interesting because it's a way to try to get to the root of why people believe what they believe. It's typically designed to explore the cause and effect relationships of problems, but it's very useful in helping to clarify the stacks of assumptions, goals, and objectives in which people believe. The technique is simply asking why five times in a row.
For instance, someone says they want a new red sports car and you ask why. They say because they want to be able to ride around on a summer afternoon and you ask why. They say that they want to be cool and you ask why. They say that they want to feel like they're a part of the in crowd and you ask why. They answer that they were never a part of the "in" crowd and they want to feel like they're cool. Obviously the point isn't that five is the magic number. It's the 5 Why's because it often takes much more questioning to get to the root of the issue than most people expect.
A common pitfall when trying to create a shared vision is the platitude. A platitude is a dull, flat, trite remark – particularly when uttered as if profound. Platitudes happen. When people get exhausted they naturally default to a platitude. You can identify a platitude because no person can reasonably disagree with it. However, disagreement can be a good thing. It focuses a conversation and allows people to gain alignment on what they believe; to gain a shared understanding. Alfred Sloan – former CEO of General Motors – said "Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here… Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is all about." It's possible to get locked in a conversation and not make progress and equally possible to grind away at topics until everyone is aligned.
If you find that when you're tired of discussing things you're prone to creating a platitude to end the disagreement and discussion,that's not a problem. You simply need to come back, revisit, and replace the platitude later.
There's a scene at the end of "War Games" (Amazon, IMDB) where they're trying to get the computer to learn that there are some games that have no winner – including war games, thus the title of the movie. You may have heard that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. However, there are at least a few "teams" that have somehow missed this basic understanding of how things should be done. They continue to beat each other with their words, actions, and inactions. In short, they've failed to learn.
In 1956, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues got together to discuss educational objectives. The outcome of those meetings is largely referred to as Bloom's Taxonomy of hierarchical educational objectives. This is perhaps the most commonly used model for assessing educational materials and approaches. What is lesser known is that the model was a set of three models that were planned including cognitive, psychomotor (movement), and affective (feeling emotion.) Only the cognitive model has been widely used. That model moves from recognition (I can find the right answer), recall (I know the right answer), up through understanding (I know what the answer means) and to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (I know what to do with the answers). Certainly there are educational objectives for teams and a need for contributors to be able to analyze what the information means, however, it's more than that.
The affective domain may be more applicable to team learning than the cognitive domain. As it turns out, having teams that can bond with each other, who can work together, and who have developed emotional intelligence may be more important than having the most charismatic leader. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, speaks about the Stockdale Paradox – a leader that has unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end and the discipline to confront current reality. That sounds a lot like someone who has learned Emotional Intelligence. On the one hand, they're committed to the results and on the other hand they're not denying reality. It could be that they've learned the lessons from Bonds that Make Us Free, Leadership and Self Deception, and the Anatomy of Peace about the proverbial boxes that we get ourselves into and that distort reality.
Maybe it's that they've completed the short course on Heroic Leadership from the Jesuits. Maybe the idea of driving a desire for self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism have been driven into the character of the organization, like Loyola drove the principles into the Jesuits. Perhaps they studied Buddhism and learned Emotional Awareness. No matter where it came from, great leaders have had the courage to take a position and the vulnerability to accept that their position may not be right. Creating a team that has the perseverance (what How Children Succeed would call grit) is an essential first step to the ability to learn. The perseverance we're discussing here comes from being able to be open and honest with other people.
Emotional Intelligence in Parts
Emotional intelligence, as I discussed in my review, is composed of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. While not directly linear, the skills do tend to build on one another because it's hard to manage yourself if you don't know what you're feeling and hard to manage relationships without a way to know how other people feel.
However, as the section on personal mastery above suggested, it's also true that you need to be able to know how to be self-aware and self-managing before you can interact on a team – before you can be in a relationship with others. That isn't to say that everyone who is in a relationship is a master of self-awareness and self-management. However, it does mean that people who are relationship masters have some level of self-awareness and self-mastery.
As it turns out, the real opportunities for team learning are how the team manages the relationships in the team – it's not about the cognitive learning that they've done – it's about the affective learning that has been done. It's about the relationships that have been built and how they're managed.
Learning from Love Relationships
In The Fifth Disciplinege largely left the clear understanding of team learning as an exercise for the reader. It seems like a good idea to get input from a relationship expert to learn more about the relationships that drive team interaction. In writing this review, I was stuck trying to describe how to measure the effectiveness of a team except through the lagging indicator of team performance. So I put this book review aside and worked on other things, one of those is my reading and review of John Gottman's book The Science of Trust. In Gottman's book, he describes the four horsemen of the [relationship] apocalypse. Gottman's research is widely known because within a few minutes of heated discussion, he can predict which couples will stay together and which will divorce with greater than 90% accuracy. His research identified characteristics that, if found in any significant measure, can spell doom for a relationship.
While a business team relationship is quite different from a romantic one, the underlying dynamics of both types of relationships are similar. Both relationships are built on trust. Because of foundational similarities, Gottman's guidance for a couple may be strangely applicable to building teams. The factors that drive couples to have good relationships are the same factors that drive teams to work well together. Similarly the measures of sickness in a relationship are the same, whether it's a business team relationship or a romantic one.
Gottman's four horsemen – when found – indicate that the team isn't learning how to be a team. The group of people may be called a team – but they're not a team. The four horsemen are:
- Criticism – That is an unnecessary and uncaring attack on the person – not an open dialog of the idea. The key point is the criticism of the person and not the idea. The problem is being attributed to the person, instead of a disagreement or misunderstanding. (See fundamental attribution error in The Advantage and Switch.)
- Defensiveness – Defending one's own position instead of being open to opportunities for growth and support. Often this shows up as an attack being met with a counter attack. The words are often "Yes, but…" Sometimes this shows up as a victim stance (See Beyond Boundaries and Daring Greatly for more on victimhood.)
- Contempt – Belief that someone is above or beyond the rest of the team. This can be moral superiority or simply technical supremacy. Contempt is exceedingly corrosive to trust and even a small amount of contempt can represent a real problem in a team. In couples, it was the factor that both indicated happiness and the prognosis for divorce.
- Stonewalling – Withdrawing from the interaction so that you don't have to become invested in the result. This shows up as disengagement and effectively nullifies any positive effect that a team member might offer – while keeping all of the negative effects.
In Gottman's research, he used a coding system to indicate when important markers were reached in a conversation. Actually evaluating the health of a team may require a trained observer – however, even a casual observer can identify problems when they know what they're looking for. With the challenge of measuring a team based on these criteria, most folks fall back on the way they've always measured teams which is sometimes effective – and sometimes not.
Measuring Team Learning
Most of the time folks seek to measure team effectiveness on "performance." Conceptually this makes sense. Ultimately the goal of any organization is to perform better. Performance may be measured in profit – as it often is for publically traded companies – or impact, as it tends to be with non-profit institutions. Whatever you measure, the organization should make a good foundational measurement for the teams in the organization. However, there's a set of hidden problems with this approach to measuring team effectiveness.
One problem with this approach is that "performance" is a lagging indicator. That is to say you don't know how good the team is until later. You don't know when you put the team together – or even before the delivery of "performance" how the team is doing. If you can't measure them early, you can't make changes to improve the end performance, until later.
The second problem with the "performance" based approach is that it leaves open the definition of what performance is. Let's take, for instance, the idea of creating a team to develop leads for the sales team. Their goal is to cull through information obtained at trade shows and turn over the promising leads to the sales team. In this case, what would the "performance" number be? The number of calls made? Perhaps it's the number of emails sent? These are activity-based metrics that may – or may not – have any relationship to the profitability of the organization.
Closer performance metrics might be the number of qualified leads turned over to the sales team. However, as the noted manufacturing consultant W. Edwards Deming said, "You get what you measure." If the measurement is the number of qualified leads turned over to the sales team, the meaning of "qualified" will likely be a pretty low bar. Of course, if you define performance as the amount of the profit from the leads then you'll be involving the evaluation of a separate team – sales – and you'll be waiting for a long time, particularly if you have a long sales cycle.
The difficulties in measuring success are the reason that trying to find leading or coincident measures of team learning are so important – and why the use of relationship evaluation techniques are essential to measuring the effectiveness of team learning. This leads us to attempting to find a better place to identify the problems and opportunities in the system – and that requires systems thinking.
We live in a complicated world where things change in ways that seem strange and complex. The collapse of the canal transportation industry seems obvious in hindsight, however, at the time it was difficult to consider how the primary transportation vehicle of the day would become obsolete. It's a view beyond the neat cause and effect relationships that scientists like to play with that occupy the minds of people who are thinking in systems. Instead of cause and effect, they see forces at play – both known and unknown. They look for driving forces and how those driving forces might be misdirected and the impact of the misdirection.
Singe talks about three keys to systems thinking. They are:
- The law of unintended consequences
- Reinforcing loops
- Balancing loops
Before exploring these three keys, there's a concept that is important to understanding them. That is that systems have delays in them. Reactions aren't immediate and never changing. Reactions are frequently delayed and it's sometimes those delays that cause the greatest issues.
Consider turning on a shower and getting the right temperature. You turn the shower on and set it to all hot water because the water in the hot pipes is actually cold. Gradually you make adjustments to the mixture of hot and cold water. The problem is that your changes in the water mixture aren't realized through the showerhead immediately. You have to wait on the changes to take effect or you'll be managing oscillations of hot and cold water as you're constantly trying to adjust too late. With that understanding, let's look at the three keys of systems thinking.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
Most people tend to think in one-dimensional cause and effect type thinking. That is they think that if they make a change it will have a single specific effect. However, one of the truths of most things in life is that every change has both intended and unintended effects. I learned about unintended consequences through Diffusion of Innovation. Even with the best of intentions, if you don't really know the entirety of the system – and you rarely can when people are involved – you may cause unintended consequences.
As Horst Rittle defined a "Wicked Problem", some problems cannot be solved in a traditional sense. The information you have may be incomplete, may be contradictory, or the requirements may be changing in ways that are difficult to keep up with. Many of the problems that we deal with today are wicked problems and our lack of understanding of them, as well as their dynamic nature, make it difficult (or impossible) to forsee all of the unintended consequences.
John Maxwell called it "The Big Mo" – short for momentum - in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. It's what happens when continued effort reinforces the outcome over time. Malcom Gladwell talked about the results of momentum in Outliers. He talked about how the greats became that way through intentional practice for 10,000 hours or more. Howard Gardner said it takes ten years or more of practice to become an expert in Extraordinary Minds. Gary Klein said that experts think of problems differently in Sources of Power. In Efficiency in Learning and Lost Knowledge we learned about the impact of mental models on learning and how experts simply think about problems differently. I firmly believe that the more time that you spend deliberately doing something the more momentum that you build in that thing – and as a result, the easier it gets.
Momentum is easy to see in our financial lives. If you put money into a guaranteed investment it will grow over time. If the investment returns – on average – a 12% return, it will take about 6 years for the amount to double. That's because of the power of compounding interest – that is the momentum of the earned interest adding to the momentum of the investment.
In the world of writing, you can see old journalists and authors crank out material quickly. Their work in creating content has become so ingrained in them that it becomes faster to write the next story or novel, which in turn reinforces their ability to do the one after that. Many of the systems we encounter have reinforcing loops.
However, reinforcing loops in the real world often work inside a larger system where there are not only reinforcing loops – but balancing loops as well.
Reinforcing loops are generally considered to be good things. However, they are not always that. Sometimes debt can become a reinforcing loop that makes it harder and harder to dig out of debt and get into a better financial situation. Whether positive or negative, reinforcing loops are generally easy to see in action. The alternative forces in systems are balancing loops which are more difficult to see.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, nicknamed "Galloping Gerdie", was so named because of its fluctuations. Ultimately the bridge was destroyed by aerodynamic forces. Aerodynamic forces had never been considered during the development of bridges, because aerodynamic forces were so insignificant they weren't a consideration – until the building technologies advanced into stronger and substantially lighter materials. Suddenly, a new balancing loop appeared for engineers trying to build bridges. They needed to maintain certain mass and aerodynamic qualities to prevent the balancing loop from destroying the usefulness of the bridge. No longer could bridges continue to get lighter and use less material.
Consider a successful consulting practice where the business is good. The owner spends more time working in the business – taking care of clients – and less time building the business through sales and recruiting. And so the success reduces the ability of owner to work on building the business and thus the business grows at a slower rate. The limiting factor to long term growth is short term revenue.
Five Disciplines in One
Despite the fact that Singe didn't deliver to us how to create a learning organization, the coverage of the five disciplines is impressive. As you've seen in this review, he pulls together ideas from many other authors an luminaries. The map that he lays out inside each discipline is sound and worthy of following.
The Fifth Discipline isn't the kind of book you pickup on a long trip, read, and never consider again. It's the kind of book that you steep yourself in for weeks or months trying to absorb what you've read. In fact, the lag between reading the book and writing the review is one of the longest that I've had as I sought to connect the pieces to other thoughts, understand what was written, and figure out what I wanted to do with it.
If you're ready to start the journey to becoming a better person, to creating an environment for organizational learning, and you're ready to change your organization for the better, pick up The Fifth Discipline.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Book Review, Professional
Years ago I was responsible for creating the technology to support a clinical study designed to test the feasibility of improving patient outcomes for patients with diabetes. The resulting article was published in Diabetes Care Volume 24 Number 6 in June 2001. The title was "A Systematic Approach to Risk Stratification and Intervention Within a Managed Care Environment Improves Diabetes Outcomes and Patient Satisfaction." Despite the exceedingly long title, the program was simple enough. We did some assessments. We fed the data into a program that, in turn, applied the appropriate risk stratification and spit out the collection of interventions that appeared in the standing orders of the system as a patient-specific checklist. We had a nurse work with the primary care provider to ensure that the provider approved the patient-specific checklist that the system created.
The greatest problem for patients with diabetes is that they're largely seen by primary care providers – the same people who are treating the common cold, and every other kind of malady that you can imagine. They don't have time to keep up on the latest advances in diabetes management and there's too much to remember to provide every patient with the best practice care they deserve on every visit. The system made it easy for these providers to be successful. As a result of the study, more than 45% of the high risk patients saw a significant (>0.5%) positive change in the primary measure of long term glucose health – HbA1c. I think about this study from time-to-time with great fondness. We actually made a difference to the care of numerous patients.
When my bride, Terri Bogue, mentioned The Checklist Manifesto during one of our conversations about how to improve health care, I knew I had to read it. I knew that I had to read more about how my love of flying might be connected to my desire to continue to make an impact in the lives of patients. You see flying uses checklists all over – and health care for the most part does not.
Too Much Plane for Man to Fly
I learned to fly twice. The first time was ground school at Delta College by my friend and mentor, Ben Gibson. I was in high school and didn't have an abundance of money, so I never finished the practical component of my training. I later revisited the topic of flying with my friend Brian Proffitt. He and I both wanted to fly and so we learned together – and both got our license. That was about 10 years after my first training in flying.
When I finally got to the point of my first solo flight, I was in awe of how much there is coming at you. While it doesn't seem as overwhelming now, I can remember the terror running through my brain as I approached the runway for landing, knowing that the instructor wasn't sitting next to me to make sure that I didn't make a mistake. I was more focused on the details of flying than I've ever been since. And despite that, each time I went around the pattern I used the checklist in front of me. I checked flap position, fuel mixture, and throttle settings according to the checklist.
I didn't know that it had taken a colossal failure in 1935 to create the spark behind the checklist that I held in my hands. It was October 30th and Boeing had the winning design for a government contract. The Model 299 crashed during a test flight that was expected to be the final step in a purchasing contract. One newspaper man wrote that it was just "too much airplane for one man to fly." That contract was awarded to a competitor however after a checklist was developed to lighten the cognitive load of flying the Model 299 aircraft, the US government bought a huge number of this venerable bomber – given the designation of B17. (I've mentioned cognitive load in my review of Efficiency in Learning.)
When I started flying the second time, I even made my own checklists based on the ones that come with the Cessna 172 that I was flying. The ones provided by Cessna were in a rather cumbersome book, so I created some sheets, laminated them, and bound them. I sold a few of them for a few dollars – but largely, I used them to make my world easier. I was working hard to make sure I didn't forget anything and that I did the same thing every time.
Our Problems Aren't the Same
In aviation the checklist was well proven. However, in medicine it hadn't shown its worth. The key objection was that the problems weren't the same in medicine as they were in flying. After all, flying a plane is simple by comparison to treating a human. However, it seems like both processes might have some similarities. The author, Atul Gawande, quotes Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto in the assessment that there are three types of problems:
- Simple – Like baking a cake from a mix
- Complicated – Like sending a rocket to the moon; they're capable of decomposition into many smaller tasks
- Complex – Like raising a child; there is no one way to do it right and doing the same things to two different children may (and frequently does) result in wildly different results
Readers of this blog may notice that we've called Complex problems Wicked problems in our review of Dialogue Mapping. These are problems in which defining the problem can be just as hard as coming up with a possible solution – which will invariably change the situation and, therefore, the problem – for better or worse.
The easiest problems to solve are those that are susceptible to "forcing functions", that is to say that you can change the behavior by modifying one aspect of the solution. For instance, if there is a contaminated well, you prevent people from consuming water from it. If there's a disease for which there is a vaccine you supply the vaccine to everyone. However, many problems in medicine aren't the same. So could a humble checklist make a real impact on healthcare?
Gawande quotes that the result of his surgical checklist developed with the World Health Organization (WHO) resulted in 36% fewer major complications and 47% fewer deaths after surgery – these results were measured across eight hospitals with vastly different situations. That's a statistically significant change for something as humble as a checklist. His results here are certainly the most compelling, but not the only instances where checklists have proven their worth in medicine. It seems as though checklists, done correctly, could make a significant impact on improving the care of patients.
Making a Good Checklist
So acknowledging that the aviation industry has been working with checklists in a more pervasive and effective way than anyone else, it makes sense to take a few pages from the aviation playbook for how to create good checklists. That's just what Gawande and his team did with their surgical checklist. They consulted Boeing's Daniel Boorman and learned the secrets to creating a good checklist – which I've summarized here:
- Decide between READ-DO and DO-CONFIRM – You'll need to decide whether you want the checklist to be one where the person is supposed to read the step and then do it – or do the step then use the checklist to confirm it's done right
- Create / Find "Pause Points" – You need a psychological anchor point to start the checklist; in aviation that can be a warning light but when it's not, it should be clear what the anchor or starting point is (For instance, in flying there's a pause point before you run the engine up.)
- No more than 90 seconds – If the checklist takes more than 90 seconds to do, it's too long, shorten it
- Checklist the mistakes – You don't need to include the things that everyone will do, create checklists for the things people could miss; manage the conflict between brevity and effectiveness by skipping the things people always get right
- Don't checklist the obscure – If something rarely happens, don't put it on the checklist; the checklist supports remembering the frequently missed things, not the obscure
- Create Communication Steps – The most effective thing can be the functioning of a team, encourage everyone to introduce themselves and foster an air of openness and teamwork as a part of the checklist
- Test, Test, Test – Test the checklist however possible - Use simulators, collect data on real-life usage, plan to constantly refine the checklist
Checklists are powerful things. They can guide behavior and keep people from making the simple cognitive slips that they're likely to make. (See Thinking: Fast and Slow.)
Kurt Lewin (who I've spoken about before in Nine Keys to SharePoint Success, Who Am I?, and Beyond Boundaries) said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. In other words, careful construction of the environment has the capability to have a profound impact on behavior. Some of the most innocuous changes can have a profound impact. (See Switch about how solution size and impact are not related and Diffusion of Innovations on how the impacts are not predictable.) Gawande relates one very powerful way that behavior was changed for positive effect.
Even in the most impoverished places, soap is generally available. People can – and do - wash their hands. However, in the impoverished areas there are factors – like cost – that impact how much people use soap. In a study of the ability for soap to reduce disease and suffering, he arranged for Safeguard soap – with and without an antibacterial additive – to be given out to poor families. The impact was that the incidence of diarrhea among children fell 52%. However, the crazy thing wasn't that using soap improved health. The crazy thing was that the families already had soap. In fact, they used approximately 2 bars of soap per week – the distribution of Safeguard averaged only 3.3 bars of soap. It wasn't the addition of soap that made the change, it was something else.
The something else, in Gawande's assessment, was the instruction and systemization of the hand washing. It wasn't that they didn't have soap. It was that their use of soap wasn't sufficient. By instructing families of when to use soap – and eliminating the economic barrier to using it when it was effective – they changed behavior. They changed the behavior of families so that they were washing with soap when they touched anything that was probably infected (such as human waste) – and again before they touched anything that would be substantially harmful if infected (such as food preparation.) The impact was substantial however not because the intervention was monumental – like a new plumbing and sewer system for the city. It was impactful because it changed the behaviors that were harmful.
Sometimes the key to change behavior is in deciding who is responsible for the change. For instance, in a two-pilot cockpit, the pilot not flying (which may or may not be the first officer) is the person walking through the checklist. They're responsible for making sure that every line of the checklist is "checked off." That's because the cognitive load of the person flying the plane can be significant. Significant enough, in fact, that they'll try to skip or skimp on the checks in the checklist. In these situations the "power" of the situation is shared between both pilots – the pilot flying is responsible to the "power" of the checklist. This is a subtle change in reassigning responsibilities to both pilots and aligning both of them to ensuring that the critical checks are completed.
Gawande discusses how checklists change the power in the operating room. A simple metal tent was placed over the scalpel in one set of operating rooms to serve as a physical reminder to ensure that the checklist was completed – and the nurse who hands the instruments to the surgeon was thereby empowered to own responsibility that the checklist was completed. This is a substantial shift in power where the surgeon is the most powerful figure in the room and the rest of the team are there to support him or her. Empowering a nurse to stop the surgery (by not providing the instruments) sends a strong message that the checklist must be followed.
Gawande does caution about forcing physicians to use the process. Some will refuse. He correctly states that forcing them to adhere to the checklist will build resistance and that it can be bad to the overall program. The participants will silently disengage and go through the motions and will quietly and subtly subvert the system. However, those that are willing to at least try a new approach will open up their surgical team and engage them – igniting the possibility for teamwork and for exceptional results. That's what we expect out of professionals although we don't always get it.
I think that an appropriate closing to the book, and to this review, is to talk about professional responsibility. The Checklist Manifesto ends with three components to a code of conduct that all professional occupations have – plus one more that was unique to aviation. Here are the three common ones:
- Selflessness – We expect that professionals operate in their clients' best interests – not their own
- Skill – We expect that a professional has the necessary skills to do their work
- Trustworthiness – We expect that professionals are responsible and worthy of the trust we place in them
The final characteristic – one that is admittedly very difficult – is discipline. That is, following the prudent procedure consistently. Discipline is hard on all levels. It's hard to stick with something, even when we know we should do it, when it's not easy.
That brings me to my last flying story. (If you're from the FAA reading this, my brother was a certified flight instructor for instruments and we were on an instrument flight plan but I was the "pilot flying.") As a private pilot, you don't get much (if any) actual time in a cloud. I had quietly skipped a step on the checklist to turn on pitot heat. A pitot tube is used to drive the airspeed indicator. Because of the Bernoulli effect, sometimes ice can form in the tube and render it ineffective. I'd never had this happen and after a few minutes of flight – in the clouds – my airspeed dropped to zero with no change in thrust or angle of attack. I was noticeably concerned when my brother told me that I had missed turning on the pitot heat. (He later confessed that he had seen the miss earlier in the flight, but decided to let it go because it was educational for me to go through the problem.)
However, that wasn't the last problem in the flight. In pilot training, you're absolutely taught about vertigo and about trusting the instruments. On this day, I followed the right procedures and took off into the clouds, paying particular attention to airspeed, angle of attack, altitude, and track. That's when I started feeling it. It felt like my artificial horizon was wrong. It showed level on the dials, but I felt like I was turning. I cross-checked with the turn-bank indicator which indicated level. I watched for a change in the directional gyro and even glanced up at the compass which was doing its bobble-head movement but it wasn't turning.
Now I had a problem. I knew that we were straight (and climbing slightly) but I also knew that it didn't feel right. I can't exactly describe the feeling in a way that makes sense. I felt as apparently John Kennedy Jr. must have felt. I had vertigo and I had to transfer my trust to my training. I had to trust the instruments that I knew were fallible (although not generally all at once.) Luckily, my brother was sitting with me and he coached me to turn the strobe light off – which was reflecting off the clouds and destroying my night vision anyway. He also patiently reminded me that I knew what this was and I had to follow my training and do what the instruments (collectively) told me.
An eternity or a minute later, depending upon your point of view, my sense of balance was restored and we completed the flight without any incident.
The message, for me, was that I had to trust the checklist and my instruments – even when my gut was telling me something different. I was taught how to rely on things outside of myself to improve my effectiveness. I didn't need to be a better pilot. I needed to have more discipline to use the tools I was given. I needed to really believe The Checklist Manifesto.
Monday, February 10, 2014
It was over 20 years ago now. I was a young hotshot IT guy and the company I was working for needed to communicate to Asia and Eastern Europe. My boss latched on to a Novell MHS (Mail Handling System)-based solution called Coordinator by Action Technologies. Coordinator was later sold to DaVinci which at that time sold a competing product in the Novell MHS-based email world. It was truly a store and forward time when we would deliver messages through CompuServe — in addition to direct international long distance phone calls.
Monday, February 10, 2014
Professional, Book Review
Years ago I met Paul Culmsee. He and I were speaking at a SharePoint best practices conference and we became fast friends – even though he lives halfway across the planet in Perth, Australia. Over the years we've had numerous early morning/late night conversations – depending upon whose side of the conversation you were on since we're literally 12 time zones apart. Paul and I talk about quite a few topics including technology and sense making topics. However, the thing that Paul has a passion for is Dialogue Mapping. So when he suggested Dialogue Mapping: Building a Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems – I knew I had to read it. Paul describes the author, Jeff Conklin, as his mentor. To explain the book, I have to explain the struggle with wicked problems, what they are, and how my thinking works.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Horst Rittel is the father of both a particular schema for dialog mapping, called IBIS that we'll get to in a moment, and the idea of a 'wicked problem'. A wicked problem, in Rittel's explanation, is: A problem you don't understand until you have a solution and one which is ill structured involving a set of interlocking constraints. (In other words, the interactions are not able to be completely known.) Wicked problems also have not stopping rule – that is, since you can't precisely define the problem you can scarcely say that the problem has been resolved.
Living in technology I'm used to problems that are what would be called tame. If you provide more resources performance improves. If you scale out the server farm you can service more users. I'm not saying that some of the solutions that I create aren't necessarily complicated – but they're relatively known quantities. For instance, my blog post, Computer Hard Disk Performance – From the Ground Up talks about a bunch of details about computer hard disk performance – but they're all known. That post is a more detailed echo of an earlier blog post, Fundamentals of SharePoint Performance – Disk, SQL, and Network. That came from work I did a dozen years ago. I talked about the fundamentals of performance testing back in 2006. There are tons of details but they're just that details – they've not fundamentally changed in dozens of years.
Wicked problems, by contrast, make understanding the details and the relationships difficult – because the relationships aren't stable. When you make a change to one thing it impacts another. This means that you need a different approach than a linear approach. Since there is no stopping rule, you don't stop when you solve a wicked problem, you stop when you run out of time, money, resources, or energy to work on the wicked problem.
The idea that you are working a linear process is a fallacy anyway. In reality we're building a mental model for how the problem works. That mental model has us sometimes designing solutions and sometimes trying to figure out if the mental model is complete enough to be valuable. (For more about mental models see: Sources of Power, Thinking, Fast and Slow and Compelled to Control) The diagram – taken from the book – shows a typical case where we believe that there's a linear progression (red) although what we really do is bounce between problem and solution (green).
Mapping the Wicked Problem with IBIS
If it's hard to define a wicked problem and if our models of how we solve all problems isn't right, then how do we get our arms around a wicked problem? This is where simplicity helps. Rittel created an approach he called issue-based information system (IBIS). IBIS has only four elements so the vocabulary is simple. Those are:
- Question – These are unanswered questions posed to the group for answer
- Idea – An idea is any potential answer to a question; it's a statement
- Pro – This is a statement which supports an idea; it's a reason why the idea is valid or "right"
- Con – This is a statement which minimizes, detracts, or removes support for an idea; a reason why the idea may not be the "right" solution
Fundamental to the approach is that you start with a big question and from there you attach ideas, and additional questions. On the ideas you attach Pros and Cons. From this simple framework you can map out a multitude of issues and get clarity in a conversation that most meetings never reach. The power of IBIS is in its simplicity. It's easy enough for everyone to understand and rich enough to map out any problem. The heart of IBIS is an attempt to define the real question. In fact, Conklin describes seven different question types.
The Seven Questions and Snow White
We're quite used to questions being split up by who, what, when, where, and why. We're less familiar with approaches that break questions into categories about the context of the question. Take a look at these seven question types:
- Deontic – What should we do?
- Instrumental – How should we do it?
- Criteria – What are the criteria?
- Meaning/Conceptual – Do we define the term (or problem) the same way?
- Factual – What are the facts here?
- Background – What is the context of the situation?
- Stakeholder – Who are the stakeholders of this problem?
Of course, these archetypes aren't the only way to define questions. There's still the fact that questions can be either open or closed. Closed questions lead to a fixed set of answers. Open questions can lead to any answer. As it turns out the more open ended questions lead to better results when discussing problems because they don't prematurely constrain the discussion. They allow the conversation to diverge before bringing it back together through convergence.
While the four elements are the grammar of IBIS, asking the right questions are the heart and soul of IBIS.
Oversimplifying it a bit, dialogue mapping is using the IBIS notation and a shared display to facilitate a meeting. The shared display is simply using a projector or TV to allow everyone in the meeting to see what the dialogue mapper is recording. It holds everyone together and ensures that everyone feels their point is heard. If it's on the map, then it's been recorded, and they've been heard.
However, that is an over simplification. The dialogue mapper isn't a passive automaton transcribing what is said into a set of pretty pictures. The dialogue mapper is an active part of the discussion. They're leading the discussion through clarification, summary, and questioning. They're leading the discussion in the same way you herd a cow – you can't tell the cow exactly where to go but you can encourage more productive paths.
In addition to IBIS, Conklin discusses a listening cycle where the dialogue mapper focuses on one person at a time to ensure that person is on board. By serially ensuring that every party is heard you can ensure that the group is heard.
The output of the dialogue mapping exercise is group memory. It's the diagram which is the outline of the discussion and a way for people who weren't even in the discussion to understand the framework of what was discussed. It allows for the formation of common mental models.
I've talked about mental models quite a bit. However, the most powerful conversation about mental models came from Sources of Power. The conversation is powerful in revealing the way that mental models are so invisible to us. They're like trying to describe air. It just is. The beauty of dialogue mapping is that it helps to illuminate the spaces where my reality – my mental models – aren't aligned with the mental models of the rest of the group. Those alignment problems may be in the way that I misperceive reality – or in the way that others misperceive reality.
The great part about being aware of these differences is that we can resolve them – or at the very least, acknowledge their existence. By adjusting our perceptions and mental models to be more in line with reality we're able to see things more clearly and creating solutions gets easier. Indeed, many are quoted as saying that understanding the problem is more than half of the solution.
Dialogue Mapping as a Tool
At the end of the day, Dialogue Mapping is a powerful tool to add to your toolbox if you're ever confronted with a meeting that never seems to end about topics that people don't understand and can't define. Even if your problems are less wicked, the clarity of being able to describe a problem with a few simple building blocks is very freeing.
I mentioned my friend Paul Culmsee at the opening of this post. He's got a four part blog post series on Dialogue Mapping. I recommend that as well. It's not as rich as the book – but like most things that Paul does, its solid work and a great start.
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
Having spent the last 13 years or so of my professional career connected to doing SharePoint work – and the last 9 doing SharePoint more-or-less full-time, I tend to view the world through a SharePoint lens – whether I like it or not. However, being a business person as well, I realize that organizations today are struggling to keep their doors open. It's a reality that most organizations don't believe that SharePoint is their biggest problem – or even the source of gut wrenching problems that can come from a poor deployment – bad teamwork, less communication, and an organization that can feel like a battleground.
It's common now to hear the phrase "first world problems" come up in conversation. This refers to the kind of problems that most people in the world would love to have, such as paying too much for car insurance – since most people on the planet don't own a car. When I'm talking to clients about how to improve their organization – which frequently involves the effective use of SharePoint – I sometimes wonder if I'm talking about a "first world problem."
Quite often I see organizations that are so inundated with day-to-day operations, slogging through responding to clients, recovering their accounts receivable, and finding new customers that they don't have the mental energy to invest in improving their efficiency so that they don't have to fight so hard in the future. They're doing the organizational equivalent of hand-to-mouth living.
Some organizations I work with don't understand that corporate culture is made up of the people, the systems, and the policies of the organization. They see corporate culture as some dragon that they have to slay – rather than an animal to be tamed and trained. Even if they had the mental energy to invest in making things better, they don't know how to untangle the mess and make a real difference today and tomorrow.
In this post, I want to address the conflict that organizations face trying to survive in the short-term while making investments in the future – to stop the cycle of struggle. I also want to untangle the mess of culture and help everyone see that you can change culture in the same way that you can turn a large boat. That is, slowly.
The Spin (or Death Spiral)
As a pilot, there are occasionally times when you'll encounter a problem. Despite popular belief, losing an engine isn't the worst thing that can happen while flying. Small planes, like the ones I fly, are essentially powered gliders. In fact, for every 1,000 feet of altitude I have, I can go 6,000-8,000 feet across the ground. That's a pretty long way. The real issue is stalling the aircraft. There are lots of things that can happen to get into a stalled condition but the short is that there isn't enough airflow in the right shape over the wings to continue flight.
Stalling an aircraft and recovering from the stall is a part of every pilot's training and while it's unsettling, it isn't the end of the world. However, you can get into a critical situation where you enter what's called a death spiral. That is where you're being spun around like a downward tornado because one of the wings is generating lift and the other isn't.
In a single-engine aircraft, we're taught "ABC" for handling an engine out situation – Get your Airspeed to best glide (give yourself the most space), find the Best field to land in (assuming you won't get the engine back on), and Communicate. Obviously you're also trying to restart the engine. Restarting the engine is – of course – the preferred alternative, but it's not the sole thing pilots are taught to be doing when they lose their only engine.
In an aircraft there's the natural temptation to want to hold the aircraft in the air by pulling back on the stick to prevent the aircraft from going down – however, that's where best glide comes in. Aircraft have an optimal speed for gliding – and that's going to give you the best chance for recovery because it gives you more time. If you follow your instincts and hold the aircraft up you'll eventually cause a bigger problem – that is you'll stall the aircraft.
In business, when things begin to flounder, there's a temptation to "pull back on the stick" and try to keep from going out of business, or from having to lay off workers, or from making dramatic changes. This, however, is the situation that causes stalls – which can lead to death spirals. You're trying to avoid (or deny) reality.
Once you're in the death spiral, it's not as fatal as the name implies. A death spiral leads to death only when you don't exit it. There are some aircraft where a death spiral isn't recoverable, but in most cases it is. Exiting the death spiral is primarily about acknowledging what's happening and taking the right steps. The steps are literally to exit the spiral – to use more energy to exit the cycle.
I've seen plenty of businesses enter a death spiral and recover. And I've seen plenty more which get so locked into the spiral itself – pushing so hard on the immediate that they can't plan for the long term – that they never break the cycle. Without some control to stop the spin, the decline won't stop until the business – or the plane – has run into the ground.
Most organizations today have been impacted by the poor economy. Whether you want to believe that we're recovering or not, the economy has been hard for nearly everyone that I've talked to. Think about this as an 'engine out' situation in an aircraft. You can keep flying for a while hoping to restart the engine and keep things going. You can redouble your sales efforts, work on reducing your costs, and hoping that things will get better in general. You can acquiesce to forces outside of your control, or you can start to make changes to make things better.
Rice Patties and Retirement Savings – Change the Long Term
You're probably thinking that rice patties and retirement savings have very little to do with one another – but there is a connection. The connection is the ability to focus a small amount of energy on the future. The connection is taking just a little bit of energy and diverting it.
As Malcom Gladwell writes about rice farmers in the Pearl River Delta in his book Outliers, he talks about how labor-intensive rice farming is. He also talks about how the farmers become expert at exactly what is needed to make each plant produce the most rice. However, rice farmers barely survive because it takes so much effort to produce enough rice to support the family today there's little left over to invest in the future.
In the United States, we're bombarded by messages that the Social Security System is going to fail. It simply cannot pay out the amounts promised when it's being supported by so few payroll taxes. The models predict the system will run out of money in 25-30 years. That's created a greater need for individuals to prepare for their own futures through retirements savings in an Individual Retirement Account or a 401k.
Funding a retirement is not something that you can do overnight. I started putting a few percentage points of my income into a 401k at my first job. It wasn't much but it was something. My mother, who had to struggle to raise my sister and I, didn't start saving until after my sister and I were out of the house. It's making a big difference in how hard it will be for each of us to retire. The few percentage points of my income invested at 21 are much more powerful than ten times that much invested at 45.
For some math reasons I won't go into here, you can relatively safely assume that aggressively invested funds will double every 6 years or so. (See the Rule of 72 for more.) So if you put in $10,000 and you need to retire in 18 years, you'll get 3 doublings of your money. You'll have $20,000 in 6 years, $40,000 in 12, and $80,000 in 18 years. The longer you wait to begin the more you have to save to have the same amount.
So even when you're struggling, if you can shave off just a little energy to plan for your long term success, you'll find that you may be able to recover more quickly and get into a better position where you're not having to struggle every day.
Sometimes big problems – like the problem of changing the corporate culture – are achieved with small changes. A few percentage points of retirement savings or a few well understood interventions can be a solution.
Changing the Culture
So, as I said previously, my world has been SharePoint for many years. Over those years, I've seen SharePoint projects fail as often as I've seen businesses fail. Whether it is your entire organization or your SharePoint project that is in a death spiral, my suggestion is that it's time to do something differently. Small changes, today. Change. Today.
Quite frequently, folks blame the culture for their failed SharePoint project – or the fact that people just won't collaborate. However, those folks are fundamentally approaching the problem the same old way, as a victim. The truth is that cultures – for better or worse – are made of the people, the systems, and the policies of the organization. If the culture of the organization is causing the failure, then you should change it – by changing the policies, the systems, and in some cases, even the people.
Some folks bemoan the fact that their organization doesn't have a culture that supports collaboration. Instead of collaboration, they have knowledge hoarding – or they believe that they have to create their own knowledge – and reuse isn't something that's celebrated in the organization.
In some cases, it can be as simple as changing the employees' objectives so that they're measured on how much they collaborate, how much they put into a knowledge base – or how much they take out. Obviously, measuring these objectives can be challenging and you'll have employees that "game" the system so that they meet their objectives, but perhaps you can achieve greater collaboration even when they do.
Consider adding to everyone's goals for the year that they must have retrieved two things from the corporate knowledge base. If there's not much in the knowledge base, then you may hear complaints that there's nothing in there. So encourage the employees to work with their peers. Have their peers put knowledge into the repository that they can use. This would absolutely be considered "gaming" the system – but it actually gets you what you want. That is, it gets reusable content added to the knowledge base. Had you set the goal of adding knowledge to the knowledge base, you could have ended up with some information that's not useful at all just for the sake of meeting the "add something" requirement.
What we're getting to here is adoption. In my experience user adoption is the single most overlooked opportunity to make every SharePoint project a success. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. How could a tool that is implemented to make the user's life (okay, at least their work life) more efficient, more simple, more productive, more enjoyable, not be readily adopted by the users? It isn't happening because you're doing the same old thing.
Whether it's easier to be a victim of the corporate culture, or just easier to blame the culture than to attempt to change it, ignoring end user adoption is costing your business. Taking steps now to improve end user adoption and engagement will pay off in the long run.
Actions to Take Today
Given the pressure to keep things going, you may not be able to invest a large amount of time, effort, or money in a big SharePoint project. However, here are some ideas for how you might make some small progress:
- Get real about your organization's adoption of SharePoint. Ignore the server infrastructure optimization projects and do a strategic review of how your employees are using, or not using, SharePoint. Get a qualified professional to help you identify and remove the barriers that are stopping the organization from getting more from SharePoint. Even a few hours of conversation about your situation with an expert can help you get dramatically more use out of your investment. (We do these for clients all the time and they're not expensive.)
- Locate the real, tangible business problem that SharePoint can solve. I talked about this in my article for SharePoint Pro magazine "4 Tips for Engaging Your Executives in SharePoint." In short, listen for a problem SharePoint can solve and then go implement the solution.
Create a single productivity aid. Creating a complete self-help solution for SharePoint may be overwhelming, but you can take one thing that your users are struggling with and create a resource for that. [Disclaimer: The following is to give you some ideas, it isn't intended to be a sales pitch though, admittedly, it may sound that way.]
If you don't want to create your own productivity aids, you can "cheat" by helping users find the samples we provide for free from the SharePoint Shepherd's Guide. The 2013 version samples are here. The 2010 version samples are here. If you're not looking for "How To" productivity aids, you can provide decision trees (also found in the sample links above) or you can do a one-page quick reference guide like our User Interface Quick Reference. (You can buy 15 of the cards to share with your users for $30.) If it's feasible, take advantage of productivity aids that are proven and readily available instead of creating your own. Obviously, if you can license the SharePoint Shepherd's Guide Corporate Edition (called the Tutor) for your entire organization you will be taking a great leap towards helping your users be self-service. (Pricing for smaller organizations starts at $699 and includes the searchable Wiki pages and the videos for all of the tasks.)
Sunday, February 02, 2014
Personal, Book Review
John Gottman is well known and respected for his knowledge of what makes couples successful – and what will ultimately lead them towards divorce. His research uncovered ways to identify who would remain married and those who would not. When you pair my interest in how relationships work with my curiosity about how important trust is, it's little wonder why I picked up Gottman's book The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. However, what was surprising to me is how much mathematics played into the book.
Rose Colored Glasses
There's some level of naivety that comes with being an optimist. Despite the psychological and physiological benefits of being optimistic, there are some practical benefits as well. (See Emotional Intelligence; Thinking, Fast and Slow; and The Happiness Hypothesis.) The world is – to us – how we perceive it. So if you want the world to be a better place, simply view it that way.
Of course, this won't change your actual situation, but it can change how you feel about it and that can change how you view the world and how you react to it. How Children Succeed would call it grit. Gottman focuses on what Robert Weiss formerly a professor at the University of Oregon called positive and negative "sentiment override." In other words, the bias that someone has to interpret events based on their preconceived expectations of it. Sentiment override comes in both positive and negative form – so it's possible to see things with rose colored glasses where the glass is half full, or negatively, as in the glass is half empty. (The scientists in the group sometimes quip that the glass is full – half of water and half of air.)
When someone has a pessimistic perspective – or negative sentiment override – it's extremely difficult to have anyone appear to be positive around them. We've all heard folks retort back when we've said "Good Morning" with something like "Well, what's so good about it?" They seem to find the dark cloud around every silver lining. In relationships this is life-draining, because relationships live on the ratio of positive to negative comments. Gottman's research says that happy couples have a positive to negative ratio of greater than 5:1 – and couples headed for divorce have a ratio of 0.8:1.
On the other hand, positive sentiment override, reinforces the very lifeblood of a relationship. It creates more opportunities to be positive because there are more positive interactions that are seen. A person with a positive sentiment override might look at a traffic jam while traveling with their partner as an opportunity to finish a conversation rather than an unnecessary delay.
We All Have Problems
Gottman notes that all relationships have their problems – whether the couples are happy or unhappy. We all argue about essentially the same stuff. The difference with happy couples is that the arguments aren't as all-consuming or as damaging. Happy couples are more apt to begin a discussion softly. They're more likely to convey an issue in terms of what they need and what they feel – rather than by pointing out a fundamental character flaw of the other person. They're also more likely to attempt to repair problems in the relationship – or in a disagreement - more quickly.
One concern of pre-marital counselors is how couples are fighting. They expect that even the healthiest couples are fighting at least a little. If a couple literally never fights or disagrees, it's a sign that one or the other of the parties in the relationship aren't expressing their needs and beliefs. However, happy couples may have trouble even deciphering that they are "fighting." The disagreements are filled with so much respect (rather than contempt) that they just literally don't see the "fight" as a fight. They simply see that they're disagreeing – and reaching an agreement. It isn't a fight because neither is getting hurt – at least not hurt in a lasting way.
Thus the distinction between an unhealthy couple – where one is capitulating – and a healthy couple - where both parties are actively building and repairing the relationship in the middle of the disagreements - is in the ability to discover that there are disagreements, but those disagreements never escalate to the point of a fight.
Gottman noted that happy couples moved to repair the relationship much sooner, and showed a much lower level of diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). In other words, happy couples were much less stressed about their interactions than unhappy couples – in part because they felt safe.
Our brains are curious places. One curious thing is that unresolved issues – things that we don't fully process - are given more attention and have more magnitude of thought than our resolved issues. This is called the "Zeigarnik effect". The problem is that this can sometimes draw couples into a stream of negative conversations because all relationships have issues that cannot be resolved. Instead issues must be managed and dialogued to prevent the accidental development of gridlock.
Gridlock is that state much like a Chinese finger trap where both fingers are stuck and it's very hard to get free. The more that you pull the fingers back – or the more entrenched you become in your position – the more challenging it becomes to break free. Couples, in gridlock, vilify one another. Instead of accepting that we're both good people with different perspectives, fundamental attribution error creeps in and we believe the worst of our partner. (See also The Advantage, The Me I Want to Be, and Switch.)
Gottman believes that the key behind these unsolvable issues are "hidden agendas." He believes that there is a part of the conversation that isn't being had. I remember reading a story of a man and wife where they were shopping for a new refrigerator and objectively the best offering wasn't a Frigidaire. However, one of the options that they had evaluated was a Frigidaire model. The wife was insisting on it. The man was confused and frustrated because it didn't make sense. In the end, the true reason was exposed. The wife had grown up with a father who was in appliance sales. He had his own business for a while and Frigidaire loaned him inventory so that he could sell it. Somewhere the wife had picked up on this and had built a sentimental attachment with Frigidaire because of how the company had supported her father when he needed it. Ultimately the story goes that they bought the Frigidaire – however, the point is not about where they landed – it's about how an undiscovered motivating factor (hidden agenda) could create a stressful situation and once identified the problem fades.
We can't get rid of all of our hidden agendas because we don't know that they're there. There are all sorts of crazy things that all of us do and feel without any rational reason. For me, for instance, I have to have at least $20 on me all the time. Not that we use cash that often any more – but I have to have at least $20 on me or I feel anxious. I also feel a bit of stress every time I go on a trip that I might have forgotten something important. The reality is that buying a tube of toothpaste on the road or picking up a new comb won't break the bank – however, these stresses from my early adult life are still with me – even if they aren't rational.
Acceptance and Shame
In a gridlocked situation – and in many less immobilized circumstances – the conversation can degenerate into a conversation about the differences of opinion. However, in many cases the undercurrent of a discussion is the need for everyone to be accepted. We all have a need to be accepted for the person that we are. It's during the hard discussions where there's very little common ground that the masters of relationships indicate their acceptance of their partner – in the midst of problem.
You may remember from my discussion of Daring Greatly, Changes that Heal, and Compelled to Control that shame is a powerful – and negative – force in people's lives. Shame is separate and distinct from guilt in that shame is "I am bad" whereas guilt is "I have done bad." Shame is battled with acceptance. David Richo discusses how important acceptance is in How to Be an Adult in Relationships. When we fail to recognize the importance of the person, we shame them and make them believe that they must not be good enough to be in a relationship with us.
Bidding for Attention
Gottman talked a great deal about what he calls "Sliding Door" moments (based on the movie Sliding Doors). The idea is that during certain moments of time you have two choices to make. Each choice leads to a different outcome. In the context of Gottman's research, the sliding door moments are bids for attention. It's where one member of a relationship is seeking out the other. One choice, to turn away from the partner will damage the relationship. Depending upon the bid for attention the damage may be small and insignificant – or something with a long lasting impact. The other choice, to turn into the partner's bid for attention will build the relationship. It is these moments that Gottman surmises have significant long term impact on the relationship.
The Grass Must Not Be Greener
Every relationship has its good points and its bad points. It's got things that go well and things that don't always go so well. That's what happens when you take two imperfect people and bring them together. The result is an imperfect relationship. However, from a long term stability point of view, Gottman believes that the way that you see the relationship can ultimately illustrate the relationship's longevity.
The measurement is how we view the alternative relationship prospects. That is, whether we believe that our current relationship is better – or worse – than the alternatives. If we fundamentally believe that our relationship is the best possible answer for us then we won't seek alternatives. Conversely, if we believe that the alternative relationships are better opportunities, we're more likely to pursue – directly or indirectly – those other relationships.
It seems quite morally absent to discu¡ss the idea of a relationship being a comparison about what is best for us – however, that's the way many people view their relationships – not that they are a commitment, but only that they are useful for the moment.
Learning to recognize and manage our emotions is a skill that few people have. (See Emotional Intelligence for more on managing our emotions.) Learning to manage emotions isn't something that can be made into explicit knowledge – it's hard to write down. (For more on different kinds of knowledge see Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge Management.) Because of this, emotional intelligence is best learned through coaching. Parents that have coached their children about how to manage their feelings are rewarded with higher math, reading, and IQ scores.
However, sometimes it's the children who need to coach their parents in better managing their emotions, and in that context, the word coaching becomes more challenging. To combat the stigma of having a child teach a parent how to better manage their emotions, Gottman uses the word attunement. He suggests that anyone can help attune you to an emotional situation – irrespective of the power differential between the parties.
Teaching emotional intelligence – or attunement in Gottman's language is key. Couples will be happier if they can recognize the feeling in their partner and seek to connect with them. That just doesn't happen over time, it's a skill that has to be learned – largely from those who are closest to us.
Authentic Trust and Love
What can happen over time as couples have spent their lives together is that their love becomes intertwined with the trust that they share. Over time partners can learn to trust that their partner will be there to nurture them and share in the moral responsibility of leading a life together. That isn't to say that every time there was a bid for attention that the other partner understood it and turned in, however, it happens with enough regularity that it can be relied upon – it can be trusted.
As I mentioned in my review of Building Trust, there's an authentic trust that doesn't blindly believe in something that has no basis in fact, nor is it basic trust which is implicit and without confirmation of fact. Authentic trust understands that there are no absolutes in life and that a partner will mostly be there.
The interesting dynamic is how love and trust are related to one another and strengthen each other. There's a special kinship that comes with having a large number of experiences together. There's even some schools of thought that believe that experiential is a type of trust.
The Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse
Ultimately, in his research and through his experience, Gottman discovered that there were four activities which signaled the demise of the relationship. These "four horsemen" were the signals of serious problems. Here are the four horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.
Most all of us have been critical at some point in our lives. A key distinction is that criticism here is criticizing the other partner – not criticizing the situation or the environment – it's a direct attack on the other person. Globalization – using the words always and never – is a good indicator that criticism may be following.
An example of criticisms are rhetorical questions that are really accusations. When your partner asks "Why don't you care about me?" they're really making an accusation that you don't care about them.
Defensiveness is either denying that what the partner says is true – or more commonly responding with a counter attack instead of acknowledging that we all have limitations. Chris Argyris (mentioned in the Fifth Discipline, for which the review is coming soon) talks about "defensive routines" that we all have which protect us from threat or embarrassment.
Defensiveness prevents us from really understanding what the other person is saying. The antidote to defensiveness, I believe, is an integrated self-image which I covered in my review of Changes that Heal and Beyond Boundaries.
Contempt – which is the single biggest predictor of divorce – is placing yourself on a higher moral plane than your spouse. Often contempt is about how one person doesn't have some challenge that the partner has and therefore they are better than the partner. Weird correlations exist including a husband's contempt predicting the wife's infectious illness. As crazy as it seems, a husband showing contempt for his wife will increase her risk for infectious illness.
Stonewalling is building a wall around you so that your partner can't get in. It's withdrawing from the conversation – and the relationship - because the partner doesn't want to or isn't able to participate. It can be subtle in terms of body language or more overt like leaving the room.
Science, Math, and Relationships
While I didn't cover some of the mathematical principles that Gottman discussed to arrive at some of his conclusions, I think I may have been doing you a service. While I was interested in the background on the Nash Equilibrium and the von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium I felt like they were an academic detail compared to the practical help for couples struggling to make their marriage work and those interested in a deeper understanding of what is going on in their relationship.
It may seem like math and science have little place in relationships – however, as I found out, there's a lot of math needed to be able to do the right science in order to be able to predict which relationships will endure the test of time – and which ones won't. If you are looking for a rigorous look at relationships instead of the "touchy-feely" stuff, The Science of Trust may be your answer.