Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Help Fight the Curse of Knowledge!

Apparently the biggest impediment to effective communication is knowing too much.

This is according to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (they have a fantastic blog as well). They cite an experiment in their book conducted at Standford in the 90s. The experiment took pairs of people, one designated to be a "tapper" and the other a "listener." The tapper tapped out common songs (like Happy Birthday) on a table and the listener had to guess the song. Success rates were very low, but more significant was the result when the tapper had to guess whether or not the listener would be able to guess the song. It turned out that the tapper got the message across 1 out of 40 times, but they thought they were geting it across 1 in 2. They had the song going through their heads so clearly that they could not imagine that the other person could not guess it.

This would make a great communications game, to show why, sometimes, scientists don't get their messages across in presentations; or why technical people don't always make the best trainers.

Last week I attended a workshop on Systems Modelling, a basic course. It tooks us from the basic concepts and diagrams to simple modelling (simple I would say is a bit of a misnomer here). I have been conducting training in systems thinking for over 10 years now and thought it would be useful to actually take it through to the computer modelling part. I realise that my past success as a system thinking trainer could be partly due to the fact that I have been rather unburdened by a lot of in-depth knowledge of mathematical models and systems dynamics. Systems thinking diagramming tools like reference mode diagrams (or Behaviour Over Time graphs), and causal loop diagrams, are wonderfully useful all by themselves.

Well, one day into my course, I had learned a couple of new diagramming conventions and did my best to model ipod purchasing, wolf re-introduction into Scotland, and household budgeting. Not too hard when the instructor gives you the figures and units (like wolf/month) and you just pop them into the programme, I managed to keep my head above water. However, Day 2 was an eye opener in complexity (and a lot of digging around in the far back of your brain for mathematical logic). The instructor explained things as though everyone in the world would intuitively know how to normalise their variables so their units would work out and avoid unit errors. And he would add variables in a minute to make sure this happened and his units would be A.O.K.

The curse of knowledge implies that you can't unlearn something, so you cannot easily put yourself in someone else's uninitiated shoes. However, I think one can work on this - on tapping into the pre-expert knowledge state - through constantly embarking on new learning endeavours. If you think about it, you probably do learn something new every day, (perhaps not as new as modelling the population dynamics of Scottish wolves.) That experience gave me hours to tap into what it feels like to be in a pre-knowledge state.

In some ways, being a constant learner can help you be a better communicator and trainer, because no matter how much knowledge you have in some areas, you have a recent experience being on the other side of that knowledge exchange, and can apply that experience to the delivery of your message. Noticing your learning and what it feels like should be able to help us fight the curse of knowledge.

Friday, March 14, 2008

People Buy Adjectives

We were working on a one-page proposal this week, the kind that is going into a board meeting for a yes/no answer, and tinkering around with the text. Wanting it to be minimal, I remembered a presentation I heard by Interact, a UK-based management training group that uses theatre techniques and real actors for training. They gave a demonstration workshop to the Geneva Learning Community a few weeks ago.

The lead trainer, Ian Jessop, a director and producer himself, spoke to us about linguistic audits, that is analysing the language we use and being mindful of how we use words and what they say to people. Here is what he told the group. Nouns are facts, they are not emotional. They are most appreciated by accountants, doctors and biologists who deal in things - dollars, ulnas and rattlesnakes. Verbs however are action oriented, future oriented and have movement and motivation. Activators like verbs.

Adjectives are about emotions. They help to define, tell stories and paint pictures and help people understand and follow. Adjectives are the things we buy. People don't buy a car, they buy a fast, candy apple red sportscar, or a safe car. They don't buy chocolate, they buy the richest creamiest, darkest chocolate.

So we decided, we were no longer talking about a workshop where participants would talk together and identify solutions. Now we were talking about an interactive, outcomes-oriented workshop that would feature peer-learning and generative dialogue, and build relationships among motivated, committed people working towards long-lasting outcomes. It's all still true. Hopefully that sells.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Applying the Prisoner's Dilemma

I had a tough day today, but since I am a Learner, I am going to see what I can get out of it...

One of the most famous zero-sum games is the Prisoner's Dilemma. It explores cooperation, trust, and negotiation between two parties to a situation (two prisoner's in separate cells decide if they are independently going to confess or not confess to a crime they jointly committed). One of the key messages of the Prisoner's dilemma is that when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off.

I have used a game version of this in many negotiation training courses I have run in the past; interactive versions are called "Win As Much As You Can" or "Get As Much As You Can" (I think the latter is a version from the Consensus Building Institute at MIT in Cambridge, MA.) The game players use Ys and Xs to signal cooperation or defection (respectively), and scores are given to each player based on both what they play and what the other person plays. You think you would have an incentive to cooperate (both parties play a Y card), but if your aim is to "win" (whatever that means to you) actually in the short term non-cooperation can get you more points (as long as the other player is still cooperative or trusting). So you play an X card and the other player plays a Y card; that gets you lots of points and your partner just looks gullible - for a round. Of course as soon as they figure out that you are not to be trusted, they stop trusting you too, and play their X card, then both of you lose, or at least come up with a sub-optimal result (and that is definitely not winning).

Researchers have enjoyed playing this game thousands of times to understand the best strategy. It turns out that the best strategy is called "Tit for Tat", (Anatol Rapoport). Here is what says about that strategy, "The strategy is simply to cooperate on the first iteration of the game; after that, the player does what his opponent did on the previous move. Depending on the situation, a slightly better strategy can be "Tit for Tat with forgiveness". When the opponent defects, on the next move, the player sometimes cooperates anyway. This allows for occasional recovery from getting trapped in a cycle of defections. "

So what does this have to do with my day? Well, I found myself yesterday in a discussion in which I felt like I had played a trusting card, a Y card, in a conversation about a dilemma that could be usefully solved. I felt that the other player played a Y card too, an open an trusting response, and we seemed on our way to getting a good score in this game. However, this morning, feeling good about my Y card, I entered quite positively into round 2 of the game where I played another Y card, when all of a sudden my partner played an X card. That put the game into non-cooperation. The other player got loads of points on that round. Here is where games become real life - what did I do on the next round? Did I play a Y card, to reinforce my cooperation? Or did I play my X card, to show that I was not too happy about the other player's X card? Maybe if I had played a Y card here, then in round 3, my partner might have reconsidered, seen my cooperation, and played a Y card back to me, breaking the cycle of non-cooperation.

However, I did not. I was taken a bit by surprise by my partner's move and I played what I think is an uncharacteristic-for-me X card back. Negative points in that round for both of us. Now we have a choice. If Tit-for-Tat with forgiveness really works, then an X card was perhaps the right card to play there, it signalled that there are repercussions for non-cooperation (even though it hurts a bit to play that card.) However, if I play a Y card tomorrow in round 3 (the forgiveness part), then there still might be a way to break the cycle. But that will only happen if my partner plays a Y card back. If another X card is played, then I have to decide - if I play another Y card, the economists would say I am a push-over. If I play an X card, then the downward spiral continues until the other player plays a Y card. Then I can play one back in tit-for-tat. But that might take a long time, and it would probably be by email. Hmmm...

How hard is it to apply this kind of theoretical learning to real life situations? This is frankly the first time I have tried. However, I am still a bit upset by playing my X card today; I think I should be a bit above it. Trying to apply the Prisoner's Dilemma to the situation has helped me think through it a bit. The truth is, these situations are very wonderfully, imperfectly and often irrationally human. It also helps if your partner knows about game theory - but who else is reading and thinking about the Prisoner's Dilemma right now but me?

How Deep Are Your Neural Pathways?

Before you read this post, grab a pencil and piece of paper.

Now without thinking too much about it write down the first thing that comes into your head when you read these words:


What did you write down? Well, I did this exercise, which is called Mind Grooving (from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth-Sweeney) with a group of 21 people in a systems workshop last week. Here is what they came up with, out of 21 responses:

Colour: 10 people wrote "Red", 8 people wrote "Blue". (Only three people wrote a different colour)
Furniture: 12 people wrote "Chair", with 4 people writing "Table", (2 "Beds" and three others)
Flower: We had 6 "Roses", 5 "Daisys", and 5 "Tulips" (5 other flowers turned up on this list of 21)

When I first considered this exercise, I did not imagine that a group would actually display such consistency in answers. Years of associations and experience have created deep neurological pathways for people, shared habitual patterns of thinking. In spite of our individualist culture, socialization might be stronger than we realise. How can we notice and potentially challenge our own mental models? Or find those people whose "grooves" are not as deep as our own for insights and learning.

So when you say "Leader," how many people expect to see someone get up and walk to the front of the room?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Systems Haikus

I am doing a few days of systems thinking training and one creativity exercise we did this morning, on day 2 of the training, was to write a systems haiku (5-8-5 syllables). Here are a few interesting ones: (thanks to the Questions of Difference Team for these!)

If a systems loop
has an impact on our working,
what will we achieve?

Systems tell us that
everything is interlinked-
swings and roundabouts.

A system is not
closed, it is always connected
to the outside.