What is so Funny?

One line from the Simpson’s Movie that made me laugh was when Bart says “Dad, this is the worst day of my life!” to which Homer replies “Worst day <dramatic pause> so far!”.  If Bart had said “Dad, this is the best day of my life!” and Homer had replied “Best day <dramatic pause> so far!” it would not have been funny – it would have sounded cheesy. Why is that?  What does this tell us about how we can sometimes confuse humour and pleasure?  If we laugh when we are unexpectedly confronted with someone else’s emotional distress (the basis of slapstick humour); and we also laugh when we see other people laughing; and we also laugh when we have our expectations exceeded (the basis of surprise parties) then by simple association of the feeling (pleasure) with the behaviour (laughter) we have a recipe for collectively laughing at someone else’s distress.  More sinister is that we can unconsciously plan to derive laughter (and by association pleasure) by deliberately engineering distress for others.  Humour, like any process, can become sick.

But Why?

Just two, innocent-looking, three-letter words.

So what is the big deal? If you’ve been a parent of young children you’ll recognise the feeling of desperation that happens when your pre-schooler keeps asking the “But why?” question. You start off patiently attempting to explain in language that you hope they will understand, and the better you do that the more likely you are to get the next “But why?” response. Eventually you reach the point where you’re down to two options: “I don’t know!” or “Just because!”.  How are you feeling now about yourself and your young interrogator?

The troublemaker word is “but”. A common use of the word “but” in normal conversation is “Yes … but …” such as in “I hear what you are saying but …”.

What happens inside your head when you hear that?  Does it niggle? Does the red mist start to rise?

Used in this way the word “but” reveals a mental process called discounting – and the message that you registered unconsciously is closer to “I don’t care about you and your opinion, I only care about me and my opinion and here it comes so listen up!”.  This is a form of disrespectful behaviour that often stimulates a defensive response – even an argument – which only serves to further polarise the separate opinions, to deepen the mutual disrespect, and to erode trust.

It is a self-reinforcing negative-outcome counter-productive behaviour.

The trickster word is “why?”  When someone asks you this open-ended question they are often just using it as a shortcut for a longer series of closed, factual questions such as “how, what, where, when, who …”.  We are tricked because we often unconsciously translate “why?” into “what are your motives for …” which is an emotive question and can unconsciously trigger a negative emotional response. We then associate the negative feeling with the person and that hardens prejudices, erodes trust, reinforces resistance and fuels conflict.

My intention in this post is only to raise conscious awareness of this niggle.

If you are curious to test this youself – try consciously tuning in to the “but” and “why” words in conversation and in emails.  See if you can consciously register your initial emotional response – the one that happens in the split second before your conscious thoughts catch up. Then ask youself the question “Did I just have a positive or a negative feeling?

Why Do We Need Two Ears?

What a curious question! We can hear almost just as well with one ear as two so that is not the reason. Our glasses would fall off obviously though ears evolved long before glasses so that’s probably not the reason.  Just in case we lose one ear by accident? That sounds reasonable but then why don’t we have a have a spare heart or spare brain too – they are more critical organs? Physiologists will explain that we need two ears to accurately determine the direction that a sound is coming from – and we do that by detecting very slight differences between what one ear hears compared with the other. What a neat bit of biodesign! So what relevance does this have for Improvement Science?  Well, to improve a process or system we need to listen to two separate voices – the Voice of the Customer (VoC) and the Voice of the Process (VoP) – and if we compare them the slight difference points us in the direction of improvement. The problem is, when there is a big difference between the two sounds they will interfere with each other and we cannot hear either clearly. In that situation we adopt a policy of selective deafness – some of us choose the Voice of the Process because it can be measured objectively; and some of us choose the Voice of the Customer.  The outcome is disagreement because we are hearing different things. Confusion becomes conflict.

With this insight one way out of this impasse might be for everyone to use both ears alternately: everyone listening to the Voice of the Customer for a while and then everyone changing channel and listening to the Voice of the Process for a while, and back again.  The direction of improvement would become visible and the steps needed to align the Two Voices would emerge naturally.  The Two Voices are trying to tell us something and we only need to learn to tune into both of them. When the Two Voices match we hear harmony not cacophony!

How might some people be offended by performance charting?

Some fabulous new SPC software, called BaseLine© is now available – it’s designed for organizations and individuals who see the advantages in having people use a standard performance charting tool that’s statistically robust yet straight forward to use even for the uninitiated. As well as being highly accessible, at under £50 it is easily the most inexpensive option now available.

There is even a time-unlimited FREE version.

BaseLine© is obtainable via http://www.valuesystemdesign.com

How might some people be offended by performance charting?

The idea behind BaseLine© is that most every organisation is these days awash with time-series data, usually held in spreadsheet form, yet very little of it is used to diagnose systemic change. Even people who are held accountable for performance are often unaware of the gold that lies beneath their feet – or if they are aware, are for some reason reluctant to make use of it. Because BaseLine© is so accessible – there really is no longer any reason to avoid using SPC, but wait ..

.. observing those who are taking the plunge it’s becoming clearer to me where this reluctance might be coming from. Whilst some of it is due undoubtedly to low organisational expectation, I’m detecting that some of it is also due to low self-perception of capability, and some might even be because BaseLine© somehow confronts the personal value-set of particular managers. Let me refer to these value sets and capabilities as “memes”(1) and allow myself the luxury of speculatively labelling each one – so that I can treat each as a hypothesis that might later be tested – to see if the accumulating evidence either supports or refutes it. So here goes ..

1. The “Accountability-avoidance” meme – Those comfortable and skilled enough to hold a senior position may still however be inhabited by this meme, which can actually apply at any level in an organisational hierarchy. To most people it is an essential underpinning of their self-esteem to be able to feel that they’ve personally made a contribution whilst at work. It’s safer therefore (at least unconsciously) to be able to avoid roles for which any direct or personal performance measurement is attached – and there are plenty of such roles.
2. The “anti-Management” meme – According to this meme there’s something dehumanising about asking anyone to manage a process that delivers an outcome to someone who might appreciate it. Those who embody this value-set may also think that Management sounds altogether too boring when compared to Leadership since not much good happens unless people can feel good about it, and people have to be led to achieve anything meaningful and lasting. If there’s any management to be done it should be done by the followers.
3. The “anti-Control freak” meme – People holding this meme tend to dislike the whole idea of control, unless it’s the empowering of others to be in control – and even this may be considered too dangerous since the power to control anything can so easily be abused.
4. The “anti-Determinism” meme – Inside this meme Albert Einstein is considered as having completely supplanted the Newtonian “predict and control paradigm” as opposed to having merely built upon it. Life is viewed as inherently uncertain, and there’s a preference for believing that little can be reliably predicted, so it’s best to adopt an “act first/ ask questions later” approach. Deepak Chopra fans for example will know that “the past is history, and the future a mystery” and that therefore almost any form of planning is repellent – instead, emergence is the thing most highly valued.
5. The “Numerophobia” meme – so widespread is the tendency to avoid numbers, it may be easier to think of this as a syndrome rather than a meme – indeed, in the extreme it is a medical condition called “dyscalculia.” Whilst few people readily admit to being illiterate, there are many who are relatively happy to announce that they “don’t do numbers” – and some have even learned that it pays to be proud of it. In one recent UK study 11% were designated illiterate, but 40% innumerate.
6. The “iNtuitives rule” meme – People who are inhabited by this meme are those who may well feel comfortable weaving (even spinning) their story without the benefit of data that’s been fully “sensed”. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator – scores around 25% of people as N (iNtuitive), the remaining 75% being Sensors – who prefer to look for and absorb data via their 5 senses, data that to them feels tangibly “real.” On average around 12% people score as having N/T (intuitive thinking) preferences – yet exec teams & boards often score at more than 50%. Is this because they have had to become comfortable feeling disconnected from the customer interface, or because they were always that way inclined and therefore gravitated towards the apex of the hierarchy?
7. The “anti-Science” meme – According to this meme even the fact that I’m labelling these value-sets/ memes at all, will be seen as being antithetical – regardless of whether it might in some way prove to be a useful scientific device for advancing knowledge. People in organisations may behave in a way that’s anti-science in that tasks and projects are typically carried out in a Plan-Do-Review sequence – unaware that Plan-Do-Study-Act represents the scientific method in action, and is an entirely different paradigm.
8. the “protect my group or profession” meme – According to this meme, people are confident that they know what they know – and have spent several years of their life being trained to acquire that knowledge. They less aware of the extent to which this has formed their mental maps and how these in turn direct their opinions. When in doubt, reference is made to the writings and utterances of their personal or professional gurus – and quoted verbatim, frequently out of context. When a new tool arrives, the default position is: if I don’t recognise it, it should be rejected – until one of the gurus authenticates it.

Wow, when I started the list I didn’t think there would be as many as eight.

Individuals and organizations that are already, or can become, comfortable with applying the scientific method in their organisations – and personally – as a system, will see the profundity in a tool like BaseLine©. Others will miss it altogether, and one or more of the memes listed above could be preventing them seeing it. I’ll continue to collect more data, both sensed and intuited, and report on my findings in a future blog.

One source of test data will of course be the comments I solicit from readers of this blog, so having read these labels and descriptions, do you notice any reactive feelings? If so, can you accurately describe what you feel most confronted by? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

(1) Richard Dawkins coined (or adapted) the word “meme” in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a value set, or a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices – which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. It’s sometimes used synonymously with the phrase “world view.” Clare Graves then made the Value meme (vMeme) a core concept in his Spiral Dynamics model – see Beck D.E & Cowan C.C. : “Spiral Dynamics – Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change” – 1996

To Push or Not to Push? Is that the Question?

Improvement implies change;

… change implies learning;

… learning implies asking questions;

… and asking questions implies listening with both humility and confidence.

The humility of knowing that their are many things we do not yet understand; and the confidence of knowing that there are many ways we can grow our understanding.

Change is a force – and when we apply a force to a system we meet resistance.

The natural response to feeling resistance is to push harder; and when we do that the force of resistance increases. With each escalation the amount of effort required for both sides to maintain the stalemate increases and the outcome of the trial is decided by the strength and stamina of the protagonists.

One may break, tire or give up …. eventually.

The counter-intuitive reaction to meeting resistance is to push less and to learn more; and it is more effective strategy.

We can observe this principle in the behaviour of a system that is required to deliver a specific performance – such as a delivery time.  The required performance is often labelled a “target” and is usually enforced with a carrot-flavoured-stick wrapped in a legal contract.

The characteristic sign on the performance chart of pushing against an immovable target is the Horned Gaussian – the natural behaviour of the system painfully distorted by the target.

Our natural reaction is to push harder; and initially we may be rewarded with some progress.  And with a Herculean effort we may actually achieve the target – though at what cost?

Our front-line fighters are engaged in a never-ending trial of strength, holding back the Horn that towers over them and that threatens to tip over the target at any moment.

The effort, time, and money expended is out of all proportion to the improvement gained and just maintaining the status quo is exhausting.

Our unconscious belief is that if we weather the storm and push hard enough we will “break” the resistance, and after that it will be plain sailing. This strategy might work in the affairs of Man – it doesn’t work with Nature.

We won’t break the Laws of Nature by pushing harder. They will break us.

So, consider what might happen if we did the opposite?

When we feel resistance we pull back a bit; we ask questions; we seek to see from the opposite perspective and to broaden our own perspective; we seek to expand our knowledge and to deepen our understanding.

When we redirect our effort, time and money into understanding the source of the resistance we uncover novel options; we get those golden “eureka!” moments that lead to synergism rather than to antagonism; to win-win rather than lose-lose outcomes.

Those options were there all along – they were just not visible with our push mindset.

Change is a force – so “May the 4th be with you“.