Spaghetti Principle Best Way to Change Minds

IMG_0580 by Brent (2)
IMG_0580.  Photo courtesy of Brent.

Does everything change when you touch it?  Yes for spaghetti: spaghetti changes when you touch it.  But what about people?  Do people change when you try to move them?  Sometimes.  Only sometimes.

One of my sub-skills is my ability to give one-on-one tutorials to colleagues to bring them to a higher level proficiency in Microsoft Excel.  Results vary, not because of talent, but more because of the person’s interest-level and their opportunity to apply the learning. I have done these tutorials enough times to know that there is a major concept that everyone needs to “get.”  So I offer the spaghetti metaphor.

When you move cooked spaghetti from the colander to the dining table, there are two ways that it gets there.  First, you move spaghetti out of the colander and onto the plate, changing the layout of the noodles in the process.  Then, after putting on the sauce, you move the entire plate to the dining table.  Transporting the plate does not change the layout of the noodles.  You can move the noodles or move the entire plate.  The distinction is that in some cases you change the configuration of the contents and in other cases you change their location but with the configuration left intact.

For those struggling with Excel, the issue is that if a rectangular cell has formulas in it, you must cut-and-paste the cell, drag-and-move the entire cell, or copy the formula inside the formula prompt to move a formula without altering it.  By contrast, if you copy-and-paste a cell or you use the autofill feature, your formula will automatically change so that all the cell references move accordingly.  You don’t have to worry about this if you’re not manipulating Excel right now.  As I mentioned, your ability to grasp this depends on your opportunity to apply the learning.

Enough math, let’s extend the concept to people’s opinions.  Are there cases where we attempt to move the logic in the minds of others?  Yes indeed.  Sometimes when you attempt to compel others to think of things differently, you get to change the configuration of their spaghetti-scramble of ideas.  But other times, you simply move the plate.  You get a person with the exact same opinions as before, they’re just in a different place, possibly more entrenched.

On Ozan Varol’s website, the rocket-scientist-turned-contrarian-author has some advice on how to change people’s minds.  Varol explains that people’s beliefs have an outsized impact on their grasp of the facts.  This role of beliefs drives a cognitive fallacy known as confirmation bias, the tendency for us to select facts that strengthen our beliefs and gloss-over those facts that are disruptive and uncomfortable.  The challenge is that we cannot use facts to drive changes-of-opinion, because it’s almost impossible to get into peoples’ grasp of “the facts” without attacking their intelligence.  So their defenses go up and they tell you where to go.  You know how this goes.

Varol recommends re-framing either-or debates around an alternate frame of reference.  His best example is when Columbians in the 1950s were grappling with the collapse of the Rojas dictatorship.  An entrenched mindset would blame the military for complicity in the Rojas regime, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, citizens offered an alternative narrative that “…it was the ‘presidential family’ and a few corrupt civilians close to Rojas – not military officers – who were responsible for the regime’s success.”  This narrative significantly reduced the risk of Columbia slipping into a military dictatorship.

As an academic, Varol presents papers at conferences with a subtle verbal shift.  He presents opinions somewhat detached from himself (“This paper argues…”) so that his ideas are lobbed into the public sphere to be thrashed about until others come to a more meaningful conclusion.  When he made this shift his ideas “took a life of their own” allowing him to view his own arguments with some objectivity.

You can do this too.  Varol encourages you to befriend those who disagree with you, expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, and presume that you will experience some discomfort.

Personally, I think the big deal is to get over yourself.  Or to be precise, that I need to get over myself. (See what I did there?)  If everyone other than me has opinions that are a random configuration of noodles, what are the odds that my own ideas are configured perfectly?

When it’s my turn to make spaghetti, I get the noodles into the plate, even them up, pour the sauce, and just get it all onto the table.  I have one kid that hates parmesan, and another that hates pepper.  Neither of them uses a spoon.  They handle the noodles as they see fit.  I let everyone enjoy what’s in front of them, while we talk about our day and our lives.  Hands off the noodles, because now’s the time to enjoy people.

Ambiverts: Learning How to Be Two Very Different People

large bubble and soap suds on bright cobalt blue plate against w
Large bubble and soap suds on bright cobalt blue plate against white background. Photo courtesy of Lori Greig.

My favourite memory of a great party started at the end.  Five of us stayed behind after the others left, and the host said “hey, let’s clean the apartment right now.” We all played along like it was game, still laughing because we were tipsy.

One person loaded the dishwasher, another did the recycling.  My job was to round up the glasses and beer cans and wipe down every surface.  I remember having to avoid the vacuum cleaner, a big old thing that shone a bright light on everything it devoured in its path.

Because there were five of us, we were done in 15 minutes.  Then we washed our hands, cracked open one last cold one, and sat around chatting in a clean house just before bed.  It freed up several hours for more important things to do on a Sunday morning.  I was 19.

I’m an extreme extrovert, but after a big party I need my quiet time.  Just me and the dishes, doing our craft.  That is the moment when I understand introverts.

Over at Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, authors Karl Moore and Sara Avramovic describe the experience of those who are a blend of introvert and extrovert.  This hybrid identity has a new term – ambiverts.

In describing ambiverts, the authors point to a 2013 article in Psychological Science entitled “Rethinking the Extroverted Sales Ideal.”  That article runs an analysis of introvert-extrovert indicators against the sales performance in a call centre.  The study finds that those with an extraversion score of 4.5 out of 7 have the highest level of performance.  According to the study:

“Because they naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening, ambiverts are likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm to persuade and close a sale but are more inclined to listen to customers’ interest and less vulnerable to appearing too excited or overconfident.”

It is not so much about having being the “best” personality but rather being adaptable.

The article notes that extraversion is a by-product of people having a need for stimulation, because the internal state of the extrovert is dissatisfied and bored with what’s going on inside.  They look to the outside world to get their kicks.  Introverts and ambiverts are closer to being satisfied or balanced in this regard.  Hence the act of selling is not some deep burning social need, and they can hang back a little, play it cool.  And sometimes that can close the deal.

There are nuances to the actual results of the regression analysis.  First, hours worked and job tenure are actually the biggest drivers of performance.  That is, if you work many hours per day and have many years of experience, with practice you become a lot better at your job.  But performance was also tested against the Big Five personality measures: Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness, and Neuroticism.  The traits were assessed on a straight-line and curved-line basis.

Just to get geeky about this for a few seconds, a straight-line measure would look at the two extremes of a personality indicator.  If there was a slope, the highest performance would be at one extreme or the other.  For example you need to be agreeable to be good at sales, but not all the time (it wasn’t statistically significant).  By contrast, if there was a curved-line relationship, and the curve was negative (downward), then there would be a “peak” in the middle, like a volleyball that tips just over the net.  And that is what they found with extraversion; that there is a sweet spot in the middle where you can sneak the volleyball over the net and score when you’re not expecting it.

Back at Quiet Revolution, Moore and Avramovic reported on interviews they conducted with over 50 ambiverts.  They note that being part-way between introversion and extraversion has its strengths and weaknesses.  In terms of strengths, ambiverts have the ability to move back and forth between two different modes, which may be exceptional if they are free to choose.  But ambiverts don’t always get to choose how they will behave.

In terms of internal motivations: “Ambiverts need to be both outgoing and independent, seemingly at random and sometimes with very little regard to what disposition would be best suited for the present moment.”  It may be ideal to sit quiet and listen right when someone else has something important to say.  But the ambivert could just-so-happen to be gearing up to assert an opinion of their own.  They could experience the worst of both worlds if their internal thermostat it out of synch with their environment.

The authors’ advice on how to be an effective ambivert is largely in taking initiative to match to their environment.  They recommend ambiverts control their environment, moving back and forth between alone-time and socializing at their choosing.  They recommend ambiverts plan ahead, building-in some alternation between social and alone moments.  And they recommend ambiverts learn to say no when something won’t work out for them.  All of these recommendations are very much about the person having autonomy, self-directed flexibility, and the independence to choose their mode.

Perhaps this is good advice for everyone?  Even though I’m an extrovert, I still need alone time.  It may be cleaning up after a party, or folding the laundry, or thinking through something private during my daily commute.  These moments are chosen and planned, by me.  Do introverts have an equivalent experience?  Do they occasionally need social time to share their deep reflections, connect with one person they trust, or ask for help from someone who can help them get what they need?  If I have this right, what is important is that they be able to choose.

Perhaps this is why power-sharing is so important, at work and at home.  We don’t entirely get to prescribe that people should behave one particular way at one precise time.  And we don’t get to choose which part of a person we want.  We can only invite the whole person into the room, and go with the flow.

Think about that during your spare time on Sunday morning.

BLT McMuffin Ruined My Morning and Possibly My Career

BLT McMuffin Ruined my Morning and Possibly my Career
steak mcwheel. Photo courtesy of jordanalexduncan.

The new Egg BLT McMuffin nearly ruined my life.  I have data, I can prove it.  Don’t get me wrong, it tastes good.  But if you’re trying to get some morning mojo by picking up something in the drive-thru, do not buy this sandwich.

The bacon is an inconsistent shape and flatness, and the lettuce has a springiness that makes things unstable.  After three bites, my McMuffin started to fall apart, and the mayo ended up on my shirt and pants.  My first experiment with this horrible sandwich was on the day I met my new top client for the very first time.  When the moment came, I started talking before she had finished her sentence.  Twice.  My first impression with a very powerful person happened the day that McDonald’s chose to ruin my career.  I hereby call for a boycott of the Egg BLT McMuffin.

Your morning mood, prior to arriving at work, has a measurable impact on your workplace effectiveness.

Nancy Rothbard from University of Pennsylvania wrote an meaningful article in July 2016 in Harvard Business Review.  Rothbard was summarizing a paper she co-authored, “Waking Up on the Right or Wrong Side of the Bed: Start-of-Workday Mood, Work Events, Employee Affect, And Performance,” by Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk.  Academy of Management Journal, 2011, Vol. 54, No. 5, 959-980.

The study looks at customer service representatives in an insurance company — which had good performance metrics to begin with — to which they added surveys about employees’ moods.  They found that people who started their day happy “…stayed that way throughout the day, and interacting with customers tended to further enhance their mood.”  Those with a good start “…provided higher-quality service: they were more articulate on the phone with fewer “ums” and verbal tics, and used more proper grammar.”  And I bet they don’t cut people off, either.

By contrast, those who started their day in a bad mood “…didn’t really climb out of it, and felt even worse by the end of the day…”  The negative moods caused people to take more breaks, and the breaks were significant, “…leading to a greater than 10% loss of productivity.”  In my case, I struggled in the bathroom trying to get the oil out of my shirt with paper towel and hand-soap.  I am paid to do metrics, not laundry.

What can managers do to help?  Rothbard suggests that not sending evening emails will improve the employees’ recovery time, improving the likelihood of a good mood the next day.  And managers “…can allow employees a little space first thing in the morning, for example to chat with colleagues before an early meeting.”  Beyond Rothbard’s comments I think there is much more that can be done.

Managers are first and foremost the leaders of the mood of their team.  They need to share inspiration and positivity, since their mood has a contagion-effect on those who look up to them.  The manager needs to decide to be in a good mood, organize their life accordingly, and use their emotional contagion for the better.  If you are a leader, you might not be free to control the home life of your staff.  But you can finesse your own morning routine, and boost your team indirectly with a contagion-effect.

In a helpful article in, Allison Davis suggests that in order to have an effective morning, we need to take care of morning tasks the night before.  Your gym bag, your lunch, and your wardrobe must be in place before you wake up.  You need to plan your week or month prior to arriving at work, so that you arrive with a clear game plan.  You need to think through your “worry” items ahead of time, then write them down, forget about them, and arrive at work with a clear mind.

For this reason I ensure my shirts are cleaned and pressed on the weekend.  All I need is for McDonald’s to put a McMuffin into my hands, and I’m ready to get to the office a few minutes early and rock my day.  Just another perfect morning, with a spotless shirt and an Egg McMuffin in my hand.

I once took a great course on emotional intelligence through Coursera, taught by Richard Boyatsis from Case Western Reserve University.  The course is called Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence, and you can find it here.  Emotional intelligence is a complex field because it’s not just about being positive.  There’s significant brain science involved, and your understanding how the brain works in aclinical sense has a big impact on understanding and managing your gut response.

My favorite take-away was the distinction between two modes of thought.  The sympathetic nervous system is the mode where you are under some stress.  This mode is good for rules compliance, cranking-out large volumes of identical outputs, and – in my experience – a certain kind of perseverance.  By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is a relaxed state where you are open to new ideas; grateful and hopeful; and superior at creative thinking, strategy, and looking at the future.

In terms of how to get into this positive state, you should know that you typically wake up that way.  As frustrations and annoyances pile up through your morning, your blood thickens with stress and your mind narrows.  You’re usually done by noon, ready for an afternoon producing large volumes of rules-compliant outputs.  You can minimize these frustrations if you can plan a good morning routine.

Managers under significant stress are routinely pulled into the sympathetic nervous system.  They become uncivil.  They display a lack of emotional intelligence as they rise through the ranks.  Their reduced ability to understand those unlike themselves has an adverse effect on inclusion.

To be a good leader you need to control your stress, not just on-the-fly, but also in terms of how your life is organized.  Your get-out-the-door errands are typically thoughtless and mundane.  Therefore, it is best to take care of them when your sympathetic nervous system is active anyway, such as on evenings and Fridays.

Early in your day and early in your week is the natural time for creating great new ideas.  By contrast, bad decisions are typically made on a Friday afternoon.  How many really bad ideas can you think of that happened on a Friday afternoon?

I can think of one.  The sandwich-that-shall-not-be-named.  The Egg BLT McMuffin from McDonald’s.  I’ll bet five bucks it was invented on a Friday afternoon.  Because that’s the worst idea that has ever existed.

Handle Office Politics Like Fitted Sheets

Women honoured at Herat hospital
Women honored at Herat Hospital, Afghanistan, IWD 2011.  ResoluteSupport Media.

Office politics and fitted sheets are basically the same thing.

Before you truly understand fitted sheets, they entangle you, waste your time, and you can’t fold and put them away properly.  Sure, there are people who have a proper folding method, but who has the time to learn this kind of skill?  Yet if your fitted sheets are a bundled mass at the back of the closet, you’ll never feel like you’re great at everything.  But if you ask those who have mastered fitted sheets, you will notice that they have no stress about this topic.  It’s all very simple and easy, just something that needs extra attention.

Office politics is the same thing.  It entangles your day-job with something you think shouldn’t be such a big deal.  There are “proper” ways of dealing with office politics, but are there a gazillion methods and it’s bewildering.

Are office politics even a real skill?  Or is it just some nuisance that sits at the back of your career history, making your best efforts seem unfinished.  The funny thing about office politics is that it’s always messy when you don’t do anything about it.  But there are people who just apply the correct efforts using a couple of simple rules, and they seem strangely calm.  How do they do that?

Here are your instructions for handling fitted sheets.

You need two sets of bedding so don’t have to wait all day for everything to dry.  Wash all bedding in one load, but place the single fitted sheet in the drier on its own.  It will dry quickly.  The rest of the bedding goes into the drier as another load, and will dry faster unentangled.

When folding a fitted sheet, just fold it in half like a towel, bringing two fitted ends together.  Match the corner of elastic bands together, and the sticky-out parts are nested inside one another.  Do this with all four corners in pairs.  Then fold it in half so you have three corners and a semi-circle hanging on the bottom.  Fold it again until most of it looks like a proper rectangle and the semi-circle is not visible.  It will look pretty good but not perfect.  Store it with the rest of the folded bedding, and leave it there until you need it.

Then stop complaining about fitted sheets.

Here are your instructions for handling office politics.  Perceive more than one set of overlords; the one you report to currently, plus their boss, plus the person you’re probably going to work for in three years.  Do all of your normal work as one effort, applying intelligence and exertion plus your own special thing.

Like putting a fitted single sheet in the drier, treat each office-politics-item as a single-purpose puzzle, and apply your best judgment with partial disregard for other concerns.  Who is going to backfill the senior vacancy?  We’ll have to rely on the selection process.  Why do those two people dislike each other?  If one of them trusts you, ask politely about their history.  Was that story I heard personal, and should I not pass it on?  When in doubt say nothing.  These items are confusing when bundled together and entangled with your normal efforts.  So keep it simple.

Now, bring it all together into a clear understanding of what the general dynamic is.  Store all of the agendas together in one place in your mind, simple and organized.

Leave it there until you need it.

And don’t complain about office politics.

Costco Toilet Paper is Soft on the Math

Bathroom. By Dean Hochman.
Bathroom. Photo courtesy of Dean Hochman.

Denominators make everything feel better, including toilet paper.  A really good denominator can help you figure out that you should not buy the bulk package of toilet paper from Costco.  That’s because the real estate you are storing it on is way too expensive.

To understand this, consider your cost of housing.  If you haven’t done so already, you should probably figure out how much you’re paying every month for each square foot of living space in your home.  For example, if your living expenses are $3,000 per month on 1,500 square feet, you’re spending $2 per month for each square foot.

The bulk package of toilet paper occupies four square feet of floor area, which represents $8 per month of storage costs.  The package costs $20 for 30 rolls that will last a family of four about two months.  That’s $10 per month for toilet paper, which seems like a bargain compared to about $15 per month you would pay for the package at a regular grocery store.  But your $5 of savings is sitting on top of $8 worth of real estate.  The unit-cost savings is less than the cost of real estate that it’s occupying.  The Costco toilet paper is just too expensive to forgive real estate cost that it’s imposing on you.

So, how does this relate to workforce analytics?

Appropriate Denominators in Workforce Analytics

Throughout the analysis of the value of your workforce, it is common to talk in numerators.  Number of people.  Salaries.  Benefits costs.  But what is usually more meaningful is to match up the numerators with appropriate denominators.  Number of people this year divided by number of people ten years ago (it’s usually not what you think).  Salaries per month during unfilled vacancies (actually a lot of money).  Executive compensation divided by organizational revenues (a drop in the bucket).  Numerators become more meaningful when you divide them by the right denominator.  And you must experiment and choose wisely.

With truly strategic business analytics, the biggest opportunity for novel insights is the blending of numbers from different strategic pillars.  You could have a finance metric divided by a human resources metric, such as capital invested per employee.  You could take a sales and marketing metric and divide it by people, such as revenues per salesperson.  Ratios from within a VP portfolio are often really easy to pull together because you can usually get them from a single database.  Once you have those easier in-house numbers figured out, it’s vital to get into the difficult metrics.

With the toilet paper example, it is the price of consumer goods are familiar to us as shoppers.  Then unit price is the next level of complexity, looking at price-per-roll.  You need to then seek information that is outside of the shop where the question was first posed, and in this example it’s housing cost.

The Story Changes When Better Denominators Are Chosen

One of my favorite experiences was a health & safety statistic about back injuries from over-exertion.  We knew that a large number of men over age 55 were pulling their backs from over-exertion.  But we discovered that there was a larger denominator of men over age 55, and that their percentage frequency of injury was lower than expected.  By contrast, those entering middle-age at age 45-54 had the highest frequency of these types of injuries.

When I was helping the client figure this out, I had personally pulled my own back at the gym at the age of 46.  I was in defiance about the fact that I was getting older, and trying to prove myself by lifting something that I should not.  I proposed to the client that those age 55+ are too wise for such foolishness, and those under age 45 can handle the challenge because they’re younger, fitter, happier.  I proposed a new interpretation; over-exertions are not about stand-alone physical vulnerability, they are about the disconnect between actual ability and self image, particularly in the social context.  The client liked it.

In order to rock it, each database had to be high quality, allow apples-to-apples comparisons, and have enough fields to break out the data by ten-year age cohorts.  These are critical intermediate steps, and not every organization is there yet.  What is important to notice is that as you improve your numbers, opportunities abound.  You can get stronger each time.  Nothing is so trivial that you can’t make it better with analytics.  And yes, you can afford the good stuff.  If you earn it.

How to Repurpose Leftover Turkey and Leftover Code

Turkey.  Photo courtesy of  Jeremy Keith.

Canadian Thanksgiving has come and gone, and several households are struggling with a conundrum.  What should you do with the leftover turkey?  There are downsides to having this carcass.  It hogs fridge space, you will be eating turkey for days, and some people just hate leftovers.  I know people who are tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage.  But don’t. Leftover turkey is a great opportunity to whip up some butter turkey or turkey noodle casserole.

When there’s nothing left other than bones, it’s time to make turkey stock. Boiling down a turkey carcass into stock is one of the great wonders of household management.  While the stock simmers, filling your home with great smells, you can accomplish something else.

With workforce analytics this kind of thing happens all the time.  Once you get on top of a major headcount puzzle, you will have spreadsheets and a few pages of code that are available for more than one purpose.  Like turkey leftovers, be bold and repurpose them.

My favorite experience was when I built an entire hierarchy of jobs in order to identify when people had been promoted.  In large organizations it can be ambiguous which job movements are upward or downward.  Often, promotions are not categorized as promotions, especially if they change departments, leave and come back, or get a job temporarily prior to being made permanent.

To get past this obstacle we created a simple reference table that identified where someone was in a hierarchical career ladder, assigning a two-digit code to 1,200 job descriptions.  It was hard and tedious work that was entirely for the benefit of the back-engine of our promotions model.  But we eventually got the promotions model to work at a level of high accuracy, after which the client was able to use the information to influence high-level decisions.  That was the full turkey dinner.

Shortly after we finished this promotions model, we got new demands for work which took advantage of the back-engine.  Our happiest client was the one who just needed the list of rank indicators for the 1,200 job descriptions.  They needed to send emails to a small number of high-ranking people, and with our organizational complexity and some turnover at the top, it was hard to identify who was senior.  What they needed was a rules-based way of identifying who should get their emails.  Looking at our rank tables, they were able to choose seven rank categories and let the code do the work for them.  In the process they uncovered that one executive had been previously overlooked.  Now they were able to get the information out to the right people.

This client got the analytics equivalent of turkey soup.  They just needed the bones from inside — the promotions query — to be boiled down and combined with a few fresh ingredients to create a new, repurposed product that met their needs.

Do you have the opportunity to repurpose your own big wins?  That time you got on top of a major health concern, did you also develop healthy habits that improved other parts of your life?  If you overcame a difficult business relationship, did you also learn what your triggers are, and how to regulate them in future?  At the end of a big project, did you go for drinks afterward and end up with a few new friends?

Sometimes it seems like you’re just working hard to make other people happy.  But if you accomplished nothing in the last year except healthy habits, self-awareness, and more meaningful relationships, would you even recognize that this counts as success?

So put on your wool socks, turn the TV to your guilty pleasures, and curl up with that bowl of turkey soup.  It should feel good.  So take a deep breath and enjoy it.