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.

Not Too Shocking – Those High Numbers from AI Job Disruption

Shocked. By Mark Turnauckas.
Shocked. Photo courtesy of Mark Turnauckas.

Can you think of a time you took advantage of a new technology, and in the process got way more work done?  We’re all going to need more stories like this in order to stay ahead of the game.

I’ll never forget my first exposure to a pirated version of Microsoft Excel.  I was in graduate school in 1994 and a young woman in my class, Bev, handed me a stack of eight floppy disks held together with a blue elastic band.  She told me Excel was way better than what I was using.  Six months later I had finished an entire graduate thesis based on clever charts and tables I had created using new software.  Six months after that, I was at a firm in one of the towers in Toronto’s downtown core with experienced consultants lining up at my cubicle, waiting for some solid analysis.  My mind had co-evolved around the technology, and I was valued.

For many months I was the only analyst on a team that had four consultants.  When new technologies are brought in, sometimes one person can do the work of several peers.  And this appears to be a concern today with incoming technologies, such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, and analytics.

There has been some excitement lately about McKinsey’s report that 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology.  Reading the content of the report – not just the media coverage – I can assure you that it’s far less dramatic.

First, the 800 million jobs was the upside of a forecasted range, and the authors recommend considering the mid-point of the range, which is 400 million jobs.  Those 400 million jobs are proportional to 15% of current work activities in the global labour market.  These job losses are not expected to be immediate, as this is a forecast into 2030 – twelve years from now.  This means the forecast is closer to 30-35 million jobs lost per year, which seems far more modest on a planet with 7.6 billion inhabitants.

But it gets better.  Of the 400 million jobs lost, only 75 million jobs will be eliminated altogether.  The remaining job losses will be in cases where parts of our jobs will be eliminated.  About 30% of “constituent” work will be automated for 60% of occupations.  That is, there will be bots taking care of the more mundane parts of our jobs.  It remains to be seen whether this shift will result in 30% less employment, or if our outputs will just be more efficient.  There may be a line-up at your own desk, with senior people increasingly reliant on your own unique, human-machine hybrid.

This technological revolution will have more dramatic impacts on industrialized economies such as Canada, the U.S. and Europe.  New technologies have a cost of implementation, and cost savings are needed to justify the investment.  A lot of cost savings can be found in eliminating expensive jobs.  But in the developing world, wages are lower and the gains of the new technology won’t always outweigh the cost.  The trade-offs between hiring people and bringing in new technology often tips towards employing people in those places where wages are low.  It’s in the industrialized world where we will see the most change.

In my opinion (not necessarily McKinsey’s), this will have an impact on political optics.  Jobs will appear to be eliminated in industrialized economies and then magically reappear in the developing world.  But the back-story is that technology allows work to be done with fewer employees and more machines in industrialized countries.  And those western workplaces will have competition from countries where it is not optimal to bring in new technologies.  The jobs created in developing countries will look like the same jobs that used to exist in the West.  But that’s not what’s going on.  Developing economies are just briefly immune to the more-expensive technology, for as long as those countries have low wages.

McKinsey also reviewed the history of technological change and found that there tends to be a net gain from new technologies.  The technology benefits someone — the buyer, investor, or some new profession or trade.  That someone spends money in a manner that creates different jobs, often by taking advantage of yetanother new technology.  Those 400 million lost jobs are likely to be the downside of a net-gain from technology.

This raises the difficult issue of things getting better on average.  As I described in an earlier post, if one million jobs are eliminated and a million-plus-one jobs are created, this is a net gain of one job.  In the minds of economists, this is considered progress.  However, looking at the blow-back from voters in industrialized countries, it appears that we must now pay very close attention to the millions who were on the downside of this net-gain.  And perhaps you know some of these people.

McKinsey was all over this issue:

“Midcareer job training will be essential, as will enhancing labour market dynamism and enabling worker redeployment.  These changes will challenge current educational and workforce training models…  Another priority is rethinking and strengthening transition and income support for workers caught in the cross-currents of automation.” (p. 8)

Within the human resources crowd, we are experienced at either enduring push-back from unions, or anticipating labour’s response with meaningful policies and initiatives.  But regardless of whether you are sympathetic to the underclass, or just trying to implement a new technology as quickly as possible, you can see that society’s success at adapting to this change will hinge on the personal experience of those who have lost.

Looking around us, it seems like we are all trying to get our footing, trying to figure out for that one special thing that sets ourselves apart.  You might not be told ahead of time what that thing should be.  In fact, you might need to figure it out entirely by yourself.  But those who are always working on their angle will have a better shot than those who are relying on prior wins.

Sure, there might be an employer who is loyal enough to set you up for success, or a program or union that will help with the job transition.  But as we take turns eliminating each other’s jobs, you might want to hold onto a dash of selfishness.  If you can bot-boss your way into a superior level of productivity, you might have a shot at being that one valued employee on the upside of a turbulent net-gain.

Either as a society, or as an individual, you need to write yourself into a story where you reached for the power cord and taught the corporate machine to work for you.

Happy National Spreadsheet Day

Greetings everyone.  Happy national spreadsheet day!  If you want to know more about the invention of the electronic spreadsheet, peek at my earlier blog post on the topic.

Making Beautiful Art With Excel

Augutso Tokumori. Photo courtesy of tenjishituT6.
Augutso Tokumori. Photo courtesy of tenjishituT6.

Incidentally, there’s a gentleman named Tatsuo Horiuchi who makes fine art using the Microsoft Excel software.  It’s gorgeous, check it out.  In addition to his artistic creativity, I give him bonus points for choosing Excel because it’s less expensive that other applications.

An Ode to the Number Pad

Number Pad. By Tony Cuozzo
Number Pad. By Tony Cuozzo.

Everyone who doesn’t use their number pad is taking orders from someone who does.  Just placing your middle finger on that nub on the number-five key will increase your professional drive.  If you’re right handed, you’ll see that the thumb on your right hand is hovering over the arrow keys, allowing you to easily navigate your territory on a spreadsheet. Your pinkie rests on top of the enter key; moving onward after entering some numbers is effortless.

If you aren’t using the number pad as a course of habit, try a little data entry.  Maybe at home you can key-in a column of questionable expenses that you saw on your bank statement.  Or maybe there’s something from a web site or a PDF that isn’t cutting-and-pasting so easily.  Just find a good excuse to do ten minutes of data entry.

If it’s your first time using the number key, you’ll notice that your fingers will start to remember where things are.  Your speed will pick up, your accuracy will improve.  Even better, you’ll learn your own margin of error, which gives you the ability to control trade-offs between speed and quality.

With your hand sitting on the home row, everything you need is in reach.  At least, every number you need is in reach.  By contrast, it is the use of words that takes extra effort.

Missteps Make for Better Analysis

Oops. By Malcolm Slaney
Oops.  Courtesy of Malcolm Slaney.

A major voice in people analytics just advocated for the professionalization of my field.  An April 27, 2017 blog post by Max Blumberg and Mark Lawrence suggests that workforce analytics regulate itself under a professional association.  The authors have a good point.  The explosion of alleged experts in my field is making things really confusing for lay audiences.  We have no idea if someone claiming to have expertise is truly knowledgeable.  There is a gold-rush mentality in workforce analytics, and we can barely distinguish those on the cutting edge from the outright con-artists.  Bad experiences and false starts are causing skepticism.

I agree with this assessment of the current state of affairs.  I decline the vast majority of conferences, webinars, and software on offer.  Being strong at workforce analytics turns on having daily exposure to the data itself.  I have yet to hear a provider offer something more interesting than that thing we just figured out last week, by ourselves, with in-house staff using excel.

However, I have to disagree with the proposal that the field should be regulated.  You see, the main opportunity is to democratize the skill set and bolster the overall number of people who read the data and create simple calculations.  If you can get one-tenth of a human resources team to tool-up with a small amount of learning and experimentation with the data, that’s a huge boost in organizational capacity.  There is one specialist for every five or 10 people in the earliest steps of the learning curve.  Tinkerers and new entrants are half of the equation, and sometimes they are the most important half.

There is another problem.  We don’t yet know what excellence in workforce analytics looks like.  Sure, getting the attention of the c-suite, saving money, having clean data, and making your findings presentable are really obvious signs that you know this stuff.  But mysteries abound.  The information is disruptive to those with power, so how shall we deal with the office politics?  The data improves every day, so how do we maintain composure while discussing last-year’s erroneous data.  We’re supposed to align to strategy, but strategy and leadership change is constant.  And how are we to negotiate the boundaries between the professions when accounting has their own cost model, and marketing researchers are experts in employee surveys?

The mystery, confusion, emotional drama, flashes of growth and pride all bring the field to life.  Workforce analytics is a mosh pit.  Our outputs are a meal thrown together from what is leftover in the fridge.  Our first attempt at everything looks like a Pinterest fail.

Let’s keep it messy.  We’re more honest that way.  Besides, we work harder when we’re having fun.