The Innocent World of Comfortable Ideas

Discomfort of Innocence, by Mohammed alalawi - Copy
Discomfort of Innocence.  Photo by Mohammed Alalawi

Why do you hang out with people like you?  Because you have to be friends with your friends’ friends.  Society does not give you permission to dislike (or not know) your friends-of-friends.  It’s called the forbidden triad.  There is a complex quantitative puzzle involving triangles with plus and minus signs, all coded and ready for an elaborate statistical analysis.  You can peek at the math in this October 2016 overview of the research by Dustin Stoltz, a PhD candidate at University of Notre Dame.

But back to people.  The main problem is cognitive dissonance, that feeling you get when you are obliged to maintain two contradictory opinions at the same time.  An example may be that you both love and hate a particular family member, politician, or manager in your workplace.  Cognitive dissonance makes you uncomfortable, and you aspire to greater comfort.  Therefore, you will choose between contradictory opinions and let one prevail over the other.  So, you decide that you like that complex person.  If you then meet a third-party who dislikes that person, you have to even-out the triangle.  You will be motivated to change the third person’s mind, change your own mind, or just stop hanging out with the third party.    If everyone does this, friendships and world views will evolve within cliques that are internally consistent, comfortable, and smug.  But that’s not so clever.

That is because social networks are held together by people who choose to maintain contradictory opinions.  They foster civil dialogue, cultivate plurality, and agree to disagree.  It’s not so much that they are smarter, although that may still be the case.  It’s that the exploration of the best information and the most diverse opinions guarantees contradiction.  You will find attributes that seem contradictory but not mutually exclusive, such as sensitivity and courage.  You will find rival facts, such as the prevailing research on global warming and colder winters in your own locale.  And there will be facts that change quickly, such the price of oil or a change of government.

Workforce Analytics and the Workplace Culture of Curiosity and Discomfort

If you place comfort ahead of maximum information, then you have to insulate yourself from contradiction.  Yet this can be a big mistake in the modern world.  How could you possibly choose a stable mindset when the amount of information is exploding, technology is disrupting everything, and ideas and opinions go round the world in a heartbeat.  It’s a wild and crazy world we live in.  You must choose discomfort, and reject the allure of smug.

In workforce analytics, there is a great divide between colleagues and clients who are curious about new information and those who are not.  It often feels like I exclusively support those hungry for the new, who like the challenge, who want to pick up a few tricks.  Yet those who are more settled in their views or slower to change need to be brought along for the ride.  That is because at the center of the social network people are obliged to commit to, and support, prevailing views.  They tend to agree with one another just like you might do with your own friends.  Looking outward to the fringes of the network, you might see a wider variety of irregular opinions, trends, and opportunities.  The fringe is full of people who are removed from the network in some way, be it marginal legal status, geographic isolation, exclusion, or just looking different.  To bring diverse views from the fringe to the center (and vice-versa) obliges us to maintain contradictory opinions.

The prescription that we must become uncomfortable applies equally to social trends, new technology, and disruptive workforce analytics.  In your workplace, you may have had one opinion for a very long time.  When you are presented with change or new evidence, it is one thing to simply obey orders or comply with the data.  But if you really want to be clever, it is far better to hold onto that moment of discomfort for a while to get a sense of what everyone else is going through.  Only then can you talk to diverse people who think and live in different worlds.  And only then can you fine-tune new evidence to make it presentable to a broader audience.

If we are to disrupt normal ways of doing things through emerging information, we must stand at the bridge between two worlds, be prepared to disrupt ourselves, and get used to discomfort.

Chasing Your Tail, Finding Your Soul

Chasing his tail. Courtesy of Lil Shepherd
Chasing his tail. Photo courtesy of Lil Shepherd

Do you want to get promoted?  Here’s a quick tip… you probably don’t want to get promoted.  It’s extremely common for people to attribute their hopes and dreams to the single most common solution to their woes, which is a promotion into a higher-paying job.  But that’s not how our souls really work.

The “long tail” is a theory attributed to Chris Anderson of Wired and TED fame.  The long tail theory is that for many cultural products – books, movies, and music – we over-rely on a small number of great works that are immensely popular.  But there is also a very large amount of product that you might have enjoyed, if only you knew about it, it was easy to access, and you didn’t care that much what others thought about your taste.  If you want to get geeky, the long tail web site describes this concept using a power law distribution (1/x), where the popular goods are at the peak on the far left, constituting the “big head,” and the lesser-known goods tail off to the right, going on forever into smaller and smaller numbers, hence the “long tail.”

Bricks-and-mortar storefronts prefer to sell large volumes of popular goods, in order to reduce production and storage costs.  By contrast, things sold over the internet can be stored at low cost and sold in low volumes at reasonable profit.  The internet opens up your access to a greater diversity of concepts, allowing you to bypass overly-popular mainstream content.

It’s important to keep our eyes on consumer data, because consumer-based big data is about one decade ahead of human resources analytics in terms of maturity.

For those in human resources the long tail phenomenon is a good metaphor for career advancement concerns of employees.  Consider our societal obsession with vertical career movement and the opportunity to make more money by working longer hours and enduring greater stress.  Contrast that mainstream goal with the possibility of thousands of careers to choose from, a wide range of work-life balance concerns and solutions, and unusual combinations of hours of work and locations of work.

When people meet with career coaches, the employee will often name career advancement as their primary goal, typically to the rank of Director.  But after some inquiry, it often turns out that there is a deeper personal objective which is more important to them.  It could be energy level, the challenge, pride in craftsmanship, helping others, or greater independence.  But each of these individual objectives can be achieved through more targeted efforts.  Promotion is only one way to make life better, and in some cases it makes life worse if it takes us further away from the deeper goal.

Career decisions and deeper goals will occasionally line up with the mainstream.  For example, it’s usually an all-round good idea to get a degree.  But if your motivations are unique, think of your life choices as the equivalent of an obscure garage band with a cult following of two hundred people.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter if everyone else is doing it.  But it always matters if you’re doing what’s right for you.

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.

Service With a Smile

GS Cashier. By Derek A.
GS Cashier. Photo courtesy of Derek A.

What’s with all this bold talk from millennials?  Don’t they know to keep hush about their outlandish opinions?  In a recent article from Lisa Earle McLeod the author submits an open letter (closer to a manifesto) that explains why millennials have the opinions they have.

She has two key points.  First, employers are tolerating poor performers, and those poor performers drag everyone else down, including highly-motivated millennials.  It’s not so much that millennials are unreasonably ambitious and over-eager, it is that their enthusiasm is the correct attitude and lower-functioning colleagues should not be setting the pace.  Fair ball.

Secondly, we must give our work purpose.  Organizations that have “a purpose bigger than money” have better business results.  This purpose-driven organization is reminiscent of Simon Sinek’s Power of Why although McLeod’s critique is closer to a sense of Noble Purpose amongst the sales team, a major concern of hers.

This focus on enthusiastic front-line staff is consistent with other critiques.  Josh Bersin notes that many organizations are flipping their hierarchy to place priority on engaged employees first, who then attract and retain customers who, in turn, keep the profits alive.  If it works, go for it.

It’s About Policing Numbers, Not Number of Police

The Police, by Luca Venturi
The Police.  Courtesy of Luca Venturi.

Can big data reduce crime?  Yes it can.  This is a great TED Talk by Anne Milgram about using analytics to improve the criminal justice system.  The talk from October 2013 describes how Milgram successfully attempted to “moneyball” policing and the work of judges in her role as attorney general of New Jersey.  Hers is a great story, and has many features in common with the Moneyball book and movie.

The speaker describes how she built a team, created raw data, analyzed it, and produced simple and meaningful tools.  Her most impressive outcome is a risk assessment tool that helps judges identify the likelihood a defendant will re-offend, not show up in court, or commit a violent act.  She and her team have successfully reduced crime.

Baseball players and police officers alike have a culture of bravado and confidence which may be critical when handling conflict, intimidation, and credibility.  Yet what police officers and baseball players often need is a safe space to question their assumptions, assess whether they could do better, and decide that they will do better.  These types of vulnerable moments don’t play out well when a player is at bat, or when an officer is handling complaints from the perpetrators.

In Milgram’s talk, where others see cool math tricks, I see a change in mindset and demeanor.  The speaker expresses curiosity about the information, enthusiasm for unexpected findings, modesty about baseline effectiveness, a lack of blame, and a can-do attitude about trying to do more and do better.

It’s a great metaphor for business.  In those workplaces where managers fiercely claw their way to the top, there may be a reduced willingness to talk about shortcomings in a manner that requires trust and collaboration.  Yet making exceptional decisions require that leaders choose an entirely different mood and posture while they explore an uncharted area, allow information to out-rank instinct, and aspire to a more subtle kind of greatness.  Put posture aside, and just do good work.  The way things are changing, those are the only kinds of people who will stay on top.

I Like Your Style, You’re Just Like Me

Apostrophe Absent. By Michael Derr
Apostrophe Absent. Photo courtesy of Michael Derr.

Are you compatible with your organizational culture?  I sure hope not.  You need the freedom to break from the pack in order to pass along new information and adapt to disruptive change.

In the 2011 book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors describe the way opinions and behaviors spread through social networks.  They describe a Three Degrees of Influence rule: we influence and are influenced by people three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know.

You might know one hundred people, but those people may know another one hundred people (each), and so on.  This could result in a million people crowd-sourcing shared opinions.  You would pick up many opinions from this extended network.  The reverse is true as well.  You could spontaneously assert that we should have all better table manners, and a million people might change their behaviors.  Or maybe they’ll just talk about having better manners.

The implication is that you do not entirely experience independent thought.  You might control what time you arrive at work, what garments to wear to the office, and how you respond emotionally to what  your manager just said.  But the allocation of housework in your household, the social norms in appropriate dress, and the organizational culture of two-way conversation could all be things that have significant third-party influence.  You’re not exactly an autonomous hero in the workplace; you are a team-player in an environment where culture runs deep.

This critique has been revisited in a recent book review in which Yuval Harari summarizes The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.  Sloman and Ferbach posit that individual thinking is a myth, and that we actually think in groups.  With modern civilization we have come to rely increasingly on the expertise of others.  This crowd-think has mostly been good for us, but it also has a downside.  People “…lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.”

Group loyalty and pride in our presumed intelligence causes us to stick to the normal way of doing things.  This is a challenge to those of us who produce or consume new information.  New information and new ideas disrupt stable group environments.  If we are trying to change the workplace so that things are done differently, we must exchange discomforting opinions.  We must propose ideas that will be rejected.  We must try things out that won’t work.