“Wow, when did I become so impatient?”

The other day I was listening to a podcast in my car via my iPhone connected to the Bluetooth enabled in-car entertainment system.

I quite regularly listen to podcasts and audiobooks. It’s great way of filling the time with valuable input.

This particular podcast was very interesting, the interviewer was talking with a woman about some of the struggles and delights in her life. Most people would regard this woman as highly successful and yet by pealing back a few of the layers it was clear that not everything in her life had been plain sailing despite the outward appearance.

The interviewer wrapped up with a helpful end of podcast summary and then is happen – silence.

I looked down at my in-car entertainment system screen to see that the podcast file still had another 3 minutes to run, but the content had finished!

“That’s fine” I thought to myself “I can press the next-track button on my steering-wheel.” So I did, but nothing happened!

This occasionally happens in my car. It’s normally with the podcast application, but also happens with other. My iPhone is quite happily playing, but the controls aren’t working.

I looked back at my screen 2:50.

Like many modern entertainment systems there are different ways of achieving the same thing, so I tried those in the vain attempt that one of them would recognise my desire to move on to the next podcast.

I looked back at my screen 2:40.

I was on the motorway by now and the thought of reaching over for my iPhone flashed through my mind. I knew that if I could just press in the right place on the screen it would take me to the next podcast.

It was about now that I started coming to my senses.

I looked back at my screen 2:35.

Time to start talking to myself:

“What am I thinking? What priority am I putting on these few minutes?

“Why does the silence bother me so much? Another podcast will be along in just a short while, relax and enjoy this precious moment. Look at all of those people desperate to speed past you on this road so that they can get there just a few moments earlier.”

I looked back at my screen 2:33.

“Why would you even think of reaching for your phone? It’s such a dangerous thing to do, imagine if you’d been in an accident just because you wanted to get to the next podcast. Would the risk be worth the reward? Of course not.

“Wow, when did  become so impatient?”

I looked back at my screen 2:31.

I reached over and turned off my in-car entertainment system.

Concept of the Day: The Tragedy of the Commons

I like concepts that have a history and this one dates back to 1833 and an economist called William Forster Lloyd.

The concept refers to a hypothetical situation where unregulated grazing on common land could create a situation where an individual herder, acting in their own interest and within their rights, could result in overgrazing. The overgrazing would then result in a tragedy for the group of people who use that common.

(In the UK Common Land, the commons, is land that is available for use by the Commoners for a particular activity. Livestock grazing was, and still is, a regular use for common land. The origins of common land go back to medieval time and thus some land has been grazed by Commoners for hundreds of years.)

Over the years the commons has become a metaphor for many situations where a resource is shared.

A great technology example of the tragedy of the commons is email SPAM. The actions of a few people significantly degrades the value of the email utility for the majority and results in a cost to everyone who uses it.

In the UK there’s been a lot of news coverage recently about the overuse of antibiotics, particularly people going in to their doctors and demanding medication even though they are of no value to their condition. The actions of these individuals has contributed to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria which is highly likely to result in the common value of antibiotics being destroyed for the majority.

There are so many business situations where the tragedy applies. I’ve seen many teams fail to be effective because an individual was optimising their activities to the detriment of the group.

Put simply, the tragedy of the commons applies to those situations where people’s personal short term interests are at odds with the longer-term interests of the group. I’m sure you can think of many, many more examples?

Concept of the Day: Fundamental Attribution Error

I’ve written a few times about our many biases, this is another one along the same lines. This one is slightly more complicated to understand, but once you do I hope it will challenge how you interact with people and how you respond to situations.

Imagine you are sat in an update meeting and you are going through the list of actions from the previous meeting with the assembled team. You get to an action that John is supposed to have progressed and you ask him how he has got. John looks at you surprised, “Was that my action?” He says. You continue to go down the list until you come to another action that John is supposed to have completed. This time John looks a bit embarrassed and says that he hasn’t had chance to look at it whilst writing something into his notebook. The very next action is another one for John, again, no progress, this time he looks down and taps something into his smartphone.

How do you feel about John? Why do you think he hasn’t made progress on his actions?

Your response to John probably demonstrates fundamental attribution error.

Let me explain.

Attribution is what we do when we project a perspective or characteristic onto someone. Put simply, there are two classes of attribution.

Dispositional Attribution is the class of attributes that make up someones character, the internal characteristics; they are lazy, they are disorganised, they have no focus, they are arrogant.

Situation Attribution is the class of attributes that relate to the situation, the external characteristics; they are in too busy, they are having a bad day, they aren’t well.

Then there’s the Fundamental Error part, this is where our biases come in.

It turns out that when attributing a perspective or characteristic onto someone else we tend towards Dispositional Attribution. In our scenario we are most likely to characterise John as lazy or disorganised. We then have a tendency to use that attribution for future interactions with people – “There’s no point in giving actions to John because he’s too disorganised.”

Here’s the really interesting part though. When we assess our own performance in a situation we tend towards Situational Attribution. Now imagine you are John; what’s your reason for not doing you actions? It won’t be because you are lazy, it won’t be because you are disorganised. Your reasoning for your own behaviour will be because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or because you are too busy, or even because you are just having a bad day.

The way that we judge others is radically different, even opposed, to how we judge ourselves.

The chances are that neither Dispositional or Situational factors will be wholly responsible most of the time.

So next time you are in a situation and find yourself assessing people’s motives, attributing, it might help to ask yourself which side of the spectrum you are on. Perhaps there are situational factors that you hadn’t thought of?

Here’s a video that’s probably clearer than my ramblings:

Office Speak: Skate to where the puck is going to be

Imagine that you are sitting in your team meeting and you are in mid flow pontificating about your favourite subject, but you have a problem, you know that at the end of this sentence you have nothing left to say. There’s a real danger that you are going to fall off the cliff and into a dark void of silence. You need something to say and you need it soon. Fortunately you have a stock of cliches ready for this very occasion. Which one will you use? Which of the many are you going to leap to? Are any of them appropriate to this meeting? You flash through the memory cards in your head and settle on an old favourite:

“We need to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

And with that you conclude.

The team nod in agreement as your timely words, everyone apart from the young graduate who has just joined the team. She looks at you blankly:

“I’m sorry, but what does that mean.”

You open your mouth to explain and then realise that you don’t have a sensible explanation. You’ve used this term so many times before, but you’ve never really thought about what it really means, you can’t even remember where you first heard it. You’ve heard it used so many times that it’s become embedded in your psyche.

The reality is, this cliche is a quote:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.

Wayne Gretzky

As you may have already guessed, it’s an ice hockey reference. Wayne Gretsky was apparently quite good at it, not that I would know, I’m trusting Wikipedia.

The basic idea of the quote is that if you are going to intercept a puck your only hope is to go to where it is going to be by the time you get there. There’s no point in trying to intercept it by going to where it has already been.

The term is regularly used in the technology arena to describe the plans of organisations and their latest innovations. Steve Jobs used the term to describe the approach at Apple:

“There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been. And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple.”

Quotes from Steve Jobs tend to hit management-speak over-use in no time at all. Every manager dreams of being Steve Jobs after all.

How often the term is relevant in day-to-day business is debatable. There are times when it is very appropriate, but all too often it’s just being used as a filler and not got any authentic meaning.

The blog was brought to you by the word “puck” and the letter “w”.

Concept of the Day: Campbell’s Law

Campbell’s law is defined by the following quote from Donald T. Campbell:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In other words: the higher the stakes associated with a measure, the more likely it is that the measure is corrupt and in so doing that the system being measured becomes corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a school exam the more likely it is that people teach to get a high pass mark and in so doing teaching become corrupt.

If you put high stakes against a business measure the more likely it is that people manage to the measure, or even falsify the measure, and in so doing corrupt the business.

There are numerous places where you can see this being worked out historically; the more important question, though, is where is this happening today?

What effect does it have if you stop people’s benefits if they don’t fill out a defined number of job applications?

What effect does it have if you pay a traffic warden on the basis of the number of fines they manage to issue?

What effect does it have if you fine rail operators for late trains?

What effect does it have if you pay doctors on the basis of the number of appointments they complete?

I’m sure there are many, many more.

This little video does a really nice job of explaining Campbell’s Law: