Axioms: An Occasional Series

I’ve been thinking and reading quite a bit recently about axioms:

ax·i·omIn Search of Jimmy

[ak-see-uhm] noun

  1. a self-evident truth that requires no proof.
  2. a universally accepted principle or rule.
  3. Logic, Mathematics. a proposition that is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it.

As I think about the way that I approach things I realise that there are a set of axioms that I tend to work from, things that I think are self-evident. They’re normally sayings that I have in my head that shape the way I think about a situation. Some of them have been gleaned from my experience, some from my education but to be honest I don’t think I know where most of them have come from or why I think they are good principles.

I wonder how many of my personal axioms are are really any good, just because I think they are universally accepted doesn’t mean that they are. So I’ve decided to put a few of them under the microscope by doing a bit of research into their validity. I plan to write about what I’ve found honestly and hopefully I’ll uncover some things that are definitely true (as far as we understand it), but I’m also looking forward to finding some anti-axioms that are not true at all.

Now where to start?

Concept of the Day: Cognitive Surplus

Today I watched Clay Shirky presenting at TED (via their excellent podcasts). Clay outlines a number of challenges to the way that we imagine people’s motivation. He explodes the premise that we all love to be “couch potatoes” and highlight a number of examples that demonstrate that as he says:

We like to create and like to share

Jimmy and Granddad Explore the Lake DistrictPeople don’t just contribute when there is payment at the end, they contribute when they are creating, and with the currently available technology the opportunities for creating are becoming ever broader.

This effect creates a global surplus of cognitive ability of “a trillion hours a year”. There’s a lot you can do with a trillion hours of creativity if only we treat it in the right way. he calls this Cognitive Surplus.

Not only is this concept a huge challenge to the way we approach social projects, but it’s also a challenge to the way we approach business projects.

My perception of many business projects is that they are constructed with the assumption that people won’t want the change, and hence a stick is required to get them to change. If people truly do" “like to create and like to share” then engaging people in a creative constructing way in the change process will turn them from blockers to enablers. It might even get them to invest some of their own cognitive surplus.

The latest example of this, for me, is the location tagging of a Glastonbury picture that is underway. Thousands of people are tagging themselves in a picture taken at Glastonbury. The reward for this is little more than the feeling that you have been part of something. They’re all using their cognitive surplus to create a shared experience.

Coming to think of it – why is it that I write this blog?

 http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Concept of the Day: Cultural Plasticity

I’m not sure whether this counts as a real fully fledged concept, or just an idea, or actually even whether there is a difference.

PisaThe idea comes from Jonah Lehrer over on The Frontal Cortext blog where he reflects on the diversity of music that we enjoy (his pretext is the events at the MTV awards with Kanye West and Taylor Swift).

It got me thinking, in what other ways are we culturally plastic:

  • Food: The range of food available in the UK is incredible. Foods from every country in the world and even fusions of different food types. We skip between them without really thinking about it, something that my grandparents would never have done.
  • Video/Television/Films: I know a few people who will only go to the movies to see a certain type of film, but there aren’t many of them. And the range of film genre is increasing all of the time.
  • Reading: Looking at the book shelf beside me there is a huge variety of material. There’s no Mills and Boon, but apart from that there is practically every other type of writing.

So what impact does this plasticity have on the world of work?

Teams that accept diversity work better and produce stronger results. As people become more tolerant of, and learn to enjoy cultural differences hopefully this will be reflected in teams. This will be especially true for international teams which will become more prevalent as technology enables it.

I suspect, to, that people we start to choose the places where they work on the basis of the diversity of the culture. Places with a monolithic culture we be regarded  as stale and dull. Skilful business managers will be able to create diverse cultures that are highly productive.

Communication

A Trip to Hadrian's WallToday I have finished work with a reoccurring question on my mind – “how do I communicate better?”

I’m not sure whether it’s just me, or whether this is something that we all struggle with. I have some information that I need to move from my mind into someone else’s mind.

For thousands of years we have spoken; for thousands of years we’ve drawn pictures; for hundreds of years ordinary people have been able to read and write; businesses spend billions every year on technology in the hope that it is improving the way that its staff communicate – and yet we still can’t make the distance from one brain to another brain any shorter.

So I’ve decided that I need to do something.

I’ve decided to try and have a meaningful conversation with someone every day. I’m not talking about information sharing I’m talking about communicating. Hopefully this will lead to better communication all around.

“My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity.” – George Bernard Shaw

If I’m successful I’ll let you know, if I’m not I’ll simply forget that I ever write this post and so should you.

Concept of the Day: Disconnect Anxiety

Jimmy and Grandad go to find the snow (or lack of it)Sometimes I feel I’m turning into a grumpy old man before my time and all that I am doing is raising the ills of IT. Unfortunately today is no exception.

Today’s ill is disconnect anxiety:

Disconnect Anxiety refers to various feelings of disorientation and nervousness experienced when a person is deprived of Internet or wireless access for a period of time.

If you are reading this blog you have probably experienced this anxiety and you are not alone. The Solutions Research Group has done some research in the US and the numbers are quite startling:

Overall, our research finds that 27% of the population exhibit significantly elevated levels of anxiety when disconnected. In terms of profile, 41% of this group are 12-24, 50% are 25-49 and 9% are over the age of 50.

A secondary group of 41% exhibit above-average levels of anxiety occasionally, depending on the situation.

The balance, 32% are below average in their anxiety response when unable to use their cell phones or the Internet. This group is disproportionately older than average (i.e., majority being 50+).

Or to put it graphically:

They went on to do research to try and understand why and how the anxiety was manifest. It’s a good report and links in nicely with a number of the things I’ve said previously about ADT and the machines taking over.

Perhaps that is why laptop free meetings are such tense affairs these days – everyone is experiencing disconnect anxiety.

Personally, I’m only occasionally anxious about being disconnected.

The summary of the report is here (pdf).

Hat tip to Endgadget.

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Mind mapping and Brainstorming

Jimmy and Grandad at Blackpool LightsI’ve spent two days this week in an off-site management meeting. One of the purposes for this meeting was for us to consider how we progressed some areas of our business.

We did this using a classical brainstorming technique – groups of people with a question to consider where all things were allowed and discussion was discouraged. The recording technique was a little different though, each team had a copy of MindManager into which they hammered the thoughts in without any structure. This didn’t really help the brainstorming activity, it was just normal brainstorming, but it wasn’t intended to make any difference.

Later sessions in the day were aimed at putting some structure to the thoughts, and that is where mind mapping and the power of MindManager came in. Structuring the disparate thoughts into themes using a mind map was really easy, and very powerful.

Presenting these themes back was also very powerful with people able to see how their thoughts had contributed straight into a structure.

It’s something I’ll definitely do again.

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Concept of the day: Deindividuation

Caramel and Cream - yummyAnyone who has used email or any other form of electronic communication has seen (and probably sent) written content that shocked you. You were amazed that the person, that you know, could say such a thing in such an aggressive way. The New Scientist has an interesting article that suggests that some of the reason for this is deindividuation:

Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity – a process called deindividuation – we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” – when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.

The most recent place where I have seen this personally has been in the occasional reply-to-all storms that we have in our email system. Someone will send out an email to whole set of people. Someone else will reply-to-all that they don’t know why they received the first email, or similar. This will then set of a storm of activity from people replying to the reply-to-all. Each of these replies will get more and more aggressive in their language.

If only these people sat back and analysed what they were doing they would stop doing it. It’s unlikely any of them have read though the recipient list to see who is on it, in their minds they are just replying to some random person. What they are actually doing is replying to all sorts of senior people who could have a great influence on their career, what’s more they are abusing a fellow colleague. If they only thought about how they would feel to receive such an email they wouldn’t do it.

A wise person once said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

via TechCrunch

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