Monday, 26 November 2012

Say What You Suppose in a Single Sentence

I’ve enthused before on the virtues of thinking by hypothesis: starting with a supposition that we hold lightly and challenge hard.  This approach prompts us to be open-minded, and helps make our thinking clear and just.  It helps us to be Columbo, not the rigid, narrow minded local cop.
A golden rule helps us check we’re clear in this hypothesising.  The rule also gives others a chance of understanding, and even remembering, our supposition.  Here’s the rule: state the hypothesis in one sentence.  That’s right, one sentence, starting with a capital letter and ending in a full stop.  “We should buy the company.” “It was the butler whodunnit.” “The team with the most money always wins the championship.”
One reason for using this single sentence rule is circular, but it’s important if you’ve never thought about what a sentence is.  A sentence is the smallest unit we can use, in speaking or writing, to convey a complete thought.  A hypothesis is a complete thought.  So a good check that I’m conveying one complete thought is whether I can state it in one sentence and capture the entire thing.  If I can’t summarise my hypothesis in a sentence, chances are it’s a part thought or more than one thought.  This is circular reasoning, but a proper useful check.
Clear and complete isn’t enough for us, however.  We also want our hypothesis to be elegant and memorable.  The distillation of our thoughts down into that one clear, crisp encapsulating statement is a thing of beauty.  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.” “(We accept) No taxation without representation.”  One sentence captures the complete thought in a nutshell.  We can convey one sentence to others, and they can describe it to their own hordes of acolytes.  By using a single sentence, we minimise the confusion that comes with added information.
There does come a point in our distillation when we sacrifice some completeness to have a useful sentence. It takes judgement here to capture enough of the main idea, while being concrete and not reverting to generic drivel.  “We should only invest in education software, in segments where there’s more than 100 large customers,” might not capture every feasible scenario that we could consider, but it’s much more useful than “we should prioritise resources to maximise shareholder value.” 90% accurate whilst still saying something is better than 100% motherhood.
And I wasn’t kidding when I said the sentence needs to be a complete one.  Part sentences leave you hanging; and those multiple part sentences we all employ when holding forth are exhausting.  Here’s Flora Finching, the beauty from Little Dorrit pictured above:
“Indeed I have little doubt,” said Flora, running on with astonishing speed, and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, “that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I am sure than that the Chinese lady should accept you and think herself very well off too, I only hope she's not a Pagodian dissenter.”
Confused?  Exhausted?  That’s exactly what you’re doing to your listener as you pile on the phrases when describing your big idea.
I’m not saying that one sentence is always enough to describe everything you need to describe.  If it were, then we’d only need Twitter for all our communication, Haiku poems could double as text books, and this article would consist of eight words.  But I am saying that one complete sentence, our hypothesis, should sit at the top of the hierarchy of our thinking on a matter.  Everything else either supports, challenges or illustrates that one complete thought, such as “Here’s more precisely what I mean by compulsory cat ownership,” “here are five reasons I think it’s a good idea,” or “here’s an example of it in action.”  If an extra sentence doesn’t support or illustrate or challenge the hypothesis, “dogs are good too,” then it’s extraneous.  The extraneous sentence may be brilliant in its own right, but it’s a different thought for a different day.
Stating our supposition in one sentence doesn’t only help our own musings.  We can use the same approach to check we understand someone else’s point, and to clarify their main thesis.  When we do this, just as when we do it on ourselves, it’s amazing how much chaff there is amongst the wheat of the argument; how what seems like one argument is actually five different ones.  This one sentence summary is possible with the longest, most meandering, tomes.  
War & Peace: “Life is complicated.”
The Old Testament: “Do what God says or you’re in deep trouble.”
The New Testament: "Love God and each other, and you'll be fine."
Atlas Shrugged: “Big government is a bad thing.”
The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich: “Hitler’s military strategy was daring, but doomed from the start.”
The UK Tax Guide: “We’ve got a thousand ways to get our 50%, so stop wriggling and cough up.”
It’s much easier to do this with someone else’s thoughts than our own, but it’s good practice for the bigger, humbling challenge of distilling our complex brilliance into a few little words.
I wonder if you could summarise the hypothesis of this article?  The clue’s in the title.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

I Suppose: This Can Bring Our Thinking to Life

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Aristotle (clever Greek)
"Perhaps, I suppose."
Rufio (Californian Pop Punksters)

The idea of thinking by hypothesis can sound overbearing, theoretical and highfalutin.  But it’s a lot simpler and earthier than it appears.  If we do it well, it can make us clearer and more open minded thinkers, save us time, and help us communicate our thoughts succinctly and concretely.  It’s at the heart of rhetoric and the scientific method, and has been used by great thinkers since before our boy Aristotle.  In my own small experience, whenever I’ve trained its application, I’ve seen some beautiful transformations in people's thinking.  I hope you think it’s worthy of your attention.
When we have a hypothesis about something, all we are saying is: “This is what I suppose (about the matter).”  That’s all.  Nothing more intellectual or sophisticated than that.  It is our first venture at an answer, our starting point in getting to a solution that we're happy with.  We can apply it wherever we have a question or a problem or are ignorant, and where we care enough to want to get to an answer.  We could be supposing anything, “This person will be the best future leader for the company,” “ this how evolution works,” or,” this is the best way to reform errant fraudulent MPs.”
Our supposition, or hypothesis, is a working answer that we hold gently and challenge hard.  By giving ourselves a working answer, and making it as tangible as we can, we are giving ourselves something concrete to test with thinking and evidence: “Does it cover things completely? Is it consistent with observations? Does it make sense logically? Is it unequivocal with no vagueness or room for misunderstanding? Is it simple enough that it’s obvious when I explain it? Can I think of any exceptions that hole my beautiful hypothesis below the water line?”  As we challenge our working answer with evidence and clear thinking, we expect it to change, just like the detective’s naive first guess in an episode of CSI.  If we’re really hungry investigators or expansive thinkers, we're rarely happy until our first guess has been challenged and changed at least a couple of times.
As we go through this process, our hypothesis solidifies into a thesis; our supposition turns into our position on the matter.  In some cases, we might even get to the verifiable truth: “This is whodunit,” “This business will be profitable,” “I can get to the South Pole by January.”  In many situations, we’ll never know the truth and just have to run with our best thesis: “John will be the best Governor,” “This is the right incentive scheme,” “I should spend more time developing the next product rather than doing bespoke work the whole time.”
This approach, starting by stating what I suppose, has a host of advantages over just asking questions or musing distractedly.  It forces me to be clear and concrete about what I think, which by itself highlights gaps and weaknesses, and so makes my thinking better.  It turns my perspective into one of a humble investigator who welcomes challenge, as opposed to a blustering know-it-all or a vague wonderer.  It gives me a focus for my investigation efforts or philosophical musings, where I can direct my challenges and grow my perspective.  It enables me at any stage to know my current position on the matter, and how confident I am, being overt about where I’m ignorant or unsure.  And if I work with others, which everyone does, I can communicate my position at any time, so that people can understand, challenge and contribute.
Using a hypothesis also has plenty of drawbacks but these are typically because of using it badly.  First, people often get attached to their hypotheses and slip into trying to defend and prove them.  This is very easy to do and very common.  We’re all guilty of it, though it’s even easier to do if we don’t think by hypothesis, and so don't enjoy the self-challenging and welcoming of new insight that ensues.  Second, once we’ve formed our hypothesis, we can get stuck in the process of challenging and reviewing, moving slowly and deliberately from our current position, and which can restrict us from taking a fresh look at the world, from a radically different perspective.  This is why it’s always good to take a bit of time to explore and ponder before coming up with our first hypothesis, and to welcome the reality that there will always be other interesting and useful ways of looking at the world.  A third drawback is that we can end up with something very unwieldy as we challenge every angle and grow our investigation.  This is why we only roll out the full hypothesis testing approach when it really counts, such as working out why sales are tanking or whether we should open up in France.  The rest of the time we can still benefit from the open, “I suppose” mindset.  A fourth drawback is that there isn’t really a scientific or formulaic approach to coming up with a hypothesis in the first place.  They just come to us, like thoughts do, as a return on musing.  Einstein accepted this when he said, “The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws ... There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.”  That's the daddy of science talking about intuition and musing.  I find that kind of heartening.
I’m as strong a fan and advocate of using hypotheses as I am about using the scientific method that guided Newton, and as I am about the principles of analytical rhetoric that guided Madison and Martin Luther King.  They go together because hypotheses are essential to analytical rhetoric, and to the scientific method that lies underneath it.  I use one in every piece of work with every client that I have.  I think I’ve got exalted company in Aristotle, Cicero, every mechanic or plumber who actually fixes your problem, every great fictional detective and, I suppose, some real ones too.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Goals Ain't Strivin'

New militia recruit (suffering from overexertion): “Sir, I will not relent.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Spenser: “You’re going to have a very hard life my friend.”

Mis-use of goals has given them a type A image, which misses the biggest benefits of using them.  As a reformed striver, I can say from experience that goals help us relax, get more with less wasted effort, and increase our control over our destinies from “none” to “some.”  Unfortunately, most goal setters I see are experiencing the opposite.
Picture a goal setter, and we see someone entirely and selfishly focused on achieving some outcome, but at the same time somehow never fully present.  He straps himself onto the metaphysical treadmill and becomes a relentless focused machine, devoid of humanity, and not very cool.  With dedication to a goal, he may win a trophy or make that big deal, but he’s also inadvertently heading for divorce, regret, burn out or some other form of life crisis.  Undaunted, he keeps on striving.
This archetypal person has missed the point of goals entirely.  Goal-setting is a tool to help us focus our attention.  That’s all.  We can use this tool skilfully, or we can use it to create a proper mess.
Just like with a hammer in the hands of a four year old, using the tool clumsily has damaging consequences.  People make countless stress-inducing, performance-impairing mistakes by mis-using goals.  I'm going to talk about three of them: thinking only about outcomes, letting everything else go to the dogs, and driving ourselves into the ground in our dedication to hitting the goal.
Thinking about an attractive desired outcome, like “I want to be able to run a five minute mile,” can be useful.  The goal stimulates my mind to come up with strategies to get there from where I am now.  But if I just obsess about the outcome, eventually I’ll just be using it for two things: minimising distractions and increasing my capacity to work ever harder.  These are genuine advantages of goals, and they may be all we want in some circumstances; but by themselves they aren’t sustainable or that appealing.  If I don’t have my attention on other important things that goals can give me, like learning or skills practice or experiencing something intensely, I’m depriving myself of growth and I'm not putting my attention on the present, where it counts.
The second stress inducer - letting everything else go to the dogs - is also driven by poor wielding of the goal-setting tool.  The corollary of using a goal to focus my attention on something is that I’m not focused on everything else.  So if I obsess constantly about one or two goals, with no time to review and no time off, everything else will likely go to the dogs, and I may not even notice this downward spiral elsewhere until it’s far too late.
The third stress inducer - driving myself into the ground to hit the goal - is, again, just bad practice.  I may be smart enough to want to set short term goals that are only a small stretch above my current capability.  I may even make a plan to ensure I have time to achieve them.  But I’m rarely prescient or lucky enough to predict how hard the goal should be, accounting for all the random things that happen in the world in the meantime.  Most people are optimistic here and set goals that are only achievable in ideal circumstances, then they don’t review them after their plans have been hit by an unpredictable sidewinder.  Because they’re concentrating on the outcome, they don’t realise how they’re suffering, and one of two things results: they utterly exhaust themselves in order to hit their randomly assigned initial goal; or they utterly exhaust themselves and miss the same random goal.  The exhaustion might be worth it if the goal is meaningful enough, but most short term goals are just a good guess at steps towards the long term goal, so we're exhausting ourselves for something to which we've given a random, temporary importance.
We could look at all these problems and say, “What’s the point?”, get all Bohemian, and abandon goals altogether.  If we do that we’ll not only miss out on all the benefits and pleasure of choosing where we put our attention, but two other things will happen.  First, we’ll drift aimlessly.  This sounds relaxing, and it has its place.  But if we drift all the time, like those people we all know who’ve made weed a way of life, we’ll end up with a watered down, unfulfilled version of the reality we sought to experience.  We might settle for being an also-ran with our business, we might lose a little weight, we might learn a few chords on the guitar, but we’ll never get close to what we’ve dreamt about.  And we won’t just drift.  We’ll be buffeted around by other influences, being a responder to other people’s prompts and requests.  If we don’t set our own sales target or decide which new product we’re going to back, then our bank or our clients will do it for us.
The solution to all this is to use goals well.  First, we make long term goals only for very few things, which we really care about and which are different from today.  Second, we make sure that we've got some prompts to make sure everything else important is covered, especially the things we take for granted, even though it seems absurd to attach prompts to remind us about them.  If my focus of attention is on my business’s sales and I don’t have anything to force me to notice my health or my family, then guess what’s going to suffer.  Third, we plan properly, so we're realistic about what it’s going to take to hit the goal, even in less than ideal circumstances.  Fourth, we create our shorter term goals.  With these, we make sure we're focusing on what’s important in the moment and not only on outcomes: learning goals where we need them; experience goals where we're gathering information; quality goals where time is less important; process goals where we've got a process to test or follow.  These are all things that bring our attention onto what's important right in the moment.  Finally, we pull our heads up regularly, sit in our zen garden, pour ourselves a cup of green tea, and see how things are going.  We're in review mode here, not do mode; so we check whether the goals are still relevant, and either adjust the goal so that it’s just challenging enough to be energising, or change it for something more helpful.
The experience will be far from perfect.  We will likely not achieve as much as quickly as we’d planned, some things will be much less achievable or less rewarding than we first thought, and lots of things will come at us that we didn’t expect.  But we will be the ones with our hands on the tiller of our sailboat in the stormy sea, and we will travel a lot further towards our paradise island than drifting in the wind or paddling to go fast.
But goal-setting by itself is not a guaranteed route to success or satisfaction.  Even if we use it skilfully, it is still just a tool to focus our attention.  You can choose if you wish to use goals to drive yourself harder and feel heroic.  Many do.  I’d rather use them to focus my attention to do a good job of what I care about.  To me this means focusing on fewer things, giving those proper time and attention, enjoying using the goals, and being energised rather than daunted by the challenge they provide.  It rarely means striving.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Good Goal Habits – Moving from Vision to Now

In a previous post I wrote about how goals can help us in almost any endeavour.  But we need to take moment to put together a proper framework for these goals, covering the short, medium and long-term.  If we don't take an hour to do this up front, we're missing a big opportunity.
Distant Goals Are Useful, But Only If We Break Them into Pieces
Wherever people have studied goals of different time-scales, the best results have come from a very particular approach: start with an important, inspiring longer term vision, and break it down into a series of intermediate and short term goals.  
Long-term goals, no matter how inspirational, consistently result in no benefit whatsoever if they aren't combined with near term targets.  Alone, they raise morale, but do nothing for performance or productivity; those Big Hairy Audacious Goals, by themselves, are a Big Hairy Audacious waste of time.  In some studies, long-term goals have even been shown to produce worse performances than simply saying, “Do your best.”  In contrast, long term visions broken down into short-term goals and intermediate evaluation stages are very effective indeed; they consistently make performance better, with proven results from business and sports to military training.
All of us do this breaking-down naturally when faced with big or complex tasks.  When skiing down a mountain, we have an end-goal: to get to the bottom upright and maybe skilfully.  But we just take one section of the mountain at a time, and focus our attention on that.  In business and personal target-setting, we take a long-term aspiration and work back to goals for this year, quarter, month, week, and, for some situations, day and hour.
The benefits of breaking down goals apply even to very short term goals.  In two studies, athletes were asked to run 1600m or 3200m as quickly as possible.  Then they were told to run it again, this time breaking the distance down into 4-8 equal segments, with target times for each segment.  This breaking down increased the speed of all but one of the runners, with a time saving of between 1.1% and 6.5%.  In the 2008 Olympic 1500m final, 1.1% was the difference between the gold medal and eighth place.
The US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Programme (TOPGUN), uses this approach on missions, and calls it “compartmentalising.”  Leading sports scientists use it with potential Olympic medal winners, and call it “segmenting."
One thing that distinguishes teams and people who are good at making their visions happen is their dedication to this goal-setting process.  They are rigorous and deliberate in setting long-term goals, and breaking them down into short-term components.  They attach at least one goal to every relevant activity.  They break down even short-term performance goals into smaller components.  Finally, they practise constant goal-re-setting, based on feedback and results.
I’ll describe one way to do this below.
Setting a Goal Framework
Before describing how to set a goal framework, I need to make two critical qualifications.  
First, the whole goal setting process should only be used for your most important areas of focus, probably fewer than you'd wish.  Goals are for directing your attention and effort.  That's how they work.  So it’s just as important to have no goals elsewhere.  The most ferociously competitive world class athletes are unbelievably laid back outside their theatre of performance; world class business leaders don’t spend their entire time creating and fulfilling a cottage industry of meaningless targets; everyday people like you and me can achieve an awful lot by resisting the temptation to dilute our attention beyond the two or three things we really care about.  
Second, you need to have goals that you're confident will get you to your end-point, or that you can alter quickly if they don’t.  It’s all too easy to set goals that either don’t move you closer to where you want to go or take you inadvertently in the wrong direction – read the newspaper about centrally-planned government targets for plenty of evidence of this.  Getting this confidence is the subject for a whole new post, which is later in this series.
Given these qualifications, setting up a good goal framework requires at least four timeframes, each of which has a different purpose.
Long Term Goals –Vision Timeframe
Long-term goals don’t by themselves help us improve our lot.  But an exciting, visionary long-term goal has four invaluable benefits.  First, because it’s a long time away, we can target something inspirational.  Inspiration ignites people’s commitment and dedication.  Second, a common long-term goal gives teams a common purpose, helping people align their individual shorter-term goals with each other, and avoid unplanned conflicts.  Third, it gives us a gauge to assess performance and progress, i.e. are the shorter-term goals doing their jobs and getting you where you want to go?  Finally, we can use the long term vision to pull ourselves out of the mud of the day-to-day, and remind ourselves what’s important to us and what’s ultimately irrelevant.
Such a visionary goal needs to be sufficiently far in the future that you can achieve something that would be impossible with today’s capability.  Depending on circumstances, this could be as near as a year and as far away as a decade.  For athletes, a visionary goal could be Olympic qualification; for businesses, becoming the world’s obvious go to provider of a service.  
Medium-Long Term Goals – Target Timeframe
Armed with our inspirational long-term vision, we need a hard performance target against which we can monitor progress.  Where the long-term goal was visionary, intended to inspire commitment to the cause, the corresponding performance target is tangible, measurable and as within our control as possible.
Six-time World Ironman champion Dave Scott’s visionary goal was to win it again in 1989 – exciting but not a target he could use to measure progress.  His performance target was a time of 8 hours 10 minutes (25 minutes faster than last time he won it) – a very tangible target indeed.  He missed his target by 15 seconds and came second, by a whisker, in the greatest Ironman race ever.
Intermediate Goals – Progression Timeframe
Adding intermediate targets makes the long term target much more achievable, and this is again supported by overwhelming evidence.  Targets are more immediate, which raises their priority and focuses our attention on them.  Our ability to hit them tells us whether our current effort and approach is getting us to the longer term goal – or if we need to try harder or find another approach.  The very presence of an intermediate goal, like a weigh in at a diet club, prompts us to be consistent in good habits we want to generate but are tempted to put off.
These are the good reasons why sales managers use frequent pipeline reviews as intermediate targets, and why athletes have monthly performance progress goals before the competition season.
Immediate Goals – Performance Timeframe
The goal framework then cascades all the way back to the performance itself.  Evidence overwhelmingly supports the benefits of using well-set goals for performance and practice, in fields ranging from negotiations to cycling ergometer trials.  If you or I go into any arena – a meeting, sales pitch, or practice session - with a well-set goal, we will perform better against it than if we simply try to do our best.
Putting this all together, we have a long-term goal that lights our fire, converted into something tangible that we can target, cascaded back through intermediate steps - this year, this quarter, this month, and week (even day and hour for some activities) - to our very next performance or practice.  
Top performers, and people who use goals well, don’t just adhere mindlessly to the pre-set framework, stressing out when they’re miles behind plan, or coasting and sandbagging if they're ahead.  They constantly reset targets, upwards or downwards, based on performances and progress to date.  The Radioshack cycling team realised part way through 2009’s Tour de France that they wouldn’t win their target yellow jersey, so they reset their target onto the prize for fastest team, which they won.  The principle is the same for anyone from salesmen to rugby teams – if you’re well behind your goal, it’s worth recalibrating to something more achievable; if you’re well ahead, you may want to up it to something that's a pleasant challenge.

This investment in a well-designed goal-setting framework seems pretty large, and it does take a little time.  But it’s an investment that, done rigorously, pays for itself many times over.  It saves lots of distraction and wasted effort.  Most importantly it frees us to focus all of our attention where it counts: on doing a fine job of the task at hand.

Botterill, 1977.  Goal-setting and Performance on an Endurance Task.
House, 1973.  Performance Expectancies and Affect Associated with Outcomes as a Function of Time Perspective.
Locke & Latham, 2002.  Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal-Setting and Task Motivation.
Umstot, Bell & Mitchell, 1976.  Effects of Job Enrichment and Task Goals on Satisfaction and Productivity.
Rushall, 1996.  Some determinants in human competitive performances: A psychological perspective.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Planning is a Good Thing, Even for Free Spirits

Planning Helps Everyone, But Mainly Those Who Think They Don’t Need It
For many of us, planning looks like a straight jacket that hampers our creativity.  We assume that creative people like entrepreneurs are better off without such bureaucracy and should just follow their instincts and test things using trial and error.  As a romantic wannabe free spirit, I’d love to believe this story.  But I’m a sucker for evidence and I can’t get away from the facts: planning is really valuable when it’s done well, ironically most of all for those creative free spirits.
Properly managed studies of the benefits and drawbacks of planning come down firmly on planning’s side. It makes us better at reaching our desired state, more reliably, more quickly, with less effort, and with less wasted time in inevitable blind alleys.  It helps us deal with distractions, recognise problems early, and refocus if we’re going off course.  Just as having a well set goal makes it more likely we’ll achieve what we desire, having a well designed plan makes it even more likely once the goal is in place.
Sadly, we see planning most often where it’s needed least and can even be damaging: large companies in steady state, planning more of the same; successful athletes looking at how to improve by doing more or harder sessions; and administrators misusing it to centralise decisions.   And of course we see planning least often where it’s needed most: small companies working out how to grow; frustrated people working out how to change instilled behaviour to get very different results, like dieters and unsuccessful athletes; and talented people who want more power over their own destinies.  We need planning most when, like our entrepreneur, we’re discovering and breaking new ground.  When we’re just doing more of the same, we’re really repeating last year’s plan with higher targets.
There are, of course, downsides to planning if we don’t go in with our eyes open.  For example, we can end up head-down-arse-in-the-air focused in task completion and not recognise when it starts being a bad idea.  But that is just bad planning and bad goal-setting; it’s possible to wield any tool badly, and wielding it well can mitigate those problems.
Where Planning Fits, What Is & What It Isn’t
Let me describe what I mean by planning.
First, I assume you’ve got a goal, where you want to reach by when, which is tangible enough that you’ll recognise it when you reach it.  If it’s a long term goal, you need to be passionate about it or you’ll be uncommitted, poor-performing and probably a little bitter.  If it’s a short term goal, you just need to be clear what it is: sometimes we need to do tedious things as part of the big picture.  If you haven’t got a goal, you need one before you start on a plan.
If the goal is where you want to get, the plan is how you’re intending to get there.  This includes all the things that planning texts cover: the order of events, how long each thing takes, what resources you need, what capabilities you need to have built or bought by when, who has responsibility for what, what is and is not on the critical path, check point goals to make sure you’re on track, etc, etc.  You know all these things already, but you may not do them.
Let me describe what a plan isn’t; and this isn’t in all the planning texts.  It isn’t a detailed, linear path from where we are now to where we want to arrive, with no allowance for change or deviation.  The plan is only as detailed as it needs to be to get us to the first check point, and no more detailed.  We replan or review the goal after hitting or missing each check point.  And if there’s any material uncertainty, as there is for most things, the plan needs to include what academics call an “if-then.”  This last point deserves an article in itself, which I’ll write in due course.
Planning Helps Complex Activities
You might think the benefits of planning in complex environments, with multiple people, are painfully obvious.  You wouldn’t make a ten man trek to the South Pole without a plan.  But people in complex environments, treading less well-charted territory, like small business owners, resist it like a ball and chain, preferring trial and error and their mystical instincts.
The top small business researchers, Delmar & Shane, tested how planing helped or hindered entrepreneurs.  They studied 223 start ups for 5 years to see if planning was a good idea.  In their results, the firms using planning developed new products more quickly, developed their operations more completely, and had less chance of failure than those that didn’t.  In fact, planning was the single biggest factor the authors could identify, in the business’s control, that determined whether the business succeeded or failed.  They gave three reasons for this.  First, planning speeds up decisions, because it allows people to anticipate potential problems and identify missing information more quickly than trial and error: drawing blueprints for a house before starting to build it, versus just starting then realising you need to pull the floor up to put the gas pipes in.  Second, planning helps people to schedule resources, communicate this, and work out where the bottlenecks are, with the added bonus it makes them better at estimating how long things will take; so there is much less wasted time and fewer delays.  Third, planning enables people to develop specific steps to achieve their goals, which deters distractions and gets people to their goals more quickly.  More on this last point later.
Planning Even Helps Really Simple Activities
Planning even helps the simplest activities that only involve one person.  The evidence for this is also very solid, even for people who don’t do it naturally and for the most uninspiring goals.  The most compelling example I’ve seen in research is of two groups of heroin addicts suffering withdrawal, who were given an objective of writing a CV by the end of the day.  All had equal, measured commitment to the goal.  One group had a relevant plan (“I will write the CV at noon”) and the majority completed it by the end of the day.  The other group had equal commitment but no measured plan, and not one of them completed the CV.
Researchers have got underneath how planning helps, even in these situations with minimal complexity, by looking at how the brain works.  FMRI scans of brains show that planning actually stimulates a different part of the brain than goal setting.  By planning, you’re accessing a more suitable part of your brain, designed for action, which finds completing tasks easier and is better at them.
This explains why a well-formed plan is an even better indicator of whether someone will complete something than how committed they are to the end-goal.
Planning Addresses the Big Hurdles to Goal Achievement
Goals researchers list four major constraints to achieving goals: not getting started, not staying on track, calling a halt, and overextending oneself.  Planning addresses all four.
How planning helps getting started is self-evident; without planning, we usually get started, like our heroin addicts, too late or never.  Planning helps us stay on track by forcing our minds to think through how realistic something is and what it takes; and working to that plan helps us avoid tempting distractions that might pull us off track.  Calling a halt becomes tempting when our short term goal isn’t inspiring, and more attractive tasks start to appeal.  But once we’ve have a plan, with our brain in implementation mode, we are much more stimulated by plan completion than the nature of the goal.  For most of us, the fourth area, not overextending ourselves, is probably planning’s biggest benefit.  When we plan we see the reality of time and resources needed versus what’s available, we’re much less likely to take on additional tasks that aren’t related to our goal.  Finally, and again this is verified by research, it’s mentally much less taxing to implement a pre-planned activity, than to constantly flit between doing and thinking of the end state.
A Simple Way to Combine Planning and Goal Setting
There’s a simple way to combine goal setting and planning to really good effect, which has been tested and proven in some solid studies, including studies of notoriously difficult exercise and diet goals.  In these studies, it gives better results than goal setting alone or planning alone.  The method is called mental contrasting with implementation intentions, or MCII.
In MCII, we start with our desired outcome and then, very deliberately, contrast it with the reality of our current state.  This Mental Contrasting stimulates much more realistic and higher quality planning of how we can get there from here than simply thinking of our desired end-state and ignoring the state we’re starting from.  Only once we’ve established this Mental Contrast do we form our Implementation Intentions.
The business and life coaching fraternity have for years used a layman’s equivalent of MCII, using the much snappier acronym of “GROW,” and this captures the essence of MCII in a usable form.  The steps of GROW are to clarify the Goal, review current Reality, look at the Obstacles and consider a series of Options to get from here to the goal, and plan by thinking about the Way forward (or Who, Where and When).  It’s a little simplistic, but it’s memorable and good for many situations.  If you want more than a paragraph on GROW, there are dozens of articles and books on it; it’s even got its own Wikipedia entry.
Downsides of Planning
Of course, planning has its downsides, particularly if it isn’t done well.  In the same way that goals focus the attention on achieving one thing at the expense of less valuable things, planning focuses the attention on getting one thing achieved, even after achieving it becomes a bad idea.  This is why a good plan needs breaks to check where we’re going, ponder and readjust.  Unlike Napoelon on his march on Moscow, we need to review and reorientate.  We can question Napoleon’s goal, but even if the goal had been wise, invading Russia definitely needed a plan.  A good plan might have thrown up that the Russian winter would be an issue.  Becoming a slave to the (bad) plan once typhus and then winter started setting in was not very wise at all.  Planning and goal setting aren’t the problem; bad planning and goal setting are.
So Are You Going to Start Some Proper Planning Then?
I guess the decision about whether to plan properly ultimately comes down to an emotional choice.  Do you want to resist the perceived planning straight jacket, and carry on being a free spirit who can’t be tied down?  Or would you rather spend some time thinking ahead, and so achieve what you’re passionate about with less wasted effort, fewer false starts and abandoned projects, and as a result be more of a master of your own destiny?   Ironically, I think the second path is a freer one. 

Brandstatter, V., Lengfelder, A., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2001).  Implementation intentions and efficient action initiation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 946-960
Delmar, F. & Shane, S. (2003).  Does Business Planning Facilitate the Development of New Ventures, Strategic Management Journal, 24, 1165-1185
Gollwitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. .  Planning Promotes Goal Striving.  Handbook of Self-regulation.  Guildford Press, 2011.  pp 162-185

Friday, 21 September 2012

Humble Beginnings

“Unless I’m wrong, and I’m never wrong, they are headed dead into the fire swamp.”

Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride

Contrasting Gambits
Which of these people would you rather pay attention to?  The first is from an opening paragraph of a movement assessment book; the second from an introduction speech by a new MD of a business.  Both are talking about rehabilitation of sorts.
“I can speak about poor logic because I’ve used it, and can discuss reductionism and isolated approaches because I’ve practiced them.  I can identify with every mistake that can be made in exercise rehabilitation after owning them all.  That is the perspective under which we’ll discuss some of the philosophical, practical and social mistakes surrounding movement.”
“Good morning everyone.  My name is [...].  I have never failed, and I am not going to fail here.”

I’m guessing you preferred the first person, most people do; and I’ll explain why I think his introduction is so good.  What disturbs me is how many people use the trust-me-I’m-perfect, approach of the second person when they write or speak.  This, despite not liking that approach when they’re reading or listening.
If you liked the second person, then you may not think this article is for you; but if you give me ten minutes of your time to read it, then I hope to persuade you that there’s some merit in the approach you didn’t like.

Decent First Impressions
I think there’s truth in the claim that people give an author at most five minutes before deciding whether to continue reading.  But people begin forming a mindset about an author as a person almost immediately, during his first few words.  At the outset, their focus is just as much on characterising the author as it is on what he has to say.  If the author is credible and likable, it’s somehow easier to take on board what he’s got to say.  If the author comes across as flakey or has inadvertently got the reader’s back up, it’s really hard work to stay open minded, even to any decent insights.
Teachers of rhetoric understand this in readers and listeners, and look for speakers to have decent ethical appeal in their openings.  I just look for someone who is competent, thoughtful and good company; and it’s a bonus if they’re funny.  But more than anything else, I want them to be humble.
The first reason I like an author to be humble is that I think it leads to better content.  They're inquisitive at the outset because they feel they know so little, or they're aware that their limited knowledge will be improved if they pay better attention.  So they’re more likely to have thought things through.  This works the other way too: if they’ve challenged themselves sufficiently, they’ll have made mistakes, learned from them, and be humbler as a result.
The second reason I like humility is that it can lead to better communication.  A humble author will realise that what he’s got to say isn’t the last word on a subject; it will have limitations; it will inevitably be shown in future to be at least partly wrong; and parts of it in retrospect may even be stupid.  Newton’s writings had all of these characteristics except maybe the last one; Joe Author is unlikely to be better.  So rather than saying, “This is the truth, listen to me,” a humbler author will say, “this is the best I can think of right now, so I’m going to go with it.”  They will be overt about their work’s limitations, which is much more helpful to the reader than grand claims that are inevitably seen through or disappointed.
Now I want to clarify what I mean when I propose being humble in opening a piece of work.  I don’t mean being an obsequious Uriah Heep.  That’s just creepy.  Declaring your limitations up front enables you to be bold about what you do surmise.  It’s a lot easier to be genuinely confident saying, ‘this is what I think is best, based on my current knowledge and previous failings,’ than to proclaim superior or faultless status and claim to know the truth.
And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be excited or committed.  I’m just saying I’d rather listen to someone who’s also committed to learning, has reflected, made mistakes and is conscious of his present shortcomings, than to someone who’s a know-it-all or bedazzled devotee of someone’s dogma, which he’s never challenged.  There's a place for arrogance, but not at the start of an article.
Finally, I’m not proposing that anyone affect humility, which is excruciatingly common in meetings of big wigs, and is as transparent as a badly made swim suit.  But I’m confident than anyone who isn’t genuinely humble won’t have read this far anyway, which gets me onto my final subject.

Humble Beginnings
When I started writing this, I thought it was about opening an article or speech.  Now I realise it’s really about opening any investigation, of anything, for all the reasons I’ve described.  And it’s relevant well before the conclusions are turned into an article or argument.  If you’re humble about what you know, your assumptions, the limitations of your perspective, and the massive likelihood that even your best effort for now can be improved upon continuously, then I think there’s a decent chance that your investigation will yield some genuine insights, and that your argument will be fair and solid.  Being humble in writing is then just a matter of saying it how you really, honestly believe it is, with no pretense or affectation.  To misquote Quintilian, good writing is just a good person speaking naturally.

For completion, let me tell you something about the two people whose gambits I compared at the start.  The humble first speaker is Gray Cook, probably the world’s authority on body movement, and consultant to top NFL teams.  The bombasting second speaker was the MD of a business I worked in many years ago.  The poor guy antagonised his staff with that opening salvo, and it went downhill from there.  He was replaced after 6 months.
Prince Humperdink, our know-it-all character from the Princess Bride, didn’t fare any better.  But he stuck to his omniscient way to the last.  Here are his final words, having been bluffed into tying himself into a chair by an incapacitated Wesley:
“I knew it! I knew you were bluffing! I knew he was... bluffing.”

Cook, G. (2010) Movement. Santa Cruz, California. On Target Publications
Quintilianus, Marcus Fabius. Institutio Oratoria
The Princess Bride: from a novel by William Goldman. (1987) Film.  Directed by Rob Reiner.    USA: 20th Century Fox

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Rhetoric is a Very Fine Thing Indeed

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman
I believe that learning and applying the skills of rhetoric is one of the finest, most useful things a human being can do.  With these skills we are humble, fair and clear thinkers, able to see through muddle or deception, and capable of stirring ourselves and others into worthwhile action.  Without them, we remain muddled, biased, complacent, open to deception and self-deception, and unable move ourselves or others beyond acceptance of, often flawed, received wisdom.  It’s a skill we can apply to business decisions, sports performance, political choices, and most of the day-to-day decisions we make.  It’s hard to think of many skills that are more fundamentally important.
Before I inadvertently get anyone’s back up, let me explain what I mean by rhetoric: basing an argument on sound reasoning, with a fair appeal to the emotions, and a solid ethical stance.  It is the opposite of the commonly misused “politician’s rhetoric” of clever, false arguments intended to deceive, which is more accurately called sophistry.
In my mind, rhetoric has three stages: a generous but challenging consideration of others’ appeals to you; a rigorous and even more challenging appeal to the self; and, an elegant and fair appeal to others.  Each stage has three parts: an appeal to reason, an appeal to emotions, and an appeal to ethics.  Three stages, three parts in each.
Generous but Challenging Consideration of Others’ Appeals to You
We are bombarded by others’ appeals to us: newspaper leading articles, advertising, sales pitches, business cases to invest in some initiative or plan, magazines describing steps to success, and friends persuading us to agree with their points of view.  Each of these appeals contains some rational, emotional or ethical plea to believe or do something.  People making these appeals are human like us, and we all have biases and agendas.  So our challenge in considering the case the other person is making is to be generous in our listening but rigorous in our assessment.
Appeals to our reason are flimsier than they first appear.  They inevitably contain fallacies of logic: selective information, unsubstantiated assumptions, unrepresentative examples and convenient metaphors.  We need to be on our toes to recognise these when making our own decisions; but we also need to have the open-mindedness to accept, despite these inevitable flaws, that the other person may still have a good point.
Appeals to our emotions can be life- and even world-changing, and because of this are where we need to be most awake.  Emotion is ever present in our greatest moments and is the fuel that drives us to do great things.  Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was fueled by emotion, not the self-evident logic.  On a personal level, all the great teams and companies I have worked with have an emotional stirring behind their actions; without it, we’re just tidying and marking time.  But of course there is a flip-side.  I’ve seen scores of companies and people crash and burn because of emotionally sticking to an unsubstantiated dogma; and some of the most damaging rabble rousers and dictators of all time had a gift for attracting people’s emotions to their causes.
The ethical appeal is perhaps the most difficult of all to hear in a balanced way.  We need to know that the person making a case for something has good intentions, and has values we trust.  But we are biased, lumping people into bad or good, reliable or unreliable.  Millions of people don’t trust Tories because they think they’re nasty; but didn’t the Tory William Wilberforce campaign for 20 years to abolish the slave trade?  Carter is commonly considered an ineffectual US President; but didn’t he head negotiations in the Camp David peace between Egypt and Israel?  People mistrust John Major and Tony Blair for different reasons; but didn’t they instigate and complete the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland?  The demonised, phone-tapping Rupert Murdoch revolutionised UK sports coverage and ultimately backed our first Tour de France winner.  No-one is all good or all bad, so why should we blindly follow or oppose anyone?
A Rigorous and Even More Challenging Appeal to the Self
The appeal to one’s own reason is no mean feat.  We need to be prepared for the discomfort of challenging our own, often convenient, assumptions and reasoning; and for testing how complete or confined our thinking has been.  It’s especially hard if we want or don’t want to believe something for whatever reason.  This inability to challenge our own reasoning is the biggest flaw I see in my students’ rhetoric and my own.
The appeal to our own emotions is possibly even more difficult than challenging our reasoning.  This emotional appeal is critical: we need to care about something to give it the time of day, and to be fired up to take action.  At the same time, our emotions can blind us.  We find it hard to accept a sound view from someone we don’t like or that leads to a conclusion we find distasteful; and we let our feelings guide us to seek evidence to support a course of action that we do like.
The ethical appeal to the self is difficult because it’s so intangible and multi-faceted.  We’re trying to answer a tricky question here: “Is this a good thing to do?”  The phrase ethical dilemma is a common one for good reason.  When we explore an ethical choice, we find ourselves changing stance with each level of consideration.  “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounds worthy until we think about freeloading incentives, centralised power, and consequent lost generations; but if we flip sides and adopt the commonly misrepresented self-serving capitalist stance, we lose something benevolent at the heart of human nature.  Giving important things open-minded and fair consideration, and thinking two steps beyond our initial dogma, gets us a long way.   A good sign that we’ve given things some reasonable consideration is the very finding of an ethical dilemma.
An Elegant and Fair Appeal to Others
Other people are bound by the same 3 chains that bind us: flawed logic, overpowering emotional prompts and unchallenged ethical assumptions.  So making an effective appeal to someone else, even one based on sound reasoning, good character, and well-stocked emotional fuel, is just as difficult as being open and balanced in considering others’ appeals to us.  People need a strong incentive to untangle their own webs of belief, which may have been reinforced by years of selective confirmatory observation and social groups that share the same webs.  But with clear reasoning, trustworthiness, and elegant and fair communication, we give ourselves a chance of hitting that tipping point some of the time, and we may even become worth listening to.