OrgHacking 2018 — year in review

The 4th full year of OrgHacking is coming to an end, and with it comes my 4th “year in review” post.

I’ll divide the post into two sections: the first will cover the insights from reflecting on the content I published this year; the second will organize the year’s post according to the emerging themes.

1. Key insights:

  • “Policies and Practices” was the biggest theme for this year. Under which I grouped the most practical, “you can do this thing tomorrow” kind of posts. While nowhere near to be the majority of posts in this blog, it’s important to me to keep the more theoretical and abstract posts grounded to reality with pieces of more actionable advice.
  • The second biggest emergent theme ended up being “feedback”, in both its formal and informal forms. And often times, as a proxy for broader insights on interpersonal interaction and collaboration. Feedback also connects to one of the key thematic questions I posed to myself at the beginning of the year, as I’ve started exploring the role it plays in supporting and hindering the developmental growth in support of higher performance and better collaboration. More on that in 2019.
  • I’ve also made some pretty satisfying progress on understanding the science of good decision-making.
  • Polarities are playing a growing role in my mental models toolbox, proving clarity and insights in exploring important issues. I’m also starting to notice some of their limits/friction points. More on that in 2019 as well.
  • The two topics that I’ve spent most of my professional time on: recruiting and DIB (Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging) did not yield a proportional amount of posts.
  • My recruiting work did not lead to any transformative changes in my thinking on the subject, just to further refinements and fine-tuning of some of the key challenges in that space on which I’ve written more at length in 2017. It did, however, gets credit for shifting my mental model of the connection between the world of sports and the world of work from metaphor to analogy, which will serve as the basis for much of the research that I’ll be doing in 2019.
  • My thinking on DIB has been gradually evolving, though I seem to be converging on a rather contrarian approach that focuses on “drawing a larger circle” rather than empowering marginalized groups. And on emphasizing sameness rather than differences. More in 2019.
  • The two pieces that had the most profound impact on my thinking were “ Tribalism and Intractable Conflicts [Ripley et al]” (polarities, for example, turn a simple, dichotomous good/bad narrative, into a more complex and ambiguous spectrum) and “Principles of Deliberate Practice [Ericsson and Pool]”. In 2019, I intend to spend a significant chunk of my time exploring the application of deliberate practice in the world of work and general and the role of managers in particular.

2. Thematic categorization:

Policies and practices

Feedback

Mental models

Decision-making

Practice, experimentation, failure

Psychology

Distinctions:

Recruiting

Mindsets

DIB

Other

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OrgHacking 2018 — year in review

Wise Interventions [Wilson & Walton]

Oh, the joys of knowledge rabbit holes! One of my favorite experiences in my curious quest. Here’s how this one played out:

A few weeks back, I listened to an episode of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast in which he was having a conversation with Johann Hari. While the overall topic was super fascinating, and led me to listen to the audio version of Hari’s “Lost Connections”, one small reference made during the conversation truly caught my ear. Johann mentioned a book that he had read and Sam was intending to read called Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist out of UVA. At a high level, Wilson’s book is making the case that the existence of our subconscious creates a limit to our ability to know ourselves through self-reflection. This thesis piqued my interest, since around the same time, I was having a conversation with a group of friends about what I now believe is the other pole in a polarity: the limits of feedback (more on that in a separate post).

But I wasn’t sure that I was willing to commit the time to read a 273-page book around this premise, so I did what every person in my position would do: check out Wilson’s academic publications and track down the paper that the book was based on. And while I did find that paper, I also found the collaborative work Wilson did with Gregory Walton which they’ve labeled “Wise Interventions”, and best summarized by this article:

The Science of “Wise Interventions”: Applying a Social Psychological Perspective to Address Problems and Help People Flourish

At its core, Wilson & Walton’s thesis is a new approach to designing interventions that will lead to positive behavior change in their target audience, supplementing two pre-existing approaches:

  • Situation-centric approaches — assume that to flourish people need to be in situations that help them succeed rather than hinder them. Situation-centric interventions aim to change that situation, for example, by increasing resources for schools, relocating families, changing incentive structures, or making better choices easier.
  • Person-centric approaches — attribute poor outcomes to a deficiency or lack of capacity (cognitive abilities, self-control, etc.) in people, and assume that the best way to improve outcomes is to build this capacity. Person-centric interventions tend to involve some capacity-building education.

Their new approach is based on the premise that people’s behavior is driven by the way they interpret a given situation — the way they make sense, or meaning out of it. And that meaning is often pliable and can be altered (leading to a different behavior) using a wise intervention.

Our meaning-making “engine” will interpret a given situation in a way that serves three underlying motives:

  1. The need to understand — make sense of things around us in a way that allows us to predict behavior and guide our own action effectively.
  2. The need for self-integrity — view ourselves positively and believe that we are adequate, moral, competent and coherent.
  3. The need for belonging — feel connected to others, accepted, included and valued.

This, in turn, yields four techniques for changing meaning by shifting people’s understanding, sense of personal adequacy and/or sense of connection to others:

  1. Direct labeling — provide a positive label that defines what might otherwise be an ambiguous aspect of themselves, a situation, or others: “this test is meant to help me, the teacher, assess my teaching style” (rather than assess the students’ performance).
  2. Prompting new meaning — provide the basis for a new way of thinking about the self, a situation, or others, but not offer or impose the meaning itself: asking questions, altering a situation or providing new information.
  3. Increasing commitment through action — create situations that encourage people to act in accordance with a new idea, thereby reinforcing that idea. For example a “saying-is-believing” intervention.
  4. Active reflection exercise — structured exercises, often writing exercises, that help people understand their personal experiences from a new perspective.

Wilson & Walton have gone a step further and structured the +300 interventions that they’ve reviewed in their research into a database, categorizing them by the meaning-making need they are meant to address, the domain in which they were applied and the type of intervention used.

Avid readers of this blog may see the same similarity I’ve picked up on between the overall intervention-type framing the Wilson & Waldon are using, and a framework I’ve covered about a year and a half ago in:

Situation-centric, person-centric and wise interventions map pretty neatly to the Path, the Rider and the Elephant respectively. And in many ways, they are making the same case for applying behavioral interventions that address all three components while making their own contribution to this body of work by offering a double-click into the Elephant box and the techniques that effectively engage it.

Wise Interventions [Wilson & Walton]

The Radical Conversation Cycle [Tamerius]

The Radical Conversation Cycle (RCC) is a neat framework developed by Karin Tamerius and the Smart Politics org and meant to help us have more productive and persuasive conversations with people who disagree with us.

It is beautifully illustrated by this nifty interactive conversation simulation:

How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over the Holidays

RCC is a 5-step cycle:

  1. Ask: Ask open-ended questions. Be curious about how the other person developed their beliefs. Spend more time asking questions than making statements.
  2. Listen: Pay very close attention. Listen to understand, not to respond. Try to hear the values and emotions being expressed as well as the words.
  3. Reflect: Paraphrase what you heard. Name the emotions and values expressed as well as the words. Once the other person feels heard and understood, you can move on to the next step.
  4. Agree: Express agreement with one or more things the other person said. It’s usually easiest to agree on values, goals, and emotions.
  5. Share: Present your point of view. In general, sharing a personal story is the most memorable and persuasive way to communicate your perspective.
The Radical Conversation Cycle [Tamerius]

Principles of Deliberate Practice [Ericsson and Pool]

In the Petriglieri post I authored a couple of months ago and just published, one line in particular deeply stuck with me.

In discussing why hard work in a professional setting rarely translates to growth, or in other words, why suffering if often mistaken for sacrifice, Petriglieri made the following observation:

We seldom seek to understand and work on our limits as seriously as athletes do

It resonated with me so much since I’ve come to believe that professional sports, and other non-work professional fields (music, entertainment, etc.) are a great source of inspiration for the future of work. In fact, I can’t even take credit for that prediction. Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline already made that observation, more than 30 years ago:

Yet, this is exactly what teams in modern organizations lack. Imagine trying to build a great theater ensemble or a great symphony orchestra without rehearsal. Imagine a championship sports team without practice. In fact, the process whereby such teams learn is through continual movement between practice and performance, practice, performance, practice again, performance again.

Curious to explore this further, I started off by checking out Endure, the book that Petriglieri referenced in his piece. But it was too physiologically-focused to be of much use. Fortunately, it did remind me that I had another book sitting in my queue, which proved out to be way more relevant: Ericsson and Pool’s

Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise

The book details the genesis, development, and application of Deliberate Practice.

Sadly, Ericsson et el.’s work first became popular when it was referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers under the catchier name that Gladwell had given it: “The 10,000 hours rule”. It’s sad because as Ericsson points out:

Unfortunately, this rule — which is the only thing that many people today know about the effects of practice — is wrong in several ways.

The path to expertise is not simply doing something for 10,000 hours. It requires practicing in a very particular way, Deliberate Practice, which adheres to the following principles:

  1. Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or a coach who is familiar with the abilities of experts performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.
  2. Deliberate practice takes place outside of one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.
  3. Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement. Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performances have been improved by the training.
  4. Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires the person’s full attention and conscious actions. It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal of his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice.
  5. Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of effort in response to that feedback. Early in the training process, much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience, students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly.
  6. Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and correct it.
  7. Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance. Because of the way that new skills are built on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamental skills later when at a more advanced level.

Now evaluate any professional training that you’ve ever attended, not to mention “learning-by-doing” or “on-the-job training” catchphrases, using these principles and you’re likely going to reach the same conclusion as I did:

There is a massive effectiveness gap in the way we currently build professional expertise in almost any domain.

The good news is that the deliberate practice principles not only show us the gaps, they also provide us with a roadmap towards developing more effective expertise building experiences and strategies. More on this will likely follow in some future posts.

Principles of Deliberate Practice [Ericsson and Pool]

A silent meeting is worth a thousand words [Ricau/Henry]

I’ve been writing this blog long enough that seeing thoughtful organization practices slowly propagate through the business ecosystem bring me true joy.

The latest example:

A silent meeting is worth a thousand words by Pierre-Yves Ricau (aka Py)

More than 4 years ago, in June 2014, I covered Jeff Wiener’s “A simple rule to eliminate useless meetings” in which he discussed his adaptation of the same meeting practice Jeff Bezos gets credited for pioneering. It was the 4th blog post that I’ve authored. This is my 244th.

It’s one of the facilitation principles that truly stuck with me over the years, and one that I’ve brought with me to every organization I was part of. While I always use it with discretion (it’s not always the right solution…), I’ve seen it work wonders for groups ranging for the executive team to R&D all hands with more than 100 participants.

My primary motivation for using it has mostly been pragmatic efficiency: meaningful dialogue requires shared context, and it’s better to do that through self-paced reading (rather than walking people through slides) and better to do it as part of the meeting container (since not everyone will get a chance to read something in advance).

Py’s post, channeling Alyssa Henry’s perspective on it, adds another important dimension: increasing inclusion and better harvesting the team’s diversity by giving everyone a chance to react to the content, in writing, at their own pace. In that way, it complements the verbal part of the meeting, that has some inherent bias towards participants that are physically present and ones that think quicker on their feet.

A pure silent/written meeting has its drawbacks as well: we usually write less than we can say (some context gets lost), written reacts seem to run a higher risk of turning passive-aggressive (at least in my experience), and some people need the space to think out loud in order to formulate their perspectives.

A combination of the two pieces: a silent/written part, and a verbal part, can be designed to harness the best of both worlds.

A silent meeting is worth a thousand words [Ricau/Henry]