Friday 24 January 2014

Experiments in the Time Space Continuum

Some years ago, when we first moved from Newcastle to the Lake District, and for reasons with which I won't bore you now, we ended up living for a year in a small cottage.

I say small: it did have four bedrooms, but as there were seven of us (family plus mother-in-law) that felt small. It had no study, of course, so I ran the business from a corner of the (small) living room, on a very small desk that now serves as a hall table.  All my files were on the bottom shelves of a bookcase, which now serves as a stationery cupboard (and is, of course, now overflowing).

We have now moved to a larger house, complete with an outbuilding and attics: and guess what? We fill the space.

I was pondering this, because I am a great believer in Parkinson's Law Here is the first paragraph of the seminal article in The Economist in which the Law was explained and explored.:
It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.
Parkinson was talking about time, yet I started by talking about space; but there is surely an intimate relationship between the two. I used to think it was Einstein who pointed this out, but have since been told it was Minkowski before him, and Proust before him, and the Incas before him.

Be that as it may, my experience with space, as demonstrated by the example above, and with time as I seek to manage it in my own life and help others to do so in theirs, is remarkably similar in this respect.

But it can work the other way, whatever the corollary ('the reverse is not true') may assert.  So this week and next, I had most of the week set aside to work on completing the first draft of my long awaited book. Yet a series of domestic crises have interrupted that precious time: on Tuesday the macerator stopped working.  If you know what a macerator does, you will understand that it was a crisis that needed an urgent solution.  Then yesterday my email software stopped working: again a crisis that needed urgent attention (and no little time).

Yet somehow, I am on track. The first eight chapters have been duly re-worked and polished and are ready to send out to a few readers; and I am confident that the rest will be done by my deadline of next Friday.

I would like (I would really, really, like) to know quite why that is.  After years of slow progress, why am I suddenly able to move it forward so quickly?  Various theories may cast some light on this. One is that I have made a firm commitment to somebody to send him the completed first draft by next Friday.  Another is that I have spent sufficient time mulling over it and my subconscious is now ready to deliver. A third is that I have reinstated my early morning run on the fell, after a slight lapse in December, which both invigorates me and increases my belief in my own will power (see my last post). 

There is probably some truth in all of those. I know the value of recruiting an 'external conscience' to help hold us to our good intentions; and I also recognise that our brains need some processing time for important and complex tasks. As for will power, that is something I do pay heed to: I know how easily I can slip into an idle mode that allows time to slip by. (As Douglas Adams, author of the Hitch Hiker's Guide, remarked: I love deadlines: I love the whooshing noise they make as they fly past!)

So all of these may be contributory factors, but I think there is something else in the mix, and am not sure what it is.  Maybe once I have sent the draft of the book off, I'll have the time to reflect more on this...

Saturday 18 January 2014

Is Will Power Over-rated?

Driving between meetings on Tuesday (I think it was) I heard an episode of The Human Zoo.  It was discussing will power, and the thesis was that typically we overestimate the autonomy of our choices, and underestimate the influence of environmental factors.

I found this interesting, as a lot of my work is, effectively, about helping people make changes and choices.  

Michael Blastland set out to explore what the evidence is for will power.  Timandra Harkness (right) brought an electric shock machine (not the machine shown in the picture, I assume) into the studio to test Blastland's will power, and psychologist Nick Chater was on hand to offer his perspective. In fact, that demonstration was poorly explained and did not shed much light.

The following fruit/chocolate choice was more interesting.  The hypothesis is that we are more able to exercise will power when our mind is not too busy with other things: conversely when we are busy with many competing priorities, we are less able to exercise will power (or at least as they defined it: choosing the 'good' choice, an apple, over the 'tempting' choice, a chocolate).

This struck me as more interesting: I have observed that when people are under stress, their decision-making becomes less reflective and their accounts of reality become more simplistic: thin stories.  That led to an interesting question in my mind, which was not explored in the programme, about the difference between 'wilful' and 'strong willed.'

Chater also says that if you are exerting a lot of will power in one area of your life (eg a severe dieting regime) then other areas of your life tend to become slacker: as though there is only a certain amount of will-power to go around.  

That raised a further question for me, which was not addressed, about the longitudinal effect, rather than the simultaneous one.  Intuitively, I think that if one exercises will power in one area of one's life (say dieting) over a period of time, one is then better able (subsequently) to exercise it in another. But that was not explored. Certainly in my experience, people whose story about themselves is that they have no will power seem to find it hard to exercise will power: a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I would like to know if the evidence supports that (and the corollary) or not.

What Chater was arguing, quite strongly, was that there is no evidence that some people are endowed with more will power than others, and that the differences lie in the circumstances or conditions within which people are operating.  

Whilst I think that he neglected to consider (or at least to discuss) the power of habit (and in the deliberate cultivation of good habits which was the traditional way in which people strove to cultivate virtue), he did make the important point that harnessing the power of context in a positive way is a very effective strategy. That is, it is very valuable to create an environment that nudges you in the direction of the decisions you wish to take.

A couple of people from the Design Council were consulted on how to nudge people into good behaviour; and they cited an example of some work done in A&E departments to reduce aggressive behaviour towards nurses and other staff. This was principally done by putting into the environment (in which most people are likely to be very stressed) clear communications about what to expect, what the process is, and so on; so that the environment itself is perceived as less incomprehensible (and therefore less hostile).  This has been demonstrated to be far more effective than posters exhorting people: 'Don't hit the staff!'

That, of course, relates to the research suggesting that 'No Smoking' posters have the opposite effect to their intended one.

So a key skill becomes manipulating your environment to support the choices you want to make.  At the simplest level, this is obvious: if you want to control your food intake, it is more effective to make sure there are no biscuits and cakes in the cupboard, than to put a post-it on the cupboard saying 'Don't eat the biscuits!'

Some of the things my coaching clients do, which work for them, include turning off the email reminder system when they want to focus on an important piece of work, clearing their desk the night before and leaving the one critical document on it for their attention in the morning, having a picture related to their goals as a screen saver on their pc and so on. 

Incidentally, some of the other effective strategies include telling others of your goals, breaking them into small steps and imagining them in detail, keeping records of your progress, rewarding yourself, and practicing self-affirmation.  Again, all of these may require a degree of will power (and manipulation of the environment to support that) to execute: at least until they become habitual.

 But of course, these are all willed actions to support exercising will power: so I am not convinced the case against will power is as strong as it is made out to be.

Monday 13 January 2014

Learning from reality

One of the things I enjoyed about the Futures programme at Newcastle last week was the fact that the participants were asked to engage with serious current strategic issues facing the University, and come up with suggestions, which were taken seriously (and indeed valued) by the Faculty PVCs.

This, of course, is an excellent way of getting people to learn both about the specific strategic issues, but also to understand the nature of (some of) the work of the University Executive Board.

It was extremely interesting and challenging, and the Faculty PVCs were happy to share both sensitive data and their own thinking, which made for a very rich and stimulating session.

I'd love to tell you more about the content of the discussion, but as it was confidential and potentially sensitive, I can't do so.

That fact, too - sharing sensitive data and the trust implicit in that - is also very conducive to creating a good environment for learning.  Trusting people builds both trust and confidence, which makes honest discussion very much easier.

So an excellent day, and kudos to Profs Charles Harvey and Chris Day for their approach and contributions.

As a general point, it is very powerful to foster learning about leadership and management by getting people to engage with real issues and deal with them as the leadership team would have to; teaching them what we know is easier but possibly dated; getting them to help with what we don't know, what we are grappling with, is possibly riskier, but certainly very valuable.