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Consider the Spandrels

15 Jan

SpandrelFiguresLibrary of congress

People used to think that computers were going to make instructor-led training (ILT) obsolete, which of course they didn’t. People used to wear Bluetooth headsets, now they don’t. The problem is reductionism. We tend reduce the overall value of something by evaluating it according to a particular element. For example, just think of candles. Ask yourself, why do we still have candles? The light bulb has been around for a long time, so why do we still buy millions of candles each year? If we reduce the value of candles only to their “light-giving” properties, then we completely miss its other uses.

In evolutionary biology they call these unintended uses, “spandrels,” (a word they borrowed from architecture) which often evolve to become far more important than the original intended use. It’s the error that occurs when we make statements like, “Research shows that empathetic leaders generate up to 15% more revenue.” In essence, this reduces the value of empathy to a function of revenue. “You should be good because you’ll make more money.” Or, the example I gave the other day in our book club; imagine if a man said, “Women are valuable because they give birth to more men.” It’s absurd and yet I see it all the time in the learning context. Reductionism to learning, reductionism to measurement and data, reductionism to practical solutions, etc. However, if we simply stop and take a sober look around, we’ll realize that considering the spandrels actually makes us a lot more intelligent than almost everyone else out there. Training and development interventions are actually doing more than just improving learning. For example, we’ll know that….

  • ILTs aren’t going away because they serve MORE than just an individual learning function: 1) they provide an opportunity for people to get together and build trust and rapport, gain new information, and focus on the relationships so important to leadership; 2) it is easy for HR to demonstrate and measure that learning happened; 3) people are familiar with the modality from our schooling and therefore meta-learning is low (learning how to learn in this environment). Mobile learning (mlearning) isn’t going to replace desktop-based elearning because: 1) people actually have an increasing need for structure in our environment (self-discipline is weak); 2) form factors allow for more dynamic interactions on the desktop.
  • Beware gamification. “Just because something has a learning benefit doesn’t mean that people should do it to learn.” So, think about it this way…a Snickers bar has protein and vitamins. It has some nutritional value, but it would be a mistake to think that people eat Snickers bars, or should eat them, because they are nutritious. I think learning games face this same challenge. Just because people learn from playing games doesn’t mean that they play games to learn. We play games because they are intrinsically rewarding. We play games because play is fun. Play is an end to itself, but gamification is quick to reduce “play” to “performance” or “learning.” Now, you can start to engineer taste and nutrition and create some really good tasting protein bars, but again, you’ll need to balance the competing reasons why people eat protein bars versus why people eat a candy bar (they approach the purchase of these somewhat similar foods from completely different angles). Most of the conversations out there about learning games are doing this in the wrong way.
  • People stopped wearing Bluetooth headsets, not because they didn’t need a way to conduct hands-free phone calls, but because they make you look like a douche bag. This is the same reason why I didn’t by a Google Glass. In theory, they are really cool. In reality, you look like a dork…and therefore I would never actually wear it. If you judge a tool, a process, or a technology only upon its “logical usefulness” then you’ll have to explain why my mother buys scented candles. A “logical use” is often just a disguised reduction.


  • We can also find learning benefits where others haven’t. For example, most of the conversation about virtual leadership or virtual leadership development theory is largely about trying to maintain the learning while reducing costs (in the name of efficiency), without considering that virtual training and leading may actually have some ADVANTAGES over traditional approaches. Some non-learning things have learning benefits; some learning things have non-learning benefits. That means that we could offer a portfolio of services with some real knowledge of what each modality does well.

Without reducing one to the other, we can take a look at the learning benefits and the spandrels and ensure that we are addressing each in the most effective way possible. Without this understanding, we conflate things, reduce them, and often end up right back where we started. In the end, you can talk all day about the learning aspect of something, but in terms of the vibrant reality of an organizational social system, there are a lot of other important things going on in any given “training,”  “program,” or “intervention.”

If we consider those spandrels, then we can develop better products and services that leverage multiple values and multiple perspectives. E-Learning can do what e-learning does best (compliance, technical training, etc.). ILTs can be even more interactive and social among participants. Mobile can focus on access to secure databases rather than simply delivering elearning on a phone. Considering the spandrels ensures that we can help clients maximize their training. They can avoid pitfalls and maximize opportunities. Employees will be happy that we aren’t wasting their time. We don’t feel like we are doing the same old thing. Everyone wins.

To the Heroes that Never Were

22 Nov

For all of our intelligence we human beings are hugely unfair. Worse still, we actually think that we are fair. Which means that we are also hugely ignorant. When combined these two facts set us up for some horrible injustices. One of our most obvious acts of  injustices is how we glorify the firefighters who rush into an apartment building to put out a fire, but we don’t even mention the landlord who replaced the batteries in the smoke detector – a device that prevented a manageable fire from growing so large that it needed the fire department. In short, we glorify the person who intervenes , but not the person who prevents and the obvious reason we do this is because we are never aware of the things that never happen. Our cultural myths around leaders and heroes are oriented around the person who dramatically saves the day, not the person who simply and cleverly manages the antecedents to the problem.


This has two effects. First, we are encouraged to create problems to solve so that we can be the hero. After all, if there is no way for me to get credit for preventing something that never happened, then the social incentives are for me to let things go. Let things get bad so that I can put on my cape and mask and come to the rescue. It is a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we see the world according to the drama triangle (i.e. the hero, the villain, and the victim) the more evidence we find to support it. The impact of this simple and fundamental error in judgement on the overall effectiveness of an organization is profound. If your performance management system and your culture is geared only toward problem-solving and not problem-prevention (or polarity management), then you better believe that your people are unconsciously creating a lot of their own problems. After all, every hero needs a villain. This is a problem for all individual people, but when it comes to thinking about people working together in organizations, it suddenly becomes a much more pernicious and profound issue.

The second issue is that we completely miss the qualities in leaders that are ACTUALLY important. We are so distracted by the dramatic story-telling of the latest and greatest feat of Inc. Magazine’s CEO of the Year that we completely ignore the subtlety of true leadership. Given our fundamental human ignorance that orients us to reward intervention more than prevention, true leadership requires a strong internal compass that is not dependent upon the recognition of others. That is the only way to offset this blatantly unjust system. And this is more than just simply calling something “servant leadership” or “humility;” it gets down to how individuals experience the world. I’d like to suggest that, by definition, if you are striving to be recognized for your accomplishments then you are not just “a realist” or “a good salesperson;” you are also likely to be a bad leader. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider others or manage your brand or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is a matter of priority. Those things are important, but the MOST important factor is that a leader is driven clearly and consistently by his or her own values.

In the end, everyone knows that “…a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so why do we rarely reward acts of prevention? We don’t reward them because our minds are not set up to understand them. We simply cannot see something that did not happen and therefore, all of the subtle acts of preventative heroism go unnoticed. The philosopher+businessman Nassim Taleb describes the problem in his book The Black Swan

Who gets rewarded , the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)? (Prologue xxviii).

So today I’d like to publicly recognize (in my own small way) all of the heroes that never were. I can’t give you a medal or a bonus. I can’t put your name in the paper or on the cover of Inc. Magazine, but I can acknowledge that the world has been unfair to you. We have been ignorant and unjust. I can’t know exactly what the world would be like without your small acts of everyday leadership, but I can assume that I’d be worse off without them.


Do Wild New Shit

16 Oct


“Lewis and Clark were lost most of the time. If your idea of exploration is to always know where you are and to be inside your zone of competence, you don’t do wild new shit. You have to be confused, upset, think you’re stupid. If you’re not willing to do that, you can’t go outside the box.”     -Nathan Myhrvold

Take this advice from a man who wears a hat

22 Sep



Lower Your Standards

10 Mar


The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at four and write a poem. Somebody said to him, “But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” “Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.”

Mary Rose O’Reilley, Radical Presence.

“…No One Need Wait a Moment…”

8 Mar


“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!”
– The Diary of Anne Frank

Life Doesn’t Get a Montage (You Don’t Get to Skip the Boring Parts)

31 Jan
Already sees in 3D

This guy already sees in 3D

We all love movies. We learn about a hero. His challenges and his desires. He sets off on a path only to be met with failure. Again and again he fails. Resistance come from all sides. Finally and inevitably, he realizes that he must change himself. He turns the corner by letting go of who he thought he was. He must become someone new. His desire has changed. He no longer wants we he did at the beginning. He wants something deeper. More noble. In the end he rises up and achieves his new goal. He wins. And we are all uplifted.

This is the typical narrative progression. One that screen-writer Robert McKee  coaches and one in which Stanford University has dedicated significant resources to teach (i.e. The Stanford Storytelling Project). This structure has stood the test of time because it so accurately represents the human development process that we experience ourselves. The theater needn’t be filled with cognitive-developmental psychologists for it to appreciate how natural and beautifully dynamic this process is. We’ve all had our own moments. Ambitions thwarted. Insights gained. New life received. We’ve all tasted it (on some level). And we keep buying tickets for more.

However, the way  the hero stories are told in the movies is not a perfect one-to-one translation. Within only 120-minutes at their disposal, screen writers and directors must make hard decisions about what to include and how to show it. This is where we have a problem. Far from being light-hearted entertainment, movies have come to define how we learn and think about ourselves and our world. Students learn more about  Greek mythology from watching Harry Potter than from reading Edith Hamilton (She was required reading in school for decades, so if you don’t get that reference, then you prove my point). The narrative structure as presented in movies is the gestalt of our times. It informs how we make sense of our lives. How we think about our relationships. How we think about our own stories. And I think there is one movie convention that sends all the wrong messages – the montage.

As you know, the montage is a series of short clips meant to speed up time/space for the audience. It allows a writer to show lots of action in a short amount of time. This is great for popcorn sales. However, the montage subtly misrepresents how change actually happens. One that, without some attention, may suggest that achieving your dreams is going to be easy. It isn’t an overt promise, but a slight suggestion. The hero’s brutal 6-month recovery.  The community comes together to save the hospital. The painter locks herself away in her studio. All of them only last about 60 seconds. Here’s how the movie Team America handled this phenomena (in case you weren’t already thinking about this):

Obviously, in real life these things take time and courage, but more than that they take resolve and persistence. The problem with the montage is that it skips over the most important part of achieving our goals. The work. The boring and gritty work that it takes to get from point A to B. The montage suggests, by the real estate afforded it, that hard work isn’t really all that  important. By sheer ratio alone, the main characters moment of transformation (the moment the entire narrative is based upon) is usually only a few seconds. The entire movie has built up to this transformation, which it then quickly glances over. Some action happens and then we are then hurriedly ushered into the movies closing scenes. The white wedding. The reluctant apology. The blood-stained trophy raised to a cheering crowd.

The point is that we’re usually pretty good at accepting things that are easy. We’re also pretty good at accepting things that are hard. But we usually really suck at accepting things that are boring. The parts where the hero toils in silence. Working day after day. Grinding out the work that she so desperately needs to finish. She cooks the family dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Day after day. She cooks dinner then she studies. She cooks dinner then she studies. Night after night. Slowing working on her degree. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. But she puts one foot in front of the other and carries on. She is too focused. She cooks dinner then she studies. It would be a horrible movie.

* clang…..clang…..clang…..

The reason is because real work is boring. It is repetitive and bland. Sure there are moments when you might let a smile slip out (or a tear), but real work…the kind that the movies dramatize in the montage…is deep work. It is about becoming more than you were. About becoming someone new and that isn’t going to be obvious to other people. You can’t point to it. It is deeper than your emotions. It isn’t always going to be showy or fun or glamorous. When you’re on the path you’re on it alone. Personal transformation cannot be outsourced. No one can do it for you.

And yet we’ve become conditioned to “achieve” that if we’re told that something is “difficult” or “hard” then we immediately pound our chest and roar, “Bring it on motherfucker!!” But this is a conditioned response. We’ve watched too many movies. Our culture programs us to turn hardship into meaning. Difficultly into challenge. “Me against the World” should probably be on the dollar bill. But this is only one side of the coin. Many people can handle HARD, CHALLENGE, FEAR, COURAGE, ROAR!!!, but far fewer can handle BORING, COLD, GRITTY, GRIMY, MEH. We haven’t learned how to handle boring. It doesn’t come through the front door. It doesn’t announce itself. It isn’t dramatic. It sleeps and waits. The action movie hero doesn’t even want to face it. He gets a montage.

I think Julius Erving might have said it best, “Being a professional is doing the things you love on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” So, it’s important that you’re doing what you love. To me, that is a prerequisite. But finding your passion isn’t enough.  If you really want to understand what it takes to succeed (however you might define that for yourself), then remember that you shouldn’t become too enamored with your own story. Your life isn’t a movie and you don’t get a montage. You don’t get to skip the boring parts. The truth is, our lives are infinitely more mundane and messy than the movies we watch (another reason why I suspect we enjoy watching them). And while that escapism isn’t inherently problematic, it does run the risk of making us feel guilty when our paths don’t match those of our heroes. Stories are make believe. In order to make sense they have to edited and embellished. Our lives are not so neatly structured.

Finally, it only seems appropriate that I end this post by contradicting everything I just said. For all the weaknesses of movies, blog articles by no-name writers are far worse. So, I understand that the montage isn’t an overt statement about how human beings change. They are just a convention of a particular story-telling medium. And more than that, as unrealistic as they are, they are great for getting a little energy boost. So, for all of my pedantic belly-aching over the montage, I love them as much as anyone. Below is one of my personal favorites, which comes to us from Rocky IV (the training sequences of Rocky and Ivan Drago). Watch it, but when you do, focus on the images of Rocky running through the snow. Ignore the music for a moment and imagine that he is doing this for 2 hours everyday… for 6 months. Imagine how difficult and boring that must be. Running. Imagine that he does it first thing in the morning. Running. Even when he is tired. Running. When his angle hurts. Running. When he’d rather be lifting weights. Running. Even when there is no music. Even when there are no cameras. Running.