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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Two ways of knowing

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I usually don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers but that day, for some reason, I did.

“It’s Raj,” he said, “from your decision-making class.”

As we exchanged pleasantries, I wondered what he was calling about.

“I’m sorry to call out of the blue, but I wanted to tell you about something that happened at work. It relates to what you talked about in last week’s class – using sensemaking techniques to help surface and resolve diverse perspectives on wicked problems.”

[Note: wicked problems are problems that are difficult to solve because stakeholders disagree on what the problem is. A good example of contemporary importance is climate change]

Naturally, I asked Raj to tell me more.

It turned out that he worked for a large IT consulting firm where his main role was to design customised solutions for businesses.  The incident he related had occurred at a pre-sales meeting with a potential customer. During the meeting it had become clear that the different stakeholders from the customer side had differing views on what they wanted from the consulting firm. 

On the spur of the moment, Raj decided to jump in and help them find common ground.

To do so, he adapted a technique I had discussed at length in class – and I’ll say more about the technique later. It worked a treat – he helped stakeholders resolve their differences and thereby reframe their problem in a more productive way. Ironically, this led to the customer realising that they did not need the solution Raj’s company was selling. However, a senior manager on the customer’s side was so impressed with Raj’s problem framing and facilitation skills that he was keen to continue the dialogue with Raj’s company.

“We think we know our customers through the data we have about them,” said Raj, “but understanding them is something else altogether.”

–x–

In his book, Ways of Attending, Iain McGilchrist draws attention to the asymmetry in the human brain and its consequences for the ways in which we understand the world. His main claim is that the two hemispheres of the brain perceive reality very differently: the left hemisphere sees objects and events through the lens of theories, models and abstractions whereas the right sees them as embedded in and thus related to a larger world.  As he puts it:

The left hemisphere tends to see things more in the abstract, the right hemisphere sees them more embedded in the real-world context in which they occur. As a corollary, the right hemisphere seems better able to appreciate actually existing things in all their uniqueness, while the left hemisphere schematises and generalises things into categories.”

McGilchrist emphasises that both hemispheres are involved in reasoning and emotion, but in very different ways. 

In the left hemisphere, we “experience” our experience in a special way: a “re-presented” version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. In the other, that of the right hemisphere, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, always unique, beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected.”

It struck me that Raj’s epiphany was deeply connected with McGilchrist’s distinction between the ways in which the two hemispheres of our brains attend to the world.

–x–

The data we collect on our customers (or anything else for that matter) focuses on facts, attributes that are easy to classify or measure.  However, such data has its limitations. As McGilchrist notes in his magnum opus, The Master and His Emissary:

…there is [a] kind of knowledge that comes from putting things together from bits. It is a knowledge of what we call facts. This is not usually well-applied to knowing people. We could have a go – for example, ‘born on 16 September 1964’, ‘lives in New York’, ‘5ft 4inches tall’, ‘red hair’ …, and so on. Immediately you get a sense of somebody who you don’t actually know….What’s more, it sounds as though you’re describing an inanimate object…

Facts by themselves do not lead to understanding.

–x–

Understanding something requires one to connect the dots between facts, to build a mental model of what is going on. This is a creative act that requires a blend of imaginative and logical thinking.

Since mental models we build are necessarily influenced our beliefs and past experiences, it is unreasonable to expect any two individuals will understand a given situation in exactly the same way. Understanding is a mental process, not a thing, and knowledge (as in knowing something) is an ever-evolving byproduct of the process. Education is not about conveying knowledge, rather it is about helping students expand and refine their individual processes of understanding.

As Heinz von Foerster put it:

No wonder that an educational system that confuses the process of creating new processes with the dispensing of goods called ‘knowledge’ may cause some disappointment in the hypothetical receivers, for the goods are just not forthcoming: there are no goods.

Historically, I believe, the confusion by which knowledge is taken as substance comes from a witty broadsheet printed in Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century. It shows a seated student with a hole on top of his head into which a funnel is inserted. Next to him stands the teacher who pours into this funnel a bucket full of “knowledge,” that is, letters of the alphabet, numbers and simple equations.”

The entire business of education is predicated on the assumption that knowledge is transferable and is assimilated by different individuals in exactly the same way. But this cannot be so. As von Foerster so eloquently noted, “the processes [of assimilating knowledge] cannot be passed on… for your nervous activity is just your nervous activity and, alas, not mine

Since assimilating knowledge (understanding, by another name) is a highly individual activity, it should not be surprising that individuals perceive and understand situations in very different ways. This is precisely the problem that Raj ran into: two stakeholders on the client’s side had different understandings of the problem.

Raj adapted a sensemaking technique called dialogue mapping to help the two stakeholders arrive at a shared understanding of the problem. The technique itself is not as important as the rationale behind it. And that is best conveyed through another story.

—x–

Many years ago, when I worked as a data architect at a large multinational, I was invited to participate in a regional project aimed at building a data warehouse for subsidiaries across Asia. The initiative was driven by the corporate IT office located in Europe. Corporate’s interest in sponsoring this was to harmonize a data landscape that was – to put it mildly – messy. On the other hand, the subsidiaries thought their local systems were just fine. They were suspicious of corporate motives which they saw as a power play that would result in loss of autonomy over data and reporting.

The two parties had diametrically opposite understandings of the problem.

Around that time, I stumbled on the notion of a wicked problem and was researching ways to manage such problems in work contexts. It was clear that the solution lay in getting the two parties on the same page. The question was how.

The trick is to find a way to surface and reconcile diverse viewpoints in a way that takes the heat out of the discussion.  One therefore needs a means to make multiple perspectives explicit in a manner that separates opinions from individuals and thus enables a group to develop a shared understanding of contentious issues. There is a visual notation called Issue Based Information System or IBIS that can help facilitators do this.  Among other things, IBIS enables one to capture the informal logic of a conversation using a visual notation that has just four node types (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: IBIS node types

In brief: questions (also called issues) capture the problem being discussed; ideas are responses offered to questions; pros and cons are arguments for and against ideas. The claim is that the informal logic of conversations can be captured using just these four node types.

After playing around a bit with the notation, I was convinced it would be of great value in the discussion about the corporate data warehouse.  A day prior to the meeting, I met the project lead to canvass the possibility of using IBIS to map the discussion. After seeing a brief demo, he was quite taken by the idea and was happy to have me use it, providing the other participants had no objections.

The discussion took place over the course of a day, with participants drawn from three groups of stakeholders: corporate IT, local IT and business reps from the subsidiaries.

Mapping the conversation using IBIS enabled the group to:

  1. Agree on the root (key) question – what approach should we take?
  2. Surface different ideas (options) in response to the question.
  3. Capture arguments for and against ideas.

As the conversation progressed, I noticed that IBIS took the heat out of the discussion by objectifying discussion points. It did this by separating opinions from their holders.   This made it possible for participants to understand (if not quite accept) the rationale behind opposing perspectives. This led them to a more nuanced appreciation of the problem and the proposed solutions.

As the morning wore on, the group gradually converged to a shared understanding of the problem.

By the end of the discussion, it was clear to everyone in the meeting that a subsidiary-focused design that enabled a consistent roll up of data for corporate would be the best option. 

Those interested in the details of what I did and how I did it may want to have a look at this paper. However, I should emphasise that the technique is not the point. What happened is that the parties involved changed their minds even though the facts of the matter remained unchanged, and the point is to create the conditions for that to happen.

–x–

The event occurred over a decade ago but has gained significance for me over the years. As we drown in an ever increasing deluge of facts, we are fast losing the capacity to understand. The most pressing problems of today will not be solved by knowing facts, they will be solved by knowing of the other kind.

–x–x–

3 or 7, truth or trust

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“It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Over the last few years I’ve been teaching and refining a series of lecture-workshops on Decision Making Under Uncertainty. Audiences include data scientists and mid-level managers working in corporates and public service agencies. The course is based on the distinction between uncertainties in which the variables are known and can be quantified versus those in which the variables are not known upfront and/or are hard to quantify.

Before going any further, it is worth explaining the distinction via a couple of examples:

An example of the first type of uncertainty is project estimation. A project has an associated time and cost, and although we don’t know what their values are upfront, we can estimate them if we have the right data.  The point to note is this: because such problems can be quantified, the human brain tends to deal with them in a logical manner.

In contrast, business strategy is an example of the second kind of uncertainty. Here we do not know what the key variables are upfront. Indeed we cannot, because different stakeholders will perceive different aspects of a strategy to be paramount depending on their interests – consider, for example, the perspective of a CFO versus that of a CMO. Because of these differences, one cannot make progress on such problems until agreement has been reached on what is important to the group as a whole.  The point to note here is that since such problems involve contentious issues, our reactions to them  tend to be emotional rather than logical.

The difference between the two types of uncertainty is best conveyed experientially, so I have a few in-class activities aimed at doing just that. One of them is an exercise I call “3 or 7“, in which I give students a sheet with the following printed on it:

Circle either the number 3 or 7 below depending on whether you want 3 marks or 7 marks added to your Assignment 2 final mark. Yes, this offer is for real, but there a catch: if more than 10% of the class select 7, no one gets anything.

Write your student ID on the paper so that Kailash can award you the marks. Needless to say, your choice will remain confidential, no one (but Kailash) will know what you have selected.

3              7

Prior to handing out the sheet, I tell them that they:

  • should sit far enough apart so that they can’t see what their neighbours choose,
  • are not allowed to communicate their choices to others until the entire class has turned their sheets.

Before reading any further you may want to think about what typically happens.

–x–

Many readers would have recognized this exercise as a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and, indeed, many students in my classes recognize this too.   Even so, there are always enough of “win at the cost of others” types in the room who ensure that I don’t have to award any extra marks. I’ve run the exercise about 10 times, often with groups comprised of highly collaborative individuals who work well together. Despite that,15-20% of the class ends up opting for 7.

It never fails to surprise me that, even in relatively close-knit groups, there are invariably a number of individuals who, if given a chance to gain at the expense of their colleagues, will not hesitate to do so providing their anonymity is ensured.

–x–

Conventional management thinking deems that any organisational activity involving several people has to be closely supervised. Underlying this view is the assumption that individuals involved in the activity will, if left unsupervised, make decisions based on self-interest rather than the common good (as happens in the prisoner’s dilemma game). This assumption finds justification in rational choice theory, which predicts that individuals will act in ways that maximise their personal benefit without any regard to the common good. This view is exemplified in 3 or 7 and, at a societal level, in the so-called Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals who have access to a common resource over-exploit it,  thus depleting the resource entirely.

Fortunately, such a scenario need not come to pass: the work of Elinor Ostrom, one of the 2009 Nobel prize winners for Economics, shows that, given the right conditions, groups can work towards the common good even if it means forgoing personal gains.

Classical economics assumes that individuals’ actions are driven by rational self-interest – i.e. the well-known “what’s in it for me” factor. Clearly, the group will achieve much better results as a whole if it were to exploit the resource in a cooperative way. There are several real-world examples where such cooperative behaviour has been successful in achieving outcomes for the common good (this paper touches on some). However, according to classical economic theory, such cooperative behaviour is simply not possible.

So the question is: what’s wrong with rational choice theory?  A couple of things, at least:

Firstly, implicit in rational choice theory is the assumption that individuals can figure out the best choice in any given situation.  This is obviously incorrect. As Ostrom has stated in one of her papers:

Because individuals are boundedly rational, they do not calculate a complete set of strategies for every situation they face. Few situations in life generate information about all potential actions that one can take, all outcomes that can be obtained, and all strategies that others can take.

Instead, they use heuristics (experienced-based methods), norms (value-based techniques) and rules (mutually agreed regulations) to arrive at “good enough” decisions.  Note that Ostrom makes a distinction between norms and rules, the former being implicit (unstated) rules, which are determined by the cultural attitudes and values)

Secondly, rational choice theory assumes that humans behave as self-centred, short-term maximisers. Such theories work in competitive situations such as the stock-market but not in situations in which collective action is called for, such as the prisoners dilemma.

Ostrom’s work essentially addresses the limitations of rational choice theory by outlining how individuals can work together to overcome self-interest.

–x–

In a paper entitled, A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action, published in 1998, Ostrom states that:

…much of our current public policy analysis is based on an assumption that rational individuals are helplessly trapped in social dilemmas from which they cannot extract themselves without inducement or sanctions applied from the outside. Many policies based on this assumption have been subject to major failure and have exacerbated the very problems they were intended to ameliorate. Policies based on the assumptions that individuals can learn how to devise well-tailored rules and cooperate conditionally when they participate in the design of institutions affecting them are more successful in the field…[Note:  see this book by Baland and Platteau, for example]

Since rational choice theory aims to maximise individual gain,  it does not work in situations that demand collective action – and Ostrom presents some very general evidence to back this claim.  More interesting than the refutation of rational choice theory, though, is Ostrom’s discussion of the ways in which individuals “trapped” in social dilemmas end up making the right choices. In particular she singles out two empirically grounded ways in which individuals work towards outcomes that are much better than those offered by rational choice theory. These are:

Communication: In the rational view, communication makes no difference to the outcome.  That is, even if individuals make promises and commitments to each other (through communication), they will invariably break these for the sake of personal gain …or so the theory goes. In real life, however, it has been found that opportunities for communication significantly raise the cooperation rate in collective efforts (see this paper abstract or this one, for example). Moreover, research shows that face-to-face is far superior to any other form of communication, and that the main benefit achieved through communication is exchanging mutual commitment (“I promise to do this if you’ll promise to do that”) and increasing trust between individuals. It is interesting that the main role of communication is to enhance or reinforce the relationship between individuals rather than to transfer information.  This is in line with the interactional theory of communication.

Innovative Governance:  Communication by itself may not be enough; there must be consequences for those who break promises and commitments. Accordingly, cooperation can be encouraged by implementing mutually accepted rules for individual conduct, and imposing sanctions on those who violate them. This effectively amounts to designing and implementing novel governance structures for the activity. Note that this must be done by the group; rules thrust upon the group by an external authority are unlikely to work.

Of course, these factors do not come into play in artificially constrained and time-bound scenarios like 3 or 7.  In such situations, there is no opportunity or time to communicate or set up governance structures. What is clear, even from the simple 3 or 7 exercise,  is that these are required even for groups that appear to be close-knit.

Ostrom also identifies three core relationships that promote cooperation. These are:

Reciprocity: this refers to a family of strategies that are based on the expectation that people will respond to each other in kind – i.e. that they will do unto others as others do unto them.  In group situations, reciprocity can be a very effective means to promote and sustain cooperative behaviour.

Reputation: This refers to the general view of others towards a person. As such, reputation is a part of how others perceive a person, so it forms a part of the identity of the person in question. In situations demanding collective action, people might make judgements on a person’s reliability and trustworthiness based on his or her reputation.’

Trust: Trust refers to expectations regarding others’ responses in situations where one has to act before others. And if you think about it, everything else in Ostrom’s framework is ultimately aimed at engendering or – if that doesn’t work – enforcing trust.

–x—

In an article on ethics and second-order cybernetics, Heinz von Foerster tells the following story:

I have a dear friend who grew up in Marrakech. The house of his family stood on the street that divide the Jewish and the Arabic quarter. As a boy he played with all the others, listened to what they thought and said, and learned of their fundamentally different views. When I asked him once, “Who was right?” he said, “They are both right.”

“But this cannot be,” I argued from an Aristotelian platform, “Only one of them can have the truth!”

“The problem is not truth,” he answered, “The problem is trust.”

For me, that last line summarises the lesson implicit in the admittedly artificial scenario of 3 or 7. In our search for facts and decision-making frameworks we forget the simple truth that in many real-life dilemmas they matter less than we think. Facts and  frameworks cannot help us decide on ambiguous matters in which the outcome depends on what other people do.  In such cases the problem is not truth; the problem is trust.  From your own experience it should be evident it is impossible convince others of your trustworthiness by assertion, the only way to do so is by behaving in a trustworthy way. That is, by behaving ethically rather than talking about it, a point that is squarely missed by so-called business ethics classes.

Yes,  it is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.

Notes:

  1. Portions of this article are lightly edited sections from a 2009 article that I wrote on Ostrom’s work and its relevance to project management.
  2.  Finally, an unrelated but important matter for which I seek your support for a common good: I’m taking on the 7 Bridges Walk to help those affected by cancer. Please donate via my 7 Bridges fundraising page if you can . Every dollar counts; all funds raised will help Cancer Council work towards the vision of a cancer free future.

Written by K

September 18, 2019 at 8:28 pm

The “value add” tax – a riff on corporate communication

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A mainstay of team building workshops is the old “what can we do better” exercise.  Over the years I’ve noticed that “improving communication” is an item that comes up again and again in these events.  This is frustrating for managers. For example, during a team-building debrief some years ago, an exasperated executive remarked, “Oh don’t pay any attention to that [better communication], it keeps coming up no matter what we do.”

The executive had a point.  The organisation had invested much effort in establishing new channels of communication – social media, online, face-to-face forums etc.  The uptake, however, was disappointing:  turnout at the face-to-face meetings was consistently low as was use of other channels.

As far as management was concerned, they had done their job by establishing communication channels and making them available to all. What more could they  be expected to do? The matter was dismissed with a collective shrug of suit-clad shoulders…until the next team building event, when the issue was highlighted by employees yet again.

After much hand-wringing, the organisation embarked on another “better communication cycle.”  Much effort was expended…again, with the same disappointing results.

Anecdotal evidence via conversations with friends and collaborators suggests that variants of this story play out in many organisations. This makes the issue well worth exploring. I won’t be so presumptuous as to offer answers; I’m well aware that folks much better qualified than I have spent years attempting to do so. Instead I raise a point which, though often overlooked, might well have something to do with the lack of genuine communication in organisations.

Communication experts have long agreed that face-to-face dialogue is the most effective mode of communication. Backing for this comes from the interactional or pragmatic view, which is based on the premise that communication is more about building relationships than conveying information. Among other things, face-to-face communication enables the communicating parties to observe and interpret non-verbal signals such as facial expression and gestures and, as we all know, these often “say” much more than what’s being said.

A few months ago I started paying closer attention to non-verbal cues. This can be hard to do because people are good at disguising their feelings. Involuntary expressions indicative of people’s real thoughts can be fleeting. A flicker of worry, fear or anger is quickly covered by a mask of indifference.

In meetings, difficult topics tend to be couched in platitudinous language. Platitudes are empty words that sound great but can be interpreted in many different ways. Reconciling those differences often leads to pointless arguments that are emotionally draining. Perhaps this is why people prefer to take refuge in indifference.

A while ago I was sitting in a meeting where the phrase “value add activity” (sic) cropped up once, then again…and then many times over. Soon it was apparent that everyone in the room had a very different conception of what constituted a “value add activity.” Some argued that project management is a value add activity, others disagreed vehemently arguing that project management is a bureaucratic exercise and that real value lies in creating something. Round and round the arguments went but there was no agreement on what constituted a “value add activity.” The discussion generated a lot of heat but shed no light whatsoever on the term.

A problem with communication in the corporate world is that it is loaded with such platitudes. To make sense of these, people have to pay what I call a “value add” tax – the effort in reaching a consensus on what the platitudinous terms mean. This can be emotionally extortionate because platitudes often touch upon issues that affect people’s sense of well-being.

Indifference is easier because we can then pretend to understand and agree with each other when we would rather not understand, let alone agree, at all.

Written by K

November 19, 2015 at 8:02 am

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