An indicator of group fear in organisations

Over the years I’ve shown a clever little animation in our workshops to illustrate our propensity to tell ourselves stories when things are ambiguous and unclear. It’s how we make sense of the world. But in running this video, perhaps hundreds of times, I think I’ve discovered another interesting use for it. It seems to give an indication of group fear. In other words, I reckon it reveals whether a group is well connected and feeling secure where members can take risks or the other end of the spectrum where there is fear, uncertainly and distrust.

Let me give you a little background on how I use the video and show you how the indicator works.

The video is about 90 seconds long. Just watch it and at the end describe what you saw happening. There are no wrong answers so whatever pops to mind.

So, what do you think the video was showing?

Just take a moment and jot down what you think was happening.

OK, most people ascribe human emotions and actions to the shapes. They say things like, “the big triangle was bullying the little triangle and the circle but the little triangle saved the circle.” Or they will ascribe roles to the shapes saying things like “the father didn’t like the boyfriend but despite being pushed away the boyfriend still went out with the girl and the father was angry.”

We like to tell ourselves a story to explain what’s happening rather than merely say they are geometric shapes moving on a two-dimensional plane. And because we tell ourselves a story we feel emotions as the story unfolds. And depending on our surroundings, we will verbalise these emotions.

So here is what I’ve noticed from showing this video to groups of people in organisations across the globe.
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An example of business oral storytelling

Posted by Shawn Callahan - December 10, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Collaboration, Knowledge

Here at Anecdote we focus on oral storytelling. Our network of partners around the world help leaders find and tell business stories to influence, engage and even inspire.

The thing is, there are very few examples of business oral storytelling on the net so we’ve started a little project to tell the stories that are catalogued in our Story Finder collection. In case you haven’t seen it, Story Finder are all the stories we’ve written in our blog that we think a business person might find useful to tell categorised by leadership topics like innovation, resilience and incentives.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a great storyteller but what I’ve learnt is that you only get the benefits of storytelling when you are telling a story. So here is our first example. Please let me know what you think.

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Are your leaders foxes or hedgehogs?

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 17, 2013
Filed in Collaboration, Expertise location, Leadership

The media and business worlds love experts with strong opinions and the ability to explain them confidently and authoritatively. We hear them on TV and read them in newspapers and online every day. Yet a 20-year study shows that these are the very people who are least likely to be accurate in predicting what will happen in the future.

In 1984, Philip Tetlock commenced a study to examine the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs tend to interpret the world using their favourite theory or dogma and are very confident in the ‘rightness’ of their view of the world.[Tschoegl et. al. 2007]

Tetlock, a psychologist, is Professor of Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research found that, in the main, experts were no more accurate in their predictions than ‘a monkey throwing darts’. But he clearly showed that foxes produce much more accurate forecasts than hedgehogs. He also found that when faced with their erroneous forecasts, foxes tended to acknowledge their error and adjust their thinking. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rationalise their errors away on the basis that they were ‘nearly right’ or ‘unpredictable events interfered in the outcome’ or by pointing to the few occasions when they had got it right.

The implications of this research are many, but one that that reinforces my own experience is to be wary of highly confident people proclaiming a view and running down those with alternative perspectives.

It’s my view that Tetlock’s findings are also relevant in our organisations. We love to treated complex (wicked) problems as if they are technical problems that can be predicted and solved. The experts who stridently proclaim their opinions as being facts are often wrong. The people who stride the corridors and make the most noise are not necessarily the stars. The leaders who are most confident they are excellent at leading people are often the worst leaders.

In media and in organisations, the hedgehogs get the airtime. But the foxes are the ones to listen to.

  1. Tetlock, P. (2005): Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? How Can We Know?, Princeton University Press.
  2. Gardner, D. (2011): Future babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You can do better, Dutton, London.
  3. Tschoegl, A.E and Armstrong, S., Review of Philip E. Tetlock: (2007): “Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?” in International Journal of Forecasting, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2007, pages 339-342

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Genes, themes and memes—quickly forming relationships so people speak up

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 11, 2012
Filed in Collaboration

Two stories came together recently that gave me an insight about the importance of forming quick but stronger relationships so people can speak up.

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals (ASAP) community. This community  is coordinated by Phillip Sack and Chris Elliot. Chris is a striking fella who I reckon must be at least 6’8″. A seasoned practitioner, Chris often helps alliance partners (typically people from construction and engineering firms coming together to build a road, railway or some other large bit of infrastructure) bond and form as a team. He told me that one of the first things he does with a new alliance is get all the blokes seated in a circle and do an activity he calls Genes, Themes and Memes. He asks them to share something that’s happened in their life that’s really shaped them (genes), tell something that’s a repeating theme in their life (theme) and recount a story they often tell (meme). The session can take two to three hours but at the end everyone has an insight in what makes the others tick and from that point on they are less likely to slag off at each other. They know each other as people not just roles and companies.

Then a week later I was talking to David Green, a remarkable leadership consultant, and he was telling me about one of his clients who were trying to get to the bottom of a failure that occurred on site. This engineering firm is contracted to maintain a railway line and they were called out to fix a problem with the line. It was a delicate job and if they caused the line to be closed they would be penalised $10,000 per hour it was out of action. To do the job they needed to gently lift a set of cables adjacent to the line so they decided to do it by hand. After the job was complete they had to carefully lower the cables back into place at which point one of the workers said, “I’ll just use the forklift” and jumped into the machine, wheeled it around, placed the forks under the cables and then lifted them up not down and they snapped. No one said a thing.

When the supervisor arrived and asked people what happened everyone agreed they thought it was the wrong idea to use the forklift and they all could see what was happening yet no one said a thing. When the supervisor asked why no one spoke up the bystanders said they didn’t really know they guy, we was new to the shift and he seem to kind of grumpy.

I wonder whether in these high risk environments if a cut down version of genes, themes and memes could be done so everyone knew each other as a person rather than just a name and a face. Perhaps then people would be more likely to speak up, especially when they thought something dangerous was about to happen.

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What is collaboration?

Posted by Mark Schenk - July 7, 2011
Filed in Collaboration

This question pops up regularly. Shawn blogged about the differences between collaboration and cooperation here and here. The Economist Intelligence Unit provide a paper here describing the difference between collaboration, coordination and cooperation, using trust as one of the key differentiators.

Yesterday, I came across this excellent short video from Phil Culhane of the Collaboration Lab in Ottawa. It describes the difference between communication, consultation and collaboration. In this construct, the main differentiator is accountability. In essence, collaboration will only occur where both (all) parties are accountable for what happens.


Collaboration on the Moon

Posted by Mark Schenk - November 13, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

image0088Last week I was in Yeppoon in Queensland delivering a keynote and workshop on collaboration at an innovation in government forum. In the workshop I used an activity mentioned by Bob Sutton in his new book ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss‘. Bob is also the author of ‘The No Asshole Rule’ that we have blogged about a few times.

The activity used an age-old prioritisation game called Survival on the Moon (you can find the instructions here). Groups are asked to prioritise fifteen items to survive after a crash-landing on the moon. Everyone does it individually, then they do it as groups (hopefully getting a better result). The interesting twist in Sutton’s book is organising the groups with a hierarchical spread (executives through to junior staff) and then giving the most junior person the answers in advance. They are asked to argue strongly for what they know to be the right answers without revealing they have the correct answers. The scoring system is based on the variance of group priorities from the NASA-provided ones.

In my workshop there were nine tables with about six people at each one. Five tables had one of the junior people with the correct answers. The results were very interesting.

  • Groups with answers at their table scored an average of 31 (NASA rates this score as ‘good’)
  • Groups without answers scored an average of 36 (NASA rates this as ‘average’)
  • The best score was 21 which NASA rates as excellent. This group observed that the reason they did so well was because there were no men in their group
  • Two groups scored 26 – one group had the answers and one of them didn’t
  • Two of the groups with the answers scored relatively badly. In both groups, the person with the answers observed that “no-one listened to me” or “I couldn’t get a word in”.
  • Several groups commented that people who were more senior, and people with higher educational qualifications, tended to dominate. This is consistent with Sutton’s observation on page 131 of Good Boss, Bad Boss’ that some bosses ‘wield excessive influence…even when they spew out nonsense…and insisting they are right even when they are dead wrong’.

So, none of the tables that had the answers got anywhere a perfect score, though they scored, on average, better than groups without the answers.

One thing this highlights for me is the need to do some more reading on the effect of gender on collaboration. I will definitely do this exercise again. Next time I will record the individuals scores as well as the group ones.


Community of Practice – Green Ninjas

Posted by Mark Schenk - June 24, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration, Communities of practice

I had a great day on Tuesday exploring a Community of Practice that has formed within a NSW local government council. This group call themselves the green champions and 40 representatives across the council participate to make sustainability an integral part of every staff member’s daily activities. The aim is to ‘show by doing’.

Some of the reasons it works: the CEO and elected leader openly advocate the group and provide legitimacy for its activities. This encourages managers to support the involvement of their staff. There is a small core group that work to tap into and unleash the Green Champions’ passion for sustainability. Members of the group spoke about how the Green Champions allows them to make a difference, how they learn about sustainability and can take that home and into their personal lives (such as the school sustainability committee). Some of them have the opportunity to apply their formal qualifications in water, waste, energy management etc. Members described some of the key success factors as the informal nature of the group, how it can avoid some of the internal red tape to get things done, their opportunity to contribute ideas and see them actioned and how every area of the business is represented. The group like it that they are a little edgy and can push the boundaries to get things done.

An example of how the group makes a difference:

earlier this year the group conducted a ‘Switch-off Blitz’. After hours, the group assembled and went through every floor and checked every workstation to check computers, and monitors, were switched off. Everyone who had done the right thing were rewarded with a note from the “green ninja” saying well done and a block of fair trade chocolate. Those who have not switched off their computers properly received a note saying, “no chocolate for you, the green ninja is not happy”. The energy monitoring system recorded a significant drop in energy consumption following the switch off blitz which has been maintained. It’s a great example of how the informal system can make a difference. It was inspiring to see this group in action.


Company Command

What if a single warrior could have the knowledge of thousands?

In the late 1990s, Nate Allen and Tony Burgess (both US Army Captains) sat on their back porches in Hawaii and swapped stories about their experiences as company commanders and pondered the question above. They had a vision about connecting all company commanders in this form of conversation. They were joined by a few others who shared this vision and in 2000 was launched. Five years later, they were two of the authors of the book Company Command: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession. If you are interested in Communities of Practice this is an important book to read.

CompanyCommand was the forerunner. There are now over 50 similar forums, 2,900 new members per month and 75,000 unique visitors per month. There are a bunch more facts here.

Two weeks ago I gave an after dinner speech to the Australian Army Knowledge Management conference. Just before the speech I was introduced to the guy that has responsibility for running the Battle Command Knowledge System, which hosts CompanyCommand along with fifty other forums, Colonel Charles (Chuck) Burnett. I was a bit taken aback as I had a copy of CompanyCommand in my hand and was intending to use it as an example during the talk.

I was fortunate to spend some time talking with Colonel Burnett the next morning and he was very generous with his time. I was particularly interested to hear that one of his greatest challenges is continually justifying the value of the forums like CompanyCommand to his chain of command. Not that having to justify the value of a community of practice is a new thing; its just that having to justify the value of one of the most visible CoP success stories in the world seemed remarkable.

To tackle this, he conducted a survey last year to collect examples of how the communities of practice were making a difference. There were 2500 responses; problems overcome, mistakes avoided, money saved … lives saved. The collected stories are now a key part of communicating the value of the CoPs (we have previously blogged about this technique here and here).


I will finish this post with a quote from the CompanyCommand book:

It became clear to me…that was not about the website. Rather it was about a community of professionals sharing and learning in a fast-paced dynamic operational context; the technology simply enabled the process. In fact, the more I thought about and observed the…forum, the more I realised that the core technology of the forum was the people and the conversations, not the computer.

Now, I just need to wangle an invitation to the US Army KM conference in October this year ☺


Collaboration provides autonomy

Posted by Shawn Callahan - February 15, 2010
Filed in Changing behaviour, Collaboration

Last week I started a new Making Strategies Stick project with a large IT company. The guys I’m working with are the technical sales folk and as we were working out their strategic story they mentioned that the passion that was once there for their products seemed to be waning among some of their technical specialists.

These guys work closely with the sales people. The way they work together, however, varies dramatically from being merely instructed by the sales people to do demonstrations of the product (they call this being demo dollies) to working collaboratively as peers with the sales people.

I asked whether those who showed a lack of passion were also the ones treated as demo dollies. Th answer was yes.

Dan Pink has done a good job in his latest book, Drive, to show that there are three important factors that affect our motivation: purpose, mastery and autonomy. It seems that in this case those treated as demo dollies were losing their autonomy (and also unable to apply their mastery) and were losing the spark for the product. Collaboration (where collaboration is when peers work together to tackle complex activities–see our paper), on the other hand, provided all three factors.

Another good reason to get serious about collaboration in your business.


Digital Habitats—book review

EtienneNancyJohn200.pngDigital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith

I’m often the technology steward for communities of practice (CoP). I create the Ning spaces and configure ‘em, I setup the email lists, I work out whether we should have a wiki or a blog or a discussion forum or some other combination of communication technologies. As you can see I’m quite a geek: I really do love it.

And whenever I get stuck I’ll contact my friends at CPSquare: Etienne, Nancy and John. And while I know they all have a deep understanding of CoPs I tend to ask Etienne the theory questions, Nancy the technology questions and John the group dynamics questions. Together they are a formidable team. Sadly I think their new book, Digital Habitats, will give them strong cause to suggest I should RTFM: Read The Flipping Manual.

Digital Habitats (DH) has a single goal: to help the reader understand the role of technology steward in cultivating a community of practice: what is it, why you would do it, are you are cut out for it, how to do it and where to find help. But it is not a shoppers guide nor a roadmap for technology selection.

There is a lovely photo of Etienne, Nancy and John in the preface and I feel that reading DH is like have a friendly conversation with them on a sunny balcony. They provide the context, a little theory, then lots of practical tips supported by real life stories to ground it and make it memorable.

For me there are three ideas in this book I have already put into practice with great effect.

Experience shows us that all know that communities of practice are different, and sometimes poles apart. DH introduces the idea of community orientations to help us understand where the emphasis might lie and therefore what technologies make most sense.

There are 9 orientations: meetings, open-ended conversations, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community participation, serving a context. With my engineering communities, for example, I’ve asked the members where they see their current orientation and then ask them to identify where they would like to be. A community might start off very content focussed but realise that the real benefits will come from providing access to expertise. By understanding this orientation gap the technology steward can start introducing tools to facilitate the future orientation needs.

The second idea I find useful is how my friends (I was going to say ‘the authors’ but it didn’t feel right) describe the range of activities a community might be engaged in. The axis range from informal to formal and learning from to learning with. This diagram helps me ensure I’m thinking about the full range of possibilities when helping communities members design their CoP.

DH envisages three types of readers: deep divers, attentive practitioners and just do it-ers. The just do it-ers are directed to chapter 10 which contains an action notebook. It is a series of checklists to help you think about the role of the technology steward. What I love about chapter 10 is that I can jump in and start learning about the role by doing things and then come back to the descriptions contained in the rest of the book when it is more meaningful for me. DH makes the job of finding the relevant descriptions in the other chapters easy through a multitude of cross-links from chapter 10 to the relevant book section.

There are very few practical community of practice books available (I can think of 3 others) and Etienne has already had a hand in writing one of them. So Digital Habitats is a valuable addition to this exclusive club. It’s highly readable and practical and will definitely help make a difference to the quality of your technology support for your community of practice.