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by Gary Marcus
A kluge (rhymes with stooge) is what engineers call an inelegant solution that works surprisingly well. Remember that scene from Apollo 13 when the guys at control have to design a new air filter from the limited assortment of parts available in the capsule including duct tape and a sock? They did it, it was ugly, but it worked. It was a kluge.
Gary Marcus' book, called Kluge, is all about our evolved brain and how the process of evolution hasn't provided us with the sharpest tool in the shed. Gary is a professor of psychology at New York University and his argument is Darwinian. That is, the capabilities of the human brain are a result of natural selection where random variations created by imperfect copying of DNA at conception are selected (scientific language for whether the person lives) based on how well the new feature enables the person to adapt to their environment. If they adapt and thrive they can pass on their DNA, however imperfectly, to the next generation. And so the process of evolution goes.
The limitation with this process is that it can't guarantee perfection because each new feature is built on what came before, and there comes a point when the adaptation reaches a zenith. Sadly for our species we might reach the highest mountain in our region but not in the mountain range and the evolutionary process is unlikely to disentangle itself, head down the nearest valley and then march up a much higher mountain.
Marcus explores the foibles and follies of our beautiful kluge on topics such as memory, belief, choice, language, and pleasure. We learn that our memories are contextual and fast and tremendous for inferring all sorts of things, but unreliable, and the antithesis of a computer memory.
Understanding the contextual nature of our memories helps us understand so many other things about how we act. For example, cooks remember more about cooking when they are in their kitchen and gardeners are more knowledgeable about gardening when they are in a garden. I witnessed first-hand the power of contextual memory a few weeks ago while videoing stories from a retiring electrical grid controller. Our first interview was done in the network control room where he was immersed in all the cues (electrical diagrams, photos, and the memories of what had happened in the room) that helped him remember in intricate detail the many events that shaped what he knew. But he only had a week before retirement so our next meeting happened in his lounge room and while he was able to recount many of the events the richness of the retelling had diminished.
The chapter on belief introduces us to the array of psychological quirks including the confirmation bias (we take more notice of things that confirm our beliefs), the halo effect (if someone is good at something, including just being pretty, they will be good at other things), anchoring (if we have to make a guess we will anchor it from what is happening around us), and the mere familiarity effect (if it's familiar it is good). All these psychological quirks are shortcuts we've developed that work most of the time. One of my favourites is our tendency to remember the work we've done on a collaboration and forget the effort our collaborators have put into it. As Marcus notes, "Studies show that in virtually any collaborative enterprise, from taking care of a household to writing academic papers with colleagues, the sum of each individual's perceived contribution exceeds the total amount of work done."
Kluge continues to list the various shortcomings of our mental capacities but in a way that remains in awe of what our minds can do. I love reading this genre of book for two reasons: it helps me understand why people behave the way they do and hopefully that understanding helps me assist my clients design better change initiatives; and these types of books are full of potential workshop activities that help people understand how we think. For example, try this one out. Show your workshop participants a simple number progression like 2-4-6 and ask then to suggest another three numbers that adheres to the rule on which the sequence is constructed. They might propose 8-10-12 and you would say, 'yes, that adheres to the sequencing rule. Please propose another.' Often people will keep proposing a sequence of even numbers increasing by two because that reflects their theory of the number sequence rule. But the actual sequence rule is "any ascending number." People tend to confirm their biases and avoid suggesting sequences that might disconfirm their theory.
Kluge is an easy and enjoyable read. A stark contrast to Gary's famous mentor, Steven Pinker, who I enjoy reading but there is lots of effort required. At only 176 pages this is a quick and insightful read.
One of our clients gave a presentation to the 5th Annual Strategic Communication Management Summit in Sydney on September 11, 2008. The presentation covered how narrative approaches have been applied in their management development program, in exploring the results of the company's OCI survey and in embedding the new corporate values. We have been working with this client for two years now and are really proud of the impact of the managers programs on changing manager's behaviour. It was great to see the presentation include a jumpstart storytelling activity that generated great energy in the room. If you are looking to add some impact to a workshop or presentation it is a great method.
In complex situations little things can make a big difference. If you've been to any of our workshops or done projects with us, you'll have noticed how we labour this point. In our management development programs a key theme is the impact of manager behaviour, and how every interaction is an opportunity to build engagement and performance, or erode it. It is not just the 'major interactions' that people remember and are impacted by: the tiniest things have disproportionate effect. Here are some anecdotes we have heard along the way:
"A friend of mine had applied for a fantastic new job. Everything went well during the interview and selection process and the organisation sent her a letter of offer. She turned down the opportunity because the letter of offer was emailed to her at 11pm on a Friday evening by the person who was to be her new manager."
"I have been coaching a person who has an 18 year history of submitting grievances. Despite (ultimately) a formal investigation, none of the grievances were sustained. All of the contested decisions were reasonable. It appears that the complainant just took the worst possible interpretation of these decisions. In our session the other day, he told me an anecdote about the time, way back when, he was moving to his current division. His manager warned him that his manager in the new division didn't like him and was out to get him. That one comment might have been the genesis of 18 years of dissatisfaction."
This anecdote was delivered by a swarthy South African ex-rugby front rower..."I remember one of my first jobs was working in a warehouse. It was the day before Christmas and we were all expecting an early knock-off, or a few beers to celebrate the end of the year. Before lunchtime, the three managers were in an office with the door closed. Just before lunch, they left the office and walked out of the warehouse. We didn't see them again until we all returned to work after new year..."
"I used to live on the Central Coast - I was on the train. A train passed Hornsby on the way to Berowra and we got to turn back because the tracks were on fire. This was the big bushfires and I was stranded out on the station with all the other commuters with me. And that time we didn't have phones; we had pagers. My manager paged me to give him a call and he rang and he said, '[Name], get in a cab. I'll pay for the fare, come and stay at my place as long as takes and you can go when it's safe to go home.' He offered me — and I'm thinking, 'I've only met him once! And I'm only in the company for barely a month and a half, two months rather.' That really blew me away."
We're often required to take on a heap of new information whether it's at conferences, seminars or getting up to speed with a new product or understanding a new job. Whatever the reason remembering all those new facts, ideas and concepts is much easier if you have a framework to hang them from. The simplest structure perfect for this job is a story. Here are three steps to improving your recall and understanding of new information.
After taking in about an hour of information spend 5 minutes creating a story summarising the main ideas. This has the effect of sorting all the other bits and pieces you heard or read. It's best if you don't write this story down.
Spend a few minutes telling the story to yourself to the point where you could confidently tell someone else the story.
Retell this story to someone else and be mindful of the other facts and ideas which just seem to spring to mind. If your listener can cope, tell them the related information as well.
Your story doesn't have to be detailed rather it should contain the high-level thread of the argument. For example, I'm reading Steven Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought and just finished the chapter on swearing. The high-level story there could be something like, back in the 1500 to 1800s religious swearing was prominent and had the most impact. When someone said "God damn you," you would really be concerned for your life and the miserable time you would have in hell. After a while, however, people started to realise that they didn't go to hell and the impact of religious swearing paled. Religious swearing was replaced with references sex and excreta and the replacement partly accounts for how some swearing is no longer grammatically correct. BTW as you can probably guess this chapter is not for prudes. I found it fascinating and extremely funny. This technique was inspired by a blog post by Cal Newport at Study Hacks.
Several weeks ago, while preparing a presentation on the use of story in organisations. I came up with quite a long list of ways story is used, but it needed a framework. The following came to me in shower (where good ideas occasionally occur and where bad singing is commonplace). The three main dimensions of story in organisations I came up with were:
We tell stories to make ourselves understood. Stories are powerful persuaders. Good teachers will always try to illustrate a learning point with an example or a story. We communicate strategy using story; stories help place facts in context and give them emotional impact.
We listen to stories to understand others and to learn. Stories are an important way we remember and learn things and they often are the vehicle by which our various identities and memberships are illustrated. Much of an organisation's knowledge is contained in its stories. Story, in the form of anecdotes, are an essential part of finding out what is really going on.
Our behavior creates and changes stories. This one came to me as an afterthought, but the more I think about it the more it seems appropraite at this level. As an example, the CEO can read out the organisation's (lengthy, important and well-written) sustainability strategy statement without any noticeable effect other than eyes glazing over. But a story gets created when he puts his hand on his heart and says "I don't want to be part of an organization that doesn't act sustainably, and I don't think you do either". People will tell the story of the behaviour long after the words of the sustainability statement are forgotten.
There are many ways we could cut such a framework and I found this one useful for the presentation I gave. There are many other ways of looking at it and I would love to hear other views.
Thanks for your continued support. The Anecdote team.
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