Is your career suffering because of all the noise?

June 14th, 2021

The Media Week Awards are back

The awards, which Campaign calls “the most highly prized awards in UK commercial media” are now open for entries with deadlines looming in June and July.

I’m honoured and delighted to have been asked to judge again.  I have seen the growth of professionalism and rigour in the judging over the years.  But a new book, by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, makes for grim reading as far as judgement in terms of the effects of what they categorise as “Noise” on human judgement.

The book (with co-authors with Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein) is packed full of evidence casting significant doubt on nearly every aspect of judgement, many of which underpin business and society.  For example, a study of 208 federal judges in 1981 who were all exposed to the same 16 hypothetical cases found that in only 3 was there agreement on the verdict.  There was also huge variation in sentencing – in one case where the average sentence was a year, one judge recommended 15 years in prison.

In real life (as opposed to a hypothetical case) judgements judges have been found more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day or after a food break.  Hungry judges are tougher.  One study which examined 1.5m judgements over 3 decades showed that when the local football team loses a game on the weekend judges make harsher decisions on Monday.  A study of 6 million decisions made by French judges found that defendants are given more leniency on their birthdays.  And when it is hot outside, people are less likely to be granted asylum according to evidence on the effect of temperature on 207,000 immigrant court decisions.

This is shocking of course and as you read through the book the evidence piles up for the unreliability of human judges and juries.

More evidence then that evidence based decisions, using rigorous modelling are so important in media and advertising thinking, and why the IPA data bank is so useful.

Are robotic judgements better?  Not by much according to this book.  Partly of course because the rules are based on history (past judgements delivered by humans and therefore subject to bias) or a set of rules (created by humans and subject to bias).  Machine learning is not as unnoisy as it seems.

Winning an award is important and can help your career path, but your career also depends in other ways on the judgements of others.  Studies based on 360 degree performance reviews find that the variance in scores based on empirical performance accounts for no more than 20-30% of the review.  The rest is system noise.  And the noise may have absolutely nothing to do with you – it could be down to a row that the rater had at home, bad weather spoiling their plans for the evening or the fact on the other hand that they have had a generous review from someone else.

We can’t delegate career decisions to machines anyway as the authors write: “Creative people need space.  People aren’t robots… people need face to face interactions and values are constantly evolving.  If we lock everything down we won’t make space for this.”

What should we do to account for noise in decision making, (aside from hoping for good weather and a winning football team)?

Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein advocate appointing a “decision observer”.  Someone who has no skin in the game to identify and point out bias.  This is common on major boards in respect of non-executive directors and chairs, but non-existent in many reviews or on awards judging panels and should be welcomed (at least as a trial).

In addition, high performing teams need, as a matter of course, to understand how to reach agreement when they disagree in a way that steps aside from who is most forceful or charming.  We all need to develop a way of working through disagreements that is transparent in approach.    In Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work we say this: “Understand that there are 3 kinds of disagreement: a) we are using different facts and evidence to reach our conclusions; b) we are interpreting the facts and evidence differently; c) we actually fundamentally disagree.”  We detail how to do this in chapter 6.

Start with this, and at least some of the noise in collective decision making will quieten to ensure better outcomes for everyone.



What if we did less?

June 1st, 2021

The power of minus.

The power of “and” has been well documented.  Best selling author Martin Sharp has spoken about the power of a “life of combinations”.  He exhorts people to replace “but” with “and” for a richer existence.

Recent business book, “The Power of And: responsible business without trade-offs” by Edward Freeman, Parmar and Martin argues that the business of business is “responsible action, not simply profit seeking”.

“Yes AND” is a creative technique born in improv comedy and translated into idea generation where you build on each idea rather than dismissing anything.

But what if instead we did less?  If instead of “Yes, And” we said “No, subtract”?

Top designer, Thomas Heatherwick, (creator of the epic 2012 Olympic Cauldron, and the lovable new Routemaster bus), thinks subtraction can be as powerful, if not more so, than addition.  He recently said that in his design studio they always ask “Do we need this element?” and that subtraction and simplification have huge effect.  Less, for Heatherwick, is frequently much more.

When you are working on a project, critiquing and quality controlling, how often do you remove elements?  I would observe that most people’s tendency is to use their experience and smartness to ask for more, dig further and add work, rather than have an instinct to strip things away and do less.

It turns out that this is a quirk of human nature and is statistically substantiated.  The Economist points to a study in Nature which suggests that humans struggle with “subtractive” thinking.  When asked to improve something, anything, from a lego model to a golf course, their tendency is to add more things rather than strip things out.  In one test of a lego model, most people added to it and only between 2% and 12% of respondents removed bricks.  When asked to improve a piece of writing 80% added more words and only 16% cut the article back.

The research shows that when there is an increased cognitive load (which could be the stress of a new business pitch or big approval meeting), people are even less likely to remove features to improve the work.

In the spirit of keeping this article short, simple and without extra features, I will end by saying that it is very useful to be conscious of this newly identified cognitive bias.  If your tendency is to add more complications and features then don’t.  Ask instead what the minimum viable plan is (this is a key feature of Agile ways of working), and remember that when Dr Frasier Crane said: “but if less is more, then think how much more more is”, he was almost certainly wrong.



The cure for zoom fatigue

May 17th, 2021

Are you exhausted by video calls?

You’re not alone.  Many colleagues and friends have complained of this.  And speculated on why they are exhausted.

Some say they miss the energy they normally get from being with team members.  If you are an introvert then Susan Cain’s theory in Quiet might mean that this would not apply as she says that only extraverts are said to get endorphins from being in a room with other people, whereas introverts find this tiring.  Clearly some people are really suffering from losing the physical presence of others, and it just isn’t compensated for by the camera.

Others point to the extra mental processing that comes from not being able to read other people’s body language as instinctively as they can when they are in the same room in real life.  If this is true, then it may be a useful lesson in empathy with those who exhibit neurodiversity of this kind.  Social-emotional agnosia is a clinical term for this kind of emotional blindness. It is the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and vocal inflection. This disorder makes it very hard to accurately understand another person’s emotions in social situations.  If this is what we are all losing on Zoom we can now understand, and empathise about, how hard this neurodiverse condition might be.  Logically though I am not sure that the screen makes that much difference though as we are not exhausted from watching TV or a movie.  When  we watch a drama on a screen we don’t complain about having to work harder to compensate for the screen coming between us and the actor’s body language.

There is now evidence that points to another cause of this exhaustion, and it is gendered.    A paper published earlier this month by researchers at Stanford University examines “Zoom fatigue,”. Researchers found that women reported a “significantly higher” level of Zoom fatigue than men. Among the more than 10,000 study participants, about 14% of women self-reported feeling either very or extremely fatigued after video meetings compared to roughly 5.5% of men.

Stanford Professor Jeff Hancock explained on Radio 4  that the reason for this fatigue was likely to be what he called “mirror anxiety”.  People are anxiously examining their own little image in the corner of the screen.  He pointed out that mirrors are relatively new to us in terms of evolution.  Good mirrors have only been available to the mass populace for a few hundred years, which is nothing in terms of our emotional development as humans.  Furthermore it has been well documented that women are culturally conditioned to be conscious of their looks.

Mirror anxiety on Zoom is a new problem then.  We haven’t spent our careers looking in the mirror when we are in meetings of course.  And when we do look in the mirror normally it is when we are getting ready to go out and face the world of work.  We have our “game faces” on.  This is totally different from catching constant glimpses of what we actually look like when we are listening hard, or concentrating on what is being said.  And most of us don’t like it.

Prof Jeff suggests turning the camera off (some apps allow).  I have another suggestion.  Years ago I heard the glorious Joanna Lumley talking about a time as a teenager when she was getting ready to go out and her mother told her: “Don’t worry so much, nobody is going to look at YOU.”  Now clearly Lumley is a beautiful woman, and does draw attention.  But the truth is that when you are on that Zoom call you should remember Ma Lumley’s wise words.  Because nobody is going to look at you, don’t worry about it.  They are all too busy looking at themselves.  Think instead about what you can say or do to make them feel good and that they belong.  Remember the microaffirmations that we talk about in our book Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work.  To paraphrase Maya Angelou: People don’t remember what you say.  They don’t remember how you looked in a particular meeting.  They remember how you make them feel.



Look at the whole of the moon

May 5th, 2021

Are you looking at the moon, or are you pointing a finger?

The Buddha is said to have pointed at the moon to indicate its wonders to his disciples.  They immediately copied him, raising their own arms to point.  They were concerned with getting it right.  They had many questions: Should they point with their whole hand, or just a finger?  Should the palm be raised upwards or lowered?  Was the pointing best done with the right or the left arm?

They of course did not really see the moon, because of their concerns about getting the pointing right.  In their desire for perfection they missed the wonder.

It is easy to get caught up in technique when we learn anything new, and miss the point of what we are doing it for, miss the bigger picture.  And therefore people often get caught up in trying to master the technique of pointing rather than truly being able to simply admire the wonder of the moon.

This happens during training for Agile sometimes, a radically new way of working that essentially is about a different mind-set.  Enthusiasts for Agile ways of working call out improved efficiencies and removal of waste of time activities that litter heritage ways of working.  Yet it has a very different language and routines.  During training it is easy to get caught up in the exactly right way to run a stand up or a scrum.  The real point is that the new rhythms and ceremonies can be adapted to a team’s own needs.

Another example of this danger lies in over-optimising media.  When we optimize a plan into what ends up being a suboptimal position because we are just so good at refining efficiencies we lose sight of effectiveness.

When we over target, convinced that the more we hone our planning to focus on exactly the bullseye demographic, and miss the brilliant brand effect that comes from reaching more people.  As the great Jeremy Bullmore once said: “If BMW only ever targeted people who are in the market to buy a BMW in the next year, there soon wouldn’t be very many of them.”  Because one of the reasons you buy a BMW is to be the envy of your friends and neighbours who can’t buy one.

Putting our faith in new promises of attribution modelling, when it is very difficult to get it more than approximately right.

Regularly repeating the same task without questioning what you are doing it for in the first place.  This can especially occur at the start of your career when you are learning your craft.    If you are bored by what you are doing, and you don’t know why you are doing it, challenge it.  It is entirely possible that it could be automated, eliminated or substituted for something better.

Detail is important.  But when the whole task becomes about how you do it, and you don’t have sight of the bigger picture, then you may well lose the point of what you are doing in the first place.  Look for the moon, don’t worry about how you point the finger.  See the whole of the moon.



Delivering transformation: Push what moves.

April 20th, 2021

The RSA’s head of design is fond of advocating the idea that in order to get change and transformation you need to “Push what moves”.  Note, push what moves, not what is most impactful.  The Royal Society for Arts, manufactures and commerce was founded in 1754 with the purpose of finding practical solutions to social challenges.  Its members have included Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hawking, Karl Marx, Nelson Mandela, David Attenborough and Tim Berners-Lee.  It is highly influential and at the forefront of leading edge thinking about the future of work.  (For disclosure, I’ve just become a fellow.)

Push what moves is good advice in many respects – here’s 3:

  1. Creating change in systems and practices at work.

In terms of change creating quick wins and then spotlighting everyone involved in those wins can be transformational where weeks and even months of waterfall planning of a full roll out of a new way of working can prove frustratingly slow and prone to failure.  If you are rolling out a new planning process try it out with some friendly and positive teams and celebrate the outcomes (perhaps even awards won) before you roll it out to everyone.  This effective pilot with the friendliest teams will allow you to identify anything that needs ironing out for full roll out.

  1. Finding marketing growth.

My first lesson in marketing came from regional planning of television back in the days when the norm was to buy airtime in this way.  I had done some analysis of the share one client had by different region and noted that they were under represented in the North East.  What an opportunity for growth!  Delighted with this insight I made a recommendation to my boss that we pile in with significant advertising.  He pointed out that there needed to be much more analysis of why the deficit existed in the first place.  Did the brand not resonate there?  Was there a reason for diminished distribution?  Was there a powerful local competitor?  If in doubt the rule of marketing is to support your areas of strength.  Often it is easier to give someone who buys the product fortnightly reasons to buy it once a week than to convert non-users.  Easier to keep customers than to acquire new ones.

  1. Creating a more diverse workplace

At the moment the effort of becoming a better more inclusive workplace frequently falls to those who do not feel included at the moment.  They will be encouraged to “lean in”, “join in” and “fit in” even if this means covering or not being able to bring their real identities to work.   They are often pushing in at a door that only opens outwards.  Booker prize winning writer Bernadine Evaristo (the first black women to win the prize) says: “..organisations know what to do. They have to open the door. Yet the onus is always put on us, the people who have been shut out, to find a way in.”

She’s describing a situation where the board room is still (mainly) full of white men, and everyone else is outside trying to push their way in through a door that only opens outward.  It is a powerful analogy.  As we ask in Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work: “Where are all those men in this debate? And what are they actively doing to change the status quo?”  We need people in the boardroom, in fact anyone with privilege,  to open the door and invite different types of people from those inside in, to join them, to make them feel welcome and that they belong.   If you can push that door open to be more inclusive of diversity then you should take this on as your important and special task. Become the solution. Push what moves.