I’ve always been a day-dreamer. It’s not that I don’t get things done. But I’ve known since I was a teenager that getting things done is dangerous. Psychologists like Peter Gollwitzer use more complicated impenetrable language. Simply put, when we are going like a train, we are apt to run over other people and ultimately make a mess.
Better to chill and have a happy routine of work, look about, work, look about. No need to be so stressed.
Living without dreams lacks soul
But to live without dreams, that is stressful. We become increasingly ill-tempered.
It’s a good thing that dreams don’t take no for an answer!
I don’t know what happens to other people but with me ultimately the dreams win. I am fascinated by the size of my doodle books when I am overly busy. I need my day dreams. And I keep breaking off from work to doodle.
When too much dull work locks them out, my dreams simply break back in! I am glad. They are loyal friends.
They are also interesting friends. When I entertain them, ideas roll. I love it.
I was talking to someone in one of the many branches of the public service yesterday. “And we get a lot of time-wasters”, he said.
This is a narrative, of course. It is the way we speak rather than any statement of fact. But it raises the question, “Why do we regard the public as wasting our time?”
Or is our time wasted by management who are poorly trained?
Sadly, targets are the culprits.
This is the psychology.
A target creates a goal. Yup, that is what was intended.
Goals create feedback loops. Yes, we all know targets distract people from their jobs. We have been complaining for years.
And there are two further points I would like to add.
Simplifying life slightly, we have fast feedback loops and slow feedback loops.
Public servants have infinitely slow feedback loops. Slower than “Mum” who runs a house and who cleans the house today and cooks your dinner, and cleans the house tomorrow, and cooks your dinner. In short, the work of those who serve is never done. It is very reactive, too. In plain English, public servants hang around a lot. That is their job and it takes a special temperament to be able to do that without fabricating a crises or two for stimulation and entertainment.
Slow feedback loops does not mean the work is unskilled. Slow feedback loops mean the opposite. The work is highly skilled. You have to work “by the book”. “Mum” cleans the house whether guests are coming or not. The pilot checks the entire pre-flight checklist whether they anticipate a problem or not. They do work and they do it without anything changing visibly and without applause or immediate reward. You and I can’t do that. We get bored and become disruptive.
Simply, public servants look like they are sitting around but they do “hard work”. It is hard to know that the workis done well unless you really know what you are doing.
The public are not time-wasters. Well they maybe, but we waste a lot more time angsting about time-wasters.
The public aren’t experts in the work done by public servants. Public servants start to take their skill for granted (as we do) and forget they can make a judgment that we will just get wrong. We could do with their wisdom.
Much of the time, the public is worried they are supposed to be doing something. Good counsel from a policeman or front-line worker reads the request in context and advises the right course of action. The right course of action might be do nothing (take two aspirin and have a good night’s sleep, etc.) and it is useful to know that. We rarely think that doing nothing is doing good. Public servants with with their slow feedback loops are masters of “let events unfold”. Let them make the call.
Rushing people who are worried slows them down. When we treat each request as seriously as the next or the last, people calm down and our work speeds up.
That’s not to say that we don’t do triage. Triage is part of taking people seriously. People aren’t cattle queuing up at the slaughter house. If it is better to take one person ahead of others, just tell them. When we have a good reason, everyone will understand, particularly if we can estimate when we will see them and give them back some control over their lives. They calm down and work goes faster.
Successful ways of working with people is often counter-intuitive
It is possible to treat each person as an individual. But when we go 8 hours/x people makes y minutes. Suddenly there isn’t enough time.
One. We waste time scheduling. Try not scheduling and see what happens. I once went to a doctor who simply gave 10 people an appointment on each hour. He called them in turn but saw whoever was there. Isn’t that what we do anyway? And if we a running late to get there for 9, for example, there is no need to panic, because we are in a buffer.
Two. We have time-wasted between appointments. I was given an appointment at 9:06 last week. Admirable precision. Pity the internal paper-work wasn’t ready for her and her printer wasn’t working.
Three. There is simply a simple rule of management. Make sure management doesn’t cost more than what is being managed. What would happen if we would remove the management and organization? Often little but saving time and saving heaps of money? Of course, skilled management that helps us be more productive would be cool to have particularly when it is inexpensive.
We often get more done by being patient. I know the arithmetic doesn’t suggest so. But arithmetic is not the right analytical tool for this problem. I am a numbers person but turning everything into “3 men dig a trench . . .” simply tells me your arithmetical training stopped when you were 11. My that is harsh . . but you asked for it.
Using arithmetic to solve the distribution of public service is a constellation of intellectual errors. And you know it is wrong because it doesn’t work. If feels wrong. Stop repeating yourself and try another way!
Get a lot more done by focusing intensely on a goal
One of the stunning results of psychological research of the second half of the 20th century is that goals and feedback raise performance dramatically.
Depending on our starting point, we can raise our performance between 10% and several hundred percent by focusing on a fixed target and getting timely feedback about how close we are to our goal.
Target & box-ticking culture in the UK
In Britain, goals and feedback have been adopted widely and are known here as targets and box-ticking. Some people intuitively grasp there is something wrong with the system. Others believe that we are somehow able to control doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers and GET MORE DONE.
What is wrong with targets & box-ticking?
You have to look no further than the work of British psychologist, John Seddon, to understand what has gone wrong.
Why do goals and feedback dramatically increase our performance?
A goal gives us a fixed point to aim at and an environment where we learn what makes a difference. Feedback about our progress to our goals, preferably built into the task itself, helps us work out what works and what doesn’t.
Why do targets and box-ticking dramatically fail to raise our performance?
Targets (and box ticking) are not a system of goals and feedback. They are a plain old fashioned assembly line in which we perform simple movements at a set pace.
An assembly line was innovative in 1910 but it was overtaken by Toyota in the 50’s when they realised they could work much more effectively by throwing out the set pace “do it like this” methods and charging each person with investigating for themselves what works and what doesn’t.
University students routinely play the the “beer game” (and its descendants) to learn an important fact about assembly lines. Fixed ways of doing things don’t fit the natural variety of life. Too often what we do does not fit what is required. Fixed ways of doing things generates errors. Fixing errors is expensive. Before long, we have a mess and our budgets are way out of control.
Would I try to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed?
Let’s take a simple example. If I decide to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed, I quickly run into frustration I am much better off responding to variations in traffic conditions as I go.
Having a person plan my trip from an office in Cardiff, for example, might look good on paper but it doesn’t work. It is far better to give me good maps, a sat nav, and breaking news about traffic conditions.
I can take a break earlier than intended to escape a tail back, for example. I can take a detour along back roads and drive further faster. And other days, my trip will go smoothly along the full length of the M1, and I will arrive early.
That’s life. And it is cheaper, more enjoyable, and much more efficient that excessive planning.
Turning our GP’s and kindergartens in to assembly lines is so 1910
The attempt to turn every feature of Britain from GP’s offices to the kindergarten into an assembly line is very simply 100 years out of date. It is time to supply the person doing the job with the information they need to do it. They still need training, yes. They will value coaching; of course. They could use data to explore their own effectiveness.
The job of a manager is to provide the information they need in a timely way. The job of management is to provide data that tells us about coordination. Where is the tail back? Where is traffic heavy and about to cause another tail back? Managers have (or should have) the overview that the person on the job, or driving the single car, does not have, and cannot have because they are busy driving.
Managers are responsible for the outcome of our collective decisions. They are responsible for tail backs. They cannot make decisions for each of us though. They cannot. It is not practical. And it does not work because the only way to tell us all what to do, is to tell us all to do the same thing. And then our collective behaviour is not sufficiently flexible and adaptive and we get the very tailback that we were trying to avoid.
The way to avoid tailbacks is to keep each of us making our own decisions on the basis of relevant up-to-date information.
It’s harsh to say it, but if a manager does not understand that standardisation causes chaos, they should never have been appointed. This is MGMT101. It is taught in first year in university. We learn it in the boy scouts. We learn it when we organize a sleep-over.
A GP, for example, needs information on the state of health of their entire patient group. Then they can allocate resources sensibly. Discretion to spend half-an-hour with a patient might lead to a well thought health programme that resolves dozens of problems. Equally a frequent user might be distracted from unnecessary visits by non-medical interventions, such as family meeting.
A GP is highly motivated to work flexibly precisely because it helps them eliminate the queues. No system thought out elsewhere will achieve that. Instead, it creates dissatisfied patients who are not getting their issues dealt with and who then return to the system for more attention.
A goal of keeping these 2000 patients in good health is very different from a target of seeing 30 or so patients a day. Feedback about the health of 2000 patients is very different from filling in forms about whom one has seen.
If GPS’s get everything done and every one healthy and go home early, is that wrong? Emergency calls can still be routed to them at home.
It really is time to demand some “evidence based management”. If a government department wants targets, then let it set up properly conducted trials to compare their method with methods recommended by psychologists. Not just Seddon. All psychologists. It is time.
I was talking today with @dominiccampbell and he helped me resolve another question that has been hanging around my head. Why are narratives so much better than goals and targets for guiding action?
Goals do raise performance
We psychologists know that goals raise performance. Put a target on the wall and people will try to meet it. Performance can leap by huge multiples of 100, 200, 300%.
Add feedback, that is add the circles around the bull’s eye, and performance goes up further, even by 20% for top performers.
We like making targets. Just watch a dog at a sheep trial. We love it!
Narratives are better
But, now we are in election season in the UK, the poverty of goals becomes so clear.
Parties are tossing around specific promises for everything from deficits to bus timetables. It’s most odd. For a start, most of these target are the job of mid-level civil servants to set and manage. Not sure what we employ them for if politicians do this.
The targets are also spurious. Can anyone really set these targets for a year ahead at any time and can they do so now when the world is in such disarray and a double dip recession might happen within weeks?
Most of all, goals are wrong because they are artificially simple. I pointed @dominiccampell to a Gen Y blogger who paints a depressing picture of the life being led by fresh graduates in the UK. This is the life they lead and they can “see” themselves leading.
Politicians need to paint the picture of what they see happening in the UK and how it is unfolding. Stories of the one-legged man they met on the way to the forum, or arbitrary numbers just don’t cut it. (Can’t remember what they other fella said.)
We need a visual picture of UK – a synopsis of the movie we are living out.
This, dear psychologists, is why we should use narratives. We need a moment of ‘aesthetic arrest’ where the relevant factors are brought together within a frame, in a story which shows how the main factors come together, counteracting and influencing each other, and it must be “true”. We need a sense of “yes, I see it now”. Aha!
Goals and anecdotes don’t deliver ‘aesthetic arrest”. They are one dimensional or 2 dimensional cutouts. They cannot deliver a picture of the world in all its complexities. And that is what we need to hear.
Yesterday, I had to sit around offices a bit and I watched two people work in jobs that aren’t very high powered.
In the first, the relatively more senior job, was a young fellow, baby faced but with determined lower body movements. He was racing the clock as he tried to execute what, for him, is still a complicated sequence of moves. He took great pleasure in deftly picking up the paper, entering stuff in a computer, standing up, sitting down, and barking out commands to customers.
He needs the time and space to practice but should he really have been released into the wild?
The old hand
The second was a very much more junior job but a more experienced guy was handling two customer points simultaneously. He was relishing the challenge and got ahead by anticipating what people wanted and priming his work station. He was still racing the clock, but out of boredom rather than inexperience.
The old hand vs the noobe
The big difference between the two came when the experienced guy had forgotten something I asked for it. Then I got a big smile and “I am onto it Miss”. The younger guy would have snapped. And this is why.
Noobe vs old hand
The goal for the the ‘noobe’ was his own performance. The goal for the second man was my convenience and satisfaction. Multi-tasking was just the way he stopped dropping from boredom but he would drop multi-tasking in an instant if customer satisfaction was threatened.
Understanding the psychology of ‘noobishness’
This sounds as it the ‘noobe’ is being morally wrong in some way. A psychological analysis helps us out of that evaluative trap.
We see what goal is driving someone’s performance by watching what feedback they look for and respond to.
A rank ‘noobe’ attends to their own performance. They have to. Indeed, if we want to design a really bad job, we interfere with their do-check cycle. They cannot get good at a task until they have repeated the task often to their own satisfaction.
Customer service is not the place for ‘noobes’
The trouble is that customer service is one level higher. It is the same level as supervision. They have to judge a situation as well as execute work.
In a front line where a lot of customer situations are utterly predictable and require no attention whatsoever from the attendant, then it is OK to put a ‘noobe’ there. But a supervisor should be close to hand. The supervisor mustn’t micro manage, because that muddles up do-check feedback system. They must be there to step-in when the situation has changed from a ‘practice turn’ to a ‘choose the bundle of tasks that will lead to customer satisfaction’.
This distinction between situation and execution is the key to training a supervisor. Are they able to say clearly to their charge: the situation began like this – it has changed to this – now do this – or I’ll finish this and I’ll show you after ward what I did?
So how do ‘noobes’ get experience?
I’m a teacher and I also consult. All my life, I’ve tried to take on work that creates practice slots for juniors. But there have to be some rules.
Confidentiality: I teach them to forget everything they see and hear in the office. Write it down. Put it in a file. Wipe your mental slate. Then when someone tries to find out things from you, you can honestly say they’ve forgotten. Everything is recorded and forgotten. (This may be less essential in other businesses but we deal with personal data.) The sweet line “Tell me again what you do” is anyway a great conversational opener.
Rhythm: I teach them to look at me and make sure I have given them permission to speak before they open their mouths in front of a client. The reason is this. I might be following a conversational line that they don’t follow. If they interrupt, the client loses their train of thought.
Alerts: If they believe there is something that I should know about, they can catch my eye. That look is very different from the look of “I would like to practice a little now.” I’ll immediately take them outside and ask what has concerned them.
With these three rules, ‘noobes’ can observe interactions with customer and gradually ease into bigger roles.
They earn their keep with carefully calibrated back room tasks following two principles: (A) Never give to a ‘noobe’ what cannot be redone and (B) Show them and make them practice over-and-over again until they can do it “with no hands”, so to speak.
Then they are able to handle the rapidly changing requirements of customer service. But they aren’t handling the customer on their own until they can do all the technical stuff with “no hands”. Their minds must be free to attend to the people they are speaking to.
At any one time in my life I have three goals. Only. For example, when I ran a large entry level course in New Zealand, my goals were
settling in New Zealand
my family in Zimbabwe
Whatever I did had to fit into one of those three boxes.
Settling on three goals is hard
Since I have moved to the UK, I have struggled to settle down to three goals. I need three catch-phrases that I can remember and that will persist for a few years at least.
As an academic, the three goals are easy: research/writing, teaching, community service.
Jim Collins has three goals: creativity & writing (50% plus), teaching (30%), other (20% or less). He has three stop watches in his pocket and he switches them on and off all day long. I could never be that compulsive but I like three goals and I like the way he commits half his time to one of them.
Then he has the “big jump” or mission. To leave a lasting body of work. Just in case you don’t know, Collins is know working on narratives of companies as “anti-heroes” – the story of failure.
What are your three goals?
Can you settle on three goals and state your “big jump” in a phrase?
On my travels, I found myself teaching systems thinking in a university which broke a large course into 25 student groups. A few people determined the curriculum and an army of people taught students who wrote a common examination.
I was shocked by the examination papers. Students rambled on tossing in whatever thoughts came to mind.
We sensibly had an interim examiners meeting and I voiced my concerns. Well, it seems that I was the one to have misunderstood the curriculum. The curriculum designers were trying to convey the idea that there are many perspectives on any issue. They didn’t see a common goal or direction as an essential part of any system.
I am cursed with an “open mind” so I hastened to the internet to double-check and the idea has hung around my mind ever since as unfinished business does.
3 misunderstandings about system goals
I’m afraid that systems do have common goals. That is entirely the point. But it seems that this is a point that is often misunderstood.
Some people think the system’s goal is their goal
No! There are still multiple perspectives. We can add the system as a virtual person and ask what is the system’s goal! We have the boss’ goal, we have the system, goal and we have each of our goals.
Some people think there is no common goal
It is true that the organization does not have a goal. An organization cannot think! When we say that the organization’s goal is X, we must ask who says that?
But we not only want to understand the multiplicity of goals but we also want to understand how the many goals come together and how the system goal morphs in response. We cannot ignore the system goal ~ or we do as a sailor might ignore the weather ~ at our peril.
Some people think goals are constant
They are ~ for a second. Goals morph as situations change. When we ignore the dynamic quality of goals, then we get mission creep. Conditions change and if we don’t stop to think about what we want, what we all want, we find ourselves doing too much of one thing and too little of another. A mess in other words. Goals are infinitely variable.
Articulating the morphing of goals in any group is what makes a leader
A leader understand the multiplicity of goals in a community and sees how are contradictions and conflicts, agreements and alliances come together to make us what we are – how the whole comes from the parts and affects them in turn.
A leader is a person who is able to articulate this dynamic mix so that we feel supported by the whole and essential to its well being. This is a tough call when a group is determined to quarrel or terrified by its destiny. The hall mark of a leader is that he or she looks for the common ground where we all belong and keeps looking.
Facilitating the agreement is the hallmark of the greatest leaders
Helping us find that common ground is the hallmark of the greatest leaders. We often doff our caps to leaders who were in the right place at the right time. They represent what is the best about ourselves and we throw them into the limelight to remind us of who we are and where we are going. In time, we choose a new leader because our direction has changed and we need new icon on our bows.
We remember these leaders because these were times that we felt great. The greatest leaders, though, help us identify the right questions. They know how to “bound” the group. They know how to focus our attention on the question that we must answer if we are to find the way forward and the place where we feel great.
That’s why it seems as if great leaders set goals. They set a boundary which focuses our attention on question-asking.
It is not the goal that is important, but our compulsion to find out how we should reach the goal.
Colin Powell once said “Leadership is about ‘Follow Me!. Even if it is only out of curiosity.”
Leadership is the art of engaging the imagination in the search for collective answers.
The system is important. With good leadership, we accept the system as a virtual person ~ a popular virtual person who we all want to look after and please.
When I was young, I loved To Do lists. What a buzz! I would list everything I had to do, set a priority and set about ticking it off!
I loathe To Do Lists now. I threw away my diary years ago when I worked on an MBA programme and the lecture times changed so frequently that my diary looked like a dog’s breakfast!
Now I like a rhythm. I like to sense the time during the week, the month, the day, the year that I should be doing whatever I should be doing!
Rhythmless Britain Where Seasons Take Us By Surprise
It is difficult to dance through life in Britain. Bills arrive at odd times and are paid at odder times. The tax year begins on the 6 April – why? Who knows. There is no rhythm to anything. People even seem surprised when winter approaches. “It’s cold”, people say. It’s December. What did they expect? I know what I expect. “Good! It is cold. Now I can . . .!”
My Seasons By The Bottle
I want my life to be a dance with my goals. Like these bottles at the Vesuvius Cafe on Canary Wharf in London. 52 bottles laid out in 12 sets, I want to mark the passing of the seasons with the right wine and the right food. I want to celebrate the seasons of life by going to the market to buy food in season and cook it with a sense of adventure.
I want my head around learning to dance with life. I don’t want to spend my time chasing the clock and ticking lists. Lists and clocks lower quality of life as surely as squalid air travel and grubby packaging around supermarket food!
It is not only Luddites who like to savor life
Now believe me, I am no Luddite. Never have been. I like progress. I like thinking up better ways of doing things.
But I want to savor life. I want to have time to listen to people. I want to notice the seasons and enjoy them, not complain about them.
To represent the season of my life, I have a handful of goals
I’m not sure I have the system right, but at any time in our lives, I think it is good to have 3 to 5 ‘goals’. When I was in New Zealand, I had 3. I had my rather large university course. I had settling in a new country. And I had departing from an old country. That’s enough! What didn’t fit into those three folders had to be put aside.
Now I have five ‘goals’ ~ I wish I had three but I have 5!
I have settling in a new country
I have my writing ~ this blog mainly
I have my community and town of Olney
I have my next website supporting career decisions
And I have the website I want make – a gratitude site.
My goals change with the season of my life
In due course, the season of settling in (another) new country will pass and my goals will change.
For now, I can ask whether what I am doing helps me learn how to achieve these goals. What do I learn about my own thinking? What do I learn about my overall story from each of these goals and the way they come together?
It is the way I explore these 5 goals that will give me the rich life that I take into the next season as surely as my summer harvest must be full to provide a good autumn and a good Christmas supports an energetic spring.
I’ll achieve my goals better if I slow down and explore them well
My goals are a framework to coddle my efforts and softly support the tentative explorations of the land in which I live.
The way I explore my goals determines how well I meet them. To explore them well, I must make plenty of space for them and stop rushing around being in a hurry.
Put that to do list aside! What are your goals? What are you learning about how to achieve them. Enjoy! In a few years, these goals will be gone from your life and replaced by others.
I’m shifting gear a little with projects. Some tasks are moving to the perfunctory box ~ get them done and get them done fast. And I have new tasks that aren’t hard but they aren’t habits yet. I could easily founder simply because I haven’t done them often enough to slide into them without thinking.
Getting over dithering
As I dithered, just a little, in the normal way we do when we settle to something big, I came across a post that I wrote about Inpowr, the Montreal based web2.0 platform where you rate areas of your life and set goals.
A digital reminder
Inpowr has some good looking interfaces. Moreover, it pings you every day at your chosen (Montreal) time and reminds you to review your goals. That makes it great. To develop some good habits, it helps to have someone to nudge you!
Choose between your positive and negative versions of events
A tip though: Inpowr will ask you to rate your achievement of each goal on a 1-5 scale. Don’t just rate and move along. Expand the task a little. Describe how the day went. Rate 1 and answer the question. Change your rating to 3 and answer your question. And then change your rating to 5 and answer the question again.
Answering all three questions helps you to see your negative and positive thinking and choose between them. Which is most useful to you? The negative or the positive version?
Oh, and do watch the privacy settings. It is possible to make your goal setting open to the world. Maybe you would prefer your exercise to be private. Check your settings!
21 days on Inpower
Inpowr runs on 21 day cycles. What can you accomplish by Christmas?
Imagine 6 000 students gathering in a hall and becoming a little rowdy. The police arrive. The local Chief Constable arrives. So does the head of the riot police. Who is in charge? Who decides what will happen?
Well, the riot police often think they are in charge because they are bigger and more powerful. The local Chief Constable is likely to assert him or herself, though, and say, “I am in charge in this place. Everyone will take their instructions for me.”
Chain-of-command in business
We might think that this reasoning only begins in the uniformed services. But it is relevant in business as well.
At any moment, it is someone’s job to make a decision. We should not get in their way. Even when we are bigger and more powerful, we may not have all the information we need to make a good decision. Nor can we follow through. We simply have no business making decisions that we will not see through to the very end.
Work & organizational psychologists and the chain-of-command
Work & organizational psychologists, or occupational psychologists as they are known in UK, or IO psychologists as they are known in the US, are well trained to identify who is making the decision and what information they need to make it.
We often have massive status but we should not get in the way of the people who are doing the work. We wouldn’t get in the way of a surgeon and we should not get in the way of anyone else either.
Work & organizational psychologists respect the skill of decision making in each and every job
The information that people use to make decisions is also not immediately obvious to us. Skilled workers have mental models for organizing their work. They have goals, they recognize information as signals, and they pick up information as feedback which tells them whether they are approaching their goals. We don’t have their expertise and when we move things around, we can utterly muddle the way they organize information. Taking a single piece of paper off someone’s desk can be akin to knocking out a a supporting wall of a house -whereupon, it all falls down.
When we are working in someone elses workplace, we are trying to read what they are noticing, what they are responding to, and what they are trying to achieve. None of this may be obvious particularly if they’ve been doing the job for a long time.
Work & organizational psychologists do not set up goals or targets for other people
Setting up goals or targets for skilled people is utterly absurd. When we do so, we imply that they have no mental models or expertise to organize and to bring into being a smoothly operating system.
Setting up targets shows incompetence on our part.
Goals & targets are set up in basic professional training
The time to set goals and targets is during professional training. At that point people are learning what information is available and how it comes together into a working system.
Everything we do thereafter needs to recognize that organization or requires a hefty reinvestment. We will always look first to see if we can wrap a system around skill models before we take that route.
So how do we work out how people make decisions?
We watch what they do.
We watch how they respond to different situations.
We notice what irritates them because that tells us their efficient operations have been disrupted.
When it is safe to do so, we interrupt and listen to their inner talk as they try to remember where they are in a complicated process!
And above all, we are patient.
The people we are working with may have inefficient habits. But, it is much more likely that they have deep professional considerations for what they are doing.
Our job is to broker boundaries and space for people to do their work
Our first obligation as psychologists is to broker the space in the organization for people to follow the logic of their trade or profession.
Are we doing that? Are we adequately setting the boundaries and making the space and time for people to be effective?