Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why gifted people commit suicide

Robin Williams at the Stand Up for Heroes charity benefit in 2007. Photo was taken by John J. Kruzel/American Forces Press Service, and placed in the public domain. Downloaded from Wikimedia.
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone. 
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) in World's Greatest Dad, 2009. Written by Bob Goldthwait.
By now I am sure you have heard that Robin Williams, a brilliant actor and comedian, took his own life on August 11, 2014. His death has sparked an incredible amount of discussion and speculation about the causes. The opinions I have seen range from the incredibly stupid (he killed himself out of cowardice), to the well meaning, but wrong (he suffered from depression, which is a disease, and it killed him).

Out of all the pieces I have read about the death of Robert Williams, only one gets it right, Why Funny People Kill Themselves, by David Wong at Cracked.

However, there is more to it. Wong focuses on comedians, but the causes apply to anyone who deviates from the norm. Humans are social animals. We need other people. If we cannot connect, we get depressed.

This means depression is not in itself a disease. It is a symptom! Depression can have many different causes. There may be organic damage, a genetic disposal to a chemical imbalance, or you may be a perfectly healthy individual getting depressed because you are in an unbearable situation.

Being isolated from other people is one of the hardest things to bear.

Your default level of happiness and energy may be very high, but if you cannot build close relations with other people, you may still get depressed.

People who are smart, dedicated and principled are often shut out and isolated. Thus, they are prone to depression. There does not have to be any disease involved, no genetic or physical damage. Just isolation will do the trick.

Why do intelligent people become isolated? Neuroscientific research has showed that the human brain is designed to save energy whenever possible. Thinking requires a lot of energy. So does diligent practice.

Thinking actually triggers the pain center of the brain. No wonder solving math problems is perceived as very unpleasant by a majority of the population.

Intelligent people tend to have active brains. They delve deep into problems. They notice inconsistencies other people pass by. They come up with solutions instead of ignoring the problems. They spend many thousands of hours practicing their skills.

Most people do not want to do that. While everyone loves their results, normal people do not want to spend time with people much smarter than themselves, at work, or in their spare time. It is mentally exhausting, and actually painful. Thus, avoiding smart, dedicated, principled people becomes an autonomous response to the pain caused by the thinking, and other activities, required to keep up with them.

Thus, intelligent people will find themselves rebuffed or ignored, over and over again. They soon learn that reaching out, at work or in their own time, is to invite rejection.

No single one of these rejections is likely to cause a significant mood change, but tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, will.

Even a very resilient mind can, over time, be bent and broken by a barrage of tiny, and not so tiny, rejections.

Having strong principles can cause the same kind of rejection as high intelligence. People with strong principles are often unwilling to go along with illegal or scatterbrained schemes because someone in authority tells them to. They may be unwilling to go along with group consensus, if the group is clearly wrong.
Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.
Steven Winterburn (often incorrectly attributed to William Gibson
Depression is a mood, and moods are, to a large extent, dependent on our surroundings. Thus, if you are depressed, the cause is likely to be external. If not in whole, at least to a significant part.

If you are highly intelligent, and depressed, you may need smarter friends and workmates. Because you spend most of your time awake at work, finding a job with better colleagues, not necessarily with a better job description, may be your best move.

Same thing with friends. Which ones lift you up? which ones bring you down? Not to forget, take a long, hard look at yourself. Are you a positive influence in their lives? Don't assume that you are. Observe! Study your interactions.

There will be good days and bad days, but on the whole, try to create feedback loops that bring you a positive mood and the energy to do things. And, don't be afraid to let your friends help you. Your real friends will do that, just as you would help them.

Actually, helping others is one of the best ways to lift your own mood. Be a bit careful though. Some people will not understand when you are doing them a favor, or going out of your way to do a kindness.

Giving a small amount of money to a beggar will generally work. Giving serious advice on process improvement when someone asks for it is far more risky. If you do not tell people what they want to hear, or force them to think, they are liable to interpret it as hostility.

If you are a highly intelligent person, if you study and practice, and hone your skills, if you do your best to be kind and thoughtful, and yet, you are often rejected. If people like you less the more skilled you become, if they reject you when you hold on to principles you thought you shared with them, if you feel depressed by it, even to the point of wanting to end it, you may be surrounded by assholes.

Try to get a job with better colleagues. Spend more time with your true friends. If you do not have any, make more of them. Surround yourself with brilliant misfits!

I am in the process of doing just that. If you are interested in how I do it, or want to share your own experiences, please do comment on this article.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Lost World – A vacation project

I recently had to jump head first from a cliff to escape a T-Rex. I am on vacation, and I can't stand having nothing to do, so, I decided to run a little vacation project. Because I am interested in photography, never outgrew my fascination with dinosaurs, and read the occasional comic, I decided on a Lost World photo comic project.

If you are into management, I highly recommend running a non-profit, all volonteer project now and then. Because people won't get paid in coin, you have to do something else: You have to make it interesting and educational.

You also have to find the right people: People who share your interests. Preferably people who get a bit obsessed when they are doing something interesting. They need to be creative, and learners willing to try new things. Oh, and they have to be able to work well together.

The Plan: The Lost World

Running from dinosaurs
When I was a child I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World (Wikipedia article) about an expedition that finds dinosaurs on an isolated mountain plateau in South america.

Doyle's book spawned an entire literary genre. Edgar Burroughs (Pelucidar), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and many others have written Lost World genre books. Doyles's book has been filmed eight times, directors who have made genre movies include Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and Peter Jackson (King Kong).

Writing a Lost world book would not be original enough. Making a movie would be fun, but also much too expensive. There was however another option. 

One of my little hobbies, is photography. My idea was to make a Lost world photo comic. I knew it would be possible to accomplish this with a very small budget.

Putting the team together

Team members clockwise from the left: Petra Brewitz, Petri Olderhvit, Jesper Andersson, and Robert Johannesson. Not in the photo: Marie Eriksson and Lennart Guldbrandsson.
For this project I knew I would need help. I needed to put together a team of dedicated people, willing to do a lost world project just for the fun of it.

I have spent about eight months building a loosely coupled network of photographers. When I come up with one of my over-the-top photography projects, this is where I go to recruit.

Anyone in the network can initiate any kind of event, ranging from having lunch, to launching a major project. Of course, most members are not interested in the more advanced, and time consuming projects, but with 120 members, we do have a pretty good base to recruit from.

Thus, recruiting for the project was pretty easy. I wrote a one page proposal, and published it in our Facebook group.

I also put the ad out in a couple of other forums. While a few people responded and joined, when it came down to the crunch, the people showing up where already members of the photography network. The exceptions are Lennart and Marie. Lennart is an old friend, and Marie just happened to be in a café where we held a meeting. She was interested in the project, and joined up.

Prestudy and planning

We did not have the budget, nor the time, for a Hollywood movie quality project. I decided to simplify a bit. I would have liked to go with 3D dinosaurs, but we simply did not have the prerequisite 3D modelling skills.

Instead, I opted for a much simpler solution: Toy dinosaurs. The toy manufacturer Schlecht makes a line of very realistic dinosaurs. we could use them, and use digital composition to make people and dinosaurs interact.

Good as they are, close up the Schlecht dinosaurs are not quite photo realistic. It is possible to fix this by digitally adding skin, but it is very time consuming. Also, compositing people into a miniature set, or a miniature into a full scale set, is difficult and time consuming.

A simpler solution is to change the viewers expectations: A photo is expected to be realistic, but a drawing is not. Converting a photo into a drawing is a quick and easy process, so that is the route I decided to go.

Even with this simplification, we'd have plenty of challenges.

Lots of planning, but very little scheduling

After each session, I update the panels we have shot. When all panels are done, the project is done!

For a project like this, a plan is indispensable. A long term schedule, on the other hand, is not. There is a lot of uncertainty in a project like this, and this makes long term scheduling inappropriate.

Instead, I made a plan: I layouted the entire story, as a comic, with empty panels, and brief descriptions of what was to go into each panel. I also scripted the dialogue.

This gave us a framework to work with. It also gave us a lot of flexibility. If something changes, adapting the outline is quick and easy.

We do have to schedule photo sessions, of course, but these are scheduled with rather short notice. We use a Facebook chat to discuss scheduling and other topics, and then schedule an event when we are as certain we can be that everyone needed will be able to attend.

If you are familiar with agile planning methods, you will recognize the similarities.

So far, so good!

After each major session, I put together a collage. I publish the collage in the photography group. The purpose is dual: It keeps everyone informed that the project is progressing, and it may entice more people into joining future projects.
As of now, we have had six photo sessions, and we are more than half-way through the project. There is a lot of photo editing and compositing work to be done, but that is no problem. The priority is to get the principal photography done.
A sample page from the comic.
The project has begun to attract some attention, from dinosaur buffs, photographers, and also from the IHM Business School in Gothenburg. I blogged about the project there, and they asked for pictures to publish, which I of course sent them.

I still have a bit of vacation left, so now it is back to the project for me.

Be seeing you!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Management models - Why they are useful

Put yourself in the shoes of a CEO. What is your primary goal? There are many different ideas about that, but I like this one:
To ensure that the organisation can survive and thrive on its own terms!
Not my idea by the way, but the idea of Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force.

No matter what goal you, as the CEO of your organisation, subscribe to, you have a problem:
How do you make the organisation move in the right direction?
One of your most important tools is the set of managers in the organisation. According to Gallup, companies recruit the wrong kind of talent for management jobs 82% of the time.

Why is that? Gallup puts it down to failure to identify the right personality traits, or talent. Though that is probably true, it is unlikely to be the whole truth. There is another thing that matters:
Skill matters!
Talent alone won't make a manager great, or even good. Talent is just a measure of the aptitude a person has for a certain kind of tasks. To be good at it, it is necessary to develop the right skill set. Before you can do that, you need to figure out what the right skill set is.

That is what this article is about: How to identify the skills that will enable your managers to be really great.

Try to stay in the role of CEO throughout reading this article. The managers work as an extension of your brain. (Or, you are part of the same organisational hive mind, depending on how you view the organisation.) Managers are supposed to detect and correct problems, and continuosly strive to innovate and improve the organisation.

That takes skill. Actually, it requires a fairly complex set of skills. Your managers must hone their skills to a quite high level to be efficient. If the managers are unskilled, or have the wrong skills, your organisation, and your own job security, is toast.

Therefore, you, the CEO, need to think about the skills you want your managers to have,

That is where management models come in! Models are useful because they help us visualise, and think about things. Management models help us think about management.

Specifically, a management model can help when hiring or training managers. As the CEO of a large company you cannot personally oversee all hiring and training, but you can, and should, make sure that the people who do use relevant models.

There are many such models. The ones I write about in this article are models I have found useful. They are by no means the only useful models.

Beware of models that don't work!

Many organisations have only implicit models for how management, or any other kind of work, works. The problem with implicit models is that it is very difficult to see if they really work or not. It is taken for granted that they do. Often they don't!

For example, during my more than 25 years as a software developer I maintained a work portfolio, showing things I had done, from design, to code samples. Not once in my career, not once, did any recruiter or HR person want to see my portfolio.

Hiring a programmer without looking at code is like hiring a juggler without actually seeing the person juggle anything. It is completely daft, and yet it is common practice.

The problem is that many organisations delegate hiring and training to separate departments, but in these departments very few people have the skill nessesary to assess the level, or relevance, of the skills of the applicant.

The people who were assessing me had no clue how to distinguish a great programmer from a poor one. Instead, they fell back on checklists of tools and frameworks, i.e. things a programmer learns very quickly, and have very little to do with the ability to work well with other programmers, solve programming problems and write code that works, and can be maintained.

To assess the skill of a knowledge worker you often need to have the same skill yourself, at a very high level. This means you have to be a highly skilled programmer to assess the skill of other programmers, and a highly skilled manager to assess the skill of other managers.

Think about it: How would you estimate the competence level of an aircraft pilot, a surgeon, a chef, or an optician, just by talking to them? Unless you yourself have relevant skills at a fairly high level, it is not possible to do it reliably.

Same thing with managers!

To make it even more difficult, most of us overestimate our own skills. We know what we know, and that is what we make our assessment based on. We have no way to assess the importance of the things we don't know, because we don't know them. This is sometimes called The Asognosic's Dilemma.

If you have a good model as a base, you can at least get started in the right direction. You know what you need to learn. By comparing your model with other models, you can begin to understand where the gaps are, and how to fill them in.

So, let's look at some management models.

Fayolism, the Classic

Henri Fayol divided management into six functions
Henri Fayol described a management model in his 1916 book General and Industrial Management. Fayol divided management into six functions, and laid out fourteen principles for managers to follow. In this article, I'll just briefly discuss the functions, and the skills necessary to execute them.

Now, let's do some magic: We can look at Fayol's model and figure out what kind of skills are necessary to perform the six functions. There is more than one way to do this. there are different skills that can support the same function. A function can also be interpreted differently depending on the situation, and the skill and background of the person doing the interpretation.

When Fayol's book was translated from French to English, there was an error in translation. This error caused a fundamental change in the ideas about how to manage:

The French word "contrôle" means "check", or "inspection". "Contrôle" was translated into the English word "control", which means "to influence or direct people's behavior". Thus, the idea that a manager must know how to inspect results was replaced by the idea that a manager must direct people's behavior.

That is a pretty big change. For the purpose of this article, I am retaining Fayol's original meaning:

Fayole's management functions mapped to management skills. This is a modern interpretation. Most of these skills  did not exist in 1916.
Of course, you do have to be familiar with the skills in the figure to be able to assess their relevance. For example, why is statistics relevant to planning? It is partly because of the Planning Fallacy, the tendency for people and organisations to underestimate the time and cost of projects.

Nobel prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, and his colleague Amos Tversky, showed that the key to avoiding the planning fallacy is to use statistical methods of planning. However, this does require that managers have a basic grasp of statistics.

Queueing Theory is also important, because once a project is under way, and the workload builds up, processes will start to exhibit non-linear phenomena that has a great effect on time and cost. Knowing Queueing Theory allows a manager to avoid a great part of the adverse effects. It also has a great impact on how processes are designed.

However, if you do not know about statistics and Queueing Theory, there is no way to assess their importance. Of course, it is the same thing with Systems Thinking, Network Science, and Psychology.

Do you agree with my mapping of skills to functions? If not, still thinking as a CEO, what skills would you map to these functions?

Even more importantly, is Fayol's model still relevant? A lot has changed since 1916.

Deming's System of Profound Management

Deming's System of Profound Knowledge
After WW II Japan set about rebuilding their devastated country. The result was unprecedented economic growth throughout the 1950's through the 1980's. (And unfortunately an economic bubble that burst in 1991, and caused a decade long depression.)

W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician was sent to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur to help with the 1951 Japan Census. While he was there, Deming taught hundreds of Japanese engineers and managers Statistical Process Control  (SPC) and concepts of quality.

Some of the people taught by Deming were top management, like Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony.

In the 80's, Japan became so successful it was a threat to the U.S. economy. Deming developed a knowledge system for managers that was designed to enable U.S. industry to catch up again. His 1980 book Out of the Crisis is one of the most influential management books ever.

By Deming's time much had changed compared to the world Fayol lived in. And, new sciences had emerged, which enabled Deming to be more specific as to the skill set a manager would need.

Deming designed his management model in a manufacturing society. Since then, we have moved into the information age, so the skill sets of managers would need to evolve and adapt.

What would Deming's system look like if he had created it today?

Deming's knowledge system updated for the information age. Neuroscience and Complexity Thinking have contributed greatly to the understanding of management over the past 10-15 years.

Amazingly, these skills are still rare among managers. They are more common among management consultants, although I must admit, we consultants far to often focus on sales skills so much that the skills for getting the job done are in danger of atrophying.

Mintzberg on Managing

Henry Mintzberg's 2009 management model
Henry Mintzberg is considered to be one of the world's foremost experts on management. In his 2009 book Managing, Mintzberg presented a management model based on his research.

Mintzberg's management model with mappings to to skills and entities in Tempo!

I read Mintzberg's book while working on my own book Tempo!. Tempo! is intended as a practical guide for managers, so I was interested in how well the things I wrote about mapped to Mintzberg's model.

Though I did not have Mintzberg's management model in mind when I wrote Tempo!, the mapping is pretty good. This is not surprising, because good management models are bound to have similarities. After all, they all describe the same thing, albeit from different perspectives.

IOHAI – Boyd on leadership

The IOHAI leadership model is part of the Maneuver Conflict strategic framework developed by Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force.
The 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor presented a new way to view organisations, Theory X and Y. The U.S military, who understood the limitations on the classical functional hierarchy very well, were much quicker to pick up on McGregor's work than the business world.

In general, the military is more focused on leadership than management, so their models are a bit different. When Colonel John Boyd of the U.S. Air Force developed the Maneuver Conflict strategic framework, his IOHAI leadership framework was an important part of it.

Boyd stressed the importance of being able to shift from one point of view to another, in order to better understand and solve problems.

For example, an IOHAI trained business manager would be able to shift between useful frameworks such as Systems Thinking, Lean, Statistical Process Control, Self-Determination Theory, Theory Of Constraints, and others, to come up with innovative solutions to problems.

The Power of Paradigms

Donella Meadows's famous System Intervention points.
The Systems Thinker Donella Meadows wrote a famous essay about places to intervene in a system. A manager who understands this model has a powerful tool for applying effective change.

Like Boyd, Meadows considers the ability to consciously switch between different frameworks for thinking, the most powerful ability of all.

To be able to do this, a manager, or leader, must of course be trained to use more than one framework. If the framework is implicit, that is, no one thinks about how the thinking is done, shifting frameworks becomes impossible.

Now, still putting yourself in the place of a CEO, would you like to have explicit management models in your company, as references, to help you decide what skills to hire for, and how to train your managers?

Assuming the answer is yes, do any of the models I have written about fit the needs of your company? If not, what are the needs of your company? What skills do your managers and leaders need to master to fulfill those needs?

Do you have anything like an explicit management model in use today? If not, what is stopping you, and how do you fix it?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Coffee, LEGO movies, questionnaires, and complexity theory

I recently had a cup of coffee with a friend, and the discussion turned to the difference between complicated and complex, and why the difference is important.

I have had reason to think about that recently, so I had a couple of examples fresh in my mind, both relating to questionnaires and surveys.

As it turns out, many questionnaires you are asked to fill out have a common design mistake: The assumption that the subject under investigation is complicated, rather than complex. It is an easy mistake to make. The result is increased risk that the survey points you in the wrong direction.

Let's briefly define what we are talking about before digging in to the meat of the matter:
  • Complicated systems have many parts, but they also have predictable cause and effect relationships. For example, a mechanical watch is complicated. It is also predictable. It runs like...well, it runs like clockwork.
  • Complex systems have parts that can adapt to the behavior of other parts in the system. A family is a complex system. All family members both react and adapt to what other family members do. Business organisations, countries, teams and workgroups, ecological systems, the scouts, my photo club, and aquariums are also complex systems.

You can pick a mechanical watch apart and study each piece, that is analyse it, to figure out how it works.

On the other hand, studying each member of a family, or a software development team, or each fish in an aquarium, will not necessarily tell you how the system as a whole will work. A family has emergent properties, properties that belong to the family as a whole, but not to any of its members.

LEGO movies and unpredictability

Here is an emergent property of the system consisting of my eight year old son and me: Stop motion movie making.

My son asked me if we could make a LEGO movie. I said yes, of course, and we created the short movie above. It would be impossible to predict in advance that my son and I would produce a short LEGO movie featuring Thor and The Hulk.

In retrospect, it does not seem farfetched at all that we would do such a thing. It would be easy to construct a Future Reality Tree explaining why and how we did it. However, the tree would have to be created afterwards. It would be impossible to construct a tree that accurately predicts what we will do.

What on Earth does this have to do with surveys and questionnaires? As it turns out, a lot!

Questionnaires: The art of asking the wrong questions

To find out something about a complicated system, you can ask a question about a part of the system. If you want to know more, you can continue to ask questions about parts of the system. Eventually, you can compile the answers, and they will tell you a lot about the system as a whole.

With a complex system, that does not work very well. Knowing each part won't tell you the emergent properties of the system. Another problem is that with a complex system, you do not necessarily know which parts and properties of those parts, that are important to the functioning of the whole.

Systems where humans interact, are complex systems, but questionnaires are very often designed with the implicit assumption they are complicated, or even simple. Thus, most questionnaires, even the ones you pay specialists to create, are designed wrong. They do not tell you what you need to know!
As the illustration above shows, asking many specific questions means you get specific knowledge of the things you assume are important. however, you have no real basis for making these assumptions, because you haven't studied the system yet.

For example, some time ago a coffee shop I sometimes visit made a survey using touch screen computers and a set of specific questions. The questions were about the quality of service at the counter, whether the personnel behavied in an appropriate manner, whether there were cups and plates left on unoccupied tables in sight of the computer, and other things the management wanted to know.

As a fairly frequent guest, I noted that all of the things the questionnaire had questions about worked very well. There were problems, but the questionnaire did not mention them.

For example, there were several electrical outlets that were damaged well beyond the point of being dangerous, the toilets often ran out of soap and toilet paper, the free WiFi-system did not work. While  there was no problem with cups and plates lying around near the computer terminal, there were often several tables on the second floor that could not be used because they were covered in cups, plates, and glasses.

Nobody asked about it, because they did not know they should. The things they did ask about were the things they already had control of.

Thus, the questionnaire was all but useless as a tool for improving the café. All it could do was confirm that things the management had focused on in the past were ok.

The questionnaire created a false sense of having everything under control, which reduced the incitament to do real improvement.

Query Fatigue

Thinking requires a lot of energy, and the human brain has very limited energy reserves. This means a questionnaire with many questions will tire the brains answering the questions. Thus, the quality of the replies will degrade significantly, so that replies to question 26 will be much less trustworthy than replies to question 3.

Many people will of course opt out of replying to a questionnaire altogether, if it has too many questions.

To know more, you must ask less!

So, if a questionnaire gets worse the more comprehensive it is, what can you do about it?

Well, if asking more questions makes the questionnaire worse, then you can make it better by asking fewer questions.

If you ask only a few questions, then obviously you must ask the right ones, or you will learn little of significance. You cannot know what is important to ask, but there are people who know: The people answering the questionnaire. They probably do not know it as individuals, but collectively they do.

How can you tap into that knowledge? You can ask broad questions.
If you ask broad, open-ended questions like:

  • What is the single most important thing about X that we should improve?
  • What are the most important problems with X?

Then you will get the respondents to tell you what they believe is important, rather than telling you their beliefs about what you believe is important to them.

The difference is quite important.

There are many ways of doing this. Personally, I like the Crawford Slip brainstorming method. I also use a modified form of Net Promoter Score. (I had to modify it, because the original version of NPS botches the statistics and makes the assumption all systems are complicated.)

Scope and analysis paralysis

There are two important questionnaire design problems I am saving for another day and another post:

  • Scope: Which people should you ask? This is sometimes obvious. On the other hand, the obvious answer is often wrong, so you need to give this some thought.
  • Analysis paralysis: What do you do once you get the responses to your questionnaire? How do you know which answers are important, and which ones are not?
With those two questions I bid you farewell, for now. Until next time, think about questionnaires and surveys in your own organisation. Did they really tell you what you need to know? Were the big problems solved? If not, what can you do about it?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Systems archetype: Success to the Successful

The Success to the Successful systems archetype explains how very small differences, and random factors, can lead to one actor in a system to be hugely more successful than other actors:

  • how monopolies are created
  • why income is so unevenly distributed in many countries
  • why success in the school system leads to success later in life
  • how Microsoft became dominant in the software market

...and many other phenomena. Success to the Successful provides an explanation model for the Pareto Principle, the observation that in many systems, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

To understand the causal loop diagram above: Assume that you have two actors A and B. A and B compete for resources. A and B may start out being equal. That is, there may be no observable difference that would give either a competitive advantage.

As long as the system is perfectly balanced, nothing interesting happens, but, if there is a random event that either favors A, or hampers B, then A will gain an advantage over B. A can use that advantage to gain more resources. Because resources are limited, B will be starved for resources. This will mean a greater advantage for A. When the cycle repeats, A will be able to gain even more resources, and B will have less.

If the cycle is not checked, it will continue until A kills off B. In cases where A and B are interdependent for survival, A will then die too.


Two recent Youtube videos provide excellent examples of the effects of the Success to the Successful systems archetype.

The first video describes how income distribution in the United States have changed in the past few decades:

The second video shows the same income distribution phenomenon occurring in Sweden. The video is in Swedish, and I have included it mainly for my Swedish readers.


The video above shows Warren Buffet and Bill Gates discussing a remedy to the problem of uneven income distribution. It is well worth watching.

There are two tactics that can be used to restore balance in a Success to the Successful situation:

  • Identify the resource being unequally distributed, and redistribute it more equally. For example, this is why tax scales in many countries are progressive. It has nothing to do with justice. It is a way to prevent distribution imbalances that would eventually lead to economic collapse.
  • Separate the reinforcing structures, so that they no longer are allocated resources based on their relative results. For example, when Apple was being outcompeted by Microsoft and the PC manufacturers, Apple broke into the music market with the iPod. This reduced Apple's dependency on the computer market, a system dominated by Microsoft and the PC, and allowed it to build strength in an area where there was less competition.


I have asked the very nice people in the Systems Thinking in Action group at Linkedin to review this post. The comment thread is here (for group members only). I will update this article whenever someone catches me making a mistake.


Higher Learning Research Communications, March 2013, Volume 3, No. 1
Systemic Perspective, Vol. 4, Gene Bellinger (Out of print. Visit the Systemswiki instead.)
Business Dynamics, John Sterman

Friday, February 28, 2014

Conflict resolution - Perhaps we should be more childish!

It is natural to want to avoid conflict, but it may not be the best way. You may be surprised to learn who had the courage to stand up in the face of anger and constructively work to resolve a conflict, and who had not. (Photo: Henrik Mårtensson Yep, that's me. Model: Ida Stranne.)
You should not decide until you have heard what both have to say.
–Aristophanes, c. 446 AD – c. 386 AD
I have seen two interesting cases of conflict resolution recently, showing off two very different methods of resolving conflicts.

Even more interesting than the different approaches, is who chose which approach. Read on, you will be surprised, or maybe not.

Case 1: Scream and make up

In the first case, two people worked together on building something, but they had different ideas, and constantly got in each other's way. They took a break, and decided to go out together, to let their tempers cool off.

When they came back, the conflict had escalated to the point where they were screaming to each other, and one of them left to go home.

About ten minutes later, the person who had left came back, apologized, and said he wanted to make up and be friends again. He said he valued friendship more than the thing they had been trying to build.

It took a few minutes, but eventually, they were both talking. A few minutes after that, they continued on their project, and it worked well. Since then, the two have worked on more projects, and worked very well together.

Case 2: Repress and remove

Repressing the message by removing the messenger has short term attraction, but it does not solve the problem. It often creates new ones. The problem is that excercising power is much easier than excercising courage, good judgement, and empathy.
The second case was in a sales network team. A recruiter who used personality profiling in his work asked another team member to take the test. The idea was that if the second person took the test, he would then be comfortable acting as a sales agent for the first person.

For this example to work, I need to delve into the background first, so you understand the full consequences of the repress and remove tactic used. I am sad to say, repress and remove is as common as it is costly.

It should be noted that the recruiting agent had sold his services to more than 400 companies, and tested more than 14,000 people. The recruiter claimed that his test was an infallible way to identify top talent, the very brightest and smartest people.

In this case the second person happened to be a top performer, and according to other tests, both personality and IQ tests, friendly and a borderline genius. He was exactly the kind of person the recruiter claimed to be able to identify.

When this person took the test, he ran into some difficulties:

  • It was an ipsistic test. Ipsistic tests are designed as counseling aids. They do not yield results useful for comparing different individuals. For example, a very stupid person with little empathy could get a score that says there is a 50-50% balance between intellect and emotion, but so could a very intelligent person with high empathy. (Job applicant tests usually use the Likert scale.)
  • The test forced test takers to prioritize two different statements, without knowing the context. The test was an online questionnaire designed so you could not skip a question and continue. 
This is downright stupid. For example, "X is a letter" and "I need to breathe" are both true, but to prioritize them, you need to know context: Are you teaching a child to read and write vs. are you suffering from oxygen deprivation. 
Intelligent people do consider context! It is a hallmark of high intelligence and empathy, and yet, the test was designed to barr such people from even completing it.
To put it bluntly, to complete the test, the test taker would have to fake being less intelligent than he was, which he refused to do. (In retrospect, the test taker admitted that hiding his intelligence would have been a lot smarter.) 
Approximately a third of the questions were designed this way.
Not only was the test fake, it faked the wrong type of test!

There were more problems with the requitment method. The recruiter had a method of identifying the ideal personality profile for a particular job. What he did was to profile employees with the same or similar jobs, and then create a profile based on averages from the ipsistic test scores.

You may note there are two things wrong with this:
  • If your ideal profile is the average of what you have got, you will get more average! Real top performers will be way different from the average, and have no zero chance of passing the test, unless they are lying their way through it.
  • Computing an average score from the results of an ipsistic test is an excercise in idiocy, because ipsistic test scores are not comparable from person to person.
There were other things, like failing to make a distinction between introverts and socially selective people, which is important if you want to identify top performers. The recruiter also cited examples of customer satisfaction as evidence of the effectiveness of the method itself. This is entirely bogus. For example, an astrologer may have many satisfied clients, but astrology itself does not work.

Now we get to the interesting part:

The test taker went to the recruiter and asked why an ipsistic test was used for comparative testing. The recruiter promised to explain why, if the two could have a meeting, but then made a complaint to the team management. Exactly what the recruiter said, the test taker was never told.

The team management then used an intermediary to tell the test taker that the test taker was expelled from the team. The team management would tell the rest of the team that the test taker had decided to quit the team.

There was to be no action against the recruiter, who had fooled more than 400 companies into using a test procedure could not identify, and even excluded, the people they were looking for. More than 14,000 people tested, and misclassified by a flawed test.

Considering that finding real talent, or not doing it, can be the difference between surviving and going down in burning flames, I'd say the repress and remove tactic can have pretty devastating consequences.

Who did what?

I wish adults could act more like children: Ethical, courageous, and prone to do the right thing, even when it is difficult.
You might not be too surprised when I tell you the team management who chose the repress and remove tactic included:

  • a CEO
  • a board member
  • a management consultant specializing in investigation dysfunctional management teams.

You may be more surprised when I tell you who the two people who, despite anger and screaming, managed to do productive work and strengthen their friendship:

  • Two eight year old children playing Minecraft
I have seen a child go and make up, even though he was so afraid he was crying. Still, on his own, he made the decision to resolve the matter in the best way possible. He knew what was the right thing to do!

I wish there were more childish people in management and leadership positions. Perhaps, we would then have better ways to resolve differences, and a better future for all.

What do you think? How should we resolve workplace conflicts? What is required to make a solution effective, rather than just talk and wishfull thinking?

If you have an opinion, please do comment.