Gamers, musicians and artists

When I joined ThoughtWorks, a common scene I witnessed in the evenings were playing games. Age of Empires was the most commonly played one and the gamers were very fanatical about it.  When I wanted to play, I was given a chance to take part but when the fellow gamers found out I was a rookie, no one wanted me in their teams. They forced me to be at some level so that I can play along with them and be part of their teams, I was made to train myself in the weekends and then get back to playing with them. Same for other games like Cricket. If there was some level of seriousness, then better be prepared.

There was also a music band, I had practiced playing movie songs on a computer keyboard and some software for a very long time, may be around 8-10 years. So I thought I had a hang of music when I expressed interest to join the band. I could readily see that I was moved out of singing, drumming and keyboard to merely being an MC for the event as I lacked skills that were good enough for an office band. One of the band members made me join a music school and after about two years of practice I was finally taken back into the team. I have seen this among other disciplines of art, people are not ready to take you into the team if you cannot match up to their expectations.

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Workplace is different, because it is does not have an easy way to measure productivity or understand expectations. Basic expectations of being a good team member is understood well, but when people don’t see those behaviours generally it is tolerated or seen as the job of the manager to interfere there. There could be many reasons to this one, one of them is work is seen as a job description to be fulfilled for a salary; not something that is done because you want to do and you are compensated for it. Workplaces won’t be difficult to run if people know what to expect from their team members and be very strict with the outcomes just like gamers, musicians and artists.

 

 

Life does not get easier, we just grow stronger

I was thinking life was getting easier in some areas until I stumbled on a quote that said ‘Life does not get easier, we just grow stronger’. Simple, but a deep thought. If something is getting easy for us, it means there was an external factor that made it easy for us. For example, scientists are working round the clock to find new medicines that makes it easy for us to recover from illness but building an athletic fitness and becoming physically strong requires a lot of work.

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Getting stronger always means we have to work towards it, we never get strong without exposure to something that makes us look weak or vulnerable. So when we observe things become easy to us, we just need a pat in the back to ourselves that we have gotten stronger to handle this easily. Being strong is a choice, getting easy things is a matter of someone else making it for us.

Eyeballed it

In the film ‘Sully’ when the captain is interrogated about what measurements he made that made him decide to ditch the plane in the river instead of taking it to the airport, he responds by saying ‘I eyeballed it‘. This has been written about by many authors like in ‘Hare brain and tortoise mind’, ‘Thinking fast and slow’, ‘Blink’ etc. It is hard to prove as a ton of processing happens completely subconscious.

I also happened to read about this in the book ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler, who was the CEO of Semco. Semco is one of the most unique workplaces that had piloted very radical ideas in the 1980’s when management by the book was in its peak. It was very successful for the political environment that was in Brazil at that time and that company’s model has been studied by many people. Semler has an habit of throwing detailed reports in the dustbins and ask for headline summaries from his managers. He also says in another book that many of the times that his managers’ headlines seems to be right about forecast and prediction than those that were backed by solid research and numbers. He practically asks everyone to eyeball the situation.

Eyeballing is not easy, it comes with years of dedicated practice in an area. It is not possible to ask a football striker to explain how did that person know that the goal keeper is going dive to the right. They just eyeball it, that skill gets improved with tons of feedback and dedicated effort to improve.

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At desk work also many times these situations happen, people will develop muscle memory (otherwise eyeballing skills). They will know just by a glance that something is wrong, it will be hard to prove but letting them make a call based on their hunch and giving them space to learn from their action will improve the effectiveness multifold. We have been conditioned that we can be wrong as long as we are backed by reports and numbers, but I learnt that there is no substitute for experience and gut feel.

The innate laziness of our mind will make us very efficient in heading towards right decisions. We can train this by creating mental models (some examples here) deliberately that will keep improving our eyeballing ability.

 

 

In a world where the answer is ‘it depends’

‘Surely your are joking My Feynman’ is a biography of Richard Feynman, one of the Nobel prize winning scientists, this book was put together from taped conversations he had with his friend. The book paints a picture that though Feynman is a scientist; he had interests in arts, music, safe cracking and even playing pranks.

He shares his observations about how his art teacher changed the way he thought about teaching. Feynman had always seen the idea of the teacher – giving you the right way to approach a problem, introduce you to standards and tried & tested methods. You will be forced by the teacher to follow a way of doing things until you get it right. Art teachers on the other hand never criticised.

The art teachers always gave feedback like ‘if you use dark lines here, I feel that you want to convey darkness’, ‘if you draw the neck long and the head short, it gives me a feeling that you wanted to show that you are looking through a lens or it is a caricature’. They never prescribed this is how you do, because in art it is possible to use any method to convey what you mean. The teacher was only able to teach through osmosis, there were no instructions or prescriptions. Feynman says that the spirit of how to go about solving problems are taught than the techniques used to solve the problem which is very important.

Recently I got involved with Agile India conference as a volunteer. They have a great guideline of giving feedback to submissions such a way that it is constructive, never in a negative tone and never ever prescriptive. One of the items in the guideline is to see if we can play the perfection game. In this way you are actually trying to improve even when staying away from the implementation itself. There are so many ways to get the same desired result, the solution approach depends on what the individual or team knew at the time of task at hand, the tools at their disposal, their environment and also the mindset .

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Nurture your body to nurture your mind and then life

I started writing this when I saw a meme floating around saying ‘I am neither a night owl nor a morning lark, I am a permanently exhausted pigeon’. I see a few people this way anytime I meet them.

More and more work has become brain based and less muscle based, brain based work also keeps increasing in complexity. Not alone that, even the entertainment and pastimes seems to cater only to the brain.We have not been built this way, we were built over 1000’s of years to rely on muscle strength and only recently it has shifted to mind. Numerous studies show the link between exercises and brain function. If we want a sound mind, it is better we have a sound body to support it. There is also a theory that brain evolved to be complex  as humans took more and more complex muscle tasks. Brain is a physical entity, mind is just the arrangement of molecules in a certain way. Without the fitness of the physical ones, the volatile mind has no option than to mirror the physical state.

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Monica Seles was the best player in professional tennis until someone stabbed her, from there on she never went to recover her form. Nobody relaxed the rules because she was stabbed, fitness is never an optional item in professional sports even when things happen that are not in our control, it adversely affects. Desk jobs may not require athletic fitness but everyone should take care to avoid preventable diseases or over exertions.

Eating right, maintaining fitness, not over exerting unnecessarily is all a matter of self discipline and desire to pace one’s life well. The saying ‘Health is wealth’ is still applicable, the progress made in career and life is directly related to how fit someone is. The 20s and 30s are supposed to be a human’s peak health and if people are exhausted most of the time at this age, then should be prepared to lose out and settle for less.

A nice life is result of a healthy mind, healthy mind is possible only if we can manage to have a good career and to have a rewarding career health is very much necessary.

Though there are exceptions to this, if you ignore good health then be prepared to ignore a nice life.

Gestalt

We will always try to make meaningful perceptions in a seemingly random setting. This is one thing that is right now a major differentiator between humans and bots, so that captchas rely on how well we can perceive something in an image. Gestalt in German language means shape or form and a branch of psychology that deals with perceiving things is called Gestalt psychology. Due to this ability, we have grouped random set of stars in different places as constellations; we perceive a human smile when we use a colon and a bracket.

When we take an eye test, the optometrist writes down the values for how well we can see. It is technically called visual acuity test. Visual acuity values determines what glasses you need to wear to have a normal vision. Similar to visual acuity, our ability to perceive things from seemingly random settings is called perceptual acuity. Sadly there is no way to measure one’s perceptual acuity but increase in that is directly related to business success.

3945354161_16d1884f84On our day to day life our ability to form hypotheses based on our perceptions, testing it out and holding on strongly to validated hypotheses contributes to our growth. Our ability to come up with hypotheses is directly proportional to the way we perceive our world. Our perceptions become better only when we expand our interests to a wide variety, not just the in the field of work we are involved.

All the time we spend time on sports, current affairs, politics, technology, music and many more will collectively help improve the way we perceive our world. Of course spending dedicated deliberate effort on a field makes one an expert in that field, but that makes someone a doer not a creator; we need to be an expert in a field as well as be able to create something. Our world is a perpetual puzzle, those who solve larger pieces gets the better reward.

Image courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/double-m2/

I am also saying the same thing, why don’t you believe me?

Too often I come across in discussions where the listener does not accept a view point from a person but accepts the same point when someone else says it.

Example: Targument-1299108_640.pnghere is a conversation in the team about ‘Is September a good time to travel to coorg’? Novi  says strongly that it is generally misty and rains a bit but not to the extent to spoil a good vacation. The others in the team quickly look up weather patterns in the internet and conclude what Novi said is not right, it is not easy to travel in rains to hill stations. Novi tries hard to convince about the previous visits but no one is in the mood to listen. At this point Ivon an avid traveller enters, looks at the argument and says Novi is right, it is a good time to travel. No one refutes, they agree to Ivon.

Why did they agree to Ivon but not Novi when both of them are saying the same thing?

Dave Gray explains in his work ‘Liminal Thinking‘ that we carry a lot of beliefs from what we observe from our experiences; we then keep validating that our beliefs are right by choosing only the relevant data from experiences that will validate our beliefs again and again in a vicious cycle. This vicious cycle creates a shortcut in our brains so that we directly map the experiences without a conscious thought to conclusions. The example I had given about Ivon and Novi are very small in impact compared to what we encounter every day.

What we perceive as ‘I am saying that the same thing as the other person, but they trust the other person’ is nothing but people’s mental model about us is different as they do not know what our experience has been. This is the reason that more the people in a group are willing to understand each other’s experiences and talk out loud about their beliefs and assumptions, the better they communicate.

The video below is a nice explanation on why our experiences shape our beliefs. The narrower our experiences are, the narrower our beliefs will be. If we are not able to communicate right, first we should expose our experience; no one will buy our beliefs. If we need to understand someone better, we should have had similar experiences that have created their beliefs or we should be exposed to their experiences by suspending our judgements.

Making everyone participate

In group discussions or design meetings it is tough to get everyone’s participation. The people in the group will have different experience levels, context & expertise which  puts shy people on the back-foot, as people always assume that someone will know better than them. Bystander effect also kicks in as soon as the number of people in the meeting increases beyond three and the ambiguity of the problem discussed increases.

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We can address participation issues by considering these

Make the environment safe

Many people are shy and they fear judgement, if the environment encourages participation with commonly agreed rules like ‘no question is a bad question’ or ‘every input is valuable’ and people see it actively getting practiced will ease the burden on shy people. This works for small groups of 3-4 people, thinking aloud also begins to happen

Pass talking token around round-robin and time box talking time per person

There are people who love to talk and there is no starting trouble for them to talk, they will easily mask the hesitant ones in every discussion. An easy way to break this unfair advantage is to have a facilitator and a talking token passed round-robin for participation.

Make everyone write their ideas and opinions down 

Some people may easily get biased when they hear other’s opinion. It is due to the need to belong to a group and not sound different. If in a brainstorming session participants are given a quiet time and write down their thoughts, chances are high that people may put down what they think without rephrasing or rewording.

We can prevent bystander effect or people zoning out when we have someone playing the moderator role watching for signs and also time box discussions, thereby making meetings very productive and outcome based.

Stone soup

I read the story of stone soup when I was in primary school, I did not understand how someone made soup with a stone. It was too deep a concept to understand as a kid. It is about moving something from 0 to 1,  from then on there are plenty of ways and people to take care to take it forward.

running-498257_640Why is it hard to move something from 0 to 1? Our brains are hardwired to be anxiety neutral. It hates ambiguities and new things to do, that is why things like driving becomes a sub conscious activity by becoming motor memory, once we start driving often. On a day to day basis you can observe your tendency to be anxiety neutral, it may take up only 15 minutes a week to clean a table but it is too difficult to get started with it. When that thought is going on your mind, if someone starts cleaning it up, then you are more likely to join the task and get it done.

My last post was about getting started with something and getting people to join. The first person who does something new is perceived to be the lone nut, there is a fear of judgement that prevents people to start something. This was very evident in a aum meditation session where there were only few of us and we need to chant aum but every person was waiting for the other to start, I took the lead after the first two half hearted attempts by being the first person to start the chant and the rest followed.

There are two things needed for people to start doing new things,

  • Provide an environment which helps them to shed their fear of judgement
  • Be the lone nut and start something which someone else has in mind, it is for sure that someone will follow.

The first point is not easy to address but it is too easy to be someone who starts doing things to facilitate change. We should shed our fear of judgement and be okay to do something that will be criticised. The results are surprising, what might take days to nudge someone to do something from scratch is way too easy to make them pick up a rough draft and take it to completion. Making stone soup is not deception, it is a tool to help people come out of their anxiety neutrality.