Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Do you remember when....

Do you use your memory in work? Stupid question, of course you do. But then ask the question, how important is your memory to your work and it gets a bit more complicated.

A popular view of memory is that it is a bit like a computer. Once recorded the data is stored away for safe keeping until we need to recall it based on some cue or search criteria. The facts or data do not change.

Unfortunately, it's not this simple. Neuroscience has shown that when we remember, we are reconstructing the fact or event from memory traces located in different parts of the brain. This raises questions of reliability.

This reconstruction can build the memories differently each time. We could be influenced by new information we have learned since the event occured or a change in our own personal circumstances. If I got laid off tomorrow it might affect how I recall my boss in a few years time. Hence our memories of events or people can change over time. We can suppress parts of a memory (how nice my boss was) or alter a memory to help our self-esteem ( I was laid off because he was afraid I would show him up).

The upshot is that the version of the past which we recall from memory can have gaps and be inconsistent. In this gap there is room for what psychologists call 'False Memories’, where people for any number of reasons create false memories of events or recall events which in reality never occurred in the first place.

This has been the subject of various studies and is particularly well researched by Elizabeth F. Loftus. According to the Innocence Project, false confessions occurred in 24 percent of the 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence in the US.

Outside of an eye witness/confessional or court room setting, this is also relevant to the work place. We all recall projects where something went well or didn't, who was to blame, what the sequence of events were etc.

However we may need to treat these memories with a degree of caution. Any number of factors could be affecting our reconstruction and recall of events. It shines a light on the value of using memory aids, from the simple note pad to more formal documentation procedures. We need an accurate record of events as they occurred that does not rely on memory.

If you find yourself being asked to trust a colleagues memory of what happened, try to get some supporting evidence, from another colleague or from some documented source. If you are working on a project now, which you know you will be asked to recall details of at a future date, keep verifiable written records. This all sounds a bit basic, but it is tempting to take short cuts and assume that when the time comes we can just rely on our memory.

Getting back to the original question, your memory is something you use all the time in work, but the importance and confidence we attach to it needs to be countered by appreciating how it works, the subjective nature of memory reconstruction and the possibility of  false memories. Memories are personal, not perfect, remember that.

Don't Meet to Browse

In meetings you attend, how often do you look up and down the table and see people listening but also coming and going to their laptop or smart phone?

They could be checking their email, doing a bit of surfing or checking some facts as they come up. A part from being occasionally irritating, is this doing any real harm?

Some research by Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay suggests that it may. They gave college students laptops and asked them to attend a lecture. They asked half the students to use their laptops during the lecture (not unlike in a meeting) and the other half to keep their laptops closed (don't see that in meetings very often). The lecture was followed up by a test based on the lecture.

The participants that browsed with their laptops did considerably worse than those that left their laptops closed. Hembrooke and Gay also analysed the results and browsing style using Lang’s Limited Process Capacity model. The moral of the story is that browsing in a lecture is not a good idea. Your ability to take in information is impaired.

It is not unreasonable that the same would hold true in meetings. We have a limited cognitive capacity for processing information and if we are browsing something that interests us more than what we are hearing or seeing in the meeting, then we will allocate more cognitive resources to our browsing and take in less of what is happening in the meeting.

With smart phones, tablets, laptops all cable of allowing our scarce cognitive resources to wander you might consider asking attendees to turn off their devices . You have probably even seen this at home where your partner is having a conversation with you while browsing on their iphone. After a few minutes you figure out they have probably only heard half of what you've said.

So if the meeting you run needs full input from all attendees, if you need them devoting all their cognitive resources to the matters in hand, then a device ban may be in order. I sincerely hope you are not in a meeting reading this. If you are then make sure to read the minutes.  

BREAKING: Have you too many alerts?

Over the years I have been involved in the design and implementation of various computer applications.

When installing a system we were often asked to make screen changes to highlight certain situations. These included new or additional alerts for tasks that were over due, adding scrolling text about some process already underway or putting in pop ups to remind staff of best practice.

More often than not these requests were declined, because if they were implemented, they would have resulted in a very busy computer screen for the end user.  'Alert Fatigue' would creep in. This would result in sending alerts that would be irrelevant for many, and worse than that, when people get enough of these, the alerts that are actually important would be ignored.

I recently came across some research that seemed to agree with the philosophy of being miserly when it came to adding alerts, scrollers etc to screens. An experiment by Lori Bergen, Tom Grimes and Deborah Potter had college students watch CNN Headline News. Some students watched the regular news, complete with all the on screen extras such as flashing icons, the stock quotes, breaking news and the rolling messages that scroll along the bottom of the screen. Other students watched the same news, but with the extras edited out, they just saw the basic screen.

Students that watched the busier screen with all the alerts and extra text did far worse in recalling facts than those who watched the basic news screen.

The lesson here for the workplace is that we can now have plugins and pop ups for many applications on our desktops or smart phones. We have our Google or Yahoo pulling in the news, weather, stock prices as we read our email. The bottom right hand corner of your PC screen will have pop ups for scanning email, Instant Messaging, Skype activity, Calendar Events.

Like the participants in the experiment, our ability to absorb the key facts of what we are actually doing or looking at on our screens may be affected. If you work in a job where attention to detail and recall of facts are important, then perhaps you should review the desktop or apps on your PC.

Have a look at the alerts and notices that do pop up, consider how important they are. Are they 'clutter' or actually helping you to work more efficiently. If they are on the 'clutter' end of the spectrum, then a spring clean of your apps and desktop icons may be in order.

There is also a lesson here for website design and on line marketing. Flashing ads, visit counters, social media feeds, pop ups asking for surveys are all easy to put on, but if you want people to recall what is on your website, then you may need to cut back on these and be more circumspect about adding new features in the future.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Thinking too fast

We think at different speeds, if we have to scan a list of addresses to find a house number in a hurry, our thoughts move a little faster than when we are sitting back admiring a nice view.

This then begs the question, what bearing has this on how we think? Emily Pronin, a psychology professor at Princeton University, has co written an article with Jesse J. Chandler which goes into this in more detail.

Previous work by Pronin suggested the speed at which we think can be altered and thinking fast puts us into a positive mood. In the article mentioned above however, she focused on whether it makes us more risky.

Pronin and Chandler ran two experiments to investigate this. In the first experiment they had people reading statements on a computer screen, one group at a slow pace and one at a quicker pace. Participants in each group then played a game where they blew up a virtual balloon, the bigger they could make the balloon, the bigger the reward, however if the balloon burst they got nothing.

Sounds like the recent property crash. Pronin and Chandler noticed that people who were in the group that read fast paced statements took more risks and popped more balloons by pushing the blowing up of balloons too far. Those who read at a slower pace were more cautious in their inflating.

In the second experiment people watched video games at different speeds and then filled out a questionnaire on how likely they were to engage in types of risk taking behaviour (eg having unprotected sex, leaving work assignments to the last minute). Again those whose thoughts had to keep up with the faster paced material, were more willing to take on risk.

This is relevant to the work place as the type of activity Pronin and Chandler used to speed up peoples thoughts is all around us as we go about our jobs.

Traders may see latest stock prices scrolling quickly across the bottom of their screens, we may use computer applications where we have to scroll over and back across windows for information and then read it quickly in order to make a call or fill in some other screen.

All these type of actions can speed up our thoughts and maybe make us a bit more likely to take on risks when we make the business call or decide to buy at the share price whizzing past.If you have call centre staff and they have to read incoming calls quickly on a ticker type feed, they may be a bit more risky (less secure) when authenticating or validating customers when they call in.

Quickly scrolling at speed up and down your Facebook or Twitter page may make you less discerning when putting in a risky or sarcastic comment.

Alternatively if you want a customer to buy something they may perceive as risky or be less risk adverse in their attitude toward you, perhaps speed up their thought process by having the type of content used by Pronin and Chandler in your sales presentation, pitch or website. If you design advertisements, then include some fast paced material in your web, TV or radio ads if you think people may be cautious in their spending.

If you want your staff to be risk adverse and take fewer chances, then look at their work environment. If there is something they use frequently that could speed up their thought process, either mitigate against it with greater risk monitoring or change their environment to make it all a bit more relaxed.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The IKEA Effect

Have you been to IKEA or some other flat pack emporium? The popularity of these stores and IKEA in particular has attracted the attention of Mike Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely. They have an article in The Journal of Consumer Psychology which might offer an explanation for this very successful business model.

Their research suggests that the act of building something, putting your own blood, sweat and tears into the flat packed shelves (while following vague instructions that seem equally vague when held right side up or upside down), seemed to give the item a sense of value beyond its inherent quality.

This was dubbed the “IKEA effect.” In one study, participants who built a simple IKEA storage box themselves were willing to pay much more for the box than a group of participants who merely inspected a fully built box. The phrase 'labour of love" is quite apt.

There may be some lessons for business here. If you can get clients involved in the actual construction of the product, get them to feel it is built by them, then they may appreciate and value it more. Some might call this 'buy in'

An example would be where a web developer gives a client a content management system where they can upload their own content, images on their website rather than having to go back to the web developer with requests. In a restaurant, you may get the client to help in their own food preparation or in a pub pull their own pint. In consultancy, get the client to come up with or contribute to some of your papers, they may value the resulting findings a bit more.

Getting back to the IKEA shelves, there is a downside for the guy who put the shelves together. He will never be able to sell them for what he thinks they are worth as the value he puts on them is more than we would be willing to pay. If you are buying off a supplier that makes his own product, then be prepared for a hard negotiation. If you are buying off a supplier who is a middle man, he may have a more rational view.

There is a chance that because I've researched and written this post, I might value it a bit more than you, but hope you enjoyed it anyway.

Feeling Rich on Pay Day?

When launching a new service or product, how do you decide when to launch it? It may be a seasonal decision, it may be when your marketing budget comes in, it may be when your sales team are hired and in place, it may be when current sales are running low.

A recent paper by Dr. Stephen Spiller, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management suggests we should take pay day into account and more particularly, the frequency of pay day.

You may recall the recent RBS payments IT failure which resulted in employees in several companies that banked with the company not being able to access their monthly payments.This showed that many peoples salaries were paid in the first few days of the month. The queues unfortunately bore this out.

Getting back to Dr. Spillers paper, he noticed that we feel less financially constrained when we have just got our monthly salary. He explains that if you have 2 people John and Mary, John is paid €4,300 on the first of the month and Mary €1000 a week. Both earn €52,000 a year. Up until the last week of the month, John has more cash on hand than Mary.

He feels he has more to spend, even though they have the same income, except for the last week when he can get a little stretched. This affects how John and Mary decide what to buy. Mary always has less in her pocket than John so she thinks through each decision a bit more.

Dr Spiller suggests this is because Mary pays more attention to what else she could do with her money, in other words she focuses on the opportunity cost of missing out on item A if she buys B because at any point in time, her cash flow only allows her to buy one of them.

If you are selling goods which may be discretionary or luxury, then you may consider having your TV and on line advertisements in the first week of the month when the likes of John are flush with cash and feel less constrained in their spending.

For the Marys of this world, it doesn't matter as she is pretty consistent each week. You may need to lay off the advertising of the luxury good in the last week of the month as John won't be able to spend that much and will feel quite constrained.

This may be the right week however to sell John a credit card or a savings plan. Alternatively you could take the opposite view that you need to advertise more when demand may slide in the last week of the month. The point here is that recognising when your target market feel unconstrained in their spending may guide your thoughts on how/when you pitch or market your product or service.

In his research, Dr Spiller conducted some lab based tests which showed that those given small but frequent payments paid more attention to other ways they could spend their money than those given large but infrequent payments.

In a follow up test, another set of participants were asked to report how frequently they were paid and the extent to which they thought about other ways they could use their money when making purchases.

Replicating the lab results, participants paid with frequent small payments considered their opportunity costs more than those paid with infrequent large payments, even controlling for annual income.

So getting back to the RBS payments failure, it showed that most of us are paid week one of each month, if you are on a monthly salary, that is when you feel like spending. If you are targeting customers you know are paid weekly e.g. those on a state pension or welfare or a profession like construction with traditional weekly payments, then you need to be aware that they will consider the opportunity cost of buying your product or service.

Perhaps your next customer research should ask if your customers are paid weekly or monthly, sounds innocuous but it could guide your product launch or marketing spend. It may be interesting to see if your previous sales figures in luxury goods tally with the week one of the month.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Anchoring & Estimates

I was in a meeting recently discussing a sale between two software systems and a potential large client. Integration between the two systems came up. It was a high level discussion as the project is not funded yet. Even though it was still at 'Pre-Sales' stage, the client was looking for an estimate on how much effort (and cost) would be involved in the integration aspect.

Without substantial analysis, it is hard to give an estimate and there is no time or funding to do the analysis, so you have a bit of a  chicken and an egg. A sale being a sale, both software companies did not want to over complicate the situation and embark on time consuming pre-project work. If they did, the deal would in all likelihood fall through.

One software company said they thought it was about 3 days work for them, the second company then came up with 5 days as their estimate.

I was talking afterwards to the person who put forward the 5 day estimate and asked him how he came up with that. "Well when the other guys were doing 3 days and we have to do a little bit more, 5 seemed reasonable, it would have created doubt if we said we don’t know".

This is classic Anchoring Bias, one of several cognitive biases that have been covered in many studies. Psychologists describe it as a human tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor," on one piece of information when making decisions. An example of this in a business context would be an investor judging a stock price as overvalued or undervalued based on the stock's previous high price. The previous high price is the anchor. It is part of the larger study of judgement and decision making under uncertainty which is best exemplified by the work of  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

The scenario above happens all the time, be it people being asked to give sales estimates, costs of production, number of people needed, or time lines for a project conclusion.

Where well analysed, firm evidence is lacking or suspect (as is often the case) then someone usually gives a ‘Guesstimate’ and this becomes the figure around which all other estimates are given. The origin of the guesstimate is often how long a similar task took or costed previously. Bold and convincing arguments are then needed to dislodge the guesstimate. Think back to a few meetings you have been in and you will recognise this.

So what can this mean for you in your work place? Well, one implication is that if you are going into a meeting where you know estimates will be required, get your estimate in first and let that dictate the pace, otherwise you will have to dislodge someone else’s anchor and that is easier said than done. If you understand the sports cliché 'get your retaliation in first'  you get the idea.

If you want to deliberately control the anchoring of any figures, then look at the agenda, speaking order, seating order, content of your presentation etc as a medium for setting out your numbers. If you can't prevent a number being anchored by some one else, be ready with a suggestion to have it bottomed out in another meeting or some other process. Letting it happen by accident is not good enough.

Getting back to my opening account, the second software company will now find it very difficult to charge for more than 5 days work, will really have to justify it if they do .That is not a position a project manager wants to be in.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Plead Guilty Everytime

If you are looking to hire a leader, a hard worker who will be looked up to, what personal traits would you short list?

How high up that short list would 'Guilt' be? Probably not very. However some research conducted in 2011 by Francis J. Flynn at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has put forward the idea that Guilt should be near the top of the list.

In the Harvard Business Review, Flynn describes how he gave 150 workers in the Finance Dept. of a Fortune 500 Company a standard psychological test. The test (TOSCA - Test of Self-Conscious Affect) measured the workers tendency to feel guilt. The results were then compared with actual performance reviews. The results were clear, the more an employee was prone to guilt, the higher the rating they got from their boss in reviews.

Flynn found this very interesting as the TOSCA and the performance ratings were completely independent but the link between performance and guilt was well established. Flynn and his colleagues conducted some follow up research which showed that the guilt prone were also more committed to their organizations and were seen as stronger leaders by their peers.

The research also suggested that guilt-ridden people were more likely to accept layoffs and carry them out. Flynn explained that it was not that they don’t feel guilty about laying people off, "it’s that they feel obligated to support their employer, so they accept layoffs as a way to reduce costs".

So next time you are hiring someone whom you want to be a hard worker, be leadership material, can be counted on to be fully committed to the organisation and if necessary conduct the unattractive business of redundancies, select the guilty.

You could give a TOSCA test, or have a chat about their previous experience, or have candidates involved in some role play scenario, where they will have to confront a potentially guilt laden situation and comment on how guilty they feel.

You probably know your own staff pretty well, especially if you work in a small or medium size company. Think of the people you know that would be the type to feel guilty. Are they also committed and hard-working, are they people the company can count on? If so then perhaps add 'Guilt' to the attributes for your next hires.

Just to note: The article in the Harvard Business Review was well contested and the comments section has several points taking issue with the research.

How Risky are Your People?

We have seen with the global melt down how excessive risk taking led to individuals, portfolios, organisations and entire economies being over exposed to risks that have turned sour. Many of the European banks regularly under go 'stress tests' to bottom out the resulting losses  and it is going to be a long road back to solvency for many.

This over exposure to risk can also happen within a business and need not be limited to financial investments. It could manifest itself in putting large resources into certain projects, agreeing stage payments or credit terms with large clients, targeting certain markets or taking on certain competitors.

Pretty much every area of your business takes positions both internally and externally where they absorb some risk. It is worth asking, how well have any of these decision makers been considered for their propensity to take acceptbale levels of risk. In the 'real politik' of stability and contractual arrangements, you would not remove these managers if you realised that they were excessive risk takers, but you may put additional checks and balances in place to oversee the risk aspect of their decisions.

This then begs the question, how could you identify managers that may be poor at recognising and exposing themselves to risk. The answer is simple, you assess for risk. You could use a variety of risk rating tools, perhaps some role play scenarios or some observational based study. None of these on their own would be definitive as biological factors, over confidence bias, payment structures, organisational culture would all feed into risk taking behaviour. For example some studies have found that testosterone is positively associated with risk taking.

Such assessments would however give you a benchmark or indication of the risk takers in your business, relative to their peers. One such tool is the Iowa Gambling Task, introduced by Antoine Bechara, António Damásio, Daniel Tranel and Steven Anderson. It is designed to assess risk preferences by simulating real-life decision making using uncertainty, rewards, and penalties.

Initially, it was used to compare individuals with prefrontal lesions with healthy individuals. Participants play a game where they are given four decks of cards and an amount of money (e.g., €1000). They are then instructed to select cards one at a time and try to lose the least amount of money and win the most.

Some decks are "bad decks" and others are  "good decks", because some will lead to losses over the long run, and others will lead to gains. For example, turning a card can give a (relatively large) reward (€100 in decks A and B and €50 in decks C and D) or a penalty (large in decks A and B and small in decks C and D).

Playing from decks A and B leads to an overall loss, while playing C and D leads to an overall gain.  After encountering a few losses, normal participants begin to avoid the bad decks with large losses. They recognise that the occasional large gain (of €100 in deck A) will more than likely be wiped out by a large loss from the same deck.

You could tweak this concept to make it more relevant to the type of decisions your managers make and if you have the data available it may be interesting to see if their previous risk history correlated with their score.

You could measure how quickly managers recognised and moved away from the 'bad deck' with its large but long term unsustainable rewards. You could tweak the rules to apparently encourage short term risk taking (by offering bonuses for reaching a win target quickly) but also state long term viability cannot be compromised. This would then allow you to see which managers are primarily focused on short term and fail to take sufficient notice of long term implications.

When designing a job specification, if a key requirement was the ability to read risk, to appreciate long term goals rather than large unsustainable quick wins, then perhaps this type of test could form part of the recruitment process.

If a role involved minimal supervision and significant autonomy, then it may inform decisions you make on introducing additional oversight or exposure measurement. For the European banks, it’s too late for any of this.

There are several free and open source assessments similar to Iowa Gambling Task available. A version of the Iowa Gambling task is available as part of the PEBL Project .There is a customisable version that works with Google Spreadsheets or your own spreadsheet. There is also a version for android smart phones and tablets. As with any tool, you need to ensure you are fully licensed, based on your own circumstances before use.

Tolerance or Intolerance for Ambiguity

If you were looking to fill a position where requirements or specifications were vague, where definition of tasks or targets could not be clearly defined, how would go about it?

This is the type of scenario that exists in many small or medium size businesses, where roles and tasks are fluid, not set in stone and maybe not very well defined. Some people work better in this type of environment. There are those who grow with and take advantage of the flexibility in a situation like this.

I have seen this at first hand in start up software companies where developers get to do business analysis, coding, testing,support,  marketing and project planning, and that is all before lunch on any given day. This gives the employee the chance to try out a number of disciplines, see which one matches their skill set best and which one they may like to go on and specialise in. They thrive on the variety and freedom which ambiguity provides.

I have seen others that get frustrated by the ever changing requirements, so many loose ends make progress hard to measure and its impossible to get anything finished as you constantly have to swap and change between tasks and roles. It is not even clear what you are expected to get done everyday. Some people prefer certainty of task and targets and may work better in a more corporate environment where your day is well mapped out, what you are expected to do is well defined and establishing or reaching your targets is unambiguous.

In order to discern which recruitment candidate best suits either role, it may be possible to use an Intolerance of Ambiguity test (sample). This type of test may give an indication of the inability to accept (without discomfort) situations that allow an alternative point of view(s) or that are vague.

If a candidate scored high on Intolerance, then maybe the vague, changeable role is not for them. If you wanted someone to implement policy in a black and white way, maybe the Intolerance would be an advantage. Think Judge Dredd here.  If you wanted someone to work with minimal direction (think Mac Gyver here) then Intolerance maybe a disadvantage as that person may struggle to quickly decide what to do next in a series of tasks where there are many choices.

If you think this post is rambling and flipping from one point to another, without being really clear then maybe you already have an idea of how tolerant you are of ambiguity. Does that suit your job?

Friday, 19 October 2012

Target Perception

When you set sales targets or project deadlines, do you set very ambitious or difficult targets to motivate staff and create a sense of urgency?

Some recent research suggests that making a target appear easier than perhaps it is, may help improve performance.

Researchers from Purdue University put students putting golf balls. The researchers used a projector which showed a ring of circles around the golf hole, thereby altering its perceived size. In the first trial, they projected a ring of 11 small circles that made the golf hole look larger than it really was. In the second trial, they projected five large circles that made the hole look smaller.

It turned out that students were 10% more likely to sink their putts when they thought the golf hole looked larger. This was a noticeable improvement. There are plenty of golf pros that may have one or two Majors if their putting was 10% better.

According to the study, an increase in the apparent size of the target may increase participants’ confidence in their abilities and improve their performance.

To get back to Sales. Could we numerically or optically structure sales targets that seem easier to hit. For example, give a sales person a target of 100 sales but characterise the legitimate market (in a Venn Diagram or in a Spreadsheet) as bigger that it might be (say 10,000 viable targets) so that they can get a negative response on 99% of calls but a 1% success rate will still successfully make their targets. Perception is the critical point here.

You could then allow them to see other targets in smaller markets where their conversion rates would need to be in excess of 1% to be successful. All of a sudden they may feel that their abilities definitely meet the 1% standard and embark on their sales drive with a 'can do' attitude.

A 10% improvement on any sales persons portfolio could be like working an extra month in the year. Conversely making targets conspicuously hard to reach make dent the sales figures as well as confidence and moral.

If your CRM or Sales Tracking system allows it, you could investigate previous targets and success rates to see if there is any correlation with the study from Purdue University. If there is, then you may have a new strategy you can adopt at sales meetings. If not then at least you have a new tip to help improve your short game. What sales person doesn't need that.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Not To Do Lists

We are used to having To-Do lists. Our email programs, hardback diaries and many apps now available on smart phones allow us to create and manage these lists.

They are useful in that we do need to be reminded of important tasks, its good to be able to prioritise tasks and research has shown that strategies like doing the most unpleasant/difficult tasks first is more productive.

Consider also the use of a Not-To-Do list. We all know the habits, tasks, interactions, where we end up procrastinating, wasting time or where our motivation drops. For example, I noticed over the years that when I decide to take time out from work to check a news website, I'm usually doing it not for the news but to avoid/delay some task. Now if I find myself checking out a news site, I cognitively take a 'time out' and ask myself why. Cutting back on checking news websites in zombie mode saved me quite a bit of time and is a type of 'Canary in the Mine' for how my day is going.

To start this off and see how it works for you, try keeping a diary. Each time you find yourself mentally wandering, your motivation slipping or your frustration building, write down what you are doing or have just done. You will then build up a list of items to be avoided (not everything can be unfortunately) . Hopefully by using this list you will have a more productive day and be a little happier in your work. You may also have identified 'your canaries'.

The thinking behind this was inspired by Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, where we all have conditions where we are more productive and can be immersed in our work is a positive way. My thinking is that if we know what keeps us in Flow, we also need to know what can knock us out of that Flow and avoid (again where possible) these scenarios.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Using Cognitive Load

It is well documented in a number of studies that there is a correlation between cognitive load and committing errors or performing complex tasks inefficiently. This has a number of implications for the work place.

Firstly at the point of recruitment could we have a standard cognitive load test (The Sternberg Memory Task, tapping task, or the NASA TLX) to measure cognitive load of candidates This would be particularly important for recruits that may have to deal with a crisis involving complex information and decisions. For these type of positions you could weigh the candidates cognitive load as factor in the hiring decision, the higher the load capability, perhaps the more resilient they are to making errors. It is more complicated than that but you get the picture.

You could take it a step further and grade a vacant position as likely to involve tasks where cognitive load, as well as empathy, time management, risk taking etc are important requirements. This is a whole separate area but is a bug bear of mine. In many job adverts (particularly in the technical world) we rate the skills required as knowledge of systems, languages, standards, interfaces etc,  when these skills are what is required to do the job, but not to be most effective candidate (eg knowledge of a system is not much use if you are prone to panic or denial in a crisis). That train of thought is a diversion and is a discussion for another day.

Back on point. Secondly, if you have a new recruit and they are doing work which you know will be cognitively demanding and may be prone to error, you may need to provide them with a work environment where they are not asked to multitask or where error checking can mitigate against the increased risk of errors. Again, you could rate jobs or tasks as requiring multitasking, likelihood of cognitive load being reached and then provide appropriate test and quality control support.

Thirdly,  you could use the correlation between cognitive load and errors as a basis for testing the usability of systems or software. For example,  The Tapping Task developed by Mike Albers has been used to test websites . The idea is that a person navigates through a website while performing a task like tapping or drumming, as the person gets into more complex areas of the website navigation and needs to think more, the tapping slows or stalls. This could be used to rate the usability of a website payment system, product search etc. This same rationale could also be applied to processes other than websites such as operating a till or reading spreadsheets.

This type of testing is used in aviation and other mission critical situations. Given the relatively inexpensive nature of the testing involved, the relatively benign ethical consequences and straightforward interpretation of results, it may be a type of test most organisations could consider.

All this is pretty mainstream in that the cognitive load/error link is a factor behind the banning of mobile phones while driving and there are many other applications to the work place and occupational health and safety (e.g. is it wise to ask your sales person very complex questions while driving as they make give a wrong answer or crash or both). Again these are thoughts and discussions for another day. Hopefully my cognitive load was not too stretched in wiring this, if so, blame the typos on that :-)

Hire character. Train skill

Thought for the Day - "Hire character. Train skill." ~Peter Schutz

In today's work place, skills will always have to be updated and a candidates current skill set may only reflect the type of work they were exposed to in their previous employment.

Character in terms of capacity to deal with change, to be accountable, to not stand idly by if they witness sharp practice are perhaps qualities that will be of more use in the work place than the current skill level.

That's the easy bit, the hard part is recognising, defining and measuring character. But that is a discussion for another day. Right now I'm hoping you recognise character when you see it, most of us do.

Creativity for breakfast today?

Think of any creative people you know. Think about how they dress, their adherence to formality, how they socially interact, where they are from. Chances are that they do regular things just a little bit different from the rest of us. This ties in with research showing that doing everyday things in unconventional ways can stimulate creative thinking.

Psychologist Simone Ritter of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands has demonstrated this by having people mix up their usual breakfast making routines, resulting in higher scores on creativity tests. The cliché ‘Have you had your Wheetabix’ could make a comeback as Ritters work suggests for example, that pouring some milk into a bowl and then adding the cereal afterwards will stimulate innovate thinking.

This is based on the theory that conducting a common task in reverse order helps to avoid conventional behavior. This in turn helps people break regular thinking patterns, and leads us to think more flexibly and creativity, Ritter argues that “active involvement in an unusual event” can trigger higher levels of creativity.

In her research Dutch university students were asked to prepare a breakfast sandwich popular in the Netherlands.

Half of them did so in the conventional manner: They put a slice of bread on a plate, buttered the bread and then placed chocolate chips on top. The others, prompted by a script first put chocolate chips on a plate, then buttered a slice of bread and then placed the bread butter-side-down on the dish with the chocolate chips.

After completing their gastronomic assignment, they turned their attention to the “Unusual Uses Task,” a widely used measure of creativity. They were given two minutes to generate uses for a brick and another two minutes to come up with as many answers as they could to the question: “What makes sound?”

“Cognitive flexibility” was scored not by counting how many answers they came up with, but rather by the number of categories those answers fell into. For example in the “What makes sound?” test, a participant whose answers were all animals or machines received a score of one, while someone whose list included “dog,” “car” and “ocean” received a three.

“A high cognitive flexibility score indicates an ability to switch between categories, overcome fixedness, and thus think more creativity,” Ritter and her colleagues write.

Those who made their breakfast treat backwards had higher scores. Breaking their normal sandwich-making pattern apparently opened them up and their minds wandered more freely, allowing for more innovative thought.

Ritter makes the point that previous research showed that periods of immigration have been historically followed by exceptional creative achievement, with immigrants bring new customs and ideas that may act as ‘diversifying experiences’ for the local population, and thus may enhance creativity via cognitive flexibility.”

The real lesson may be that creativity, the value of which is increasingly recognized by organizations of all kinds, can be boosted in surprisingly simple ways. Stimulating inventiveness through eating cereal? Now that’s thinking outside the Cornflake box.

AA Type Sponsor in the Work Place?

In AA you get a sponsor assigned to help you through difficult times and to be there for you when you may waver. In business we all know the right thing to do, plan, monitor, review etc. Admitting that we have a problem with basics like these is not that hard or unusual.

We are very good at acknowledging that we need to start listing daily tasks, and often 'turn over a new leaf' for a few days doing these things to make us happier people and better professionals.

However many of us 'fall off the wagon' and get back into our bad habits of fire fighting, not sticking to planned tasks and end up back where we started in a matter of weeks, except with our resolve and perhaps egos damaged.

Would it be a good idea to have a 'Work Smarter/Change Sponsor', some one who will be there when you waver, will check and ask how you are keeping to your new regime, and pull you up on any deviations.

This sponsor need not be an expert in your field, they are just there to keep you honest to your new goals, on track for any promises to amend behaviour and to be there to give encouragement for when you are having second thoughts.

Recognising the need for change is easy, planning change is not that hard, making change is OK too, its sticking to it over a sustained period of time that most of us fall down on.

Have a think about your co-workers, family, college friends or in this day and age a social media buddy. Next time you are promising yourself that you will list tasks in order of difficultly and complete those first, that you will keep an accurate diary, that you will document client interactions correctly, hook yourself up with a sponsor that will check in on you. Explain the change you want to make and be answerable to your sponsor as well as your self.

Maybe this time you will stick to your guns and really make a change.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Menu, lessons for your brochure?

We all know restaurants are under huge pressure in this recession. Unlike most in retail, they still have a very important card to play – the menu. It’s an opportunity to place an advertisement in every customer’s hand before they part with their money and in any business that’s priceless. However, menus don’t just work on price and the route to the customers heart may not be through the stomach or wallet, but the subconscious. Menus are specifically designed to quietly influence your selection and here is some of the ways it’s done.

One popular technique is Decoy Marketing, basically increasing the price of one item, to make sure the item you really want to sell looks like good value. This can then be combined with careful layouts. Eye tracking studies have shown that when customers open a menu, their eyes go right to the top of the page on the right side. Armed with that knowledge, chefs place the menu item that will give them the most profit at the top of the page. Then, your eyes normally drift to the center of the page. That’s where many chefs place their absolutely most expensive item (decoy). The customer is not expected to buy that item, but the psychology of menus indicates the customer will then glance again at the top items and order one of those. After all, it now looks like good value.

Wine lists are notorious for decoy sellers. Research shows that customers shy away from the most expensive item, or the least expensive, for that matter, the second-most expensive bottle on a wine list tends to be a top seller.

We know that symbols cause behavioral changes particularly money signs (£, €, $, etc). That is why we see actual cash notes and the amount displayed with a big ‘£’ sign on game show competitions every week. The potential reward feels like real money. This works in reverse when we are paying for something, for example some people find it mentally easier to pay by credit card than hand over actual cash. Menu designers try to minimize pricing cues that might remind people they are paying real money for their meal. A study published by Dr. Kimes at Cornell University found that when prices were given with dollar signs, customers spent less than when no dollar signs appeared and apparently even the word “dollar” triggered this “the pain of paying”. We spend more when we see ‘10’ than ‘£10’. To keep it low key, the price should also be at the very end of a menu description and should not be in any way highlighted.

Research also suggests brand names help sales. Restaurants are increasingly using what is known as co-branding on their menus, hence you will see a ‘Darn of Aberdeen Salmon’ on a menu beside ‘Cod in Crispy Guinness Batter’. You can almost taste the quality.

This description can be taken a step further. It is shown that vivid adjectives not only sway the customer’s choice but can also leave them more satisfied at the end of the meal, than if they had eaten the same item without descriptive labeling. Hence we see language that suggests expertise and satisfaction. This is why we see dishes described as “handcrafted,” “triple-basted,” “slow-cooked,”, “homemade” and “slammed with flavor.”

Getting back to the layout, a few basic techniques work very well. Our eyes are drawn to boxes, and customers are statistically more likely to order whatever is inside them. Incidentally you will also see this in newspaper advertisements. This is yet another way to guide you into buying the most profitable items.

When prices are printed in neat, right-justified columns, customers glance down the line to compare prices. If you want people to avoid the cheapest option, a centered justification leaves the prices scattered and very difficult to compare. This gently encourages the customer to order what they want, not pick the cheapest price.

Next time you are ordering in a restaurant, see if you can spot a few of these techniques. It will give you something to talk about over the meal, in case your dinner date turns out to be bit of a bore.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Uncover Hidden Bias and Attitudes

Implicit Association Test - Screen for bias or attitudes?

We are all a little or more than a little biased. Don’t feel bad about this. The ability to quickly tell a friend from foe helped early humans survive, being able to quickly catergorise people is a good thing in that respect. The downside is that this is also the foundation of stereotypes, prejudice and, ultimately, discrimination.It can affect how we treat and work with people.

We can be consciously committed to social equality, and deliberately work to behave without prejudgment, yet still possess hidden negative biases or stereotypes. What relevance has this to the workplace? If you have a company that has customers from a particular group, for example, elderly or mainly female, then these groups could be treated differently by staff members carrying this latent but present prejudice to that social group

Why it’s important

Many studies show a link between hidden biases and actual behavior. Hidden biases reveal themselves in how we interact with the world at large and the work place is no exception.
Studies have shown that school teachers inadvertently or otherwise show prejudices in the classroom. Some researchers believe children of color and white children in the same classroom effectively receive different educations. The same could be true in internal meetings, customer service or when forming project teams.

A now classic experiment showed that white interviewers sat farther away from black applicants than from white applicants, made more speech errors and ended the interviews 25% sooner. Such discrimination has been shown to diminish the performance of anyone treated that way, whether black or white.

"Implicit Association Tests" (IATs) can shine a light on these hidden, or automatic, stereotypes. They go way beyond race and gender, indeed Project Implicit — a collaborative research effort between researchers at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and University of Washington shows many examples of tests for different associations and biases.

How it works

The implicit association test is often associated with Greenwald (Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998), and is used to measure personality or prejudices while ensuring that participants are oblivious to the purpose of this procedure.

Say you are testing for diligence. You would ask a person to hit a key on a keyboard when a word comes up that relates to them e.g, their gender, age, star sign etc and the same key when a word relating to diligence comes up e.g. meticulous. You would also ask them to hit a different key when a word comes up that is not about them and when a word that does not relate to diligence comes up e.g. lazy. Diligent people complete this task quickly with few errors

You could swap the keys and have the same key relating to the self and negative behaviour. People who are not very diligent would perform well on this test. The difference between the two tests would rate the persons level of diligence (Steffens, 2004).

How you can use it
  You could use this to build a test for diligence as part of induction training or recruitment. You could also create a test to investigate attitudes to, for example, older people if you ran a residential care facility, attitudes to race if your employees or customers would belong to that particular group. These tests are more difficult to counter and may be more reliable than asking new recruits to say what their thoughts on old people, racial groups are.

You could rate peoples attitude to particular project (have a key to press for project terms and positive thoughts, a key for non-project terms and negative thoughts, then swap). This could be ran over the life span of a project to get some ones attitude to the project, feelings it will succeed or fail. Getting back to diligence, you could periodically test staff to see if scores are dipping and intervene with work place changes or motivational improvements.

If your company was bought out, before and after the buy out have a test with a key to press for company terms and positive words, a key to press for non company terms and negative words, then swap. You would get an indication of workers change in attitude to their new conditions and owners. Get the picture?

It could be cross validated with some other tests, performance results, interview questions or observations of performance but is a good starting point.

This is a Test Post