Saturday, 27 April 2013

If something happens, then you need a plan

We all do a bit of project planning every now and again. This can be for a formal large project with multiple goals and participants or a plan just to get an email put together and sent off.

Research by Gollwitzer etc al, 2006 suggests that we need to anticipate problems and set a series of ‘if then’ actions. This would be if the new piece of software is not live by an agreed date, then, we have a paper based system to use in the short term. In other words we look at what can go wrong, what can be outside of our control and develop contingency plans that are worked out in detail and ready to go.

When the inevitable does occur and some original deadline or action does not materialise, we are not left floundering, wondering what we can do about it or who do we call. Your ‘if then’ is ready to swing into action, you continue to feel in control. You stay in business.

This sounds like really basic advice and a really obvious thing to do. You would however be surprised by the number of people out there who are happy to wing it and not do this extra level of planning.
Once they come up with a plan they let it at that and treat the ‘if thens’ with a touch of ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. That type of head in the sand thinking can be a serious threat to your business.
While you can't have an 'if then' for every project milestone, you could have them for the milestones that are an operational threat. I have seen clients unable to issue monthly invoices with devastating implications for cash flow because a data load into a new billing system hit a technical snag. This is particularly important for projects with several suppliers. When something does go wrong, each will point the finger at the other and cooperation to resolve the issue could be in short supply.
So review your project plan. Identify the junctures where failure will seriously jeopardise your organisation and put in your 'if then' plans for these. You will keep a degree of control and not be left at the mercy of suppliers and project managers. Always have an option open, if the worst then happens, you will be ok.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

What motivates the office flirt?

Know any flirty guys in your office? It turns out they may not be that happy in their job. A 2011 study from the University of Surrey suggests that men who flirt at work tend to be less satisfied with their job.

The BPS reports that Chadi Moussa and Adrian Banks from the University of Surrey asked 201 participants to complete a questionnaire measuring flirting behaviours at work, job satisfaction, self-reported job performance and personality. The participants (men and women) were aged 21-68 and came from a variety of employment sectors.

The researchers' strongest finding was that flirting at work was negatively related to job satisfaction for men. There was no significant relationship between flirting and job satisfaction for women.

Chadi Moussa says: “These findings contradict popular notions that flirting at work can make employees mores satisfied or perform better. If men are feeling unsatisfied in their roles, then they may resort to flirting to keep them entertained and this would partially explain the negative relationship. While flirting can have benefits, excessive flirting at work may be a sign that you’re unsatisfied with your job or simple bored."

If you are doing a review with a member of staff who is known as an office flirt, dig a little to see if they are really happy at work. If you are worried about employee retention, keep a really close eye on the flirts. Just make sure you don't fall for their one liners.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mind Doodling?

Doodling, sounds like the actions of a distracted or idle mind. If you see a colleague doodling in a meeting you might think that they have switched off and won’t be much use when it comes to recalling who said what.
A 2009 study suggests different. In the study, 40 participants monitored a monotonous mock telephone message for the names of people coming to a party. Half of the group was randomly assigned to a ‘doodling’ condition where they shaded printed shapes while listening to the telephone call. The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test.

This could be because learning may be improved when we use our hands, activating the hands helps activating the brain. It may also involve levels of processing theory. A lesson we can draw from this is that doodling may help if we are trying to remember information or be creative. Have you ever found yourself reaching for something to play with when you are trying to think a problem through or come up with some creative solution?

Next  time you see the guy in the meeting doodle, don’t despair, he could be recalling more than you are and even be a bit more creative. Try a bit more doodling yourself this week and see if it works for you.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Dress like it matters

If you want to stamp your authority at a meeting, how you dress could be important. Several studies over the years have shown how people in formal dress get quicker service in shops, have a better time asking for donations and find it easier to get the attention of strangers. They are also judged to be more intelligent and better academically qualified.
This also works the other way around, you walk into a shop, you might form an opinion about the cashier who checks you out, based on their dress, hair style, jewellery etc, though you know very little about this person.
This could be due to a mental shortcut we use called Social Categorization. In the social categorization process, we mentally categorize people into different groups based on common characteristics such as dress. Sometimes this process occurs consciously, but for the most part social categorizations happens automatically and unconsciously. We tend to think of leaders or ‘the boss’ wearing a suit, the professor with their tweed jacket or the successful stockbroker with their Armani attire.
So if you have a big interview or meeting coming up, get out the good suit and sharp shoes. A study that looked specifically at female applicants going for a management job found that those who dressed in a smart masculine style were perceived as more potent and aggressive and were more likely to land the job.
A similar dynamic can also occur for groups. A survey in 2009 found that business students rated companies with a formal dress code as more authoritative and competent. Organisations that had a relaxed dress code were seen as more friendly and creative.
So if you are going for a key meeting or interview choose your clothes carefully. If you want to sell your organisation to employees or clients as a hub of creativity or a bastion of authority, get you staff to dress accordingly.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Sorry I've forgotten your name

We have all been in meetings or at social events where we got introduced to a bunch of people. Afterwards when we try to recall the encounter, the names can be hard to remember. Quite often someone will say, ‘That guy from sales, what was he called?’. It is easier to remember all types of information about someone, than their name. We are better at remembering what they do, where they come from, what they specialise in, what their hobbies are. This is backed up by a number of studies.

One such study gave people fake names and biographies to remember. In recall tests, only 30% could recall surnames, compared to 68% and 69% for hobbies and jobs respectively.

In another study, participants found it easier to remember that a person is a potter, i.e. maker of pots, than if their surname is actually Potter.

The bad news is that the jury is out on why this occurs. Some theories are that lots of similar names (lots of Johns, Marys, Smiths) interfere with each other and this inhibits our ability to form durable memories about someone’s specific name.

However others would suggest that familiar names are easier to recall and it should be easier to remember someone called John or Mary, rather than a name we have never heard of before.

The good news is that research has shown that the semantic meaning we attach to names, or the different levels at which we process them, helps our ability to recall.

For example, we meet John Smith, we use his initials JS, he happened to be a nice guy so we associate ‘Just Super’ with his name. If he wasn’t that nice, maybe ‘Just Stupid’ would have been more appropriate. We have now given his name greater semantic significance and done some additional processing to come up with ‘Just Super’.

It is now much more memorable and we have different cues and levels of processing to assist recall. Next time we meet ‘JS’ ‘Just Super’ nice John, we won’t be stuck for a name or get caught trying to read his name badge. This might be why nick names tend to stick and are easily remembered.

The moral of the story is not to get too frustrated or embarrassed if you can’t recall a name, it happens to most of us. If you want to remember names better, associate them with some other information about the meeting or characteristics of the person involved. Don’t get too upset either if someone you meet can’t remember your name, it’s not personal. Just point them in the direction of this blog. Hopefully they will think you are closer to the 'Super' than the 'Stupid' end of the scale.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Be careful what you visualize

We have all heard of visualizing our goals. There are examples of football place kickers visualizing getting the last minute winner. Many golfers have visualized sinking that winning putt.

Research by Pham and Taylor at the University of California, suggests however that visualizing needs to involve the process of achieving your goal, not just the outcome. In other words, you visualize your run up to the ball, feet position, momentum, the contact with the ball, the release of the strike on the ball. Just visualizing the ball going between the posts is not enough.

Thinking about the process, in detail and ‘experiencing’ it via visualization helps us to focus the mind on potential problems, what needs to be right, what can go wrong and how to overcome any problems.

Just visualizing the outcome lets us prone to the ‘Planning Fallacy’ This is a cognitive error which affects most of us, regardless of experience. We continually fail to anticipate just how much of any plan can and will go wrong. We are hardwired to think everything will be much easier than it really will be.

In the research cited, students were asked to either visualize their ultimate goal of doing well in an exam or the steps they would take to reach that goal, i.e. studying.

The results were clear-cut. Participants who visualized themselves reading and gaining the required skills and knowledge, spent longer actually studying and got better grades in the exam.

Just imagining reaching a goal may be worse than ineffective, it may reduce our performance. In the study by Pham and Taylor, participants who just envisioned a successful outcome studied less and actually had reduced motivation.

So for visualization, like the song goes, “it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it”.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

What's your problem? How you describe influences how you solve

When problem solving, re-ask the question you are trying to figure out, but each time describe it a different way, thinking about what the problem really means. The way you describe a problem you are trying to solve influences how you think about it.

Different descriptions, allow us to think about it in different ways, we then end up with different perspectives and this increases the potential sources of a solution.

You could get different members of your team to each describe the problem in their own way or from their perspective. The differing descriptions could show up different avenues for a solution or work around. For example, a server or web site starts to run slow. The techies will have something to say about load balancing, VMware etc, the Customer Service Manager will have the end users in mind, the Sales Manager might consider it a PR / Sales problem.

Each perspective expands the problem but also expands the mitigating tasks you can employ e.g. contact all users and let them know there is a problem but you are working on it. This will reduce the inbound support calls. This frees up the techies to fix the issue and not get pulled into reactive inbound support calls. The Sales Manger contacts key clients with updates from the techies. When it is fixed, users can be contacted with the good news and the episode used as an example of how well your support works.

Put it another way. When you start solving a problem, you normally have a fairly specific description of what is wrong. You think about the problem in terms of how it presents itself. If you are trying to fix your car when it won’t start in the morning, you think about the battery, fuel, the starter, plugs or alternator.

When you describe your problem as being something other than, ‘How do I start the car?’, e.g. ‘How do I get to work?’, ‘How do I get someone to cover for me if I can’t get in?’, 'who can fix my car?' your thinking gets a little more abstract.

You now think about not having transport, not being able to keep to a schedule. As the details change, it leads to new insights and potential solutions. You might decide to call a mechanic, call work and put on your ‘out of office’ or work from home for a few hours.

That might be a better solution than dissecting your engine and figuring out if the spark plugs or starter is bust. You will still be late for work and may only have swapped one problem for another.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Tomorrow is closer than Yesterday

Heading back to work after the bank holiday. Does last weekend seem like ages ago, and work deadlines this week scarily close?

The Past feels psychologically further away than the Future. Recent research by Caruso et al (2013) showed that Valentine's Day will feel closer in time one week beforehand than one week after. This has been dubbed the ‘temporal Doppler effect’.

Caruso had a scale from 1 to 7 (1 is close in time, 7 being distant in time). Participants rated an upcoming Valentine's Day an average of 3.9 when it was one week in the future, but an average of 4.8 when it was one week in the past.

This could be a good thing. We appear to be future orientated. This may even be adaptive as it is useful in helping us plan, we are more concerned about (perceptively closer) future events. It may help us move on from past mistakes (‘that was ages ago’ type of feeling). It allows us to focus on and meet deadlines we think are imminent.

There could also be a downside however, as we tend to forget the past, repeat mistakes and focus on ‘getting it right next time’. Either way, as long as we know that we are prone to this way of thinking we can factor it in.