Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Mood for thought

There is a radio station in Ireland that kicks off its afternoon drive time program with the presenter waffling on about a daily ‘happiness index’. I always thought this was a bit bland and a gimmick. After all, who keeps or compiles this happiness index and how could it possibly mean anything?

I then read something which put me thinking. Researchers at the University of Manchester and Indiana University have put some science behind this idea of  ‘sentiment tracking’.

They looked at how global emotion and mood, as measured via something like Twitter, could predict stock market activity. They investigated whether measurements of collective mood states derived from large scale Twitter feeds, correlated to the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) over time. They analyzed the text content of daily Twitter feeds by two mood tracking tools, OpinionFinder that measures positive vs. negative mood and Google-Profile of Mood States (GPOMS)

Their results indicated that the accuracy of DJIA predictions can be significantly improved by the inclusion of specific public mood dimensions. If you want to predict closing prices on the Dow Jones, have an eye on the Twitter feed.

This raises some interesting questions about how we look at social media data or activity. It may justify a more qualitative approach. When it comes to social media marketing, we may need to look at how our followers feel, rather than just counting them. 

This type of index should make us stop and think about how we interpret the holy grail of Big Data. Does this happiness index change with the weather?, with a regions sporting success? and if so does that affect stock markets or consumer spending? Which is cause and which is effect? Plenty for the self proclaimed big data scientists to ponder there. 

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Wish you were here

I came across an interesting BPS Research Digest post which looked at a study by Belgian psychologist Saartje Cromheecke.

Working with a Belgian technology company Cromheecke’s  team sent out a real job opportunity to 1,997 potential applicants. Half got the standard email we all see every day and the other half got a hand-written postcard showing a coffee mug and a blank daily agenda. The email and postcard message featured the same layout and included the same written information and content about the job vacancy. Both type of applicants now had the same chance to apply.

Over all 62 of the those contacted applied for the job. But 82% of them had received the postcard, just 18% had received the email. Put another way, only 1% of those emailed actually applied for the job compared with 5% of those who received a postcard. Follow up research also suggested that respondents to the postcard tended to be better educated, consistent with the researchers' prediction that a recruitment message sent via a "strange" medium will be more likely to grab the attention of better-qualified personnel who aren't actively looking for new opportunities.

The BPS post does make the important point that Cromheecke's team aren't saying that postcards will always be the answer. Rather, "this field experiment puts forth 'media strangeness' as a more general evidence-based principle, which recruiters might take into account when selecting media for communicating job postings."

Recruitment aside, this could also play a role in other customer or client contact situations. Would potential targets respond better to a postcard or some other ‘strange media’ than an email? Would you be better off sending a special offer on a cup, coaster, postcard? The ‘strange media’ does not have to be the last word in graphic design, it just has to be different and convey the necessary information.

If you get the time, try it out. For the price of a few postcards you could see the improved response levels Cromheecke's team did. If they relied on email, they would have had nothing like 62 candidates to choose from. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Transition Ritual

I have written before on the price we can pay for using email and its ability to interrupt our day. I recently came across a post by Laura Vanderkam who has an interesting take on this.

She sees email checking as forming part of a ‘transitional ritual’. It is something we do on auto pilot when we get back to our desk after a meeting or after lunch. It also occurs when we are indecisive and have to ponder what to do next. This ritual is an automatic habit we fall into without realising it and is by no means limited to email.

We could find ourselves regularly checking our social media (company policy aside) or a news website or a message board.These rituals are hard to avoid. It’s part of human nature to behave like this. The problem arises because we are interrupted so often. If our ‘ritual’ takes a while then it really starts to eat into our day.

Vanderkam suggests that we ‘go on the offensive’ and rather beat ourselves up over checking our email or Twitter when we ‘transition’, we simply cut out the interruptions and those indecisive moments.

This can be done by having a list of things to do made out in advance so that as soon as we finish one task or get back to our desk, we get stuck into the next item straight way. Keep an eye on your transition ritual, learn to recognise it. Once you find yourself scanning your email for the sake of it, stop and do something constructive or enjoyable or just get on with your next task. This approach also ties in with the idea of having a ‘not to do list’.

Life’s too short to spend it scanning your inbox or timeline in zombie mode.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Pomodoro Technique

We all have things to do that we’d prefer to avoid or just don’t enjoy doing. This could be something monotonous, something that stresses us out or a task that is hard to do.

I recently came across a system called the Pomodoro Technique
. It is a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It is named after a kitchen timer called a "pomodoro" and the idea is pretty simple. You set a timer for 25 minutes of work, then take a five minute break, then set the timer again. Every 4 sessions you take a longer break for 15 to 30 minutes. No matter how bad your task is, there are very few things we can’t do for 25 minutes.

The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility and as work sessions are accomplished, you feel more in control and you can see tangible progress. The more in control you feel, the less stressed you feel and the quality of the work may even improve.

If you accurately record what you get done in 25 minutes that will help future planning and show up those hidden items that can take a bit longer than we expect.

I've seen this used in software development where two programmers work together on a screen review. That is a pretty open ended task but the defined sessions focuses the minds and charts progress. This also works with the idea that to solve any problem, you start by reducing it to achievable individual tasks and get each one done one by one.

Try it out and see if it works for you, at the very least you will get regular breaks and have a more accurate record of your efforts.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Excuse to play Pharrell Williams at work

How happy are you or your staff? Do we spend enough time trying to make the work place a happy place? Maybe we should think about this a little more. Research from the University of Warwick suggests that happiness makes people more productive at work. The researchers carried out a number of experiments to test the idea that happy employees work harder. In the laboratory, they found the happy workers to be around 12% more productive.

The research provides causal evidence using randomized trials and piece-rate working. The study, published in the Journal of Labour Economics, involved four different experiments with more than 700 participants. It was much more than a touchy feely questionnaire.

Some participants got a better deal than others. The lucky ones were either shown a comedy movie clip or treated to free chocolate, drinks and fruit. Others, less fortunate, were questioned about recent family tragedies, such as bereavements. This allowed the researchers to assess whether lower levels of happiness were later associated with lower levels of productivity.

One of the authors, Professor Oswald commented that: "Companies like Google have invested more in employee support and employee satisfaction has risen as a result. For Google, it rose by 37%, they know what they are talking about. Under scientifically controlled conditions, making workers happier really pays off."

His co-author, Dr Sgroi added: "The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality."

This has implications for how we structure the working day and how we organise the work place. A few treats and decent conditions can bring a little happiness and help people work better, as well have a more pleasant time. Conversely creating conditions where workers are reminded of negative events or poor outcomes can kill the buzz and productivity.

It may also be worth thinking about how you promote managers. Look for people who can make people happy, can recognise discontent in employees and are approachable. These managers will have a happier team and prove more productive. Even if the research does not quite stack up and you don’t get the 12% bounce in productivity, everyone will enjoy work a bit more. No harm in that. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

People still buy from people

We have all heard the cliché ‘People buy from people’, in other words, being able to personally connect with your client really matters. Yet many organisations send sales people into the market with this personal connection way down their list of priorities.

An example of this would include meeting time wasted on overly complex power point presentations that quite frankly bore people (even if it is all true). There is too much thought put into the pitch not not enough into the people you will be interacting with. Other examples are tactics employed by ‘inside sales’ teams where social media or other on-line tools are used to inform and connect with clients or prospects. These include tweets, special offer emails, circulating white papers, hosting webinars. While they may convey a very credible sales pitch or business case, these channels lack real personal context. 

I recently read a paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology which looked at interview candidates seeking employment. When candidates completed an interview they answered a series of questions on how they behaved, if they made eye contact, if they had demonstrated a keen interest in the company or job. The interviewers also answered a number of questions on what they thought of the candidate, their skills, if they would be hired.

For those that did get hired, the interviewers did not necessarily go for the best skilled or prepared. They went for ‘pleasant people’. They hired people they liked. People they connected with. Answers to complex technical questions or specific skills mattered less than how the candidates came across.

This is in line with the ‘People buy from people’ school of thought and no great surprise. What struck me however is that the paper was 10 years old (2004) and rather than that making the findings less relevant, the opposite is perhaps the case.

It is not unusual to do sales meeting on-line, via Skype or via a webinar. When we are not physically meeting there is less ad hoc personal interaction than there would be in a ‘real’ meeting, the handshake, the small talk when taking seats, chatting when waiting for someone else to join.

So if you do meet or sell on-line, still try to fit in some of the small talk rather than sticking to the webinar script. Perhaps make it your business to phone someone up with the meeting confirmation or check if they got the log in details. While technically this may be unnecessary, it could be your opportunity to kick off some small talk, be nice and come across as a pleasant person. Technology aside people still buy from people. Don’t let the on-line line omni-channel world get in the way of that, it’s not an either or scenario. Make that connection. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Know more about your decisions

Nobel Laureate David Kahneman is an interesting guy. He won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. This achievement was based on his work in the area of Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, published in 1974. Amos Tversky co-authored the paper but unfortunately had passed by time the Nobel prize was awarded.

The 1974 paper is worthy of a discussion in its own right but Kahnemans influence does not depend on that seminal work, he has constantly developed and built upon both his and other studies in the area of Decision Making.

His recent book Thinking Fast and Slow looks at several studies which explain how we are often deceived or mistaken in our thinking. It shows how our decisions are affected by silent influences such as previous experience, how questions are phrased, how we estimate/interpret results. Complex statistical ideas like ‘Regression to the Mean’ are explained in accessible terms that a layman would both recognise and understand.

Having read several interviews, books and papers by Kahneman over the years, out of all of his ideas and theories, one in particular has always resonated – Keep a Decision Journal.

If you are making a decision of consequence, take a moment to think. Write down the relevant variables that will decide the outcome, what you expect to happen, and why you expect it to happen. If a few of these are unknowns, that is ok, just note them as such and state why you have made assumptions in the absence of all the facts. Most times you won’t have all the facts or variables defined.

This seems basic enough - write down how you came to a decision and what you know about what you decided. If you can’t write down what was discussed, the relevant variables that give rise to the decision and why you believe something will turn out the way you expect it to, then maybe you should not be making a decision in the first place.

The act of writing out a decision and its variables will counter some of the biases we all have. These include overly relying on information that is easily available, or being anchored by a previous estimate or being unduly influenced by hindsight bias. 

If you review your decisions you will see a trend in the number or types of unknown variables, poor assumptions, poor outcomes etc. You can then address and measure improvement in these areas for future decisions. At its most basic level, you will see which decisions were not thought through and what assumptions were relied upon.

The best part is, to implement this Nobel Prize backed management technique only costs the price of a student copy book and a pen. Now that’s good economics. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Memory and open doors

After a meeting or sales demo do you sometimes gather people for a review and get them to recall what happened? If you are trying to get people to recall events or key points you might be better off doing this in the room where the meeting or demo happened.

Research by Gabriel Radvansky at Notre Dame University suggests that memories are stored as a series of successive events. You could almost think of them as chapters in a book. It is easier for us to recall events (or chapters) which just happened. This is fair enough.
However what is interesting in Radvanskys research is that walking through doorways seems to create a new memory episode (or chapter) and therefore making it more difficult to recall details that we literally have left behind in the room (previous chapters).

His research used a virtual reality environment with several rooms containing various objects. When participants entered a room they saw a table and picked up an object, once an object was picked up, they could no longer see it. At the next table (sometimes in the same room) they put down the object and picked up another one. Memory tests were carried out (on what people were carrying) when they entered, left or had been in a room for a while

The research found that memory performance was poorer after travelling through an open doorway, compared with covering the same distance within the same room. The authors said "Walking through doorways serves as an event boundary, thereby initiating the updating of one's event model [i.e. the creation of a new episode in memory]".

So if you have ever walked into a room and forgot something, this may explain it. There is another aspect which suggests that we recall information better in the context in which we experienced it. There is a long list or research in this area including the famous Godden and Baddeley study on divers superior recall under water, if they were trained under water.

This could have implications for how we train staff. You may be better for example, training staff at a desk or in the room where they will actually be working. When we study we may be better studying at a desk with the pens and instruments we will have on our desk when we do an exam. If you are rehearsing a demo, do it in the boardroom where you will be presenting, you may recall your lines a bit better.

To get back to where we started, if you have just had an important meeting, interview or conference call, no one leaves the room until they write down the key points and better still have the review there and then in the room. Keep the door closed. If you have another review later, use the same room.