Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

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Innovation’s Speech Impediment

It's not a good idea if I don't understand it.

It’s not a good idea if I don’t understand it.

One of the most important obstacles to innovation is the cultural rift between technical and non-technical managers. The problem is not the technology per se, but the communication of the technology. Simply put, technologists often baffle non-technical executives and baffled executives won’t support change.

To promote innovation, we need to master the art of speaking between two different cultures: technical and non-technical. We need to find a common language and vocabulary. Most importantly, we need to speak to business needs and opportunities, not to the technology itself.

In my Managing Technology class, my students act as the CIO of a fictional company called Vair. The students study Vair’s operations (in a 12-page case study) and then recommend how technical innovations could improve business operations.

Among other things, they present a technical innovation to a non-technical audience. They always come up with interesting ideas and useful technologies. And they frequently err on the side of being too technical. Their presentations are technically sound but would be baffling to most non-technical executives.

Here are the tips I give to my students on giving a persuasive presentation to a non-technical audience. I thought you might find them useful as well.

Benefits and the so what question – we often state intermediary benefits that are meaningful to technologists but not meaningful to non-technical executives. Here’s an example, “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications”. Technologists know what that means and can intuit the benefits. Non-technical managers can’t. To get your message across, run a so what dialogue in your head,

Statement: “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “That will allow us to achieve X.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “That means we can increase Y and reduce Z.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “Our stock price will increase by 12%”

Asking so what three or four times is usually enough to get to a logical end point that both technical and non-technical managers can easily understand.

Give context and comparisons – sometimes we have an idea in mind and present only that idea, with no comparisons. We might, for instance, present J.D. Edwards as if it’s the only choice in ERP software. If you were buying a house, you would probably look at more than one option. You want to make comparisons and judge relative value. The same holds true in a technology presentation. Executives want to believe that they’re making a choice rather than simply rubber-stamping a recommendation. You can certainly guide them toward your preferred solution. By giving them a choice, however, the executives will feel more confident that they’ve chosen wisely and, therefore, will support the recommendation more strongly.

Show, don’t tell – chances are that technologists have coined new jargon and acronyms to describe the innovation. Chances are that non-technical people in the audience won’t understand the jargon — even if they’re nodding their heads. Solution: use stories, analogies, or examples:

  • Stories – explain how the innovation came about, who invented it, and why. Put real people in the story. Explain what problems existed before the innovation arrived. How is the world better now?
  • Analogies – compare it to something that the audience knows and understands. A Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), for instance, is remarkably similar to a modular stereo system.
  • Examples – tell the story of other companies that are using the technology. What benefits have they gained?

Words, words, words – often times we prepare a script for a presentation and then put most of it on our slides. The problem is that the audience will either listen to you or read your slides. They won’t do both. You want them to listen to you – you’re much more important than the slides. You’ll need to simplify your slides. The text on the slide should capture the headline. You should tell the rest of the story.

If you follow these tips, the executives in your audience are much more likely to comprehend the innovation’s benefits. If they comprehend the benefits, they’re much more likely to support the innovation.

(If you’d like a copy of the Vair case study, just send me an e-mail. I’m happy to share it.)

Chocolate or Sex?

Such difficult choices.

Such difficult choices.

A few days ago I published a brief article, Chocolate Brain, which discussed the cognitive benefits of eating chocolate. Bottom line: people who eat chocolate (like my sister) have better cognition than people who don’t. As always, there are some caveats, but it seems that good cognition and chocolate go hand in hand.

I was headed to the chocolate store when I was stopped in my tracks by a newly published article in the journal, Age and Ageing. The title, “Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age” pretty much explains it all. (Click here for the full text).

The two studies – chocolate versus sex – are remarkably parallel. Both use data collected over the years through longitudinal studies. The chocolate study looked at almost 1,000 Americans who have been studied since 1975 in the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. The sex study looked at data from almost 7,000 people who have participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA).

Both longitudinal studies gather data at periodic intervals; both studies are now on wave 6. The chocolate study included people aged 23 to 98. The sex study looked only at older people, aged 50 to 89.

Both studies also used standard measures of cognition. The chocolate study used six standard measures of cognition. The sex study used two: “…number sequencing, which broadly relates to executive function, and word recall, which broadly relates to memory.”

Both studies looked at the target variable – chocolate or sex – in binary fashion. Either you ate chocolate or you didn’t; either you had sex – in the last 12 months – or you didn’t.

The results of the sex test differed by gender. Men who were sexually active had higher scores on both number sequencing and word recall tests. Sexually active women had higher scores on word recall but not number sequencing. Though the differences were statistically significant, the “…magnitude of the differences in scores was small, although this is in line with general findings in the literature.”

As with the chocolate study, the sex study establishes an association but not a cause-and-effect relationship. The researchers, led by Hayley Wright, note that the association between sex and improved cognition holds, even “… after adjusting for confounding variables such as quality of life, loneliness, depression, and physical activity.”

So the association is real but we haven’t established what causes what. Perhaps sexual activity in older people improves cognition. Or maybe older people with good cognition are more inclined to have sex. Indeed, two other research papers cited by Wright et. al, studied attitudes toward sex among older people in Padua, Italy and seemed to suggest that good cognition increased sexual interest rather than vice versa. (Click here and here). Still, Wright and her colleagues might use a statistical tool from the chocolate study. If cognition leads to sex (as opposed to the other way round), people having more sex today should have had higher cognition scores in earlier waves of the longitudinal study than did people who aren’t having as much sex today.

So, we need more research. I’m especially interested in establishing whether there are any interactive effects. Let’s assume for a moment that sexual activity improves cognition. Let’s assume the same for chocolate consumption. Does that imply that combining sex and chocolate leads to even better cognition? Could this be a situation in which 1 + 1 = 3? Raise your hand if you’d like to volunteer for the study.

Chocolate Brain

save the earth chocolateClose readers of this website will remember that my sister, Shelley, is addicted to chocolate. Perhaps it’s because of the bacteria in her microbiome. Perhaps it’s due to some weakness in her personality. Perhaps it’s not her fault; perhaps it is her fault. Mostly, I’ve written about the origins of her addiction. How did she come to be this way? (It’s a question that weighs heavily on a younger brother).

There’s another dimension that I’d like to focus on today: the outcome of her addiction. What are the results of being addicted to chocolate? As it happens, my sister is very smart. She’s also very focused and task oriented. She earned her Ph.D. in entomology when she was 25 and pregnant with her second child. Could chocolate be the cause?

I thought about this the other day when I browsed through the May issue of Appetite, a scientific journal reporting on the relationship between food and health. The tittle of the article pretty much tells the story: “Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study”.

The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS) started in 1974 with more than 1,000 participants. Initially, the participants all resided near Syracuse, New York. The study tracks participants over time, taking detailed measurements of cardiovascular and cognitive health in “waves” usually at five-year intervals.

The initial waves of the study had little to do with diet and nothing to do with chocolate. In the sixth wave, researchers led by Georgina Crichton decided to look more closely at dietary variables. The researchers focused on chocolate because it’s rich in flavonoids and “The ability of flavonoid-rich foods to improve cognitive function has been demonstrated in both epidemiological studies … and clinical trials.” But the research record is mixed. As the authors point out, studies of “chronic” use of chocolate “…have failed to find any positive effects on cognition.”

So, does chocolate have long-term positive effects on cognition? The researchers gathered data on MSLS participants, aged 23 to 98. The selection process removed participants who suffered from dementia or had had severe strokes. The result was 968 participants who could be considered cognitively normal.

Using a questionnaire, the researcher asked participants about their dietary habits, including foods ranging from fish to vegetables to dairy to chocolate. The questionnaire didn’t measure the quantity of food that participants consumed. Rather it measured how often the participant ate the food – measured as the number of times per week. The researchers used a variety of tests to measure cognitive function.

And the results? Here’s the summary:

  • Women ate chocolate more frequently than men;
  • Those who ate chocolate consumed more calories overall “..but significantly less alcohol”.
  • “All cognitive scores were significantly higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week, than in those who never/rarely consumed chocolate.”
  • “Chocolate intake was significantly and positively associated with…” six different measures of cognitive function.

Seems pretty clear, eh? But this isn’t an experiment, so it’s difficult to say that chocolate caused the improved function. It could be that participants with better cognition simply chose to eat more chocolate. (Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?).

So the researchers delved a little deeper. They studied the cognitive assessments of participants who had taken part in earlier waves of the study. If cognition caused chocolate consumption (rather than the other way round), then people who eat more chocolate today should have had better cognitive scores in earlier waves of the study. That was not the case. This doesn’t necessarily prove that chocolate consumption causes better cognition. But we can probably reject the hypothesis that smarter people choose to eat more chocolate.

So what does this say about my sister? She’s still a pretty smart cookie. But she might be even smarter if she ate more chocolate. That’s a scary thought.

Human 2.0

Human 2.0

Human 2.0

When I worked for business-to-business software vendors, I often met companies that were simply out of date. They hadn’t caught up with the latest trends and buzzwords. They used inefficient processes and outdated business practices.

Why were they so far behind? Because that’s the way their software worked. They had loaded an early version of a software system (perhaps from my company) and never upgraded it. The system became comfortable. It was the ways they had always done it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve often wondered if we humans don’t do the same thing. Perhaps we load the software called Human 1.0 during childhood and then just forget about it. It works. It gets us through the day. It’s comfortable. Don’t mess with success.

Fixing the problem for companies was easy: just buy my new software. But how do we solve the problem (if it is a problem) for humans? How do we load Human 2.0? What patches do we need? What new processes do we need to learn? What new practices do we need to adopt?

As a teacher of critical thinking, I’d like to think that critical thinking is one element of such an upgrade. When we learn most skills – ice skating, piano playing, cooking, driving, etc. – we seek out a teacher to help us master the craft. We use a teacher – and perhaps a coach – to help us upgrade our skills to a new level.

But not so with thinking. We think we know how to think; we’ve been doing it all our lives. We don’t realize that thinking is a skill like any other. If we want to get better at basketball, we practice. If we want to get better at thinking, ….well, we don’t really want to get better at thinking, do we? We assume that we’re good enough. If the only thinking we know is the thinking that we do, then we don’t see the need to change our thinking.

So how do we help people realize that they can upgrade their thinking? Focusing on fallacies often works. I often start my classes by asking students to think through the way we make mistakes. For instance, we often use short cuts – more formally known as heuristics – to reach decisions quickly. Most of the time they work – we make good decisions and save time in the process. But when they don’t work, we make very predictable errors. We invade the wrong country, marry the wrong person, or take the wrong job.

When we make big mistakes, we can draw one of two conclusions. On the one hand, we might conclude that we made a mistake and need to rethink our thinking. On the other hand, we might conclude that our thinking was just fine but that our political opponents undermined our noble efforts. If not for them, everything would be peachy. The second conclusion is lazy and popular. We’re not responsible for the mess – someone else is.

But let’s focus for a moment on the first conclusion – we realize that we need to upgrade our thinking. Then what? Well… I suppose that everyone could sign up for my critical thinking class. But what if that’s not enough? As people realize that there are better ways to think, they’ll ask for coaches, and teachers, and gurus.

If you’re an entrepreneur, there’s an opportunity here. I expect that many companies and non-profit organizations will emerge to promote the need and service the demand. The first one I’ve spotted is the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). Based in Berkeley (of course), CFAR’s motto is “Turning Cognitive Science Into Cognitive Practice”. I’ve browsed through their web site and read a very interesting article in the New York Times (click here). CFAR seems to touch on many of the same concepts that I use in my critical thinking class – but they do it on a much grander scale.

If I’m right, CFAR is at the leading edge of an interesting new wave. I expect to see many more organizations pop up to promote rationality, cognitive enhancements, behavioral economics, or … to us traditional practitioners, critical thinking. Get ready. Critical thinking is about to be industrialized. Time to put your critical thinking cap on.

Donald, Bernie, and Belittlement

Singing from the same hymnal.

Singing from the same hymnal.

What do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common?

In addition to being old, white, and angry, they both use an ancient rhetorical technique known as attributed belittlement. The technique has survived at least since the days of Aristotle. It survives because it’s simple and effective.

Attributed belittlement works because nobody likes to be humiliated. If I tell you that Joe thinks you’re a low-life, no-account, I’ll probably get a rise out of you. What I say about Joe may not be true, but that’s not the point. I want you to feel humiliated. To accomplish that, I’ve attributed to Joe belittling thoughts about you. I want to make you so angry that you don’t even think about whether I’m telling the truth. I want to manipulate you into focusing your anger on Joe. I want to short-circuit your critical thinking apparatus.

The technique works even better with groups than with individuals like Joe. You can get to know an individual. Perhaps you already know Joe and you like him. That casts doubt on my veracity. But with a group – nameless, faceless bureaucrats, for instance – it’s easy to imagine the worst. They hate us. They look down on us. They take advantage of us. Belittlement works best when we can profile an entire group of people. It’s not logical but it’s effective.

So, let’s imagine the following quote:

They look down on you. They think they’re superior to you. They think you’re here to serve them. They think they can push you around. They’ve taken your jobs and your money and now they just want to rub your nose in it.

Would this quote come from Donald or Bernie? Well, … it depends on who “they” are. If we’re talking about immigrants and religious minorities, it seems like something the Donald would say. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about billionaires and fat cats, it’s more likely something that Bernie would say.

Note the rhetorical device. While talking to you, the speaker attributes horrible thoughts to other people. These are people who are easy to caricature. They’re also easy to profile: after all, they all think alike, don’t they? They’re also not here to defend themselves. Whether you’re Donald or Bernie, it’s an easy way to score cheap points.

By the way, I’m not an innocent bystander here. I sold software for mid-sized companies and often competed against some very big fish. I told prospective customers that, “The big software companies don’t want your business. You don’t generate enough revenue. They won’t give their best service. You’re just a little fish in a big pond.” It didn’t work every time. But when it did, it worked very well.

The good thing about attributed belittlement is that it’s easy to spot. Someone is talking to you about another group or company or person who is not physically present. The speaker attributes belittling thoughts to the third party. It’s a good time to say, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re using attributed belittlement to make me angry. You must think I’m stupid.”

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