Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Sending A Memo To Your Future Self

Memo to self...

Memo to self…

We know a lot about the future. We can’t predict it precisely but we can often see the general contours of what’s coming. With a little imagination, we can prepare for it. We just need a structure to hang our imagination on.

As an example, let’s take organizations that are undergoing rapid and/or stressful change. We know a lot about such organizations. We know, for instance, that:

  • Communication suffers – people are distracted and don’t listen well. Bain estimates that only 20% of the information communicated actually gets through. Attention spans get shorter than ever. Tip: don’t give long speeches.
  • Memory becomes less accurate – stress affects memory in odd ways. Even in normal times, different people remember the same event in different ways. It gets worse in stressed out organizations.
  • We hear mixed and contradictory messages – change doesn’t happen smoothly across the organization. Some departments move quickly; others move slowly. When we talk to different people, we’ll hear different messages. It’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
  • We jump to conclusions more urgently — as the Heath brothers point out, we jump to conclusions all the time. Stress makes us even more jumpy. We’re anxious to get a solution and don’t take the time to consider the evidence.
  • Trust withers – it’s hard to trust people when we remember things differently, hear different messages, and jump to different conclusions.

I could go on but you get the picture. We also know that organizational change happens in three phases. At least, that’s what the theorists tell us. Here are four different models of the change process (here, here, here, and here). They use different descriptors but all four describe three distinct phases of change. Note that the middle phase is a trough – that’s where the going gets tough.

The trick to preparing for the future is to start imagining it before we get to the trough. Change managers refer to the trough with words like frustration, depression, resistance, and chaos. It’s not a good time for imagining.

So we start the imagination process in Phase 1. We’re still cool, calm, and collected. We can think more or less clearly – especially if we’ve studied critical thinking. We can think about the future dispassionately and plan how we want to behave.

We sit down in groups and discuss the issues we can anticipate in Phases 2 and 3. We know, for instance, that we’re likely to hear contradictory messages. How do we want to behave when we do? What can we do now to outline “best behaviors” for the stress created by contradictory messages? What can we do to ensure that we actually implement the best behaviors? What else might happen in the trough? How do we want to behave when it happens? We talk, discuss, debate, imagine, and agree.

We then write down what we’ve agreed to. In effect, we’re writing a memo from our current selves to our future selves. From our cool, calm, dispassionate selves to our stressed and anxious future selves. We make clearheaded decisions in Phase 1. When we get to Phase 2, we can refer back to our own wisdom to help govern our actions

I call this process Structured Imagination™. What we know about the future gives us the structure. We use the structure to focus our imaginations. We imagine what will happen and how we’ll behave when it does. This prepares us for the hurly burly of change and also vaccinates us against many of the ill effects of the trough.

Structured Imagination is not a perfect process – the future may still throw us a curve every now and then. However, I’ve used the process with multiple clients and they say that they face the future with greater confidence and clarity. That’s pretty good. If you’d like me to do a Structured Imagination workshop with your organization, just drop me a line.

Persuasion, Teens, and Tattoos

ElliotandTWBerlin2014When our son, Elliot, was 17 he decided that he needed to get a Guinness logo tattooed on his ankle. I wasn’t adamantly opposed but I did think that he might tire of wearing a commercial logo before too long. (If he had wanted a Mom Forever tattoo, I might have felt differently).

So how to convince him? I wanted to change his mind, though not his values. Nor did I want to provoke a stormy response that would simply make the situation worse – and actually make him more likely to follow through on his plans.

Ultimately, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Elliot: So, Dad, I’m thinking I should get a Guinness tattoo. It’s a really cool logo. What do you think?

Me: I don’t know. Do you think you’ll like Guinness for the rest of your life?

Elliot: Sure. It’s great. Why wouldn’t I?

Me: Well, you know, tastes change. I mean I thought about getting a tattoo when I was your age… and, looking back on it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t.

Elliot (shocked look): Really? You were going to get a tattoo?! What were you going to get?

Me: I wanted to get a dotted line tattooed around my neck. Right above the line, I’d get the words, “Cut On Dotted Line” tattooed in.

Elliot: (more shock, disgust): Dad, that’s gross.

Me: Oh, come on. Don’t you think it would be cool if I had that tattoo. I could show it to your friends. I bet they’d like it.

Elliot: They always thought you were weird. Now they’d think your gross. It’s yuck factor 12.

Me: Really? So, you don’t want to go to the tattoo parlor together?

Our conversation seemed to help Elliot change his mind. As far as I know, he hasn’t gotten any tattoos, not even Mom Forever. Why? Here are some thoughts:

It’s about trust, not tattoos – I don’t think that Elliot cared that much about the tattoo itself. He was actually running a Mom/Dad test. He wanted to know if we trusted him to make the decision on his own. We did trust him and didn’t take the decision out of his hands. That’s a big deal when you’re 17. It can also be a big deal for people in your company. They want to know that you trust them. Sometimes they’ll put it to a test. As much as possible, let them make the choice. Just counsel them on how to make it wisely.

It’s about judo — we didn’t try to stop Elliot, we merely tried to change his direction. That’s a useful guideline in most organizations.

It’s about imagining the future – like most teens, Elliot was focused on the present and near future. He couldn’t imagine 30 years into the future – except by looking at me. If he thought I would look gross with a tattoo, he could imagine that he would, too. The same is true of many companies. We make decisions based on near-term projections. It’s hard to imagine the farther future. But there are ways to do it. Ask your team to imagine what the world will look like in 30 years. You could start by reminding them how much it’s changed since 1985.

It’s about sharing – did I really think about getting a Cut On Dotted Line tattoo? Of course, I did. But my father sat me down and talked a little wisdom into my head. I just passed it on.

What are you going to pass on?

Hate, Happiness, Imagination

Failure of imagination.

Failure of imagination.

In The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene tells the story of a “whisky priest” who tries to keep his ministry alive during the Cristero War in Mexico. After the revolution of 1917, the Mexican government, seeking to suppress the power of the Catholic Church, seized church property, desecrated churches, and forced priests to renounce their vows and even to marry.

In 1926, some 50,000 peasants – many from the state of Tabasco – revolted against the government. They became known as Cristeros because their rallying cry was Viva Cristo Rey! During the war, which lasted until 1929, no Catholic mass was given in Mexico and many priests and nuns were summarily executed.

Against this backdrop, Greene tells a morally ambiguous tale. The whisky priest is no paragon of virtue. The lieutenant who doggedly pursues him is idealistic but violent. The lieutenant hates the church, believing it to be thoroughly corrupt. Does the priest hate the lieutenant? It’s an interesting question that allows Greene to write a brief meditation on the nature of hatred:

When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

In 2005, David Foster Wallace picked up the same thread in his commencement speech at Kenyon College. Wallace spoke of banal platitudes and the dreary rhythms of daily life. Life, he suggested, is often frustrating, infuriating, irritating, and just plain stupid. We’re surrounded by stupid, cowlike people and deal with petty, frustrating crap, day in and day out.

After painting a dismal picture of daily adult life, Wallace reminds us that that’s not the point. The point is that we get to choose. We can choose how to think and what to pay attention to. Our natural default setting is egotism. It’s all about me. Why are these people in my way?

Or we can imagine. We might imagine that the checkout clerk has a more tedious and painful life than even we do. Or that she’s just done something wonderfully generous and kind for another person. We can imagine that the person driving slowly ahead of us is tired from caring for a sick child. If we can see “the lines at the corners of the eyes”, then we can’t hate. It’s our choice.

I doubt that Greene and Wallace are compared very often in literature classes. But they’re mining exactly the same vein. We need to learn how to think and how to imagine. We don’t have to imagine new products or great art. We simply have to imagine how it is to be another person.

Another great novelist, Saul Bellow, wrote that imagination is “eternal naïveté”. We need to be naïve to imagine what another’s life is like. If we can be eternally naïve, we can stop being angry — at other people and at ourselves. Perhaps we can even be happy. It’s our choice.

(You can find a video of a portion of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech by clicking here).

Just Imagine You’re Doing It

I'm imagining I'm a Viking.

I’m imagining I’m a Viking.

My sister, Shelley, is a big fiction reader. She recently sent me a link to an article that suggests that people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who don’t. Suellen, of course, is also a big fiction reader. (She highly recommends All The Light We Cannot See).

As for me … well, I mainly read nonfiction. So, does that mean that Shelley and Suellen are both more empathetic than I am? And how does fiction – and imagination – affect us emotionally and biologically?

First, there’s the question of cause and effect. Does reading fiction make people more empathetic or do empathetic people read more fiction? To sort his out, Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp conducted several controlled studies comparing fiction to nonfiction. (Click here).

Bal and Veltkamp found that reading fiction does indeed stimulate empathy if the narrative creates “emotional transportation.” By this they mean that the story absorbs the reader and transports them to a fictional world. In other words, a really good story that sucks you in can make you more empathetic.

The general idea here is that intensely imagining a situation is almost as good as actually experiencing the situation – at least as far as empathy is concerned. Is imagination good for anything other than building empathy?

How about exercise? Can imagining that you’re exercising make you more physically fit? Or, as Jonathan Fields asks: Can Your Brain Make You Buff?

Apparently, the answer is yes. Erin Shackell and Lionel Standing conducted a three-way comparison of college athletes. (Click here). The objective was to strengthen the hip flexor muscles. One group used physical exercise; a second group used imagination; a third (control) group did nothing. The results? Those athletes who exercised increased their hip flexor strength by 28%. Those who used imagination increased their strength by 24%. The control group got nada. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking I should be training my imagination rather than my biceps.

What else can imagination do for you? We’ve known for some time now about the effects of walking through a door. As we’ve all experienced, the mere act of passing through a portal makes you forget stuff. It’s not that we’re inattentive, it’s that walking through a doorway induces forgetfulness. (Click here).

I recently read an article that suggests that merely imagining walking through a door induces the same forgetfulness effect. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw the article. Perhaps it’s because I walked through a doorway. Or perhaps I’m just imagining it.


Effect and Cause

Is it clean yet?

Is it clean yet?

I worry about cause and effect. If you get them backwards, you wind up chasing your tail. While you’re at it, you can create all kinds of havoc.

Take MS (please). We have long thought of multiple sclerosis as an autoimmune disease. The immune system interprets myelin – the fatty sheath around our nerves – as a threat and attacks it. As it eats away the myelin, it also impairs our ability to send signals from our brain to our limbs. The end result is often spasticity or even paralysis.

We don’t know the cause but the effect is clearly the malfunctioning immune system. Or maybe not. Some recent research suggests that a bacterium may be involved. It may be that the immune system is reacting appropriately to an infection. The myelin is simply an innocent bystander, collateral damage in the antibacterial attack.

The bacterium involved is a weird little thing. It’s difficult to spot. But it’s especially difficult to spot if you’re not looking for it. We may have gotten cause and effect reversed and been looking for a cure in all the wrong places. If so, it’s a failure of imagination as much as a failure of research. (Note that the bacterial findings are very preliminary, so let’s continue to keep our imaginations open).

Here’s another example: obsessive compulsive disorder. In a recent article, Claire Gillan argues that we may have gotten cause and effect reversed. She summarizes her thesis in two simple sentences: “Everybody knows that thoughts cause actions which cause habits. What if this is the wrong way round?”

As Gillan notes, we’ve always assumed that OCD behaviors were the effect. It seemed obvious that the cause was irrational thinking and, especially, fear. We’re afraid of germs and, therefore, we wash our hands obsessively. We’re afraid of breaking our mother’s back and, therefore, we avoid cracks in the sidewalk. Sometimes our fears are rooted in reality. At other times, they’re completely delusional. Whether real or delusional, however, we’ve always assumed that our fears caused our behavior, not the other way round.

In her research on OCD behavior, Gillan has made some surprising discoveries. When she induced new habits in volunteers, she found that people with OCD change their beliefs to explain the new habit. In other words, behavior is the cause and belief is the effect.

Traditional therapies for OCD have sought to address the fear. They aimed to change the way people with OCD think. But perhaps traditional therapists need to change their own thinking. Perhaps by changing the behaviors of people with OCD, their thinking would (fairly naturally) change on its own.

This is, of course, quite similar to the idea of confabulation. With confabulation, we make up stories to explain the world around us. It gives us a sense of control. With OCD – if Gillan is right – we make up stories to explain our own behavior. This, too, gives us a sense of control.

Now, if we could just get cause and effect straight, perhaps we really would have some control.

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