Ask Spooky Action - Subsconscious Conscious Flow

Reader John Pollabauer sent me a nice note that included the following question:
When I read your May 2, 2006 blog post entitled Why Co-Workers Hoard Information, especially the reference to r-Complex cave man subconscious brains, and then shortly thereafter read your blog post dated 4/7/2005 entitled Good to Great throughout the Ages, it became obvious to me that before a person can experience "FLOW", the beliefs and values of both his conscious mind and his subconcious mind must be jointly aligned and in harmony, at least with respect to the task at hand. ... I would be interested to hear your take on the need for the alignment of both the conscious and the subconscious minds as a pre-requisite to experiencing FLOW.
It took me some time to come up with something to add to what John wrote, which I agree with completely. Thank you, John, for sharing the insight.

Remember these guys?

Normally you see them going the other way, representing the Ascent of Man. But the order you see here is the one in which our brains operate. That's right, research would indicate the Ogg, over on the left, is in charge of deciding what we focus on and learn. Then right-brain Thag gets engaged, and finally Oleg on the right consciously gets into the act.

In order to achieve flow, your subconscious brain has to believe that the task represents an imperative in your life. It's either part of an immediate and important threat, or an elemental opportunity. Most of the time we associate flow with the latter, but immediate-threat flow stories abound. Read the citations of Congressional Medal of Honor winners and I think you will agree.

Our subconscious minds are constantly working at many tasks, primarily around pattern matching and modification. Our early ancestors primarily reacted to the world around them. Was the that pattern of light and dark natural foliage or the camoflage of a potential meal? Was that twig snapping in the night someone going to stoke the fire or an approaching enemy? Our subconscious brains are constantly looking for all kinds of unrelated patterns both inherited and learned.

But in flow, those extraneous patterns aren't conflicting with the main task. How does that happen, because we can't consciously will them to stop? Answer: Ogg's thought processes can override Thag's. In computer processor designer there is a concept called the non-maskable interrupt(NMI). This is a signal that can be sent to the CPU to stop whatever it's doing right immediately and deal with the NMI. It's reserved for critical errors or events which need to be dealt with immediately. [I'll stop the computer analogy here. If you want more info, go here. This is what Ogg's r-Complex brain does to Thag's higher order subconscious processes. The process alignment can be immediate, as in the Medal of Honor citations, or may need to be developed over time, which seems to be more common with the non-threat type of flow. We'll explore that aspect in part two, since I need to start with a significant digression.

Thanks again to John, and if you have a question you'd like me to discuss, please leave a comment or email me at mdewitt@alum.mit.edu.

If you want to read more about the relationship between the different brains right now, click on the image below.

posted by Mike at 9:55 AM 6 comments


Change Management vs. BPR vs. TQM

Yesterday someone from Booz Allen Hamilton, the strategic consulting firm, found their way here by googling "What is the difference between change management and BPR". The number three result was Meet the Nick Carr of Organizational Change Management. I'm afraid that this link wasn't particularly helpful to my visitor. So I'm going to try to make amends by posting a Spooky Action picopolemic&trade on the topic:
BPR is all about the process. Change Management is all about the people.
Any questions? Yes, you in Vienna, Virginia...

"How are they related?"

Excellent question! In an old post I said this:
"The good folks at GE have an equation to put this into perspective:

E = Q x A

Where E is the business effectiveness (e.g., ROI) of an initiative, Q equals the quality of the solution delivered, and A represents the acceptance of the system by those charged with using and managing it."
In a BPR context, unless you've completely automated the process then you won't get 100% of your ROI until 100% of the people involved have internalized the new process! One of the key reasons that many Hammer and Champy style BPR initiatives failed miserably was that their total focus was on the Q component, to the exclusion of the A component. Alas, for most business initiatives you don't get dollar one of ROI until somebody's behavior changes. I won't repeat the most excellent rant extended polemic of the previous post, but there's more discussion of the topic there if you're interested.

Ignore the A component at your peril!

Any other questions?

"Why do companies focus on the Q versus the A, even when they've learned the equation?"

Short answer: because it's easier!

Long answer: because BPR is complicated and Change Management is complex. Understanding the difference is crucial in getting the A component right. More Space is the best business book you don't own. Okay, a couple hundred people own it, and one or two might stop by, but chances are you aren't one of them.

Me, too! You're missing out on thought provoking and actionable material. But don't just take my word for it. Click the link and check out the actual content! In one of the essays, entitled "Simple Ideas, Lightly Held", Johnnie Moore describes the difference between complicated and complex. It's brilliant, and I wouldn't want to try to paraphrase. Go read, or better yet, go listen to Johnnie explain it himself!

Most of our education, and most concepts and tools we use, are designed to address complicated problems, not complex ones. And yet, that equation up there necessitates that we get good at solving complex problems. But to do that, we'll need to reorient some of our thinking:

There. Now the next time someone wants to know the difference between Change Management and BPM, they need only look this far!

Go buy the book!

[Note to Johnnie: Most evocative title of a written work since "A World Lit Only By Fire"]

Incidentally, for those of you wondering about the difference between TQM and BPR, click the title of this post. The link is the best explanation I found.

posted by Mike at 12:42 PM 0 comments


Meet the Nick Carr of Organizational Change Management

In 2003, a gentleman named Nicholas G. Carr melvined the IT community with a Harvard Business Review article entitled "IT Doesn't Matter".

At least that's the impression you'd get seeing CIOs' reactions to the article, in which Carr had the temerity to suggest that most companies had no business trying to use I.T. for strategic competitive advantage. In the wake of the dot bomb era, CEOs were happy to use the article as a pretext for those "Do More With Less" conversations that CIOs all grew to dread. The amount of vitriol heaped on Carr is normally reserved only for senior members of the Bush Administration, but, as I wrote in Spook Action Predicts, for the great majority of companies, he was absolutely right in his assertions.

And I list the 3 primary barriers to success: employees, management, and the fundamental structure of the organization itself.

Rejected Cover Art for June 2003 CIO Magazine

Johnnie Moore recently noted an article that ups the "don't waste your time and money" ante considerably: Chris Grey's "The Fetish of Change". Grey is no lightweight crackpot. He is a Professor of Organisational Theory at Cambridge University! And a damn fine writer, in both style and substance.

He doesn't pull any punches, beginning:
"In this polemical paper I aim to interrogate prevailing assumptions and practices in the field of organisational change and the management of such change. I argue that change has become such a key part of our taken-for-granted understanding of organisations that we have made it into a 'fetish.' Just about every organisation scholar, manager, and management student seems persuaded that we live in times of unprecedented change, that organisational survival depends upon change, and that the work of managers is centrally concerned with change. Against this orthodoxy, I want to subject the notion of change to critical scrutiny."
Carr only assailed the downtrodden IT department; Grey is going after management in totality!
"Change is a notion which is drawn upon in a largely unthinking, but very significant, way so that it takes on an almost magical character. Change is like a totem before which we must prostrate ourselves and in the face of which we are powerless.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the change fetish is the way in which it figures as the contextual, introductory, and taken-for-granted. So obvious are they taken to be that they typically take the form of rushed assertions at the outset of any particular treatment of management."

"...the belief that we live in times of unprecedented change is one which is found in many ages, and perhaps every age. In retrospect, the past seems more stable than the present because it is familiar to us, and because we experience the past in a sanitised and rationalised form. Yet, it is possible to point to any number of periods in the past when, for those alive, it must have seemed as if the world was changing in unprecedented and dramatic ways: the collapse of the Roman Empire; the colonisation of the Americas; the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution; the World Wars. The shift from religious to secular conceptions of the world over the last four centuries has, and continues to have, massive ramifications throughout the world, beside which any issues of globalization and technical change experienced in recent years, even accepting these at face value, seem fairly limited."
Ouch! He relates many other supporting arguments, but then lands a haymaker with the following facts:
"Even the jewel in the crown of the change fetish - increased globalization - is by no means as clear-cut an issue as is commonly supposed. Hirst & Thompson (1996) expose claims about economic globalization to rigorous and sceptical scrutiny. Comparing the ratio of trade to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), for example, they find that this has dropped in most industrialised countries over the course of the twentieth century (Hirst & Thompson, 1996: 26-27), and, using a range of measures they claim that "unequivocally... openness was more in the Gold Standard period then even in the 1980s" (Hirst & Thompson, 1996: 28). With slightly less confidence, they argue that migration (of people) has been substantially less in the twentieth century than the nineteenth, certainly as a proportion of the world's population (Hirst & Thompson, 1996: 23). Overall, they conclude that "the international economy was hardly less integrated before 1914 than it is today" (Hirst & Thompson, 1996: 196-197)."

Having now disabused us of the notion that our times are by any means extraordinary, he goes on to describe the 'fetish' aspect of organizational change:
"In less abstract terms, this means that as an organisation changes, it contributes to the rationale for change in other organisations, which in turn provides a rationale for change in the original organisation. Ultimately, this is likely to be futile: suppose an organisation implements, for example, Total Quality Management (TQM) for 'the first time in the world' (or for the first time in a particular industry), and further suppose that this yields competitive advantage. Other organisations then seek to adopt TQM and, assuming that all organisations are equally successful in their implementations, the end result will be that no organisation has competitive advantage. In short, I am suggesting that organisations collectively generate a 'treadmill' of change, which is then seen as a problematic environment to which an organisational response must be made.

It is indeed very obvious that TQM illustrates this point. The 'quality revolution' of the 1980s came to be seen in the 1990s as being inadequate by virtue of its attachment to 'incremental change'. A new 'revolution' was needed (Hammer and Champy, 1993) and instigated in the form of Business Process Reengineering (BPR). But BPR then became seen as 'limited' (Koch and Godden, 1996), and a new vision of 'post-management' if offered as the solution. We can ascribe this to faddism (Abrahamson, 1996), but it is a faddism which is the outcome of particular social processes of competitive emulation, rather than being absurd or whimsical froth."

This is beginning to look like an unfair fight. And Grey's picking up steam:
"The most striking thing about change management is that it almost always fails. Despite (or, who knows, because of) the reams of worthy academic treatises, the unending stream of self-congratulatory 'I did it my way' blather from pensioned-off executives and the veritable textual diarrhoea of self-serving guru handbooks, change remains a mystery. And I do not think that the answer is just around the corner: rather, change management rests upon the conceit that it is possible systematically to control social and organisational relations, a conceit shared by the social sciences in general (Maclntyre, 1981). I will return shortly to this point.

Change management a failure? Is this just wild generalisation from an 'armchair critic'? Crosby (1989) - a leading advocate of TQM - claims that 90% of such projects fail to meet their targets, whilst Stewart (1993) gives a failure figure of 50-70% for BPR. New techniques are announced with a great fanfare and presented as the unproblematic solution to previous problems, but disillusion soon sets in. Some of this is bound up with the marketing activities of consultants and gurus. But there is more to it than that. Managers responsible for particular change programmes are likely, for career and identity reasons, to describe them as successful. Yet, the everyday experience of people in organisations is that one change programme gives way to another in a perennially failing operation: nirvana is always just on its way."

That's going to leave a mark! Then, bless his soul, the good Professor takes aim at benchmarking and "rest practices":
"Benchmarking aims to measure and match an organisation's existing products and procedures with those of competitors and, in particular, those of organisations perceived to be field leaders. It is part of a process which institutional theorists have described as 'mimetic isomorphism' (DiMaggio & Powell, 1991) or, as we might more straightforwardly say, copying. Benchmarking, as a general preparation for the deployment of particular change management techniques in the name of 'best practice', is expressive of the underlying search for generalizability which characterises change management discourses.

But...generalizability and hence benchmarking are predicated upon the assumption that organisational settings are homogenous with respect to the relevant features. In other words, it is assumed that doing what another organization did with a different set of people in a different place at a different time will yield the same results as those claimed for the original implementation. And what do such claims amount to anyway? Let's assume an organization is successful in terms of (say) increased profitability following the introduction of (say) a new organisational structure. There is no way of knowing whether this success was because, despite, or coincidental with the new structure. It is not known, by definition, whether had another structure been adopted the organization would not have been even more profitable."
(emphasis mine)

This should be starting to sound familiar to anyone who has read "When Bad Things Happen to Good Concepts".Much more articulate, and without the goofy pictures, but familiar. I guess that's the difference between a polemic and a rant.

But I did one of those Charlie-Brown-Spies-the-Decorated-Christmas-Tree double takes when I read this:
"The implication of the issues I have outlined, ultimately, is that the whole business of change management should be given up on."
What?! 'Polemic' means you're just kidding, right?

With some trepidation, I read on:
"Since the early days of management theory, imperfect implementation has been the stock defence of failures. Thus, Taylor ascribed the difficulties encountered by the introduction of scientific management in 19th century North America to a failure to fully implement his approach. Exactly the same case is made in relation to TQM, BPR, and so on.

It is worth pondering why, when so much effort and energy is put into change management - both doing it and writing about it - imperfect implementations continue to abound? Could it be that, even if it were to be granted that successful change management can in principle occur, there are necessarily problems in translating between settings?"

Bingo! You can only successfully apply a concept within a properly defined context. The daunting task for would-be change managers is that the context for change in this case comprises the entire contents of effected employee's brains!

Which brings us back to Mr. Nicholas G. Carr. While the title said that IT didn't matter, what he said in the article was slightly different. Carr argued that technology's ubiquity had turned it from a strategic opportunity to a strategic liability; that the IT department was much more likely to be the source of a disastrous mistake than a brilliant new breakthrough. He argues that if everyone has the same set of applications (incorporating industry best practices!), how can anyone gain a sustainable competitive advantage from them? Grey made the same argument about TQM and BPR programs in a previous quote. And they each have the statistics to back up their claims.

Does that mean we should abandon the notion of using IT or change management to achieve competitive advantage?

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

Hell No!

But don't kid yourself. As I said before, the context for change comprises the entire contents of effected employee's brains. Chances are very slim that any manager, any management team, or any consultant is going to be able to design a program to manage a significant change in that context.

Sometimes a management team is smart enough to admit it before they fail. A few years back I was working with a large company and got to discussing the Theory of Constraints with a brilliant program manager who had spent his entire 37 year career at the company. He told me that he and several other managers had been sent to Jonah training to see if it would benefit the company. The group returned convinced that using TOC would revolutionize their operation, but management decided not to go through with the project.

"Mike," he said. "This program would have run afoul of almost one million person-years of our corporate culture. I didn't like the decision, but I could respect it." Me, too.

But most management fools rush in where my friend's management angels feared to tread! And they deserve every bit of scorn that Carr and Grey can heap on them!!

I swear, some enterprising online university should name ME their William C. Dukenfield Professor of Imperial Couteur! If someone would get his act together, we would proceed with telling you how to overcome the obstacles outlined by the good professor.

Stay tuned. The ride gets wilder from here. I promise! You didn't think I was kidding about that "transformative experience" quest, did you?

posted by Mike at 9:05 AM 8 comments


The Submission Aesthetic

In Categories of Fun and Experience Design, I introduced Marc LeBlanc's list of gameplayer aesthetics:
  1. Sensation - game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy - game as make-believe
  3. Narrative - game as drama
  4. Challenge - game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship - game as social framework
  6. Discovery - game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression - game as self-discovery
  8. Submission - game as mindless pastime
Seven of the eight are straightforward, but the concept of Submission confused me, particularly in light of how it related to Experience Design. Further digging into Marc's work revealed that he alternatively used the terms Submission and Masochism to describe this aesthetic. Final Fantasy indeed!

Sticking with the mindless pastime definition, I found myself still wondering what it meant and how to create it. I thought maybe it was a repetitive activity like Steve McQueen's bouncing and catching a baseball in 'The Great Escape' - something to take your mind off current circumstances (being stuck in The Cooler) but not rising to the level of one of the other kinds of fun; a sort of unflow.

I'm willing to wager that you've experienced both the flow and unflow states. What is the difference between the two? Which Components of Flow are missing in unflow? Which ones are necessary to achieve the unflow state? Are there other components of unflow?

In most workplaces there are people operating in both states. Which ones do you think are more productive? If you are a manager, what can you do - what must you do - to move people from the unflow to the flow state?

I started writing "Categories of Fun..." in hopes of finding the Holy Grail of Experience Design: a recipe for creating effective Transformation experiences. I think that this distinction between the components of flow and flow plays a key role. I'm still the details out for myself, but I'd be interested in hearing what you think about unflow and Submission.

And I'll resume the quest for the Grail soon, but first I must take my afternoon nap on the balcony.


Marc LeBlanc graciously responded to my e-mail query about the definition of Submission as follows:
When I’m talking about submission I’m talking about, in some sense, the “pleasure” of giving yourself over to an external process. “Pleasure” is perhaps an overly strong word here.

Bouncing a ball against the wall could be one example. Other examples could be activities like knitting or organizing your bookshelf.

In games, submissive pleasure can manifest as activities that we have reduced to rote process. For example, veteran players of Tetris might play it on an easy difficulty level, more as a distraction than as a challenge. (The creation of order is a common theme for submission. Playing Tetris is like organizing your bookshelf; all the decisions are mandated by a simple, externally defined notion of “tidiness.”)

One (old) example from my own experience is in Star Control 2, where much of the game involved mining minerals on planets. The process becomes mechanical: fly to the planet, scan it for minerals, send your lander down to scoop them up, move on to the next planet. When a game tricks you into having fun doing something that would be a boring job in another context, that’s submission."
And that, friends, is why he's a big-time conference presenter. A clear, concise explanation!

But I still couldn't get this flow vs. unflow idea out of my head, when suddenly that 10 picowatt bulb went off in my head. Unflow experiences are purely subconscious! They're not completely mindless, but our conscious mind isn't involved. I'm not sure if the pleasure stems from our conscious mind appreciating the break, or from our subconscious mind not having to babysit the youngest member of the family, but that's the flow/unflow distinction.


posted by Mike at 12:09 PM 2 comments


Why Co-workers Hoard Information

Rob over at BusinessPundit links to an article describing new research that shows that Co-workers hoard their ideas. I'm sure glad MY tax dollars didn't go to support research that restates the obvious!

As a public service, I'm going to explain things in simple terms even academic researchers can understand. My normal audience would get the gist of post from the opening poster, but here goes:
People hoard information because we perceive it as a scarce resource, and thus our r-Complex cave-man subconscious brains do it as a survival strategy.
That's it. If all you want to know is the reason co-workers hoard information, you can stop reading now.

The urge to hoard scarce resources is wired into us, as Robert Cialdini brilliantly described in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. You can't stop me from doing it without truly extraordinary measures, and the scarcer (and thus more valuable) I perceive the information to be, the more closely I'll hoard it (see poster).

So what can a manager do to stop the hoarding?

The concept is painfully obvious, isn't it? Change people's perceptions about the scarcity of information! This usually involves two subprocesses:
  • Lead by example: Don't use information hoarding as a management tool
  • Show people that the value of their knowledge lies in what they do with it.
Everything else hinges on defining the context for the new concept, and then executing the two-step plan outlined above. Have you encountered this problem before? What did you do to overcome it? Leave a comment and we'll all be smarter for your contribution.

UPDATE: In the comments section of Rob's post Laurence Haughton asks:
"Do you have any thoughts on what knowledge hoarding means for business blogs?

I see a link between what you posted and the fact that business blogs are either very short-lived or nitwittery."
I'm not sure which I am, and I'm not well-read enough to comment generally, but I can speak to my own experience. My first post contains a distillation of most of what I'd learned over 20 years. It bugs me that it may still be my best post. It took me more than six months to put what I thought was my most valuable intellectual capital out on my blog. I was like one of those entrepreneurs who thinks he's got a world-beating business concept and so refuses to discuss it without a Non-Disclosure Agreement and then gets frustrated when his idea goes nowhere. I finally asked myself why I was blogging. It certainly wasn't for fame and fortune (although Hugh says that if I bang away about what I care about daily for five years I might do okay). Now I try to post things I find truly interesting and insightful, without concern about giving away something valuable. I'm sure lots of it comes off as nitwittery, since the content often comes out of my head for the first time into the post text.

I think that business blogging may be analogous to the music business. The short-lived blogs, like the one-hit wonder bands, burn through a lifetime's worth of material in short order (the debut album), and then struggle to come up with new stuff real-time. Most new bloggers don't get a lot of traffic and/or comments. I've had precious few of either and would have quit long ago if that's what I got out of this. The road to nitwittery is probably a fork off the crash-and-burn turnpike, and I'm guessing that creating content for content's sake contributes heavily to this problem. Just grind out some old gristle to keep up the stats. I'd like to say I've never done it, but I'd be lying.

The funny thing is that the best people don't hoard their best stuff. My favorite example of this principle is David Maister's site. He hasn't been afraid to put his best intellectual capital out on his site, and to engage people in discussions about questions he gets. He does this because he knows that if his Concepts are valuable, people will pay him well to help them implement those concepts in their own context. [Okay, maybe not his best stuff, but truly valuable material. Care to comment, David?]

I guess it really does come down to Hugh's "blog about what you're passionate about" and not worrying about IP if you want long-term relevancy. I'll never put out anything as good as David or a whole host of others, but if I don't put my best stuff out there I'm doomed to the fates you described.

Does that make you more or less inclined to start your own?

Great Caeser's Ghost!
Reader David Maister responds:
" Yes, Spooky, I would like to comment.

You have it exactly right. My philosophy always has been that to get people to believe that I have someting to offer, I have to actually demonstrate it by showing them. It would be ridiculous bo say "I'm really valuable but I'm not going to prove it until you pay me!"

Your music analogy is perfect. Like many performers and bands, I make my name (but not much money if any) from the albums, once you take into account the time it takes to make them. And like MTV (at least in the early days) as a performer I pay for and give away my videos.

But what I get in return is the chance to go out on tour where I can perform for real people in real time and get paid obscene amounts of money for mixing my greatest hits with my new tunes.

And you know what? Mostly the audience wants to hear David's greatest hits, rather than just the latest stuff. and yes, there are some "cover bands" out there playing my tunes, but good luck to them.

As long as I can keep the balance going between old and new stuff and feel that I'm making a real difference,it continues to work for me.

Check my website out. I give away as much as I can for free - blogs, videos, articles, podcasts, the lot. That's how you become famous and in demand!"

Thanks, David!

posted by Mike at 11:51 AM 5 comments