Monthly Archives: July 2006

Wiki wiki please

An article by Stacy Schiff in the latest New Yorker does a dandy job of bringing wikipedia into the mainstream, warts and all. Good history, good questions, and good job pointing to co-founder Sanger’s new-and-improved version of collaborative knowledge centers, Digital Universe.

Seems likely that in no time at all, the two approaches will find their home: wikipedia for the casual user on the net, digital universe for academics, professionals, and all who want at least some expert control over content.

Digital Universe is a very interesting concept. I’m looking forward to learning more about it for application in knowledge management for global companies with complex needs.

Strangers to Ourselves

I’m reading Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson and trying to digest what he’s getting at with his discussion of the “adaptive unconscious.” His theories don’t sound new or ground-breaking at first–after all, notably Malcolm Gladwell has raised the discussion to a more popular level with “Blink,” but Wilson’s approach is a deeper dive with a lot of science behind it.

lobes of the brain

Wilson is interested in finding out what the vast unconscious world in our brains is up to with the 10 million bits of information it’s absorbing every second. That 10 million bits covers everything from making your fingers coordinate with the keyboard to hearing the fan in the background to considering if the scorching sun is frying the vegetable garden out back. In this last instance, it appears that when the unconscious mind has decided that the vegetable garden is indeed at risk, it will hopefully manage to get a message to the conscious mind, even if it is non-verbal and just a “have-to-go-water-the-garden” impulse, one that make me get up and go outside…sometimes before I even realize that I’m out there for this very good and time sensitive reason.

So, like Gladwell, Wilson is giving us lots of reasons to clear defensive thinking, conscious perceptions, pre-conceptions and the like out of the way so our great big unconscious can get some timely information to us on a regular basis.

In amongst the studies he cites is this one about people who have suffered damage to left and right lobes, destroying communication between the two. The left lobe controls the right side of the body, the right controls the left. The study involved showing pictures to each eye, with the other one covered, and seeing what information could be communicated about the picture. To the right eye (left brain) they showed a picture of a chicken claw; the participants associated that picture with a chicken.

Next they showed the left eye (right brain) a picture of a snow drift and the participants associated that picture with a shovel. After this, the participants were given their associated results but since the right brain cannot communicate the association of the snow with shovel, the participants didn’t know why they had chosen a shovel.

Here’s the kicker: in the blink of an eye, the left brain (story-telling, conscious part of the brain) came up with a story for the selection of the shovel that combined it with the chicken: the chicken lives in a chicken coop which needs to be cleaned with a shovel. Is this really what happened? No. Is this now what the participant thinks happened? Yes. And that story will be the official story until such time as the individual finds out differently.
Wilson’s point again and again is that the conscious mind is way more fallable than we ever thought and that fallability can lead us as individuals and a part of the collective group to make assumptions and decisions based on information that is simply not correct. The conscious mind’s drive to create a story for what it perceives, whether or not that story is in any way true, is its raison d’etre. And doesn’t every successful marketer and lawyer out there know this instinctively!

The ability of the conscious mind to create stories without getting input from or listening to the unconscious is a bit of a design flaw, it seems to me. It inhibits us from perceiving correctly AND from getting, trusting and using information from our unconscious minds.

Strangers to Ourselves is full of good studies that cause one to consider how we get and process information. Few of us are willing to really listen to our “intuition.” It can’t be measured, it can’t be controlled, its processes are vast, random and unexpected. But when Jack Welch popularizes the notion of managing “from the gut,” whether he knows it or not, or even cares, he’s talking about getting information from the adaptive unconscious.

The more I allow myself to draw from my unconscious, the more interesting my solutions become.  The more spot-on, the more creative, the more unexpected and exciting.  Bringing intuitive solutions into a corporate setting is edgy and exciting!  And often just what’s needed. Dump the old stories.  Allow a new story to emerge!

Ron Sims, Local Hero

I’m jazzed to read this in the Seattle Times today, an article about how Ron Sims, King County Executive, is finally getting the attention he deserves for his views on the environment.

Ron Sims has been actively involved in a bunch of projects from green housing to water treatment and levees that many can criticize but few pay positive attention to–not sexy, not high visibility–but the ones I’ve been watching have been a methodical process of making his own vision of a cleaner, more environmentally responsible community a reality.

This guy actually tries to do something about what he believes in, and he’s finally, finally getting some good attention for it. Sure, it’s always easy to criticize people who are out ahead of the crowd, especially if they have to work with lots and lots of different gov orgs that require lots and lots of concessions to get the bus down the road. But overall, I’m glad he’s in the driver’s seat.

Don’t get mired.

I’m watching this. I’m sitting with my partner, we’re having a somewhat heated…well, okay, it’s a heated discussion, it’s been a long weekend, we’ve played hard, we’re both tired and maybe ready for a return to the predictability of the work week.

And I’m watching this thing happen. Where I listen and try to understand or more often, try to defend against something I perceive as an attack or a low level threat and before I know it, I’m following that thread, I’m diving down that rat hole, I’m about to get lost on someone else’s path.

rat hole

I’m not saying she doesn’t have very valid points. That’s not where I’m going, that’s not the problem. Where I’m going is this: it’s just so easy to get mired in someone else’s stuff. And if you think it’s easy in a relationship where you get the chance to practice NOT getting mired on a daily basis, if you think that’s easy, well just think about work. Think about entire organizations and how quickly you can get mired in some wacky thing or other simply because someone has data to bolster their argument for this or that and before you know it, you’re on someone else’s path heading in a direction you never even gave much thought to. (I’m not even going to touch on the fact that some highly placed individuals in every company are highly paid precisely because they are able to divert attention at just the right time 😉
It’s easy to get mired. And the more open your mind, the easier it is.

Is this a bad thing? Actually, it’s not necessarily bad. Often it is bad but not necessarily. I hold that if you recognize that change requires time and patience and building a foundation of trust which is based on person A having confidence that person B is listening to them, you may have to get a little mired now and then. You never know, there might be something fabulous in there.

But part of your brain should always be engaged, watching, appraising and making sure you’ve left enough bread crumbs behind to find your way back.

Large companies have a million zillion rat holes. They have entire teams churning out rat holes by the dozen and better software all the time to help them slice and dice ever more finely. And sometimes it seems their entire raison d’etre is to create a complex loop-de-loop where a straight line would suffice.

If my stated goal is to discover the root problem in a company’s failed online support options, for example, there will be a few obvious and easy issues. But they’re obvious and easy–the company in question has likely already thought of them and rejected them or let them die in the “editing table,” the team room (A good discussion of failed attempts to change in corporate settings here).

And that’s where it gets dicey: your job is really to find out the unspoken, unconscious idea they all share about online support. “our customers won’t use it,” “they’re not smart enough to use it,” “we can’t get support for any changes,” and blah blah blah. And before you know what hit you, the metrics and data have your head spinning and you can’t even remember why you brought in.

That’s mired.

Step away from the table. Clear your head. Listen. Not to what they’re “saying,” but to what they’re not saying, or what they’re saying in a million different ways because you know, you know! they’re measuring what they want to prove, not what should happen, not anything at all about where they should go from here.