The Jurassic Park Problem

The Jurassic Park Problem is one of my favourite go to explanations. Now, with the imminent release of Jurassic World, I finally seem slightly topical rather than horribly out of date. I most often employ it to question HR’s positions around analytics and big data – although it probably applies to most people’s use of technology.

It’s actually a two part issue – the first part being the context and the second part being the problem.

The context.

Jon Hammond builds a theme park on an island that is full of dinosaurs (he nabbed their DNA from resin). For the sake of simplicity we’ll call this Jurassic Park. He invites a select group of people to come to the island in advance of it opening. These include (quite sensibly) a hunter and some experts in dinosaurs. He also invites Ian Malcolm, a rock star mathematician who is an expert in chaos theory. This, I will concede, is a less obvious choice. If you read the book of Jurassic Park the concept of chaos theory is actually a central theme.

In the film Malcolm is played by Jeff Goldblum and is all ‘charismatic’. When asked to comment on the park he say’s this

“Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox”

The rapid commercialisation of new technology and the lack of understanding of the hard work and principles it is built upon combine to form a flurry of ill thought out activity. Code is built on code and then given a nice front end. It isn’t necessarily that it is wrong… more that the lack of reflection and effort involved mean that we are accept an easy solution without understanding the workings of it.

We stand apart from, and yet reliant upon, complex systems. That means that when systems fail we may not even notice. Matt Buckland wrote an excellent piece on the fad of the magical algorithm here. If you don’t believe in magic then be enquiring enough to understand how the magician pulls off his tricks.

The problem

“your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”.

The problem in our pursuit of the new is that we often pursue functionality over ethics. For instance our rush towards quantification of individuals (heart rate, steps, productivity, performance) ignores the research we already have about people and their desire i) not to be reduced to numbers ii) to have a sense of  identity and agency outside of a system iii) to feel as though they have a high level of self determinism/autonomy.

There is a sacrifice and benefit to every piece of information we give to a system – individuals and organisations will have different views on how justifiable that sacrifice is and how beneficial it is. If I offer a leader more information about his team he may naturally think that is a good thing, but for the individuals it may be a differing dynamic.

As organisations rush to map as much of their employees’ lives and interactions as possible (through wearable tech, social network monitoring and other means) they see an opportunity for control and insight that is at once beguiling through one lens and frightening through another.

It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do this activity – but to pause long enough to genuinely consider whether we should be doing it seems the lowest possible ethical requirement of a profession that is supposed to be all about people.

Song for the Asking

There’s nothing biting in here. Nothing to change the world. Just a thought.

‘Song for the Asking’ by Simon and Garfunkel is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly crafted pieces of music ever written. There is a live version of it on a compilation called ‘Old Friends’ that is perfectly delivered. Raw, evocative and sincere. The guitar holds it together with a gently picked and strummed style that effortlessly glides along, with the occasional more abrupt phrase that bring to mind Anji -a tune by Davy Graham that contains distinctive hallmarks that pop up throughout Paul Simon’s early works. The song manages to convey willingness to change, pleading, hope and a tribute to an almost lost lover. It does this in 1 minute 48 seconds.

It does this in just 1 minute 48 seconds and still manages to contain an instrumental. It is perfect as what it is and tries to be.

I played guitar when I was younger. I played it badly and without the diligence that is needed to become really good at something. Whether I was missing passion, flair, work ethic or will it was abundantly true that I was never going to be really good at playing the guitar. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t committed to it.

I could have, with enough time and investment, managed to learn how to play Song for the Asking. That would have been possible for me. I learnt how to play I Am a Rock and Hazy Shade of Winter. I could have managed to learn Song for the Asking. I never even attempted it.

Knowing and understanding your limitations is really important in a life that you only get to do once. We are in a world that seems so focused on ‘giving 110%’ and ‘pushing the boundaries’ and ‘go hard or go home’. We hear less about respect for the things we aren’t capable of. To be happy with our gifts. To choose where to deploy your time, energy and effort.

The second line of Song for Asking is ‘Ask me and I will play so sweetly I’ll make you smile’. You need to have a wonderful voice to do that line. You need to have a voice that chimes perfectly with it. You need to have a voice that sends tingles down people’s spines. I didn’t have that and so learning that song would only ever end up with me frustrated. So I didn’t learn it. I played Dylan, The Stones, The Kinks and the Travis cover of Hit Me Baby One More Time. I can even do the Bee Gees if you get me really, really, really drunk. I never touched ‘Song for the Asking’. That’s for people who can do things that I can’t.

Understanding what you can’t do and letting go of that is a hugely important skill. I’m learning every day about the things I’m not good at. That isn’t a defeatist statement, that’s an appreciation of where I can add value, where I should spend time and who I need to work with or be with to fill in the gaps. And it’s true outside of work too. There is a skill to not listening to just praise or just the criticism, but holding them both close enough to you for long enough to better understand what you can do and who you are. There’s a relief to acknowledging that you can learn, you can improve, but you can never be all things in the way you might want to be.

To be willing to give things up. Be less to be more. To be willing to understand your strength might be understanding your weaknesses well enough to build from there.

Or as Paul Simon put it

“Thinking it over I’ve been sad, thinking it over I’d be more than glad to change my ways”

Classroom learning – and why some organisations still need it

Classroom learning has become increasingly viewed as an anachronistic method of helping people learn. It is said that it is of no benefit to the learner, a crutch for the ‘trainer’ and has no long term benefit. I prefer to see us, as a profession, increase our use of tools and investigate the most appropriate contexts for them, rather than completely dismiss them. I think we hold onto things too long, but then press delete too quickly. I completely understand people’s passion to progress the profession, but I remember learning in a classroom long ago something about babies and bathwater. The upcoming L&D Show will showcase some great progressive thinking, but I think it is important to make sure that we are increasing our toolkit rather than just substituting things in and out. So I had a think about classroom training and what it still offers. Should we be hitting delete?

I have definitely gained from experiences in the classroom. I have gained information, perspectives from other delegates and oh so many models and hours of PowerPoint watching. What is interesting is that of the things that I have gained in a classroom (I have a freakishly good memory and it has purposefully discarded a high percentage of those experiences) it would be fair to say that most of them could now be delivered through other channels or experiences.

An hour with a smartphone and a group of people talking in a cafe would probably have covered most of them off. A genuinely interactive online package with an effective FAQ would have covered most of the others off. Properly supported internal learning communities could have delivered almost everything I gained. Effectively curated content would have given me 80% of it. A MOOC would have delivered me content and expertise more fluidly. Twitter.

The one thing that classroom learning still does effectively is ringfence time. And time, to a degree, represents investment for many companies. It doesn’t necessarily indicate quality or care, but it does represent ringfenced investment. Those times that I was in a classroom with my blackberry switched off were times where I was properly focused on my own development and in sucking in knowledge. Also those times were a breather from the hectic pace of business life. A half or a whole day where I could hit pause.

So where does that leave my thoughts on classroom training? Well, broadly with the alternatives we now have available it seems a sticking plaster for organisations where the investment in learning comes in spurts and they are time poor. Like turning off your car for a bit to let it cool down because you forgot to keep it topped up with oil. In that position it makes sense to fill it up with oil, but if you can keep it topped up the whole time it is better for the engine. It’s a poor analogy but I’ve written so much of it now I’m going to stick with it.

All of the other ways of supporting learning are probably preferable – unless you are in an environment where you need to isolate people in an effort to help them learn. And in that environment the biggest block to ongoing learning is probably the culture. So does classroom learning still have a place?

It depends on how much you have faith that for your organisation’s ‘70:20:10‘ is in fact anywhere near that blend. If you are in fact not confident in day to day learning being supported then you probably need ringfenced classroom training – but only as long as your ambition is limited to developing people in protected environments and for a small percentage of their working lives. That might be due to budget or it might be down to resource. Or it might be because your people are so used to that format that you have conditioned them to feel most comfortable with learning in that space – and you don’t have the time or inclination to help them unlearn.

It’s a bit like having animals caged in a zoo for their own protection. We’d rather we didn’t have to – but in unique circumstances we need to intervene to protect. Where do you need to limit learning to a classroom? Where learning is endangered if you don’t. Just appreciate that in the same way caged animals aren’t fulfilling all they could be…

Breadth, Learning Networks, Narrative and Riots

I’m going to bravely declare my political allegiance. I’m a nothing. I don’t identify strongly with any political party – I try to evaluate problems and work out who has the best solution to them. I like and dislike policies from across the political spectrum. I therefore can’t summon the levels of bile and anger that seem to come so easily to others. I’m not a moderate – I’m not slam in the middle of the political spectrum – I’m a whole of market kinda guy. This is not a political piece – this is a piece about politics and people.

I don’t think I’m ever likely to be involved in a riot. I accidentally got involved in a protest in Regent Street a couple of years ago and was in the process of being kettled when I pointed out to a police officer that i) I didn’t have a mask on ii) I wasn’t wearing grungy clothing iii) I’d only come to watch and would he let me out please, He did. I obviously don’t look like the protesty type. Yesterday there was protest in London and some other cities that was either massive, irrelevant, ill judged, violent or peaceful depending on who you choose to listen to. And who you choose to listen to is an incredibly important part of how you come to view the world.

Jim Rohn is often attributed with the saying ‘you are an average of the five people you spend the most time with’ and I think that is true to a degree. However we probably underestimate the millions of other subtle prompts that we unconsciously absorb each day and the degree to which we are victims of confirmation bias, the phenomenon that means your brain selects evidence that supports your current thinking. Throughout this election I’ve been paying attention to social media and reflecting on the way that it allows people to find confirmation of their worldview. If you get a big enough community you’ll always find someone to help you think that you are right Yesterday during the ‘riots’ there was a lot of chatter on Twitter saying that it must be a major event as it was trending and therefore there must be a conspiracy and a media blackout as it wasn’t being covered. This ignores a couple of things and shows evidence was being selectively chosen

  • Other things that trended over the weekend included: retired Arsenal footballer Dennis Bergkamp’s birthday, the Hackney half marathon and #NinjaWarriorUK (I’m a big fan)
  • People were actively urging each other on social media to try and get ‘GetTheToriesout’ trending, which means there was probably a disproportionate view of activity being reflected anyway

During the riot/protest there was an incident of graffiti on a war memorial. I don’t suppose for a moment that most of the people involved would have supported that act, but it immediately attracted polar responses on Social Media including the following positions

  • It is proof of a media conspiracy that this is being covered and they aren’t covering the protest the way I would like
  • It is typical of protestors (when you think about it it’s actually and obviously atypical as otherwise there would be more than one piece of graffiti)

We were actually lucky it broadly stopped at this level of isolated behaviour. This attempt to polarise positions and find evidence that your position is correct is essentially not helping solve any problems, it is creating division. Earlier today there was a picture doing the rounds on Twitter of a protester holding a sign up and (shock horror) the sign was written on the box for a Sony TV (this had been circled in the picture I saw)

There was an insinuation that the protester was therefore some kind of hypocrite for protesting against austerity measures whilst being able to afford a TV (note I saw this in a few tweets, the one here was just the first where I could see the picture to share it with you). There are a number of things wrong with this position

  • The world would be a worse place if only people who couldn’t afford TVs cared about how and where public funds are invested and what this meant for the nation. Well off people caring enough to protest is surely be a good aspiration
  • Being able to afford a Sony TV doesn’t necessarily indicate untold riches anyway
  • The box may not have been theirs. It doesn’t seem a stretch to think that someone made the sign with a box they found in a bin, rather than travelling in with a ready made placard

Anyway, the point of this piece is to get you to read this piece on respect by Mat Davies and to ask everyone to encourage everyone else to think about, rather than just react to, some of the news and positions that they hear. Just because someone represents a different party to you doesn’t mean that you should be immediately looking to attack them. That is the kind of point scoring, narrow minded behaviour that most of us despair of when we see it in politicians.

Do something positive

  • Try and approach things with a more open mind
  • Read news outlets, Twitter feeds etc that don’t represent your views and try and work out why people would think like that. Apply different narrative techniques to see where you get to. I thought this article was an interesting exercise in how things can be reported from differing angles
  • Stop looking for evidence that your view is right and start looking for ways to make sure that you have a rounded view. Doug Shaw‘s feed in the run up to the election was a genuine inspiration because it was someone genuinely hunting down information, being open to different positions and then finding a party that represented his view that he could actively support.
  • Take someone for a pint that you know will disagree with you and discover, over the course of an evening, that sensible reasoned people can think differently to you. That makes the world a better place, not a worse place

Anyway – I wanted to somehow link this to business because that has been a focus of lots of posturing during the election. There was a great quote from Chuka Umunna this morning that “you cannot be pro good jobs without being pro the businesses that create them” and that is a growing problem with some of the political rhetoric and positioning. That business is evil and full of evil corporations and that bankers should be lynched and the 1% control the world.

The fact is that we have an inequality problem, no doubt about it, but most people in the UK are part of that problem. If you take a world view then a large percentage of the UK is in the top 1% and certainly in the top 10%, in fact according to the UN more than half the world’s population earn less than $2 a day. So our minimum wage per hour is more than triple what half of the world earns a day. And part of that success is because we have strong businesses – are they are run brilliantly? Not in all cases. Should we want them to be run better? Yes.

But a sense of context and proportion is a really important thing when attempting to work out whether something is a social ill. Most people seem to have lost that context and ‘the bankers’ has become a shorthand for wrongdoing that is both crude and unhelpful…

“It’s easy to be friends with when shares the same opinions.”
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

Try doing the difficult thing instead. If you truly value diversity then allow your thoughts and friends to be diverse in every way.That’s how we learn. And for goodness sake afford a bit more respect to your fellow human beings.

You can keep battering people over the head with your ‘obvious truths’ but people rarely learn to love that which is battering them over the head. I get that you care, just don’t make the lazy assumption that others don’t.

A few final thoughts

  • Putting police officers in hospital doesn’t help reduce strain on the NHS
  • If you think that the government is illegitimate because it has less than 50% of the votes then so did Labour in 97 (with what was viewed as a landslide)
  • If you want PR then you have to be comfortable with UKIP being vastly more represented. Most people seemingly complaining about this seem to be Labour supporters (who didn’t seem to have much common ground with UKIP in the run up to the election)
  • We did have a vote on a different voting mechanic a few years ago. It had a 42% turnout and 67.9% of people  voted to keep the current system. It may not have been perfectly run but it happened. You may now want it changed, but similar to the reasons it would be unhelpful to have a Scottish Referendum each week it probably makes sense to these relatively infrequently too.

These isn’t to say there isn’t validity in exploring PR or what makes a legitimate government. Let’s just do it less angrily.