Ground rush, buffers, exceptions and weddings
When you jump out of an aeroplane, hopefully wearing a parachute, the ground
seems far away. It continues to look this way for some time, which can lull you
into a false sense of security because when it starts to get bigger, it gets
bigger quickly and you need time to pull the ripcord, for the parachute to open,
and for you to decelerate from 100 miles per hour or so down to a gentle walking
The same is true for actions and events.
When Christmas or some other celebration is approaching, there seems plenty
of time to get things done, but as many last-minute shoppers know, that last
minute is characterized by panic and desperation. There may be several reasons
for this, a common one being that your plans do not turn out to be a predictable
march from A to B. Traffic is much worse than you expected. The things you were
going to buy are out of stock. Other urgent things crop up, demanding your time
Some people do this. They always leave things to the last minute. It's a
personality thing as each of us range across a scale of
Perceiving. Judgers plan well ahead. Perceivers leave things to the last
minute. Yet both may be affected by ground rush as the judger's plans go awry
and the perceiver's chaos gets in the way. A helpful method that many project
managers use to handle this is to include 'buffer time', or space and resource
that is not yet allocated, so if things go perfectly they finish on time and
under budget. But usually they do not, and spare time money can be very helpful.
Process designers and computer programmers cope by including 'exception
handling', where ways to cope with undesirable events are built into the system.
My daughter's experiencing ground rush at the moment as her wedding is just
over a month away. Being a smart business consultant, she's been planning and
preparing for this for ages (she's a strong Judger) and we were treated to a
PowerPoint presentation about it all over breakfast earlier in the year. It's
going to be a complicated affair with all kinds of decorations, games, music and
so on, with a science-fiction/1920s theme. Her exception handling includes a
dynamic couple of bridesmaids who would do pretty much anything to ensure she
enjoys her big day. If that doesn't work, it's Dad time.
I've already got my top hat and tails.
In search of the perfect phone
I've been looking for a great phone for a number of years, and watching how I
look tells much about how my mind gets changed.
A long time ago I bought a Nokia with one of the first touch screens. It had
a camera. It played MP3. It was pretty neat. I could drop it and put it back
together again and it would still work fine. In fact it's still working, though
the old Nokia Symbian operating system means there are no new apps, and those I
have are, well, limited. I replaced it recently, but more about that later.
Phones these days are of course more than phones. They are multi-functional
tablets too. Tablets have been something of a revolution and have replaced PCs
for many, though not for me. As a writer and photographer, I need big screens
and a proper keyboard where I can write quickly. Nevertheless, I had an iPad
early, and it's still working just fine, though now seems a big heavy when
holding for more a few minutes. I got tendon problems in my hand about it, so I
got a Google Nexus 7 2013. Much quicker, higher resolution and a better camera.
Accessible file system and easy to connect with PC. But it died, taking with it
some writing I was doing.
So recently I decided to get an all-in-one device. After much chewing (notice
how I was persuaded here), I got a Nokia 1520 phablet. Largely because it has a
fabulous 20Mpx camera and a good GPS navigation system built in. Also because my
old Nokia worked so well. And because I thought Microsoft, being further behind,
would build a good operating system be trying hard and ensuring there are good
apps out there. And there are some, though with appalling omissions (no proper
Dropbox, for example). There are also vastly annoying missing features (no
'select all') and design flaws (many apps have the 'save' right next to the
'back' button, which closes the app without saving your work or asking you about
it). Bafflingly, even the much-vaunted 'Microsoft Office' on the phone has a
version of MSWord with hardly any features at all. And as a writer, that's very
I've been looking to have my mind changed, to be as happy with a new phone as
I was with my old Nokia. But sadly not. I was drawn in by glossy features and
glowing reviews. Now I'm stuck for a few years. If I could, I'd put Android on
the phone, which suited me far better than the dumbed-down interface that
Microsoft seems to think the world needs.
The Conformance-Consulting Dilemma
There are a number of people and even whole business departments who face a daily dilemma, based in
an often unrealized role conflict situation. HR, Quality, Finance, IT and others
all fall into this trap, and as a result find they face an uphill path when
getting people in the rest of the company to change.
Let's look at it from the viewpoint of an average manager, Jo Soper. Jo has a
very busy job to do in creating real value for the company that leads directly
to profits. This helps make her feel important and good about herself. Then HR
come along and tell her that she's got to fill in various forms to help
recruitment, employee surveys, performance management and so on. In other words,
they eat into Jo's 'real' job. So Jo looks at HR as something of a nuisance. But
Jo is a loyal employee and goes along with this, perhaps grumbling to her
colleagues about the waste of time. Then HR next come along, brightly
telling Jo that they can help her be a better manager with employee development
planning and so on. They even want to be her 'trusted advisor' on employee
matters. You might forgive Jo for being rather suspicious about all this. After
all, HR are the people who make her do all that form-filling (and nag or
threaten her until she does).
The problem is because HR is trying to be both police and friend, regulator
and helper. On one hand they say 'Do this' and on the other say 'Let me help'.
Jo is left confused. Are HR the bad people who make her do stuff or are they
friends who help? Who is in charge? Are HR friend or foe?
Jo may also be a bit crafty. She knows that HR like helping, and that in this
mode, they are playing the consultant and she is the client, and that the boot
is now on the other foot. So when HR put on
the conformance hat, telling her how she must follow company policy, Jo talks
back as if they are wearing the consultant hat, and that their demands are
actually offers. She has now retained control and can, if she likes, refuse or
delay her responses. And Jo is not the only one. The result is that HR are left
baffled by lots of managers who seem to be in covert or even open revolt, and
even the slightest change seems not to work.
An answer for HR, and any other department who want to both dictate and help,
is to pick one role and not try to do both. If you want both, then you must
organizationally separate them. HR, then, for example, could be the regulators,
defining and policing employee policy. They may be seen as the bad guys, but at
least they are keeping everyone on the straight and narrow way. The company
could then set up a separate Personnel Development department, whose job is
about helping people in their people-based work. The PD person comes along and
effectively says 'Yes, I know HR are making you do this stuff. I can help lessen
Parents, teachers, police officers and others also face the same dilemma. On
the one hand they need to tell, and on the other to sell. A parent may have strict
rules about how their child behaves, but then they also want to hug them and coax them
onto the right path. Sometimes parents handle the dilemma by splitting the
roles, with one as the 'strict parent' and the other as 'nice one'.
When you cannot be both boss and friend, you have to choose where you stand.
Effective teachers handle this by being mostly the person in charge. Even when
they are helping out, there is no question of the pupil turning around and
dictating terms. If this happens (and it does) the result is classroom anarchy.
Teachers 'lose' classes by trying to be too friendly and getting too close.
There is a lesson here that if you have to both control and help, then you can never let go of
the reins. Even when you are being friendly, you cannot be friends. Everyone
must know what is optional and what is not.
In fact whatever your roles are, it can be a good idea to look hard at them.
Are you on the one hand telling people what they should do and then wanting to
help them? Are you having problems in one or both of these where people are not
really going along with you? Oh look. You've got the conformance-consulting
The winkler's dilemma
Imagine you are a part of a town planning team and need to get people out of
their houses and into new accommodation, as the area where they are living is
being redeveloped. How would you go about this? This job of getting people out
of their houses has been called 'winkling' and the band Genesis wrote a
scathing song about this many years ago.
Perhaps you would talk up the new location and all the advantages of the new
housing. Perhaps you would offer incentives to move. These are typically done.
In fact a common scenario is where some people delay and refuse. A dilemma here
is that the more they push back, the more desperate you get, and the the more you end up offering to get them to move. In
the end, you can still end up with one or two tree-huggers and it has been known
for huge developments to be built around one small house.
This dilemma has been faced in China, where an interesting reversal was used.
Those who moved first were given the nicest houses and reasonable financial
payments. However, the longer you took to agree to move, the less you got, until
the last to leave were unceremoniously kicked out of their houses, got the worst
new accommodation and received no compensation payments at all.
Yes, you may say, but we're not in China (unless you are, of course) and
things are different around here. But that's not the point. Rather than dismiss
the Chinese approach, we can find useful ideas there for creating
change, perhaps in an organisational situation. The basic principle is to give
bigger rewards to those who go first. Early people may have to cope with
teething problems (which is one reason others want to leave it to later) and it
seems reasonable that they get some advantage for this. The sliding scale of
benefit also encourages later people to get on the bus as they look around them
and conclude that even late is better than later. Whenever you get on the bus,
you will always be competing with the people around you as even the person just
in front of you gets more benefits. And as with any laggards, you will
probably need a coercive sweep to get the last few on board, but by then they
will have little options and less support for dragging their heels.
The weirdly level playing field of social media
One of the best ways of getting ahead in business and life is to be
different. If you are the same as everyone else, then you will get lost in the
crowd and your message with it. It's all about attention, of course, which is a
critical early step in changing minds.
However, standing out can be a bit of a problem. Imagine yourself in a party and you
want to be noticed. So you speak louder. But then other people can't be heard,
so they speak louder too, maybe a bit louder than you, so you have to up your
volume as well. Before long, all you can hear is noise. This is the standout
problem. As everyone tries to stand out and be noticed, there is an
escalation of increasing effort. This can happen more slowly, too, for example
in the clothes people wear. A person at a party wears high fashion clothing to
get noticed. So next time, other people go fashionable too. Before long, the
level playing field effect comes into play, where everyone wears expensive
fashionable clothes but nobody gets the attention they seek. All that has
happened is that the status quo has become more expensive. This effect also
helps to create a ratchet on the level playing field, where nobody wants to go
backwards. Wearing unfashionable clothing when everyone is looking smart may get
you noticed, but in the wrong way.
A related problem is that, when trying to be different, rather than being
attractive, you may end up in the weird effect. There is a fine line
between interestingly different clothing and just plain kooky. People like
others who are similar to them. They admire others who are bold and who they'd
like to emulate. But they don't like people who are really different. If
a person comes to an ordinary party wearing a rabbit outfit, would you notice
them? Almost certainly. But would you go and chat with them? Perhaps not.
This happens in all kinds of places, including with social media. First of
all it was just a place to chat and meet friends. Then businesses, large and
small, realized that it was a good place to 'fish where the fish are',
advertising and engaging with their customers. Some of the early adopters had
huge success with this and were widely reported in the traditional media. Now
it's kind of mandatory to have a wide range of social media campaigns, and those
who do not tramp the fields of Facebook and treadmills of Twitter are considered
out of touch. But how successful are these activities? Some, no doubt, work
well, yet many will leave marketing managers floundering. The social media
playing field is becoming level as everyone and their cat jumps into the pond.
Consumers are drowning in the noise and the novelty that once drew them in is
becoming boring and stifling.
The game never stops as the search for attention-getting fashion and novelty
marches on. Things still go viral, and it's more than just cats and babies that
get attention. Fashions evolve and you have to be wide awake to stay on the
leading edge. You've got to be creative, too, yet whenever you step beyond the
familiar, you run into the danger of just being weird. So you've got be brave,
On July 6th 2013, Asiana flight B772 from Seoul, South Korea, crashed at San
Francisco as it came in to land. Coming in at
a high pitch angle, it touched down short of the runway, the landing gear and tail section broke off, sending the
Boeing 777 skidded along the runway. The left wing hit ground equipment,
spinning the aircraft
around and breaking off the engines as the plane burst into flames.
Some were lucky. Others were not. Remarkably, only 2 occupants were killed,
though 10 were left in a critical condition, 38 had serious injuries, 82 had
minor injuries and 175 escaped uninjured. The two killed were Chinese 16 year
old girls on a school outing.
So what happened?
Amongst other errors, when they realized they were too low on the approach,
they decided to do a 'go around', flying around in a circle to get more height
for a better approach. The pilots pulled back on the controls to go upwards.
Doing this actually reduces lift and the plane will drop unless it is
accompanied by a boost to the engines. This normally happens automatically, but
this time it did not, and the plane dropped to a point where the go-around could
not happen and they were forced to an emergency landing with the results as
A key part of the problem was poorly written documentation. Even Boeing
admitted in its subsequent report that 'the complexities of the autothrottle
and autopilot flight director systems that were inadequately described in
Boeings documentation and Asianas pilot training, which increased the
likelihood of mode error.' The autothrottle is a system that normally cuts
in to keep up the speed of the aircraft and stop it dropping when the pitch
angle is changed. However, there are situations when it is automatically turned
off. Pilots are told about this through a statement tucked away in the
1600-page operation manual, which states:
When the pitch mode is FLCH or TOGA, or the airplane is below 400 feet
above the airport on takeoff, or below 100 feet radio altitude on approach, the
autothrottle will not automatically activate.
Just look at the linguistic complexity of this. It is of the form 'When X or
Y or Z then Q'. This needs care in reading. It also includes a negative ('not
automatically activate') which the brain does not easily activate. A better
phrasing that might have saved lives and injuries would be to warn early about
non-activation of the autothrottle.
Warning: The autothrottle system will NOT
automatically activate in ANY of the following conditions:
The pitch mode is FLCH or TOGA
The airplane is below 400 feet
above the airport on takeoff
The airplane below 100 feet radio altitude on approach
When you write anything, do consider how people will read it. Consider also
the impact of their misunderstanding and make appropriate effort to ensure they
are alerted to factors that could lead to significant risks. In this, consider:
- Clarity that avoids ambiguity
- Accuracy so everything is correct
- Simplicity for ease of understanding
- Emphasis of critical points
Oh look. That spells 'CASE'.
About thinking about thinking about...
Perhaps uniquely, the human species can not only think and know that they
think, but in 'self-aware metacognition' we can look in the mirror and think
about thinking and the thoughts we have. This is the critical ability that is
used in much therapy, as patients are asked to consider causes of their damaging
thoughts. Perhaps this endless circle of thinking about thinking about thinking
also contributes to our neuroses. In a current long-running advertising
campaign, a mobile phone company urges us to 'Be more dog',
which in effect means not thinking so much and just getting on with things.
Maybe it's not bad advice sometimes, though sometimes reflecting on what's going
on upstairs can be a useful exercise.
Nicholas Shea and colleagues looked at this through the lens of Daniel
Kahnemann's 'System 1 and System 2' automatic and effortful thinking (which is
itself related to Petty and Caccioppo's
Likelihood Model). While the process may start in the unconscious, we may
notice we are consciously thinking about our thoughts. And once we think
consciously, we can then feed the reflections into other cognitive processes,
such as decision-making. Conscious thought can also lead to verbalisation and
consequence communications and socialization. We can discuss our thoughts with
others in ways that no other creatures can achieve and so grow closer with
others while also improving our thought processes.
In other words, thinking about thinking is good for us, which perhaps
explains its evolutionary
benefit (which is always a good question to ask). It is also very helpful in
persuasion, where you can get people to think about how they are thinking and
hence see how that thinking is incorrect or in appropriate.
Reframing is a classic
method for getting people to see things differently and shows a practical way to
persuade by reflection and thinking change.
Nicholas Shea, Annika Boldt, Dan Bang, Nick Yeung, Cecilia Heyes, & Chris D.
Frith (2014). Supra-personal cognitive control and metacognition Trends in
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