How to avoid brain sabotage

Most of the time, your brain goes all out to help you. Sometimes, though, for the best of reasons, it sabotages you instead. This happens particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues or information – and what leader-manager doesn’t deal with complex issues and information?!  Here are six ways your brain can sabotage you.

  1. Seeing what you want to see. The brain naturally seeks evidence that confirms and supports your point of view or preferred course of action. It also avoids information that contradicts what you already ‘know’ or believe to be so. This affects where you go to collect information (which Dr Google continues to offer up when for later searches), how you interpret it, and who you listen to. It causes you to put too much weight on information that supports your thinking and to overly discount information that challenges it.What to do about it? Don’t make a decision and then figure out how to justify it. Don’t undermine the real facts with your own expectations and biases. Don’t accept confirming evidence without question. Be aware of your opinion and admit your inclination to think a certain way. Consciously open your mind to other viewpoints. Find someone to play devil’s advocate and argue against you.
  2. Anchoring. This means giving too much weight to what you see or hear first and last, whether it’s information, evidence, opinions, estimates or ideas.What to do about it? Be cautious about your first and last impressions and information. Make an effort to give fair weight to what you see and learn in between and don’t automatically stick with whatever idea occurs to you first.
  3. Sticking with the status quo. The conventional wisdom of ‘Leave well enough alone’ and ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ warns us not to do anything radical or different. It often seems easier to stick with things as they are. Doing nothing is a lot easier than making an effort to do something differently. And the less action you take, the less open you are to criticism. Inertia is temptingly safe.What to do about it? Maintaining the status quo might be a good choice, but don’t do it just because it’s safe and easy. Ask yourself: ‘What do I want to achieve? Does the current situation do this well enough for me or could an alternative be better?’ A great question is: ‘Would I select the status quo if it were just another alternative?’
  4. Estimating and forecasting. This is a double whammy. The first whammy is with everyday estimates. Take the example of judging distance. For this, your brain uses a mental shortcut that equates clarity with closeness. This means that the more clearly an object appears, the closer you think it is. That’s generally fine – until haze or fog tricks you into thinking things are further away than they are. That can be dangerous: studies show that people drive faster in fog because the reduced clarity and contrast make people think they’re driving slower than they really are.The second whammy is estimating and forecasting in situations you don’t often encounter. When you estimate the same sorts of things a lot – distance, time, volume, weight – you become pretty good at it because you have a lot of feedback on how well you guess. But when you’re faced with something unusual, you haven’t had a chance to develop and fine-tune your estimating skills in that area, making the task a lot more difficult. As a result, you’re likely to become either over-confident or over-cautious, or to rely too much on past events or dramatic events that have left a strong impression – none of which leads to accuracy.There isn’t much you can do about those automatic mental shortcuts except be disciplined. Realise they exist, think about the assumptions you’re making to make sure you’re not going off at a tangent, try not to be guided by impressions, and when you can, use accurate facts and figures. Then cross your fingers, know your guesstimate is a long shot, and be prepared to be wrong and change course when it fails.
  5. Not cutting your losses. It’s hard to turn your back on the time, effort and money you’ve put into something. You see it as a waste, and who doesn’t hate waste!The world’s richest man, Warren Buffet, said that the best thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging and get out. Good advice. Consider the costs of not cutting your losses and moving on and think about what you have to gain by moving on.
  6. Pattern recognition. When you’re faced with a new situation, you automatically pull together information from up to 30 parts of your brain. This usually works well but it can also mislead you, particularly when you’re dealing with situations that seem to be familiar but actually turn out to be unusual. You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t. History doesn’t always repeat itself, especially today, when change is coming fast and furious. This means that what worked fine last year may not work again this year because conditions, the economy, technology and people have probably all changed and those changes influence what does and doesn’t work.What to do about it? Rather than blindly following past experience over a cliff, think about whether your memories and experience could be misleading you. Think about what might be different about this situation to other seemingly similar situations. When you decide to apply the solution or action that worked last time, be prepared to cut your losses as soon as you can see it isn’t working.

Your brain is usually your friend, but it can be your foe when you let it! Forewarned is forearmed.

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Is our industrial relations going to go full circle?

Between Federation in 1901 and 1983, social justice guided how we managed our economy and workplace relations. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) acted as an independent umpire in workplace relations and based wages and working conditions in part on what it thought was a fair, or living, wage. This meant that, in the interests of fairness and a reasonable standard of living, some people in some occupations were paid more than their contributions were worth.

By 1983, the world had changed dramatically since Federation. The government of the day decided that we needed to make big changes in our workplaces to survive in the global marketplace. It began a gradual move towards decentralising workplace relations and allowing the market to determine wages and working conditions. This began as a joint effort between the government and the unions – remember The Accords?

By 1996 when the Liberal Howard government took over from the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, two of the three pillars of Australian workplace relations, tariff protection and centralised wage fixing, were all but gone. The third pillar, the AIRC, was about to go. The new government further deregulated the labour market and replaced social justice principles with economic rationalism. The role of workplace legislation moved from social fairness and protection to promoting the efficient functioning of labour markets.

The world continues to change. With the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, computer are predicted to take over millions of jobs in the next 15 years. (See my blog How not to lose your job to a computer.) As a result, people are beginning to talk once more about a living wage. The argument is that since computers will perform so many jobs, a lot of us won’t need to work. But we’ll still need money to pay the bills and live a good life. This is where the living wage comes back into the picture. Paying people whose jobs are taken over by computers a living wage will free them up to do creative work, entrepreneurial work, voluntary work, research work and so on. People can ‘follow their dream’ once they’re freed from the need to earn money. In the end, life could be pretty good.

Deal gracefully with change

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Change is all around us. Society, the marketplace, the economy and technology are all transforming with dizzying speed. For instance:

  • Australia’s economy has become a service and knowledge economy, which means organisations don’t gain their value from their machinery and equipment but from their people. Organisational wealth comes from successfully storing and using knowledge to create innovative products and services and develop innovative, sustainable, value-adding and profitable systems.
  • Our definition of what a family unit is continues to change.
  • The capabilities of information, communications and bio and nano technologies (e.g. motor the size of a pinhead) continue to soar and promise to transform our lives.
  • Globalisation makes it easier for epidemics to wipe out or temporarily disable a significant portion of our population and wipe out all or part of an organisation’s supply chain.

And that’s just a sample of what’s going on around us. The world is changing so fast that standing still doesn’t exist – we’re either moving forward and making progress or we’re going backward. In fact, the speed of change is speeding up, and right now is the slowest we’ll ever experience it.

To survive, never mind thrive, we all need to stay on top of the game and better still, stay one step ahead. We all need keep up to date with trends so we can more easily adapt as everything around us changes. Perhaps more than anything, we need to keep learning – about the area and industry we work in, about the technology we use, and about new ways of doing things.

Innovation Nation

Antibiotics from bread mould, light bulbs, the PC and refrigerators were all scoffed at. The doctor who realised that washing your hands before an operation would prevent spreading infection and keep patients alive was laughed out of town. It takes the same brave soul who first ate an oyster that it takes to innovate. And yet, without innovation, an organisation, society or country withers away.

The government has put national innovation high on its priorities and even set aside $9.7 billion to encourage science, research and innovation. So I thought we’d take a look at how we can all become more innovative and increase our own and the country’s prosperity and productivity.

For the most part, new ideas don’t suddenly pop into our heads, although there’s no doubt that chance favours the prepared mind. Recall Isaac Newton: He observed an apple falling to the ground, or possibly onto his head, and into his mind popped the idea that the earth’s gravity can also attract a larger and further away object (the moon). A sudden realisation, yes, but only after Newton hat spent several years working on the mathematics of how the earth could attract its orbiting moon.

But mostly, new ideas are built on knowledge, applying idea-generating techniques and then refining and applying the best ones.

There are many innovation techniques we can all use to become more innovative in our personal and working lives. One way is to look at a product and figure out how to make it better, faster, more reliable, easier to make or to use, cheaper to make or to use, or safer to make or to use. Or work out how to remove the need for it altogether and replace it with something different. Or how to use it in a completely different way. Or how to combine it with another product to form a brand new product.

You can do the same with a process or a service by examining the steps you go through to make something or offer the service. Work out how to do it better or more quickly, easily, economically, safely or consistently.

Or you can pick a problem and work out how to stop it occurring in the first place or how to deal with it quickly and easily when it does occur. Or you can change the way you frame it and think about it to help you innovate your way out of it. Every problem is an opportunity to innovate.

Another way to innovate is to take the basic concept of an existing product, process or service and apply it to another product, process or service. You can talk to your phone to send message or to phone home. What else could you talk to so it’s easier to operate? Your calculator? Your TV? Your radio? Henry Ford first saw a production line in a meat packaging plant and applied the concept to car making and is credited with ‘inventing’ the assembly line.

Or may be you could combine two products to come up with a brand new product. Combining a camera with a pilotless plane gives you a drone that takes photographs, checks out bush fires, flies along pipelines to spot leaks and potential leaks, and all sorts of other applications.

That’s just a few of the many ways to innovate. The trick is to prepare your mind, get started and make innovation a habit.

Dealing with a crisis

Fashion gurus say to wear clothes that are in proportion to your figure. That’s good advice for dealing with a crisis, too — keep it in proportion. Don’t panic, because that’s when you’re likely to make matters worse. And don’t stick your finger in the proverbial dyke and pretend you’ve dealt with it, because that makes it likely that it will blow up in your face sooner or later.

Take a deep breath and assess the situation. You need to get out of your ‘reptilian brain’ and into your ‘thinking brain’. Once you’re there, you can decide what you need to do – right now – to minimise the fallout and get on the road to recovery. For example, if a project is in danger of missing a deadline, maybe you can offer some incentives to speed things up, bring someone in to help with the workload, or eliminate some of the non-essential tasks in order to get back on track.

Now analyse. What actually has happened? How many people, and who, are affected and how are they affected? What assumptions are you making? What are the key variables? What is the most important issue, the one that by solving it, will significantly remove or diminish the others?

Next, plan.What are your objectives for resolving the major issue? What actions do you need to take to achieve those objectives? How can you assess your success? What other action can you take to remedy the situation or at least, make it ‘less bad’? When the crisis is a hum dinger, you might want to develop some best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios and develop plans for those.

A good plan helps you act confidently and effectively, especially when you’ve protected it with a force field analysis to capitalise on the forces working to help your plan succeed and mitigate or remove the forces working against your plan’s success.

Let your stakeholders know what’s going on and what your recovery plan is. They may have some good ideas to add and some other perspectives to consider. When the crisis is your fault, a sincere apology is a smart move.

When you have time to catch your breath, figure out what caused the crisis in the first place – not to lay blame but so that you can make sure a similar crisis never happens again.

Changes in the business environment and how they affect you

I was asked the other day how trends in the business environment are affecting managers. Where to start …

Business complexity is increasing exponentially, so understanding the big picture and using systems thinking are becoming more important. Risks are increasing, too, so you need to know how to build a sound risk culture to protect your organisation and its assets. And the pace of change is quickening.

Each of these three factors mean that you won’t–you can’t–always know the answer. Many problems you face and will face are new and many are unpredictable. You probably can’t do what you’ve always done, or even what you did before in a similar situation that worked, because so much will have changed in the meantime.

This means you need to be good at problem solving and coming up with unique and unexpected solutions to problems and situations, ways to meet customer demands, and ways to respond to a changing marketplace. This has three implications:

  1. You need to know how to ask the right questions, questions that help you explore and analyse situations.
  2. You need to know how to apply the scientific method and use data so you can get a good grip on situations.
  3. Learning to think in scenarios is probably a good idea.

New and disruptive business models, share price volatility and diminishing corporate profits may all put your organisation at risk. Therefore, you want to protect your career and see yourself as ‘Me Inc’:

  1. Develop solid, wide and deep networks.
  2. Build a professional image (on social media, with your professional bodies and networks, in your organisation, with suppliers and customers, etc.).
  3. Keep your skill base up-to-date.
  4. Broaden your experience base.

Organisations are likely to increasingly move to capabilities-based competition: creating value and competitive advantage through capabilities in processes rather than through capable functions. We’re likely to see more strategic alliances, too: collaborating with non-competitor organisations to combine strengths to produce a better product or service. And the supply chain is becoming more important.

These three factors mean:

  1. Big picture and systems thinking is important. Get in the habit of considering the upstream and downstream implications of every your action and decision.
  2. You’re likely to find yourself working in cross-functional teams, so hone your people and team-working skills.

Cheap wages are moving from China to Cambodia, Eastern Europe and South America. This means you can benefit from polishing your cultural intelligence, learning about other cultures and learning to work, virtually and actually, with people from other cultures.

Employees and the way they work are changing. Baby Boomers are moving out, Generations X and Y are taking over and Generation Z is entering the workforce, making it age-diverse as well as culturally-diverse and life-style diverse. People’s motivations for working, what they want from work and how they work are vastly more diverse than was the case even 10 or 15 years ago.

The changing workforce means we’re seeing more team-working, more flexible working and more virtual working. Jobs themselves are changing: we’re seeing more cross-functional team work, as mentioned above, more projects and more fixed-term contracts. We’re seeing roles, more than jobs–roles are looser and more open, not as prescribed and rigid as jobs.

This means the way you lead and manage people is changing. Here’s what I think is really important:

  • skilful leadership
  • skilful communication
  • engaging with team members in terms of motivating and coaching
  • flexibility in your management and leadership style
  • clear, logical thinking informed by an understanding of the big picture issues of the environment you’re operating in externally and internally.

Since industry isn’t spending a lot of time and money on learning and development, you’re probably left to your own devices to keep upgrading your skills and knowledge. All while being, no doubt, mind-bogglingly busy in your day-to-day role. A big ask.

This means applying the learning cycle is a good idea, lest you get caught up on the treadmill and fail to improve yourself, your performance or your work procedures.

How to not lose your job to a computer

Digital disruption seems to be the buzz-word at the moment. Technological leaps are enabling entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new and unexpected business models (think, for example, Airbnb and Uber). The number of jobs at risk of being automated is astounding (up to 5 million by 2030 in Australia alone, according to Australia’s Future Workforce report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia), while other jobs will soon need job holders who know how to work effectively (interface?) with computers.

Artificial intelligence. Automation. Advanced robotics. Digital technology and the Internet of Things. Redefined business models and jobs. Pretty mind-boggling yet, as the Prime Minister would no doubt say, very exciting.

Research by McKinsey & Company indicates that existing technologies can automate 45% of the work done in the UASA and a further 13% can potentially be automated. Australia’s Future Workforce report estimates that nearly 40% of today’s jobs in Australia are at risk of being automated and turned over to computers; worst hit is predicted to be jobs in regional and rural Australia, where more than 60% of jobs are set to be swallowed by computers.

And it isn’t only the routine jobs and tasks technology is set to swallow up. By adapting current technology, computers can take on many of the more predictable tasks of highly-paid knowledge workers such as executives, financial planners, ‘techies’ and doctors.

Mental processes such as remembering and making decisions, can be transferred to computers, microchips and networks. Richard Samson, writing in The Futurist, calls this automation ‘off-peopling’. Electronic intelligence, he says, already does a lot of the mental work that accountants, administrators, bank tellers, corporate planners, farmers, middle managers, product designers, salespeople, secretaries and soldiers used to do.

But there is still work that we can do and enjoy, provided we hone and use our non-programmable ‘hyper-human’ skills like caring, communicating, creating and taking responsibility. And provided we learn to innovate and create – products, processes, business models – it matters not what, as long as it’s viable, we can put those skills to work in jobs that electronic systems can’t perform now or any time soon.

Since computers don’t get bored and let their attention wander, they’re generally better than us in defined, predictable, repetitive and structured work. But we’re better than computers at hyper-human tasks that involve emotions, imagination, sensory perception and social skills and decisions that need intuition as well as logic and fact. These are prized abilities in some workplaces of today and probably most workplaces of the near future.

Many of these jobs are waiting to be created. You can do that by transforming and upgrading your current job so that it really benefits from your human skills. A good place to start is by letting go of last-century thinking about a job as functional activity, since these are the ones automation is taking over.

Use your skills to build relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Stay alert to what’s going on around you so you can notice problems and fix them, find opportunities and work out ways to make the most of them, and prevent mishaps and mistakes.

Honour your commitments. Innovate new and improved ways of working by making tasks and processes easier, cheaper, faster or safer to do, or result in greater reliability or improved quality. Small adjustments here, little tweaks there, all add up to making you an invaluable employee.

Learn to work collaboratively in virtual teams, especially virtual project teams. Or build your skills so you’re indespensible to a process-based team (rather than a functional team).

You can also learn to work in tandem with computers (called ‘augmented intelligence’). Instead of being replaced by a computer, you’re supported by a computer in your analytic, creative and decision-making efforts. The computer supplies the raw data, options and conclusions and you do what the computer can’t – use good judgement to make the final decision. To do that, you need the thinking and judging skills to filter a deluge of information.

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through the backlog of post-Christmas administration, what is the most important step you can take in the next five days to protect your job and your career from digital disruption and advanced robotics?

(This is longer than usual but hey, it’s important – it’s your future.)