Authors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie have put together an excellent and readable taxonomy of the “bugs” that can afflict group decision making and cause groups to blunder in their book Wiser.
In the first part of this blog I discussed their dissection of the causes of group decision making failure.
How can we make groups function better?
The book carries a number of actionable insights into how to improve group decision making for the better:
Inquisitive and self-silencing leaders
Men out-talk women two to one in jury deliberations, the same happens in companies. Leaders and other high-status member of groups will exert a lot of influence, they can do the group a favour by remaining silent and indicating a willingness to hear all of the uniquely held information. That helps overcome one of the main issues identified with groupthink – self silencing which leads to a failure to share critical information.
Priming critical thinking
Rather than prizing consensus, give social reward to new and competing information.
The role of roles
Information aggregation becomes more likely with roles, as each member knows that the others have something to contribute, a division of labour in examining a problem will make hidden profiles less likely.
“If a new CEO came in, what would they do?”
Does devil’s advocacy work?
It has become commonly thought that devil’s advocacy or can help get past groupthink influences. The authors are torn on this point. Devil’s advocacy as an idea is trying to formalize the commitment to expressing differing viewpoints (which is a good thing). Those assuming the devil’s advocate role are able to avoid the social pressure to agree. However the authors believe evidence is split on this – there is a difference between authentic dissent and a formal requirement for an assigned devil’s advocacy, who may be arbitrarily assigned and simply “acting out a role”. For this to work the devil’s advocate has to actually mean what they are saying.
An upgrade to devil’s advocacy, which has a greater chance of working is to get an entire team to work on a contrarian viewpoint, with the aim of defeating the primary team’s plan to execute a mission. so called, “red-teaming”.
The Delphi Method
This is a formal approach to aggregating individual views. It proceeds in a number of rounds. First round votes (or estimates) are taken, in complete anonymity. The second round estimates must all fall within the 25th – 75th percentile of the first round estimates. This process is repeated until the group converges on a single estimate. It’s an averaging process, but one that allows for a single stubborn (or convicted) group member to influence the final outcome a lot more than a simple average.
Separate Identification and selection.
The qualities that make a good identification process, particularly diverse and divergent thinking, are very different to a selection process which needs to favour convergent thinking. All too often these steps can be compressed together, making it difficult to juggle the requirements for both divergent and convergent thinking.
I found this section particularly interesting and relevant!
A few tips on how best to use experts:
- Obtaining a statistical answer from a few of them, rather than relying on just one
- Limit experts to domain areas where there is evidence that expertise gives an edge (eg how to combine asset classes to give a diversified portfolio as opposed to whether the stockmarket, or interest rates, will go up or down tomorrow or next month)
- Look for track records from experts (weight individual expert views by the track record)
Specifically for investment advice this points toward asking the questions
“What other strategies were considered, but ultimately didn’t quite make it into this advice?”
“Is this advice the work of one, or many, experts?
was this advice produced in an environment of challenge among experts, how were the different expert inputs incorporated and weighted (process)?
I for one will certainly be taking away a few of these insights and trying to apply them more consistently.
What do you think is the most helpful?
So this is about strategies and tactics to understand and get past I am right you are wrong type situations and get to better outcomes. Specifically I am going to address this through three vignettes.
But before we start I’d like to ask you to picture a recent example of a disagreement. I’m sure you can all picture a classic moment of disagreement. An entrenched position develops. Voices get raised. People get animated. Interrupt each other, give short, spikey answers.
We’ve all been there, either as protagonist or observer – does it lead to good outcomes?
Here’s a few reasons why it happens – innate human yearning for control from an early age, an inbuilt desire to be right, to “win”, to assert views. A sense of “ego”. Innate desire for relative status – especially in a knowledge world where status can often be measured by being right.
Add to that the difference between Open vs closed mindsets.
Bring in a bit of Overconfidence bias, it’s been shown that senior people, successful people tend to be overconfident, selection process bias to persuasive people with confident views.
A lot of combustible ingredients there! Not a surprise perhaps that these situations occur pretty often – and derail group decision making.
Can we unpack some of these disagreement de-railers and offer thoughts and strategies/tactics for addressing? That’s the aim of this short piece.
Distinction – at least three types of disagreement here …
Type (1) – Thoughtful Disagreement
As an aside, If you haven’t already read it – I recommend a great book on this – Principles by Ray Dalio (founder of Bridgewater, who many of you will have heard of). Really influenced my thinking on this point (and plus is just a fantastic book on life & work). He talks about the concept of being “radically open minded”. A genuine worry that you might not be seeing choices optimally. Suspend your judgement for a second and evaluate something through someone else’s eyes. Agree that you might be wrong.
Some great framing to try and force ourselves to adopt when we find ourselves in this situation “I don’t know much relative to what I need to know”. “help me understand how I may be wrong”. It’s a great framing, but it is hard! And it needs everyone to take that stance, definite role for a facilitator or chair here in promoting that kind of atmosphere. Everyone needs to get a little humble, agree to be as open minded as they possibly can be, and go through that process together of suspending judgement for a second and hold conflicting concepts in the mind for a little while, holding that tension there for a bit without jumping one way or the other (which is a hard thing to do).
A common example of this that we encounter internally is debates of expected returns on asset classes at our investment committee. We tend to have strong views and don’t agree. As you’ll know the number you use does matter for allocation purposes. But clearly it’s something you can debate all day long. You’d be surprised how animated and energetic people can get over the difference between 3% and 4%!
To characterise the argument – Pete might say “I think the expected return on equities ought to be 4% and not a penny less”. But I might say “No, Pete, you are wrong, you’re too overconfident – it should be 3% and not a basis point more”.
There’s a clear clash there and a real risk of “I’m right you are wrong” developing. We have got past this by using some of the strategies described above. What we find if we hold on to both views and pursue the ideas behind them is that Pete is worried that too low a number might lead to excessively high allocations to chase return targets, whereas I fear that too high a number would lead to a false sense of security. Both very valid positions, and by holding the tension there we’ve got to better outcomes, I believe.
Type (2) – The Entrenched Position Holder. Here we’re talking about a situation where one party may be more expert or better informed than the other
Closed mindedness or what psychologists call an “emotional hijack” could be the real enemy here and we need to be on the watch out for those.
So you encounter an entrenched position from someone you suspect probably doesn’t see or understand the full picture. A common example of this we’ve encountered is debates on interest rates and hedging. A proposal is in the process of being rejected because of a logical-sounding but (in your view) flawed argument (“I am against hedging because I think the BoE will raise rates next month”).
In the moment temptation can be very strong to try and “win” through force of logic. But experience suggests trying to meet an entrenched position holder head on in that way doesn’t usually lead to good outcomes, if done too stridently it might even push other neutrals or people biased toward your point of view into the debate in support of them, especially if it looks like they are being patronised.
To help understand the opposing side here, I think it’s really important to say that we all experience mental pain when an event or person comes along to challenge a tightly-held idea. This can be especially so it if reveals a personal weakness on our part. It is especially tough for more closed-minded people to cope with this situation. Being aware of it in ourselves (and using cues as triggers to control behaviour) can help get more open-minded.
But if we’re observing someone else and we are picking up some or all of these cues/traits that emotional hijack or closed-mindedness is coming into play, it calls for some tactics.
Recognise that emotions are powerful in the moment and will almost certainly “hijack” logical thinking (research shows that the flow of blood to areas of the brain is physically hijacked and diverted, so you in the heat of an argument no-one has their full cognitive capabilities on-line).
- Open by receiving the position positively –
“We disagree – that’s great!” or “good challenge” … it shows we have an important issue here that we need to spend time getting to the bottom of. Find out what is really true and
Plus it rewards, encourages, fosters dissenting voices (dissent is often a good thing – if done in the right way).
2. Agree on basics ….
Can we agree we are here to make the best decision we can?
Agree ground rules around process/structure – don’t block each other from speaking. 2 mins each uninterrupted to make case. Then each agree to play back your hearing of the other’s argument, to help internalize and demonstrate that you are listening.
What can we now both agree on?
What is the evidence in front of us? Be evidence based and encourage others to do the same,
Where are we trying to get to – is the goal agreed upon or is that a point of dispute?
What are our constraints – are those agreed on both sides.
A tactic we have found works well is to establish what you might call boundary conditions (“if we were fully funded, would you want to be hedged”).
3. Don’t expect to get a solution straight away
But don’t let the debate put the issue on hold for ever and kicked into “long grass”. Keep open dialogue going
Inject a little humour and levity if at all possible – can lighten the mood and diffuse any potential confrontational atmosphere which can keep things moving along. I’ve seen this done really well by certain board chairs at just the right moment (not detracting from the seriousness of the debate, but a well judged comment can lighten tone and relax people).
Consider compromise stances
Even if we can’t ultimately agree, how do we size the position, is there a timing compromise
Type (3) – the Personality Clash
Needless to say there are a huge variety of personality types, and of course this influences how we behave and react in a business context. I’ve become a big fan of the Deloitte Business Chemistry, and risk type compass is also something we’ve used. There are others (Hogan, Myers Briggs, Five factor, Gallup) They all give different helpful ways of looking at personality and, particularly how it impacts on the interactions we have with others. It helps understand ourselves and others, helps explains a large part of a lot of issues.
Understanding personality characterisations and the traits that arise from how individuals are “wired” helps takes away the individualisation, personalisation of the thing. Gives you a language to depersonalise (“you’re going all guardian on me again – help me here”). It’s a great vehicle for improving one’s own Self awareness.
Let’s take an example here. In the language of the Deloitte business chemistry framework- I’m a driver
hat means I thrive on making progress and getting things done, and can get impatient when I feel like I am getting “bogged down”. I can and do therefore often face objections from guardians who rightly often ask “show me more data or let’s stop for a second and think more deeply about this and what we are trying to do here”. Deep down I share their desire for logic, but I’m also silently screaming “let’s just get this done!”, as I perceive their requests for data or more debate as a “no”. Personality lens gives the option to depersonalise, increase self-awareness and recognise as a classic guardian/driver clash, which is much more helpful in moving forward.
I do see that a bit on trustee boards – often the chair might be a driver type personality, brought in perhaps to move forward and get things done, enact change. Many trustees are likely to take guardian viewpoint (indeed, the word trustee kind of invokes a sense of guardian). Can lead to clash. Also a role for consultant and other advisors in the personality mix. Important to understand.
So, to wrap
I’m right you are wrong situations, arise all the time for a bunch of reasons, but unlikely to lead to good outcomes.
Leave you with one thought: always try and aim for thoughtful disagreement.
Talked about three scenarios and some strategies and tactics to handle/navigate
Two well informed people with a genuine clash of ideas
Dealing with emotional hijack when we have two sides with different levels of expertise
Clashing personality types
Sure, Ray Dalio is well known for his approach to “radical transparency” and the uncompromising way he has implemented that (as well as the extraordinary investment success of his firm, Bridgewater), but his recent book Principles held learnings for me in a number of unexpected areas including: mistakes and failure , the art of disagreement and what might be described as “soft skills”.
Underneath what might seem on the surface – to some- a set of stark, tough, emotionless dictats I found something a little different – there is a deeper truth – Dalio is asking people to have a sense of introspection and humility, to sincerely believe that they might be wrong and open themselves to other viewpoints and critiques, and to reflect hard on their mistakes as this is where the best learnings are to be found.
And the reason for writing and sharing the principles? It all started with a meeting between Dalio and some of his key partners in the early 1990’s where they presented him with a candid – and stark – picture of the negative effects that his focus and determination had on others in the organisation – that they felt belittled, unnecessary, incompetent and overwhemled. In addressing this, Dalio decided it was important to set out the principles he was operating by, in a way to try and get in sync with his employees so that they could see where he was coming from more easily. Which could mean they would be more understanding of his approach, and less likely to be affected in negative ways.
The big question reading Principles is of course what valuable read-across can one take into other organisations. I would argue plenty, but even for those that disagree surely setting out principles and spending time getting in sync on them is universally a good thing for meaningful work and meaningful relationships.
Here are my top 5 least-expected takeaways from Principles:
- Making mistakes & learning from failure. At the heart of the book is Dalio’s own story and evolution. He shares a story from the early days of Bridgewater – he took too much risk betting on the bond market in the early 1980’s that the firm imploded and he lost almost everything he had built (he had to let go all the people working for him at the time). In reflecting on that he developed some clear thinking about how to respond to failure, and he is convinced that we can learn a lot more from our failures than our successes (self evident perhaps, but worth lingering on as it can be all too easily overlooked or forgotten). Treat the pain of failure -and yes, you need to feel pain- as a trigger. A trigger to reflect deeply, reflect objectively from a higher level. Reflect both on the proximate cause of the “case-at-hand” but also at the “machine design” level (that is, the organisational, workflow or systems design construct that generated the mistake). To evolve successfully one must first correctly perceive and diagnose the problem (objectively), identify a better design, and push through on implementation. Experience creates an internalized learning that book learning can’t replace, so in that sense mistakes and failure should be treated as valuable opportunities to create powerful learnings.
- The art of thoughtful disagreement. Open-mindedness is clearly pretty key to Dalio’s worldview and is behind, in his view, the extraordinary success that Bridgewater has had over the years. He talks at length about the principles behind ensuring that disagreement is fostered, and this I think is the key bit – is handled and resolved in efficient and amicable ways that move everyone forward. There are a handful of principles that get at this – including sincerely believing that you might be wrong, treating a disagreement as an “open exploration of what is true”, rather than an “I win you lose” clash of ideas (which happens all too easily, in my experience), doing everything you can to understand how others come by their opinions, and focus on being “open minded and assertive” (the idea being, it’s easy to be assertive when you are pushing a point of view, but more helpful to be assertive but neutral, to explore what’s true). At the end of the day what matters is moving forward, and his ideas around a “believability weighted” meritocracy are compelling. Dalio’s view is that two of the biggest barriers to progress are our individual egos (and the dogged attachment to our own ideas that generates) and our un-awareness of our own blindspots. This insight is well worth reflecting on and I for one know I could strive to do better on both of these fronts (both un-attaching myself from my views and ego, and working harder to understand blindspots).
- Invest as much time as possible “getting in sync”. In an unexpected nod to what might be described as “softer skills” Dalio talks at length of the need to invest in getting in sync with others (colleagues, peers etc) mainly to compare your principles against those of others and check where there is disalignment. Being clear on principles is, key to moving efficiently from disagreement to decision, hence “getting in sync” on one another’s principles and knowing what you have in common sets up the systems for resolving future conflict and disagreement. In the long run it increases efficiency, but you need to prioritise because of time constraints. Priority should be important issues with the most believable and relevant parties. Again you could argue this is good sense rather than revelatory, but probably all too easily forgotten or missed out in the whirl of the day-to-day and the temptation to focus on the new, the urgent or the interesting. I have certainly resolved to to spend more time focusing on this.
- Be clear & honest on personality and attribute dimensions. Understanding that people are wired very differently (for example: task vs goal oriented, an aptitude for concepts vs plans, an intuitive vs sensing approach and whether detail or big-picture focused. ) and that for an organisation to functionally optimally you need the right design of skill and capability comb’s in the right roles. Be honest about the suitability of individuals for roles by focusing on capability dimensions ( in practice probably too often overlooked in light of someone’s likability, social skills or similarity to the decision maker/interviewer). I would be grateful to see what the underlying personality dimensions are behind the tools that Dalio refers to (eg Baseball cards and Dot Collector). He mentioned these may be released soon in a “Principles app”, so i look forward to that.
- In meetings, ensure levels are navigated effectively and synthesis is achieved. We’ve all been there – that meeting that gets dragged “into the weeds”, (that is to say a granular debate on points several levels below that of the real question at hand), possibly never to be recovered. “Reality exists at different levels and each of them gives you different but valuable perspectives”. Synthesis refers to the mental combining/processing of data points across levels in forming an overall picture (and coming to a decision). So the key to an effective meeting, is an exchange that can achieve synthesis by successfully navigating levels effectively, that is lower levels might be explored to degrees of various depth to gain insight along the way, but the main level is returned to, and progress made along that level. Another area of insight into “soft skills” that I was not expecting – but really resonated. This picture from the book sums it up well –
Last weekend we spent a fascinating two days at the Bio-hackers summit at a disused power station on the outskirts of Helsinki. A number of people have already asked me what my main takeaways were so I wanted to get some of them down straight away before memory fades too much, hopefully I’ll add to this through time.
One pleasant surprise about the event generally was how practically focused a lot of the speakers were. It was unexpected. I had expected a lot more high-tech focused sessions around apps, gadgets and medical innovation. While there was some of this, a lot of it was much more “ground level” (perhaps the clue was in the word “hack”) and gave me a huge number of immediately actionable ideas – some of which I had already started thinking about myself, which is always nice! It’s helped me progress some of my own thinking on productivity for knowledge work.
Top 5 takeaways –
- Understanding basics of nervous system can give simple insights
The basics of our nervous system have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, and evolved to suit a very different environment to that which we now live. This simple insight can unearth a lot of useful thoughts. For example, understanding the basic roles of dopamine, serotonin and cortisol in controlling our levels of motivation, happiness and stress – and the natural triggers to activate each of these can play a key role in helping us modulate our moods and control stress.
Probably the biggest insight I gained on the nervous system was the difference between the sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system and the parasympathetic (“rest/digest”). As a species we evolved to survive first, then thrive, which means that triggers linked to survival promote incredibly strong nervous reactions. During the day we operate on a spectrum between these two extremes. Ancient humans would achieve balance between the two by resting in their cave following attempts to hunt animals. The modern world is set up to trigger fight/flight reactions more than it is set up to allow rest/digest – environmental triggers play a big role in switching between these modes, and triggers that promoted survival have become deeply encoded. Hence, to achieve the balance we need for optimum wellness and performance we need to work hard to find environments where rest/digest is possible (we need to find our “cave” – this insight helps understand why travel and moving house can both be stressful/tiring). If we are not careful we can set a new baseline at higher levels of sympathetic nervous system usage, which is damaging to wellbeing.
The role of natural light in the way we function and our own circadian rhythm – we are all set up to function optimally for different tasks at different times of the day, and achieving optimal productivity is about understanding this rhythm not trying to control it. For example most morning-people are able to achieve peak mental focus around 10am, best working memory around midday, peak co-ordination around 2pm, reactions around 3pm and peak cardiovascular ability at around 5pm.
- Connectedness to nature is shown to have a variety of positive benefits
Humans spent >99% of evolutionary history in natural environments, which is where nervous system evolved, said Olli Sovijarvi. Connectedness to nature has been scientifically linked to improved cognitive performance and happiness. This can be as simple as “grounding” – walking barefoot on soil or grass. Nature sounds eg birdsong shown to lower stress hormone cortisol. Having just moved away from central London, we now have the luxury of a garden and greater access to nature than we did before – I want to make sure we’re making full use of this everyday (see morning routine below!).
- You can use technology to provide “memory as a service”
Spending time recalling enjoyable events and moments of connection with others can be key positive influences on happiness. Don’t rely on your own highly imperfect memory to recall important and enjoyable events, Chris Dancy explained how social media can play a great role here. Apps like timehop, or facebook can surface previous memories for you each day. It’s possible to add songs, videos and locations to instagram posts to make the memory even richer. It’s even possible to time travel forward using facebook by writing posts to your future self, which will get re-shown to you a year hence (you can arrange the setting such that only you can see it). What better way to help your future self reflect than to pose the big questions or challenges that are occupying your mind today.
We had already started doing this to some extent, using particular hashtags on instagram to record our summer hihglights or information about our visits to particular cities (check our #djfrenglishsummer2017 or #djfrenglishstats if you’d like to see). It’s always interesting when a speaker takes a topic that you have taken the first few steps on yourself, and shows you a load more.
- Think about mindfulness (as part of a morning ritual)
Mindfulness was a recurring theme at the biohacker event, with multiple speakers referring to it. Clearly it’s a big theme in its own right, with plenty of literature and buzz around its usefulness in the corporate world. You might even say it’s being overdone.
I found it helpful to hear about mindfulness from some thoughtful speakers, including doctors, and in particular how people had used it in their own lives. As many others have said, taking the first steps toward practicing mindfulness can be as simple as spending a few minutes each morning focusing on breathing and trying to control the distractions that enter the mind. We have started doing this more consistently each morning.
- The role of a morning routine
Tomi Kokko took us through his morning routine and the logic behind it, which really got us thinking. Since we’ve been back we’ve worked on our own version. Tomi gives himself a minute after waking up to get into a cold shower – while that isn’t quite for us we’ve been thinking about how a combination of mindfulness, breathing, short intense bursts of exercise designed to get oxygen flowing can be combined with being outdoors, barefoot and the right combination of nutrition in the mornings(lemon water for hydration, coffee, fats for brain function and spices for increased blood flow). It would be too early to claim this as a success but I’ll aim to report back in a few months on how this is going. Taking time to recognise things in your life that you are grateful for on a daily basis is also something I aim to get better at.
All in all it was a thoroughly fascinating and engaging two days, with the vast majority of speakers being really engaging and impactful. The timing of each session was well-judged with 40 minute keynotes early in the day falling to 30 and 20 minute sessions later on with frequent breaks, and room to stand as well as sit in the main hall (conference organisers everywhere, take note!). I’d encourage anyone thinking of going to check it out, we are hoping to make it to next year’s event which is in Sweden and the Netherlands.
McKinsey just published an excellent and comprehensive paper covering how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can deliver real value for business.
The only issue – at 80 pages it’s a lot to read.
A lot of the use cases focus on retail, energy and education, one angle I find particularly are the read-across of these examples into service based and business-to-business environments. There are definitely some relevant points that could map to a services/B2B worlds: for example the automation of admin tasks for teaches, more targeted sales and marketing and more personalised customer service.
Here’s my take on the key points from the document:
1. No shortcuts: first data & digital, then AI
AI becomes impactful when it has access to large amounts of high-quality data and is integrated into automated work processes. AI is not a shortcut to these digital foundations. Rather, it is a powerful extension of them.
The firs thing firm’s need to do is come up with a real business case for AI that relates to the firm’s strategy, this requires separating the hype and buzz around AI from its actual capabilities in a specific, real-world context. It includes a realistic view of AI’s capabilities and an honest accounting of its limitations, which requires at least a high-level grasp of how AI works and how it differs from conventional technological approaches.
Each new generation of tech builds on the previous one – this suggests AI can deliver significant competitive advantages, but only for firms that are fully committed to it. Take any ingredient away—a strong digital starting point, serious adoption of AI, or a proactive strategic posture—and profit margins are much less impressive. This is consistent with McKinsey findings in the broader digital space.
Technology is a tool and in itself does not deliver competitiveness improvements.
2. Areas to focus on to create real value: project, produce, promote or provide
To fulfil the expectations being heaped upon it, AI will need to deliver economic applications that significantly reduce costs, increase revenue, and enhance asset utilization.
Mckinsey categorized the ways in which AI can create value in four areas:(1) enabling companies to better project and forecast to anticipate demand, optimize R&D, and improve sourcing; (2) increasing companies’ ability to produce goods and services at lower cost and higher quality; (3) helping promote offerings at the right price, with the right message, and to the right target customers; and (4) allowing them to provide rich, personal, and convenient
3. Data ecosystem & staff culture to the fore
Firms must conduct sensible analysis of what the most valuable AI use cases are. They should also build out the supporting digital assets and capabilities. Indeed, the core elements of a successful AI transformation are the same as those for data and analytics generally. This includes building the data ecosystem, adopting the right techniques and tools, integrating technology into workplace processes, and adopting an open, collaborative culture while reskilling the workforce
4. Take a portfolio approach focused on use cases in short, medium and long term, be lean, fail fast & learn
A portfolio-based approach to AI adoption cases, looking at use cases over a one- to five-year horizon, can be helpful.
In the immediate future, McKinsey suggest a focus on use cases where there are proven technology solutions today that can be adopted at scale, such as robotic process automation and some applications of machine learning. Further out, identify use cases where a technology is emerging but not yet proven at scale. Over the longer term, McKinsey’s view is to pick one or two high-impact but unproven use cases and partner with academia or other third parties to innovate, gaining a potential first-mover advantage in the future. Across all horizons, a “test and learn” approach can help validate the business case, conducting time-limited experiments to see what really works and then scaling up successes. Fast, agile approaches are important.
5. Don’t be a hammer in search of a nail …
To ensure a focus on the most valuable use cases, AI initiatives should be assessed and co-led by both business and technical leaders. Given the significant advancements in AI technologies in recent years, there is a tendency to compartmentalize accountability for AI with functional leaders in IT, digital, or innovation. This can result in a “hammer in search of a nail” outcome, or technologies being rolled out without compelling use cases. The orientation should be the opposite: business led and value focused. This business-led approach follows successful adoption approaches in other digital waves such as mobile, social, and analytics.