How My Experience Becomes My Reality

Imagine you are getting ready to board the plane to the vacation of your dreams.  Just before getting on the plane, a person comes to you and says “I hope you have a great vacation but I just wanted to tell you that when you return, all your pictures will be deleted and you won’t remember anything about the trip.”

What do you do?  Get on the plane anyway?  Take a different vacation?  Go home?  Throw a tantrum?  Cry?

A similar question confronted people in one of Daniel Kahneman’s research studies exploring the cognitive process people go through to make choices.  In his research, he found most people would change their plans because the main purpose of the vacation was to make memories.

Kahneman became curious about discovering the mechanisms or processes our brain uses to make something memorable.  Over the decades of his research, Kahneman made many important discoveries earning him the Nobel Peace Prize and touching off the creation of a new field called Behavioral Economics.

Two of his discoveries, the ‘selves‘ and the Peak-End Rule, are particularly pertinent to the choices we make to ensure experiences with our organization are memorable.

In what ways are we missing opportunities to be memorable to our clients, customers, beneficiaries, funders, donors, stakeholders, partners, volunteers, etc…?

One discovery, the remembering-self and experiencing-self, describes how we make choices and Kahneman uses parenting as an example to illustrate the difference.

Inspired by his research I began asking friends, who recently had children, if they ever regret giving up their freedom to have kids.  Without skipping a beat, they respond by proudly regaling me with stories of first steps and funny first words.

On the whole‘ they would say ‘it is the most rewarding experience of my life

This response is coming from their remembering-self because the answer is informed by the memorable parts of parenting.  They are referencing the highlights over the years to make a judgement about whether having children has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Then the 3 year old has a 5-alarm meltdown making me think he is either on fire or possessed.  With a calm roll of the eyes and a face that momentarily says ‘I might have made a different choice had I known about the volume and frequency of 5-alarm emergencies‘, my friend goes to ensure someone isn’t actually on fire.

Responses like my friend’s facial expression come from the experiencing-self. They rely on information available in the moment and do not have the benefit of past memories.  Have you ever sent text when you were furious?  Sure felt good in the moment……

OK.  Makes sense. Sounds obvious.  We use past experiences to inform future decisions.  This is not new.

For me the new part emerged when he Kahneman began speaking about the Peak-End Rule  

99% of us are not able to remember every moment of an experience.  Instead, our remembering-self identifies positive or negative snippets (highlights) during the experience Kahneman calls Peak moments.  Additionally, we are prone to remembering how an experience ended which he cleverly calls the End moments. (During the podcast and TED Talk, he talks about the colonoscopy study to illustrate this more thoroughly).  The result is a string of memorable moments we use for making decisions in the future.

So naturally the question becomes; how do we ensure people have memorable moments so they continue supporting our organization?

When I think back to all the events I helped organize over the years, I quickly realize the standard we had for success was whether or not everything went perfectly.  Which really meant everything went as we planned.  Everything was perfect.

Kahneman would say trying to achieve perfection leads our decision-making down a blind alley.  Instead we should be asking ourselves how we can create multiple peak moments and be more intentional about the manner in which the event comes to a close.  What ‘material’ can we provide to satisfy multiple remembering-selves from diverse backgrounds, ages and perspectives?

How would intentional consideration of Kahneman’s discoveries influence the ways your organization interacts with its community? 

 

(48 mins)Hidden Brain: Think Fast with Daniel Kahneman

(20 mins)Ted Talks: The riddle of experience vs. memory

 

The Liminal Learning Loop

A few days ago we ran out of apples.  I went to the store and came home with a bag of apples.  I hardly remember the trip because it happens so often.  I certainly don’t remember making deliberate decisions about the shoes I wore, which store I went to, or even the apples I bought.  The entire process seemed automated.   

I would guess you’ve experienced the same thing in your day already.  Think about it.  Why did you choose to brush your teeth?  Why did you choose the blue shirt and not the yellow sweater?  Why did you use the bus rather than your car for your commute?  Have you ever taken the time to determine the thinking process you use to make everyday decisions?  

Gray explains by saying it begins with a need.  Needs arise all the time and some are more urgent than others.  Hunger can be more urgent than shopping for new socks.  In this example  I needed apples.  

Next, I access my internal ‘guidebook’ for navigating reality; my beliefs (for formation of beliefs in detail look at Unpacking Beliefs).   When I need apples my attention is focused on things that will address that need by constantly cycling through theories and judgments to form beliefs about how to get more apples. They tell me which footwear to use, which store to go to and which apples to purchase.

Next, I take action.  I put on my winter boots.  I travel to a particular store.  I buy a bag of apples.

Finally, I make note of the result. By following my belief, was I able to meet my need for apples?  And by making note of the result, what have I learned?

Gray calls this the Learning Loop.  Need – Belief – Action – Result.  Out of apples – Store has apples – Go to store and buy apples – Don’t need apples. 

Each time I progress through the Learning Loop to address a need, my beliefs are either challenged or reinforced.  If the store had my apples, my belief is reinforced, creating what Gray calls habits of belief. There’s no need to change my behaviour because my need has been served through my belief that the store has the apples I need.

However, when the store doesn’t have the apples I need, my belief is no longer valid.  So I begin the process of building another belief by cycling through the other options for buying apples.   I go to the other store and buy apples.  I make note of the result.  In the end, I may have formed a new habit of belief if the new store addresses my need better (cheaper, tastier apples) than the old store.

In itself, Gray’s learning loop is quite straightforward.  It becomes more interesting when my learning loop interacts with yours which I will explore in my next post.

Is Contractor Pete Really an Asshole?

Over the past few months my wife and I have been renovating our kitchen.  During the process we had two contractors.  Contractor Joe was communicative, open, and pleasant.  Contractor Pete was aggressive, defensive and hostile.  Choosing a path towards becoming a liminal thinker compelled me to pause and look more closely at why there was such a difference between the two contractors.  It would be easy (simple) to conclude that Pete was asshole and Joe wasn’t.  Joe was a professional and Pete wasn’t. But being a liminal thinker requires thinking beyond the simple. The goal is to think differently so I can do things better.

“Liminal thinking is the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and redrawing beliefs”  (p. xxiii, Liminial Thinking).

If I want to avoid experiencing unprofessional asshole contractor Pete in the future (change), I need to understand, shape and redraw my beliefs about him.   So how do I proceed?

It starts with realizing that the contractor Pete existing in reality is unknowable.  It’s simply not possible for me to know every action and thought contractor Pete has ever had.  So this leaves me with my belief about Contractor Pete.  Gray illustrates this so clearly by asking you to think of an elephant.  Now that you have an elephant in your mind, is there an actual, real elephant in your head?  The elephant in your mind is a construction of an elephant based on your past experiences with elephants.

The unprofessional asshole contractor Pete is my construction based on my experience with him.  He is not a fact in reality.  The unprofessional asshole version of Contractor Pete only exists in my mind like the elephant in your mind moments ago. Undoubtedly, Contractor Pete will have a different belief about his professionalism and character.  His belief is also a construction and is not a fact in reality.

A belief is something you hold in your mind, a kind of map or model of external reality” (p.6, Liminal Thinking)

The result is a situation in which I will battle for my version of reality and Contractor Pete will battle for his – because it is so obvious to both of us who is right.  Unfortunately, the argument over whose belief is right distracts from the learning needed to do something better.  We get stuck battling over whose obvious is more obvious and forget that the original goal is to do a better job of the kitchen installation.  

Liminial Thinking Principle 1:  “Beliefs are models.  Beliefs seem like perfect representations of the world, but, in fact, they are imperfect models for navigating a complex,  multidimensional, unknowable reality.”

You Couldn’t Think Your Way Out of A Wet Paper Bag!

Over the past couple of years, and as I get a little older, I find myself involved in meaningful, inspiring conversations with friends and colleagues about how we should organize our communities, organizations, institutions and systems.  Conversations about systemic change to make things better for everyone.  Like an education system that teaches real students rather than the mythical average child.  Or, on a grander scale, a global economic system accessible to everyone (The Size of the Pie).

But how do we proceed?  I know it starts with refusing to accept “That’s just the way it is” as our default. 

Then what?  I believe the answer lies in how we think. 

We need to think differently. Not better. Nor faster. Nor smarter. Most of the time we think without really thinking about it.  But have you ever stopped to think about how you justify to yourself that having a second dough-nut is a good idea? Have you ever stopped to unpack how that process happens in your head?  I never have because I’m already too busy thinking about how good the second dough-nut tastes.  

Then I began reading Dave Gray’s book entitled Liminial Thinking. He deftly unpacks the complexity of how our thoughts are created and ultimately lead to our actions.  My plan is to take you through my experience of the book as I read it, think about it and apply it to my practice.  However, Gray makes these concepts so accessible that I would recommend you give yourself the treat of experiencing it for yourself. 

Ultimately, my goal is to think differently so I can do things better.

 

The Size of the Pie

Douglas Rushkoff is a provocative writer and his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus challenges the most fundamental principles of our economic system by juxtaposing the disruptive potential of the digital economy to distribute value to everyone with the industrial economy designed to extract value for a few.

Rather than simply making my piece of the pie bigger (industrial economy) , I should make efforts to increase the size of the entire pie (distributed economy) .

Success in the industrial economy, argues Rushkoff, is too heavily weighted in favor of growth.  CEOs are rewarded for growth in market share, shareholder price and/or company size.   To grow they need to extract greater and greater amounts of value from customers (profits) or cut costs (slash expenses).  Companies that aren’t growing are thought to be in trouble and lack of growth is seen as the death knell for the company share price. So it becomes a zero-sum situation where companies are forced to grow at any cost – even if it means cannibalizing their own company to lower costs and inflate shareholder value.

Instead Rushkoff proposes companies think beyond the needs of the shareholder and look for avenues to create longer-term value in the lives of everyone (customers, employees and shareholders). It would mean companies would be choose to participate in the human-centric marketplace of a distributed economy.

What would a distributed economy look like?  Rushkoff dives into many ideas with numerous examples but the two I find most compelling are money and labour.

Money

Originally, money was invented by merchants in a local market to alleviate the cumbersome nature of bartering.  It became a local currency used to expedite transactions between producers and consumers within a local market. Later though, the King recognized the potential for garnering income from the market and introduced the King’s Coin creating a centralized treasury that issued the currency for any transactions in the market.  Any merchant opening a new enterprise(creating value) needed to borrow from the King’s treasury to be paid back later with interest(extracting value) – very similar to the system we use today.

Currency in the distributed economy would allow producers to create value outside of the centralized banking system. This would require us to suspend all we think we know about how an economy should function and pursue alternate platforms for organizing transactions.  One such platform is called the Blockchain (for a more thorough explanation of the blockchain).   Blockchain transactions are conducted using crypto-currency(bitcoins) and verified by the community.  Once verified they are posted to the global ledger that everyone in the community can see.  Authority in the system is distributed not centralized.

Take a minute and ponder the implications of this type of system.  How would it change the way we buy a car? a loaf of bread?

 

Work

Why do you have a job?  To earn money.  So you can participate in the economy by buying a house, a car, food, gadgets or eat in restaurants. What happens if you don’t have a job?  Debt.  Bankruptcy. And eventually you are unable to participate in the economy.

If you are able, I would ask that you suspend the rules for a minute and answer this question for yourself; imagine your participation in the economy is assured and your basic needs are met.  Would you change the job you currently occupy?  Would you do something completely different?  Would you work less and spend time with family?

Eventually we will need to come to terms with the demographics and pace of technological change and how it will impact the workplace.  Disruptive digital start-ups employ 1/10th the number people compared to the organizations in the industry it disrupts.  Amazon employs 1/10 the people compared to the bookstore industry. Couple that with global population growth and we will have less work for more people.  How do we distribute the work we need done?

I have merely plucked a couple of concepts from the book and would encourage you to read it (or listen as Mitch Joel conducts a fantastic interview with Rushkoff on the Twist Image podcast.)  Admittedly, I felt uncomfortable reading this book because his ideas challenge commonly held notions of how our economy should work.  But his words are inspiring because they create the possibility that things can be different – we just have to be intentional about choosing it.

Michael Quinn Patton Visits Edmonton

Michael Quinn Patton, a leading influencer and thinker in the realm of evaluation, was recently in Edmonton to give a presentation on Developmental Evaluation.  The day was packed to the rafters with learning but here a few things I found most salient.

The Evaluation Gap

The way programs are experienced is often disconnected from how they are evaluated.  Logic models are designed to emphasize the way the program is experienced by the individual and neglects how the program is experienced by the group.  In particular, relationships and social capital generated as a group is not usually a measurable outcome articulated in the logic model.  How well the program works for the group can be overlooked by how well the program worked for the individual in the group.

Lessons vs. Lessons Learned

Lessons are knowledge.  Lessons Learned are actions based on the new knowledge.

Formative vs. Summative vs. Developmental

Evaluation in a reasonably predictable context using previously tested models occurs formatively and summatively.  Formative assesses project/program progress as it unfolds.  Summative assesses the overall performance of the project/program to determine if it will be continued or altered.  It answers the question; How do we improve the model?

Evaluation in a dynamic, unpredictable context without previously tested models requires a more flexible, iterative approach.  Developmental evaluation is a constant process of trying various approaches and learning lessons via case-based reflective practice.  It answers the question; How do we change what is occurring?

 

A couple other Patton nuggets from the day:

“Emergence is when people find each other and opportunities emerge from the connection”

“You can have specific outcomes and targets only when you know how to produce them”

Podcast Pick: On Average by 99% Invisible

I’m a huge podcast fan and sometimes I come across an episode that I feel compelled to share.

On Average by 99% Invisible (20 min) is an informative bit of  research illustrating how the mathematical concept average can solve problems……or create them.

It starts by outlining the historical origins of how the average measure was discovered and subsequently used.  For example, it helped solve a clothing issue for President Lincoln by creating the Small, Medium and Large sizes we see in stores today.  Later  it illustrates how designing for the average had disastrous outcomes for the United States Air Force.

Can you think of any examples in your life/work where designing for the average has been a help? or a hindrance?