Tag Archives: confidence

Apprenticeships and Zen

14 Jun

I recently watched a program on Japanese culture which touched on the subject of Zen. A Buddhist priest explained that meditation is a vital form of practice, it develops knowledge through self awareness, and then applying this knowledge to mindful activities such as cooking and gardening produces insight, and ultimately, wisdom.

The combination of knowledge and application to develop insight and wisdom is integral to the ancient system of thought, Zen. So, it is no surprise that there are strong similarities between how wisdom is acquired in Zen and how it is developed through an ancient, and highly successful, form of education, apprenticeships. I would argue that what makes apprenticeships so successful, is the same foundations of Zen, the combining of formal knowledge with practice on a daily basis.

The apprenticeship method, like Zen, trains the mind to interact with its environment, assuming less, noticing more and adapting accordingly. Both Zen and apprenticeships aim to harmonise the mind with the environment.

Relying solely on knowledge can have the opposite effect, resulting in the mind attempting to control the environment through the application of abstract theories and procedures. This reduces attention to environmental changes, and over emphasizes perceived control.

Taking the mind off the environment and relying on pure knowledge is a major source of organisational errors (see Taleb, 2012, for good examples). Developing methods where there is frequent feedback between the effect of knowledge on the environment ala Zen and apprenticeship models, is an effective way of avoiding these errors, acquiring wisdom and increasing creativity.


Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House


Developing A Challenge Mindset

19 May

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at the Elevate conference held at the Excel Arena, London, along with my colleague Professor Marc Jones and Dr Hannah Macleod, a Gold Medal winner from the Rio Olympics with GB women’s hockey. The subject of our talk was based on developing a challenge mindset, and I’ll summarize some of the key points below from my perspective.

Success is an interaction of skills and the environment (with some luck thrown in). Success can make us overly focus on our skills whilst paying little attention to the environment. This results in a belief that skills are operating independently of the environment, and\or have control over the environment.

Accepting that success is an interaction of skills with environment, then changes to the environment, no matter how small, can begin to affect the outcome of skills. If the effects are not initially significant, then they can be explained away, reinforcing the over focus on skills and continuing the lack of attention to the environment. This can take group culture from a positive place to a closed and defensive place, resisting change and alternative perspectives.

To avoid this situation, befriend negativity. This means that even when performance is going well and the environment is stable, imagine what could go wrong, no matter how big or small, and practice how to deal with these situations. In other words, befriend your worse fears. Doing so reduces aversion when faced with unexpected events, maintains an open mind, and places a mindful focus on the relationship between skills and the environment.

Hannah provided excellent examples of how GB women’s hockey were constantly generating “what if scenarios” to plan for unexpected and negative events. The results for Hannah and her team speak for themselves.




Motivating Teams with Focus

26 Sep

Below is an article published by the company In The Moment (link to their website). In The Moment specialize in coaching, team dynamics and organizational behaviour, and in the excellent article below discuss how project focus plays such a positive influence on performance. This might seem obvious, but it is certainly taken for granted in organisations. We have seen in our research that clearly communicated, and understood, objectives are too often assumed. The article drew me to make comparisons between two areas of communication we have researched- 1) sharing objectives and focus, and 2) the cost of not having clear objectives and focus.

Continue reading

“The Power of Negative Thinking”

23 Feb

Positive thinking only gets you so far. It’s negative thinking which really defines success. This is the argument put forward in an interview between Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, and The Red Bulletin (Red Bull magazine). Hadfield explains the point

“Self-help gurus are always advising us to think positively and envisage success, but it’s about as helpful as thinking about cupcakes. Just thinking about them isn’t going to help. It’s more important to think what could go wrong with a mission. Visualize failings, not success. That’s what’s essential to survival as an astronaut. I was an astronaut for 21 years, but I only spent six months in space. The rest of the time, I was looking into every detail that might have gone wrong during a mission. Once you’ve understood all the potential risks and you’re forewarned against them, fear no longer plays a part in your thought process”

In my research, and the research I draw upon, this argument runs like a red thread through accounts of decision making, planning and adaption. For example, Crandall et al (2006) argue that experts have a far greater knowledge of “what could go wrong” with decisions, plans and strategies than less experienced and accomplished staff across a variety of professional fields.

Weick at al (2007) in their analysis of resilient organisations, which includes NASA, identify that resilient organisations have an obsession with the question “what could go wrong?” In other words, they are prepared for failure and far more likely to learn from it.

In Jim Paul’s (written with Moynihan, 1994) account of lessons learned in losing large sums of money on the trading floor, the authors cite “avoiding losses” as the most significant strategy for success. By focusing on failure, on what NOT to do, the chances of success significantly increase because at the very least, a trader will stay in the game longer.

The “power of negative thinking” counter intuitively increases confidence as people, teams and organisations are far more prepared, and positive, about their ability to absorb failure and adapt. I’ve researched and seen the above manifest in fields as diverse as clinical decision making and construction site management (examples are here)

Weick (2009) refers to the ability of an organisation to adapt through adverse circumstances as having the “requisite variety”. Requisite variety is the sum of an organisation that has systematically learned from failure, analysed and then shared the lessons. A learning organisation, focused on “negative thinking” creates a reservoir of responses, both formal and tacit, which can be applied to complex, surprising and uncertain events. Chris Hadfield, in the quote below, sums the concept up perfectly

“I never experienced any fear when I got into a spacecraft— not because I was brave, but because I’d practiced solving every problem, thousands of times. Being well prepared makes all the difference. It minimizes any fear and gives you confidence”.


Paul, J. Moynihan, B. (1994) What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Columbia Business School Publishing

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioners Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. The MIT Press

Weick, K. Sutcliffe, K. (2007) Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. Jossey-Bass.

Weick, K. (2009) Making Sense of the Organization, Volume 2: The Impermanent Organization. John Wiley & Sons

The Chris Hadfield interview with Red Bull, the Red Bulletin, at the link below



Avoiding the Spiral

30 May

I recently completed the analysis of around 50 interviews with people who had been experiencing mental health difficulties. There was a common thread which connected almost all the respondents-the respondent had encountered a shock or set back and then begun to spiral. In this article I’ll describe what the spiral is and how this personal issue is in fact a fractal; it affects the decision making and risk management of groups, communities and organisations. I’ll focus this article on the notion of spiralling and how it is relevant to organisations.

The common thread within the interviews was the response of spiralling to shock. The spiral occurs when a naturally defensive position is taken in response to a threat. The person affected begins to withdraw and disengage from their life, activities become abandoned, and friends’ phone calls go unreturned. The person attempts to mitigate against risk by shrinking their life into a more manageable size, but this is an illusion. This desire for defensive control locks the person into a spiral as their world becomes smaller and smaller. Paradoxically this then exposes the person to even greater risks as even the smallest daily event becomes perceived as a threat. Coping mechanisms erode along with the ability to adapt and improvise. Respondents in the interviews who had reached the bottom of the spiral frequently talked of “wanting their life back” and wishing to rebuild their confidence. The spiral is a draining devastating experience.

Expressed in basic terms, the spiral is essentially the moving from a broad frame to a narrow frame-the reduction of options, and the ability to plot a future, stemming from the exaggeration of a naturally defensive response to an unexpected event. The same thing can happen to an organisation when it encounters a shock. A panic can ripple through the organisation and people begin to feel besieged by threats, particularly if the shadow of blame hangs overhead. Teams and departments pull to centralise in this environment, reducing tasks to the basics, the activities over which they have total control. The result is expertise and improvisation becomes seen as risky and consequently quality of service falls. This is a risk paradox-defensive positions to avoid risk reduce initiative, and this reduction in initiative blunts error detection, thereby increasing risk. The organisation adopts a defensive strategy and as Sir Lawrence Freedman observes, when the strategy is to dig in, sooner or later it will be overrun. You cannot afford to stay at the bottom of the spiral for too long.

How can the spiral be avoided? Essentially by keeping the frame broad in the face of shocks, within an organisation this can be achieved through resilience training. Individuals and teams should practice exercises where their routine is blown apart by the unexpected and are required to improvise. Developing successful improvisations through training can help maintain confidence when the unexpected happens-it can also help foster innovation. This develops the associative memory, both individually and organisationally, by developing a mental warehouse of coping strategies which can be drawn from when the daily routine comes completely off the rails- which at some point, it will.

Prediction, Tolstoy and New Technology

27 Mar

Way back in the 1800s decision makers were wrestling with the notion you could plan and predict outcomes which involved people. A list of pivotal figures from Tolstoy to William James (regarded by many as the father of modern psychology) devoted some of their best work to explain why prediction of human outcomes was an unachievable goal. If you’re not going to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a masterpiece of decision making critique, James provided an outstanding framework for pragmatic thinking when it came to planning in the face of uncertainty.

James argued that no plan or decision was true, a fact, it simply became true or otherwise as the consequences of action unfolded. Uncertainty never gave you enough to predict, you simply had to think through the consequences of actions carefully and be ready to adapt. Like the scientific hypothesis, you explored whether your expectation stood up, if it didn’t, then it was adapted.

Tolstoy’s work uses literature to account for the arrogance of people who think they can predict and plan with certainty and I often wonder what Tolstoy would have thought about big data, new technology and the notion of prediction. I’ll never know, but I do think the work of both Tolstoy and James are highly relevant to the technology enabled decision makers of today.

In my mind, whether you were planning in the 1800s or you are in 2014, using technology for predictive purposes and making decisions off the back of these predictions is something to be approached cautiously. When you predict, especially with confidence, you expose yourself to fixation- the confirmation bias. This means that when decisions rested on confident predictions encounter the complexity of human behaviour and become contradicted, the investment (psychology, resources and time), in that initial plan and decision, cognitively pulls at you to avoid the loss of that investment. The consequences of this is loss aversion (https://echobreaker.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/confirmation-bias-and-data-analysis/) resulting in the explaining away of contradictory data, fixating on the initial decision. So more data can actually accentuate biases by increasing subjective self confidence (https://echobreaker.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/the-more-information-the-worse-the-decision/)

A better use of big data is discovery, and I think this works well with a form of risk primed decision making. To echo James, thinking through the consequences of a decision before its implemented is a good starting point. However, I think this can be taken a step further, when thinking about the consequence of action there is a tendency to frame and anchor consequences based on the worst of the experienced past. This is good, but it doesn’t prepare you or an organisation for the shock of a potential “even worse” scenario. A methodology to counter this is to take the worst historic event which methods like stress tests focus on and use data to construct even worse scenarios- there will always be a point in a crisis where the crisis hits a floor (in 2008 it was a bailout for example), data can be used to model how bad things could have got if this floor didn’t materialise when it did.

This combination of data and imagination can produce thinking on- how would I\ we have dealt with that? What fire doors or communication links could be built in to avoid this? Imagining risks unlocks creativity, problem solving in the future and enhances the longer term adaption of decisions. Placing risk first, as oppose to prediction, is a lesson from Tolstoy and James, but it’s a lesson which can drive discoveries today.

Taking Orders versus Making Decisions

10 Feb

What are the differences between taking orders and making decisions? To be honest that’s just the introduction, a far more important question is- what are the effects on organisations where people in leadership roles prioritise taking instruction over making decisions?

When someone waits for orders they are naturally passive, and this defines what they do between receiving orders. Frequently we see those that wait for instruction focused on procedures, processes and basically the operation of people, teams and departments. So this is what gets grown culturally- a focus on keeping things ticking over and waiting. The cognitive experience could be likened to waiting at an airport departure lounge-indefinitely. There is food, shelter, warmth, people to talk to, places to eat and shop and the promise of soon flying off to an exciting destination. However, the anxiety and apathy sets in as everyone starts to wonder-will that plane ever arrive? This is how I would describe a culture based on leaders taking orders.

The natural by product of this environment is uncertainty- people are not quite sure whether their actions are moving in the right or wrong direction. So, the only thing which remains a certainty is to keep things ticking over, keep working those procedures and processes; at least everyone knows that is a not a wrong thing to do in this environment. Of course this has a major effect on creativity and innovation; no one is quite sure where to locate new ideas, what frame to assess them by.

Decision making by contrast requires leadership. It is cognitively opposite to taking orders as it requires constructing sense from uncertainty, focusing on the cues and patterns which count, anticipating there ( the cues and patterns) relevance to the future and then acting\ planning to act. The mental model this produces is the vision- an expectancy of how the future will play out, what could affect that future playing out and how to mitigate it, and of course how to actually get there. When this is communicated across people, teams and groups it effectively announces the plane arrival time, people can start making their own plans toward the departure desk- they can act with initiative and full knowledge of what are productive or inappropriate courses of action.

A rule of thumb- if a decision creates widespread uncertainty without the accompanying means and distributed vision as to how to manage that uncertainty, it is a decision made too soon. A thorough analysis of risk, applying methods such as prospective hindsight, will assist the location of potentially toxic uncertainty; but this analysis is essential for providing people with a frame of reference to make sense of actions. This frame could be as simple as what to look out for, but it generates initiative, allows people to problem solve within boundaries, and innovate.

Confidence, Risk and Decision Making

5 Feb

A sudden lack of self confidence is not uncommon in professional sports men and women and there are now highly experienced and effective sports psychologists around to help- they have achieved some exceptional results and many a professional athlete has credited psychology with either taking their career to the next level or simply saving it. So, given the effectiveness of these techniques in managing stress and building confidence in very challenging situations, is there a place for importing these techniques into business? Would it be helpful for someone in business to think like an elite athlete?

No doubt confidence is essential to the professional athlete and confidence is important in business; so far, so good, but they part company on the subject of risk. In sport, risks are well known, in some sports you may actually not come home, but its known what the risks are, the worse case scenarios, and they can be managed, more or less. Sport is known risk and it has a floor. And the upside, which is the application of confidence, talent and luck, can sometimes be, or at least seem to be, limitless. It is a good thing to have very confident sports people.

In business risk is very different. Technology, globalisation, financial interdependencies amongst others all mean that risk is very hard to know and contain. Problems occur when organisations feel they can model and predict risk (2008 is an easy example to call on) and make decisions on this basis, with confidence. Complex environments are categorised by the lack of floor to risk, no one knows quite how bad things could get but risk models can leave you thinking you have an answer. The validity of this statement can easily be checked by the number of bankers’ post 2008 who said- it had never happened before. That is a comment reminiscent of Peter Drucker’s observation that basing the future on past events is like driving a car forward looking through the rear view mirror. Confidence within a business environment needs to be of a different type because it operates in a different risk domain- if you’re feeling confident then it’s time to be cautious.

This issue of confidence in the business environment was addressed by Danny Kahneman who observed subjective self confidence is no reliable indicator of ability or expertise. In sport you get proof positive of expertise very quickly, in business you don’t or it takes a long time to find out, and I’m sure everyone has a story to support Kahneman’s observation. Decision making in business requires a grasp of context, and this should include a very strong sense and accompanying analysis over what could go wrong. Thinking about what could go wrong basically prepares you for the consequences of your decision- if this goes sour, can I\ we handle it? Taking this approach is far superior to the cognitive strain of trying to make perfect decisions-they don’t exist.

By contrast in sport, it’s not a good idea to be thinking what could go wrong (at least not most of the time) but in business it’s essential. The two domains are defined and separated by the levels of uncertainty and whether or not the risk has a known floor.

A rule of thumb- if your domain has regular cues and patterns which can be linked to reasonably consistent outcomes then a sense of control is something which could be relied upon, cautiously. If your domain contains large amounts of random noise which could lead anywhere, well, I’ll leave you with a question from Danny Kahneman “what makes him believe he is smarter than the market? Is this an illusion or skill?”