Writing a blog for a few months now I’ve been intrigued by what seems to generate the most interest. By a factor of 3 to 1 it’s articles with the title ‘9 reasons to …’ or ‘3 things that …’. Either people are so busy they want to scan and capture insights quickly (“there are 3 here, what are they?”) or for some reason(s) numbers just resonate.
I normally write my blog then think of a title that best fits. This time, as an experiment, I'm starting with the title I think will generate the most hits (despite posting this in the dead summer season). So, now to try crowbar some insights into my list of 5 - as I’m sure that’s what most authors do anyway:
The World According to Dunbar:
4 - Casual conversation groups are limited to around four people. This appears to be due to the fact that we cannot get more than four people into a circle small enough to hear what the speaker is saying. Therefore, if you want decisions made quickly by a committee limit it to four people.
6 - Conversely, if you want your committee to brainstorm new ideas you'll need more than six. Less than this simply leads to a starvation of ideas and ‘premature convergence’ around sub-optimal positions as dissenting voices are less likely to be raised and more likely to be isolated if they do.
8 - The size of the average, well-off Victorian family (Britain end of 19th century) from where the phrase ‘children should be seen and not heard’ comes from for, with so many people round the dinner table, rules were needed to limit the noise. As families diminished in size and sheared off extended family members children are increasingly tolerated. The problems organisational leaders have with Generation Y are not because the children have changed but the environment has. It’s time organisations caught up with this.
12 - Is the number of people who are truly close to you, whose death would leave you devastated (not upset, but heartbroken). Jesus having 12 disciples was no coincidence.
150 - The Dunbar number suggest the optimal human social network size, beyond which bureaucracy encroaches. The relationship of the size of the neocortex relative to the brain seen across the mammalian world frames the extent to which humans can personally maintain relationships with other members. This relatively large group size helped humans safely venture out of Africa in the search for new habitats and has endured since in the size of the optimal military unit, local councils or modern start ups.
Yet, we shouldn’t be seduced by numbers alone. Without context they have little value. In his excellent book Professor Dunbar shares an anecdote of an enlightened head of a TV production team who, like an increasing number of leaders, recognises the important of organising people around the way they naturally are rather than the way HR would like them to be. But whilst keeping his production unit to a team of 150 he watched in horror as they lost cohesion, fell out and dissipated after a move to a new office. The culprit was eventually discovered - the coffee room, which had been the communal meeting and sharing place but had not followed them to the new office leading to poor maintenance of the intricate bounds of social cohesion. Numbers may be important, but they matter little without context.
If you'd like an opportunity to discuss how going beyond numbers to help your organisation address the issue of managing Generation Y staff successfully contact Marcus Guest at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit narrativeinsights.com
“Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking”. Technology is immensely powerful, but severely limited. It’s not the amount of data that creates competitive advantage but how decision-makers make sense of it that counts. Genuine breakthroughs (innovation) come from a symbiosis of humans and machines.
A complex world compels organisations to rapidly discover new solutions to swerve or recover from increasingly inevitable ‘black swan’ visitations. But “historically” writes the internet expert Clay Shirky “we have overestimated the value of access to information, and we have always underestimated the value of access to each other.” The failure of the US security services, for example, to prevent the 9/11 attacks were not due to a deficiency of data collection but of humans beings sharing knowledge about what had been collected in cross-functional teams to make better sense of the data. If organisations want to become smart and resilient they must leverage natural human skills in parallel with technology. Less focus on big data; more focus on ‘big knowledge.’
Evidence from millennia of evolution testifies to the natural human ability to prosper. And we do this through social interaction, with each other, using technology as an enabler - not a decider. For example, the recent discovery of an unusual new planet with four suns was not made by the super hi-tech Kepler telescope alone, but in conjunction with two members of a web-based citizen science project accessing the astronomical amount of data NASA makes freely available to the public from it. NASA does this as it recognises the limitations of their own data-crunching computer programs which don’t know how to interpret variations that are signals that should be explored. Fortunately, this is something the human brain excels at. Engaging natural human sense-making abilities, by bringing multiple perspectives to bear on crucial challenges can create genuine breakthroughs and increase productivity at essentially zero cost.
Some organisations tap natural knowledge flows with huge commercial success - IBM is now repeating it’s hugely successful co-investment with Linux and Goldcorp discovered massive of previously hard to find gold reserves after making information freely available on the web. Real competitive advantage won’t come from investment in management fads - the learning curve is too costly. It will come from marrying multiple current capabilities together. This demands leaders reject the myth of the ‘one right answer’ and instead seek to stimulate the natural knowledge-sharing processes already occurring between humans; support them with technology they are able to use; and use their own human judgement to make sense of the insights to learn how to better act in the highly-complex world around them.
“Leaders who stay ‘above the details’ may do well in stable times [but]… riding a wave of change requires an intimate feel for its origins and dynamics.” Change is universal and accelerating, meaning leaders must cut through layers of delays and distortions to understand what’s really happening on the frontline and why. Failure to do so severely limits the potential to discover the critical insights needed to make effective decisions. Leaders must learn to disintermediate.
Disintermediation is a process of ‘cutting out the middle man’ - the layers of middle-managers ‘managing up’, only letting their boss hear what they think s/he wants to hear; the consultants who provide simplistic recipes to achieving ‘best practice’, invariably past practice devoid of context; or the knot of bureaucracy people complain about but feel helpless to change. A leader must learn to hear the signals despite the noise, recognise the wood amongst the trees, and understand the cause not just the correlation.
Big data is the current tool of choice for cutting through the jungle of obfuscation. But while Google can answer any question in nano-seconds it can’t tell you what to ask, nor can it provide you with any assurances that the answers you receive are not the work of madmen, fools or snake-oil salesmen. To make effective decisions beyond the routine re-ordering of inventory, or dynamic discounts decision-support technology must not seek to replace human intelligence, but augment it.
Technology must let decision-makers:
Effective decision-support systems should not make leaders dependant on third parties - quants to devise algorithms, programmers to code them, or experts to interpret them. Systems should augment the person accountable for the decision, heightening natural human pattern-recognition intelligence through visualisation tools; triggering the novelty-receptive brain through sharing rich, knowledge-based narratives (things this blog will elaborate on over the coming weeks).
This requires systems that work with the way people really are, not the way we wish they would be. For human beings have evolved over thousands of years as social creatures in networks (clans, tribes, families, and now organisations) and our success in getting this far suggests some secret formula for modern organisations to emulate - a best practice case if you like. And it’s this: technology works when in puts people in touch with people as beneficial variation then emerges.
Shape the Future
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