Tagged: caroline webb

The best question you can ask: How fascinating! What can I learn from this?

As part of the Nokia Smarter Everyday program myself and some members of the Brilliant Noise team were lucky enough to sit in on a coaching session with the clever and inspirational Caroline Webb, founder of the McKinsey leadership practice and CEO Seven Shift Leadership. Caroline is an expert on emotional intelligence and applying cognitive science to our working days.

She described a technique she learned from conductor and author, Benjamin Zander. Every time he found himself in a stressful situation, he would stand up, raise his arms in the air and exclaim “How fascinating! What can I learn from this?”ZZ3590D6F3

Image: Benjamin Zander demonstrating his “how fascinating!” approach to failures (also useful in any stressful situation)… 

The reason that this is useful, Caroline says, is that the question/exclamation switches you from an “away state” – sense of threat, fight or flight, worry etc. – to a “toward state” (open, interested, curious, engaged).

Releasing yourself from fear you become more likely to solve a problem or at least find something useful and feel a little more in control of the situation. Stress levels drop, you smile and get on with the work with a clearer head.

I started using it straight away – it works every time. Also. everyone I have shared it with so far has said it works brilliantly for them. We’ve started to hear it in Brilliant Noise team meetings a lot too. It’s a nice thing to share. (Hence the blog post, I suppose…)

Try it for yourself – wherever possible with the action of standing up and throwing your hands in the air.

I’ve known for some time that you need to interrupt negative thoughts and look at them objectively to rob them of their power. It’s a part of mindfulness and is applied in cognitive behavioural therapy. Perhaps it is the charming quality of this “how fascinating” question and the physical cue helps that process, makes it easy to talk about and turn into a habit.

Situations I have applied this in so far have include mental blocks while writing against a deadline, being delayed on a journey, being admitted to an ER room in Canada, difficult meetings, frustrating conference logistics, and recently being periodically incapacitated by a kidney stone (the outcome of that visit to Canadian ER).

That last example of intermittent incapacitation by renal colic is a good example. I’m currently awaiting treatment and exist in a state somewhere between extreme pain and being fluffily useless due to the painkillers used to manage that pain.

It means that I have about two or three hours of quality brain time per day – and even then not 100%. Outside of that there is no chance of me writing an insightful post, outlining a plan or developing an interesting presentation for client.

With the help of caffeine I have no problem delivering presentations and can sometimes read, highlight and comment on articles. But there’s no chance of squeezing in 90 minutes of quality writing, or of developing a creative or strategic idea. That kind of cognitive heavy lifting is beyond my reach outside this two to three hour window (usually in the morning).

How fascinating. What can I learn from this?

By throwing up my hands and asking the apparently magic question I have managed to stop feeling sorry for myself and found a bright spot in this situation. Firstly I’m probably getting some much needed rest, but that’s by the by. The really interesting thing is I can only pick one project to make some significant progress with each day.

Much of the evidence from cognitive science and anecdotally from coaches suggests that this is always the case anyway – if you can get four hours of focused work (no not emails and meetings) then you’re doing really well. Yet somehow I usually will try to squeeze into or three major projects into any given day.

What I have learnt from the pain is what it is like to have the complete discipline of only doing one meaningful piece of work a day. It is therefore both focused and slightly liberating to be trapped in this condition.

As I say, try the trick yourself and let me know how you get on. Tomorrow, I’ll be getting zapped with ultrasound shockwaves which should get rid of the pain problem. Should be an interesting experience – wonder what I will learn from it…

: : Bonus link: At 6:40 in this video you can see Benjamin Zander describe the technique to a conference of headteachers – but do watch the whole thing if you have 14 minutes – he’s great…

The big lie of always-on, multi-tasking culture: “We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.”

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“We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.” Caroline Webb, Partner at McKinsey & Co.

Following on from my last post, where I mentioned the brilliant “For Your Information” episode of Peter Day’s BBC series In Business in the context of advertising business models, I’d like to look at the other strand of the personal information theme in the programme.

Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co, was introduced to discuss issues about information overload and its impact of personal productivity and executive teams, following on from the article she and Derek Dean wrote for McKinsey Quarterly, Recovering from Information Overload (free registration required):

In my talk  at TEDx Brighton on the skills we need to develop to use the web effectively, I started from the point of view that information overload and distraction were two symptoms of a syndrome of inefficiency and mis-use of the web in our work. We need to make sure the web is working for us, and to do that we need to develop an understanding of networks, better habits of sharing, a sense of when to use our focus and attention in different ways and design more effective work-flows that took advantage of the way the web works.

McKinsey’s raising of this issue adds authority to a meme that’s been growing for some time, with posts like Declaring Email Bankruptcy etc.

In fact it puts me in mind of hopeful posts like E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago from BusinessWeek in 2005, when web 2.0 was just becoming an idea with real currency. It reminds us that the a yet unrealised hope for the social web was to help us work smarter, not just generate new opportunities for advertising.

In 2011, email isn’t dead – in fact it is still the centre of many people’s working days –  and a range of other messaging options from Twitter to Basecamp updates can all add to rather solve the problems of overload and distraction. It isn’t even a case of us vs. the machines, it is a case that the culture we have evolved in using these things is corrosive and unproductive.

When Caroline Webb talks about an executive sending an email to a wide team and everyone leaping to reply on their BlackBerrys, whatever the hour, whether they are on holiday or in the car, the image that I can’t get out of my head is animals in cages reacting to a bell.

Like Pavlov’s dog we’ve allowed our reward centres and anxieties to be tuned to make us jump at the sound of a smartphone vibrating. The smartest, highest trained people we can get to run our companies are reduced to nervous monkeys.

Here’s a collection of insights from the BBC programme and from the McKinsey Quarterly article:

  • “Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” You know this if you have worked in these cultures – it is literally impossible to do your best work when you’re reacting to round robins and erratic requests at all hours.
  • “All the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.”
  • “[executives] disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.” This is reactive, piecemeal work, dictated by the flow of communications, not the needs of the organisation, the situation, or the opportunities.
  • “Leaders need to change how they feel good about themselves…” People feel good because via email they get instant responses, can be hands-on on a project the moment they think about it (micro-management, as it was once known). On the flip-side, people feel good because they have a reputation for being ultra-responsive, available all hours.
  • Just as with Caroline’s quote at the head of this article stating that we fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking faster, “One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true.”
  • The strategy you need to get out of this state of affairs is a combination of personal and systems.”It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.”
  • And, it seems, none of this is really new – Peter Drucker was talking about how knowledge workers and executives needed to behave in the 1960s: “some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting.”
  • Lastly there are three steps that are required to start to put this right, according to McKinsey:
  1. We need to acknowledge and challenge the mind-sets and current patterns of behaviour.
  2. Leaders need to delegate and resist the temptation to interfere…
  3. Leaders need to work with their teams to “redesign working norms”.

Naturally, as boardrooms tend to be McKinsey’s clients they are focusing on leaders and executive teams in this analysis, but in my experience these things apply to knowledge workers, in fact anyone who uses email, at every level in every type of organisation.

One insight we have now, though, after all these years of social web tools spreading, is that it is just important to think about the culture of working with the web and electronic communications as the tools themselves. As Dan McQuillan said at CityCamp Brighton about – and I echoed in a way – digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies…

When change comes (and it will come) it will need to come simultaneously in changes to how we work and how we think about organisations, how hierarchies and networks work together.