Tim Baxter

Mind the gap

Several years ago a friend of mine visited London for the first time. He flew into Heathrow, the only London airport which is directly linked to the city centre by underground train – known locally as ‘the tube’. He bought his ticket, took a map of the tube system and arrived at his hotel mid evening without incident. The next day he decided to explore the streets of London using his tube map to guide him. He got seriously lost and became increasingly angry … with the map! This unfortunate episode highlights the fact that maps are designed for specific purposes in mind. They are effective tools when used in the right context – a tube map works well underground but if you expect it to be equally useful at surface level then you will inevitably be disappointed. In today’s dynamic environment where frequent change often makes people emotively yearn for the stability of their comfort zones, the tendency to find ourselves doing something similar is alluring, but ultimately counterproductive.

The art of human communication is not an exact science. There is always a difference between what the sender means to communicate and what is understood by the receiver (known in the jargon as the intention-impact gap). 

Human beings create their own, highly subjective, maps with the specific purpose of facilitating decision making. They are formed by priortising some aspects of their own context and filtering other features. What is key to remember is that an individual’s context is fundamental in how the map is formed. As the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto says ‘Identity isn’t you, identity is how you are related to things. You’ve got to be located.’ When we use our maps in situations different from where we psychologically and geographically built them we are all too often expecting the external reality to conform to our version.  

Stella Ting-Toomey makes a distinction between two approaches to communicating, She defines ‘habitual ways of thinking and behaving without conscious awareness of our underlying intentions and/or emotions’ as mindless communication. This is our usual behaviour and is simply using our subjective map to filter the external situation. It is not bad but rather a lazy, automatic way which increases the possibility of misunderstanding and decreases effective and efficient communication.  Ting -Toomey suggests that a more successful approach is to be mindful which she describes as ‘being aware of our own and others’ behavior in the situation, and paying focussed attention to the process of communication taking place between us and dissimilar others’. Taking the complete equation into consideration makes sense – before communicating I assess my needs, your needs, timing and the specific situation. Without a doubt this is much easier during asynchronous communication such as e-mail where we can think before we send rather than in situations of real time feedback. Consciously targeting communication needs more time and effort than the reflex response our mindless approach uses. So, is that the end of the story? Mindful thumbs up, mindless thumbs down. Not quite! 

I believe we should look at mindful communication more closely. When someone takes into account the situation and attempts to reduce the intention-impact gap they are showing a positive mindful approach. They are working on both the task and the relationship (how can I make it easier for you to understand what I mean?). However, the best manipulators also use the mindful approach by studying the context (how can I get you to do what I want without you realising that I am using you?). This negative mindful behaviour usually results in a short-term gain for the sender but at a considerable medium to long term risk of endangering the relationship if the receiver discovers they are being used. In conclusion, there are three approaches each with their relative pros and cons:

  • Mindless is effortless but ineffective, 
  • Mindful negative usually provides a short-term return but potentially destroys trust
  • Mindful positive consciously works on both objective and relationship but requires sensitivity to context

Once we become self-aware of our mental maps as a potential source of dependency it becomes easier to understand how we can intentionally increase the impact we could have on the situation. To ensure your communication is always on track please always remember to mind the gap … positively!

To join the discussion on LinkedIn, please go to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mind-gap-tim-baxter/

The Human Side to the Digital Revolution

The last few years have seen increasing concern about the role of digitalisation and its impact on people’s lives. The tech community is full of hope and drive but the common man regards it as the reason for feeling left behind by the pace of change. I believe that this is the main reason behind the protest vote which has resulted in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to name just two examples. It represents a vote against the present system rather than for a meaningful alternative.

Connectivity means change happens faster, impacts further and is felt sooner than ever before. It is driven by The Three ‘A’s – Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. Automation, or automatic control, can be seen in robotics and is the force behind The Internet of Things which allows your fridge to speak to your cellphone and potentially every other electrical device you own! Artificial Intelligence is the ability for machines to learn from the environment they are operating in and then change behaviour accordingly . Finally data analytics pores through data looking for patterns and trends to create information to make decision making more effective.

A 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute entitled ‘A Future That Works – Automation, Employment and Productivity’ estimates that 60% of all current occupations contain at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable merely by adapting currently available technology. These percentages increase dramatically when jobs include a high level of predictable physical activities and collecting or processing data. This means that both manual and knowledge workers will see a change in what they do and how they do it. Is this then in line with the worst fears of protest voters? If the system stays the same as it is presently is then yes, it is time to start worrying. However, the combined impact of the 3 As is highly disruptive to the system itself. Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest that we are at the start of a great restructuring where how we work both as organisations and individuals is lagging far behind the advances in technology.

This creates an interesting situation. It makes no sense for humans to do activities which automation can do more efficiently and effectively – we cannot ‘out-machine’ the machines. So what can we do? The answer is in our imperfections! Richard Florida states that ‘Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource’. Humans can see the world for what is not and what it could be. While digitalisation enables, it is how it is guided by humans that makes the difference. Those companies that can create the conditions to harness the distinctly human side of humans will have a bright future. Those that don’t, won’t!


Why not slip into something more uncomfortable?

By Tim Baxter, TCO Associate

Our schooling systems are the product of a society which took certainty and stability for granted. Young people grow up thinking that perfection, zero errors, is possible and that those who do not get full marks have something wrong with them. This form of mass imprinting creates the common held belief that at work we are paid to not make mistakes. How can this help companies achieve the holy trinity of innovation, initiative and creativity that almost every corporate website announces is part of its culture? It short, it cannot!

In today’s world of fast moving, complex and unpredictable change where clarity of direction has given way to ambiguity, perfection is a dangerous block to progress. What is needed is a move towards excellence – the best possible result in a specific situation. This shift in emphasis will require us to rethink how we learn not only in our education systems but also at work. 

Someone who always strives for perfection does everything to avoid mistakes which also includes avoiding risk and playing safe. Learning is an uncomfortable business, it means going to the outer reaches of your comfort zone and dipping your toe in uncertainty. Mistakes will happen, it is a new context for you, but that is where and how the learning happens. No one has ever learned anything, rather than just improved on past skills, without making errors. Speaking, reading, writing, riding a bike all involved trial and error it is just that we have forgotten the process of learning and take the skill for granted.

Some people are naturally inclined to be risk adverse but everyone could benefit from developing a sense of which type of errors are useful and when experimentation should be encouraged. Carol Dweck has spent much of her professional life researching the implications of a fixed mindset approach (where someone avoids anything which might lead to mistakes in their performance) and a growth mindset (which regards mistakes as part of the learning process). Her work looks at children’s education but the premise holds true for adults. When a boss gives feedback to a colleague and praises the individual rather than the effort the person has put into the task they are reinforcing a fixed mindset approach. If this is scaled up to company culture then we have exactly the opposite of what is required to face the reality we operate in today. If we need agility then we need to learn both as people as as organisations. This means making mistakes. Isn’t it time that we collectively slip into something more uncomfortable?

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