Friday, March 19, 2010

Time's up

As promised, I have a reply for Michael Wade after a couple of weeks' consideration. Unfortunately, it's too long to post as a comment (blogger tells me the limit is 4k characters). So I'm posting here. It expands a little on the raw list I posted at the time.


Thank you for your simple and thought provoking suggestion. As I indicated in my initial response, it has always been quite possible to have a boilerplate reply that (re)sets expectations about the timing of your considered answer.

However, once you have set those expectations, it is vital that you meet them. In that spirit, here are a few thoughts on the tyranny of the instant response culture.

What's the problem here?

It has always been possible to read and respond instantly. In the old days, with two posts a day, it was possible to send a letter, get a response and send your agreement in the same day. The gurus advise us to work our mail in batch, once or twice a day. So what's changed?

Well, of course many of us don't take the gurus too seriously. We keep the incoming mail warning set. So when we are struggling with a piece of serious work and in danger of achieving something, we are offered the relief of a stream of new things to distract us. After all, a change is as good as a rest.

And then we can respond, filling mailboxes around the world with a stream of witty banter. Our mailboxes rapidly fill up with soft focus gossip. Mail has more of the characteristics of a phone call. It is common to see a "conversation" (bit of a Freudian slip there, Bill) with twenty or thirty responses, in the course of a day. (Which could have been managed in ten minutes with a phone call and a single mail to confirm understanding). There is the additional feature that it gets forwarded. So you don't know who you are talking to.

Introducing your inner lizard

Seth Godin has recently introduced into his blog the theme of The Lizard. This is more than a metaphor. The R-complex is the primitive area of the brain which is the first (historically and biologically) to develop. It sits between the body and the thinking brain and acts as gatekeeper between thought and action. It is very, very stupid. In my simple model (actually, I got this from Mark Forster. This is the subject of the first chapter of his book on task management, Do It Tomorrow. This chapter is freely available.), the lizard brain is binary. To any stimulus, it's response is either
- "Nice: I'll 'ave that!!" GRAB or
- "Oo-er: scary!!" FLEE/HIDE

Both are well illustrated in Butoy and Gabriel's seminal work on reptile behaviour.

Your lizard loves email and the internet

The point here is that a new mail offers our inner lizards respite from toil and the possibility of something new and fun. So OF COURSE it will want to investigate. The dubdubdub (which I understand to be street argot for the "www" or "worldwide web". See how this poor backward Englishman is trying to accommodate any trendy, groovy and with-it Colonials who might chance to read this) is an infinite pinball machine for our lizards to scamper around in, bouncing happily from bumper to bumper.

On the face of it, this appears to bode ill for intelligent discourse. But we should admit the possibility that this sort of reactive behaviour is a flocking strategy for a whole generation. This leads to a sort of hive mind that can do some things efficiently and intelligently.

OK. Possibility admitted. That way leads to fashion (please read "fashion" in a tone of dretful scorn) and heads on spikes. Bah!

This too shall pass

Back to mail for a moment. Gartner predicted a couple of years ago that business would move to instant messaging as its main form of communication. I am seeing that now. It is hard for people to complain about your lack of responsivenes to a mail if you are chatting to them and a couple of other teams in a chat room. This frees up mail to record the outcomes or to request responses which CAN wait. As we begin to get used to this, I do believe that the mail madness will pass.

Though we still need to work out how we will deal with the constant chatter.

If you have any further concerns or questions on this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Deadlier than the mail?

Ace blogger Michael Wade at Execupundit riffs on the tyranny of email here. So naturally, I am considering my response at the usual leisurely pace. A few thoughts to start me off:

  1. email is more like a phone call than a letter
  2. an instant response need not be considered
  3. you will stand out if you do not respond instantly
  4. your inner lizard loves to respond instantly
  5. with the internet society, your inner lizard is having a really good time at the moment
  6. a lot of lizards reacting to one another form a flock
  7. when the lizards are the ones that sit between our brain and the rest of our nervous system, we call it a mob
  8. there are good aspects to the mob
  9. but sooner or later, we always get back to heads on spikes

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An open and shut case

"And"? Where are you when we need you, Werner?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Instant Class

This is not a clever comparison of e-mail with first class post, but a riff  kicking off gently from our national, baked in obsession: class. And classiness. Deep down, we (the middle classes) all want 25% more than we've got.

Why not slap a little instant class to your business card (1) or mail signature with a Latin(ish) motto?

Display a modest whimsy with the proud motto of the Edinburgh University Fencing Club (c1973): Plus fortuna quam judicio!

Bored with the wholesome but over used Carpe diem? Try Carpe cakem! on for size. (Thanks, Toby!)

Or the cheerful defiance of one who has come to terms with his fate: Semper in excreta sumus, solum profundum variat. Infinitely preferable to the po-faced, but genuine: Sumus semper in excretum sed alta variat. 

But wait a minute: isn't that last one exactly what the struggling blogger is striving for? Maybe in a couple of years...

(1) I know that clip is a bit over used, but I still just love it. This is more useful, but if you've got the wrong sort of mind (my sort) it'll lure you off the path of virtue for rather longer than you might have planned.


Why I love Twitter:
every time i see sarah palin speak i despise her more and more for her ignorant, half-formed ultra-reactionary received wisdoms"

Let's start with a statement of the blindingly obvious: this is not an analysis of Sarah Palin, her works, plans or values. Marcus doesn't seem to be  trying to convince anyone. He is simply stating his values here: his opinion.

Why do we do this? 
1.     We nail our colours to the mast as a rallying point for the right-minded to gather at
2.     We reaffirm and reinforce the core beliefs of the right-minded
1.     the values that bind us  together
2.     our view of how the world works
3.     our interpretation of the data and
4.     our assessment of what is important and
5.     our assessment of what is true
3.     We reaffirm and reinforce our own identities
Powerful reasons.

But, deep down, we know the catch, don't we? As we reinforce the beliefs of the right minded and bind them to our own identities, we devalue the beliefs of the wrong headed. (The Astute Reader will have noticed that I am using "right minded" and "wrong headed" rather loosely. "In-group" and "out-group" would be more clinically accurate.) We blind ourselves to the  data that doesn't fit our story. 

And the wrong-headed quickly become the enemy.

We find ourselves in a feedback loop. Having an external threat helps to rally people around the core, sacrificing self interest and inconvenient details of governance. So it is clearly good for the leaders to encourage this feeling of threat. From the outside, it appeared that Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld were mutually benefiting from their exchanges of threats. It's a win-win for the power-hungry on each side. 

Less so for the bombers and the bombed, of course.

On a less exalted scale, a team that fails to engage fully with the world outside may never know that it has fallen by the wayside until it is too late. This often shows up as a focus on internal politics rather than real external competition and customers. The Department in John le Carre's The Looking Glass War  is a fine example. The British motor industry in the 1970s is another.

The real competition is NOT the same as the wrong headed. The wrong headed could be any group that has a different view from the right minded. Remember, these groups form to reinforce the values of their members. The values of the workers and the management in a single firm may be much further apart than the values of the management of that firm and its most bitter competitor. 

The same principle holds true for any external challenge. We tend to confuse the statements of belief with fact. We all know that Gordon Brown ran up record debt in the good times and was unable to  respond when the crisis hit. We know this because we read it in the press and because we want someone to blame for the economic crisis. It fits and supports a powerful and satisfying narrative. It doesn't matter how many times government ministers bleat the actual statistics (that the government had paid back 1/6 of the debt they inherited before they started intervention in the economy in late 2007 / early 2008): they don't fit the story, so they don't get heard.

But what if we want to fix the external problem rather than our own reputations and personal insecurities? Then we need to build mutual understanding. This is usually difficult, for a number of reasons:
  • we see our position as right and theirs as wrong
  • we are blind to gaps in our data
  • we focus on blaming them for their errors rather than on understanding the different contributions made by each of the players. (Hint: it's hard to change your own behaviour, but much harder to changes someone else's. )
Anyone who has read the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project will recognise this language. Their book, "Difficult Conversations" (Stone, Patton, Heeler) lays out a very clear map of the problems common to all really difficult conversations (good title, eh?). And, of course, suggests proven strategies to overcome the problems. And explains why these strategies are hard to implement and gives solid, practical guidance. THe editorial review from The Author gives a good idea of the substance of the book, if you are seriously considering not buying it.

Start by levelling the playing field in your own head. If you don't have a spare lifetime to experience the world as "they" see it, try stating your viewpoint in tabloid headlines. Stand back, compare and contrast. You will automatically start arguing "yes, but..." to explain that real life is richer and more complex than the headline implies. Try and apply the same arguments to their headline. 

Then you can start a real discussion to understand the whole problem. If you're really lucky, you might even start to solve it. Together.