Archive
Language

It’s exactly a week since Boris’s nightmare interview with Eddie Mair on the Andrew Marr Show.

“You’re a nasty piece of work” was Mair’s now famous put down. This piece is not to endorse that view. Nor is it to echo Boris’s father Stanley or his friend Darius Guppy in mounting a staunch defence of the Mayor of London.

My worry is that we have developed a new bad habit – universal adversarialism. Or to put it less politely, it’s open season for everyone slagging off everyone else. We have an adversarial parliamentary system – which is unlike, for instance, the USA. They seem to have survived without it for nearly 240 years and governed themselves adequately. We have an adversarial legal system. Policing is largely adversarial. Sport is almost entirely adversarial.

As to the ‘Fourth Estate’, both broadcast and print media are increasingly confrontational. Not that that is anything new. Even before he was sent to jail, Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, ‘In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.’

Slagging off on TV and radio is of course not confined to editorial pieces. Audience participation shows like Question Time and Any Questions actively encourage members of the public to join in and attack their tribunes and prominent citizens in general. Plays, soaps and movies are packed full of aggression and verbal abuse – echoing no doubt what is happening behind closed doors in hundreds of thousands of households.
I am commenting on a social trend, not advocating censorship. In all relatively free societies from the days of the Greek agora and the Roman Forum down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year, there has been a tradition of popular protest. Even under totalitarian regimes brave souls have risked their lives by criticising those in power.

Nor is it wrong to argue and debate. I strongly recommend a book by Susan Scott, an American consultant – Fierce Conversations (Berkeley Trade, 2004) – in which she urges the reader not to shirk difficult debates with everyone in their lives, where necessary, including oneself.

I worry about the way adversarialism is delivered. My concern is that from children upwards we are all starting to see confrontation as the default setting, rudeness as a stock in trade, and aggression as a natural way to debate. You see it in road rage. You even see it on pavements and in the Tube. Watch a junior football, rugby or cricket match. I am not sure what is worse – the language and demeanour of the kids, or that of their parents on the touchline or boundary.

I am dedicated to helping everyone make better decisions. That is why I wrote my book Decide, and why I am now hard at work on its successor. The crucial cauldron for decision making by teams and organisations is the endless series of meetings they all rely on. Meetings are at the same time the most frustrating part of decision making (because they seldom produce any decision whatsoever), and the best hope, because decision making is precisely what the meeting was designed to achieve.

But check out your friendly local meeting. Is the atmosphere collegiate? Is the language calm and urbane? You must be joking. Inevitably confrontation now dogs the meeting as it threatens to poison the rest of our life. And because confrontation is unconstructive, it impedes debate and reduces the chance of arriving at a decision.

I say it is time to blow a whistle, to sound a warning, to call a halt to the slagging off. If we can achieve any progress in this direction, we will start to see that we can make far more progress by debating and discussing in what we used to call a civilised fashion.

And then, Mr Mair, calling someone a “nasty piece of work” will say more (and not in a nice way) about the slagger, and less about the slagged.

Read More

This year marks the 631st anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt. Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball paid for their defiance of King Richard II with their lives, but the uprising was a major turning point in the medieval history of London, as workers succeeded in exploiting their scarcity value (thanks to the Black Death) by extracting higher wages for their labour.

I can’t claim that the relentless incursion into our language of idiom, metaphor, simile and aphorism from the US (mainly derived from American sports) is of similar moment to the grinding down of the poor six centuries ago. Nonetheless my latest blog and Twitter campaign is based on my appeal to fellow pedants to reject the imports (and here’s the creative bit) come up with more locally relevant alternatives, derived this time either from OUR sports or the language generally.

I’m not so worried about metaphors like ‘curved ball’ and ‘time out’. Sure they come from baseball and American football respectively, but we all know what they mean. We could try ‘doosra’, or ‘bathroom break’, but perhaps not!

My unfavourite expression is ‘ballpark figure’. I looked it up hoping to find a cunning reason for it having spread around the world. But there isn’t anything better than its apparent derivation from the stadium announcer giving an approximate figure for the attendance at that day’s baseball game. So why don’t we simply say ‘approximate figure’?

One or two more for now, and then into a week or so of Tweeting. Why don’t we consider:

• ‘Sub’ or ‘off the bench’ for ‘pinch hitter’
• ‘Go into bat’ for ‘step up to the plate’
• ‘Wild card’ for ‘left field’ (the Americans don’t own poker)
• ‘Tough’ for ‘hardball’
• ‘Make progress’ for ‘get to first base’

Interestingly, some of these baseball terms have actually lost their meaning. ‘Touch base’ is now used to mean ‘contact’, whereas in baseball it means touching the base to make sure you are not out. Equally people use ‘play ball’ as if it means ‘co-operate’, whereas in baseball it signifies nothing more nor less than ‘play’ at the start of an inning.

Please give me some of your pet hates, and also suggestions of new clichés we can create. What a legacy opportunity!

Read More

So we have a deal to solve the Eurozone crisis. The experts say it has at least bought time, and I see that European
stock markets have reacted positively, and that the Euro has strengthened markedly.

But the agreement was signed at 4am this morning. This is an important detail, as it breaks my invariable rule of never
making any important decision after midnight.

To be fair to the 17 Eurozone member countries, the EU officials and institutions, IMF, the bankers and all the
involved parties, they had no practical choice beyond talking till everyone was prepared to agree terms, or giving up and risking a descent into the abyss.

Maybe everyone at the talks in Brussels last night had heard Wolves Manager Mick McCarthy’s description of Manchester City’s
5-2 defeat of his team in the Carling Cup as “an abject lesson in finishing”, and been inspired to emulate Roberto Mancini (surely the obvious choice to fill Mr Berlusconi’s size 8s).

Let’s hope President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel, Herman van Rompuy and the others don’t in the end have cause to rue
their late night accord and join Mick in saying (as he did recently) “I feel as sick as the proverbial donkey”.

 

 

Read More

The theory goes that some decisions are made only after careful consideration, while others are on the basis of gut feelings. Generally speaking, the longer we have to decide, the more we are going to at least weigh the options – based on assessing pros and cons (as Benjamin Franklin advised his nephew on how to choose between two potential wives more than 200 years ago). If there is little or no time available, we usually rely on experience, instinct and/or training. Look at pilots, soldiers, firefighters, referees, triage nurses and so on. 

So far, so true. Two books, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings, are good for taking us through the ins and outs of short order decision making. I personally find the Gigerenzer book more useful, because it explains how our instincts work – and makes us feel better about trusting them, eg: 

  • It is the Recognition Heuristic that explains brand loyalty, even in the face of a cheaper own label
  • I love the Beneficial Degree of Ignorance, which enables intelligent quiz show contestants to work out the right answer from how a question is put, even when it is out of their knowledge comfort zone
  • I find Unconscious Intelligence a really good way of explaining how we often manage to use rules of thumb to solve problems and make decisions as accurately and often quicker and better than we can using logic and method

 Gigerenzer uses another phrase that rings true for me: the Evolved Brain. Most of us are so conditioned by our education, that we want to make learning a totally logical and linear process – with a predictable ratio linking inputs and outputs. In Gut Feelings we read about numerous examples of the brain working out things for itself: 

  • The intuition of detectives (which also I suspect extends to other ‘outwitters’ like referees, umpires, teachers, suspicious partners)
  • The determination of pioneering scientists
  • Love matches (and Gigerenzer tells us sternly that intuition is as much a male skill as a female one – despite the urban myth!)
  • Even an instinctive moral code

 We work out that a gut feel decision can turn out to be just as right and just as successful as one painstakingly arrived at. Once we have crossed that credibility barrier, we can cheerfully embrace instinct and intuition and accept that they are useful (and indeed reliable) tools in our toolkit. 

In this way we rationalise gut feel and give it the same respect as logical process and thinking. Neither method of making decisions is infallible. Equally it would be wrong to regard logic and rationality as the obvious route for men as opposed to women, or when you have more time. 

The realisation that gut feelings and Benjamin Franklin’s algebra both have their place, and are complementary skills, makes it a lot easier to get through life!

Read More

Decision making tends to be a controversial business. Decisions themselves are often controversial – and that is before the outcome is known. Once we know what actually happened as a result of a decision, we tend to be even more judgemental. 

You can see what a subjective area it is from the adjectives used by commentators (often armchair critics) of other people’s decisions. Let’s divide them into four categories:

Approving of positive decision making

Disapproving of positive decision making

Approving of caution

Disapproving of caution

Here goes: 

Positive – yeah!

  • Brave
  • Courageous
  • Decisive
  • Strong
  • Daring
  • Bold
  • Fearless

Positive – whoa there!

  • Gung ho
  • Risky
  • Reckless
  • Aggressive
  • Irresponsible
  • Ill-advised
  • Hasty

Cautious – well done!

  • Responsible
  • Wise
  • Astute
  • Prudent
  • Sensible
  • Rational
  • Considered 

Cautious – get down off the fence

  • Conservative
  • Indecisive
  • Nervous
  • Risk averse
  • Weak
  • Timid
  • Irresolute 

See what I mean? The moment we comment on a decision or someone’s decision making ability we tend to go straight into a value judgement. This is particularly true of polarised groups: 

Old vs Young

Men vs Women

People on our side vs the Enemy (eg in politics)

Players/Fans vs Referees and Umpires

Them and us (all categories)

I think we need to develop a more neutral vocabulary to allow us to recognise good problem solving and decision making process. It’s not necessarily brave to accentuate the upside and ignore the downside. Equally it’s not a sign of weakness to consider the downside of an option before lurching into action. It’s balanced thinking to look before you leap, and to take a view on factors, both positive and negative. 

Sounds boring, I know. But isn’t that another value judgment!

Read More

This week a procurement client sent an SOS for material to help him write a board paper on a significant industry issue – the tension between marketing and procurement. I found what I thought was a perfect backgrounder – a deck of charts produced by my US partner for an ANA webinar.

My client’s response was a bit of a surprise. “Very interesting, but very logical”, he wrote. “The most interesting aspect in my eyes is getting over to marketing teams that we can add skills when they think they are doing everything well”. 

I guess I am predominately a left brain kind of person, so logic is where I start. Yet so often persuasion is best achieved by ensuring a balance between rational and emotive thinking and language. I had made a trite assumption that left brain thinking would work better with procurement. If a marketer had made the request, I would have probably tapped into more of a right brain approach. 

So obvious and so uninventive. 

I want to share a related thought triggered by this episode, and also by having sat this week through some final agency presentations in my day job as a client adviser on agency selection . My observation is that there is a physical characteristic common to most successful people, most good communicators, most effective problem solvers – and, I suspect, most good decision makers. 

I call it Bright Eyes. It is a gloriously unscientific description. And here I am talking about people, not rabbits!

There definitely isn’t an ‘ometer’ to measure ocular luminosity. But I am sure you all know what I mean. People with bright eyes are just so much more convincing, more appealing, more likeable, easier to follow and agree with. They tend also to manage meetings better.

It is an emotional appeal, not a logical one. Yet it helps us single out winners, good potential recruits, people we want to work with and for. In a logical left brain world, dominated by data, numbers and rational arguments, how refreshing to think that we can sometimes put the criteria and sub-criteria on one side, and instead be swayed by a look and a feel that some people have, and others don’t. 

Viva Bright Eyes. There is even an anthem about it.

Read More

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”, wrote Aristotle in the 4th century BC. Two millennia later Descartes said, “Everyone seeks everything else as a means to the goal of happiness, while no one seeks happiness as a means to any other goal”.

Four hundred years after Descartes, the TCA agency (the guys who did the remarkable Bob Monkhouse Prostate Cancer campaign) celebrated their 25th anniversary by commissioning a study by Melanie Howard of the Future Foundation on what happiness represents to 25 year olds. I went to the presentation yesterday by Melanie and TCA Planning Director James Champ.

As I took notes on what are and what aren’t the drivers for happiness in young adults, it suddenly occurred to me that it is very easy to talk and write about decision making (as I am prone to do) without mentioning happiness, which is clearly at the heart of emotional motivation.

Hence the quotes from two great philosophers

Hence grateful thanks to TCA for reminding me of what should have been staring me in the face

Hence a new determination to interpret much of Behavioural Economics in terms of the pursuit of happiness

Hence two new filter questions when we are analysing the risk/reward equation on the cusp of making a decision:

  • What upside would make me/us happiest?
  • What downside would bring the greatest risk of unhappiness? 

The findings of the study are still embargoed. If you want to know more, try emailing Adam.Leigh@tcalondon.com

Read More

As golf fans and the whole population of Northern Ireland struggle into work this morning (or not) having sat up to all hours watching Rory McIlroy, it is worth asking what lessons there are to be learned from his extraordinary performance at the US Open golf.

Most important must be the vivid demonstration of the strength of his character, finishing off in such style having collapsed from a strong third round position both at the Open last July and the Masters in April. It is axiomatic in decision theory to learn from previous episodes, and feed the learning back into future opportunities.

It will be interesting to see whether Dustin Johnson (US Open 2010) and Nick Watney (US PGA 2010) are capable of emulating McIlroy the next time they are in the lead at a Major, having squandered apparently winning positions. Interviews this weekend with McIlroy, Watney and Johnson were revealing. All three players admitted to ‘speeding up’ under pressure. “It all happened so quickly”, said Johnson, “I was walking faster, playing faster, and didn’t leave myself time to think”.

The interviewer said that all three golfers admitted their mistake was not “staying in the moment”

There is a lesson for all of us there. Pressure can disrupt equilibrium and thought patterns. Decision makers in the ‘reflex / instinctive’ category – soldiers, pilots, firefighters, police, nurses in triage, referees etc – know that their only chance of taking good decisions in a nanosecond is to think straight, breathe deeply and let their training click them into autopilot.

If we don’t stay in the moment, disaster awaits. The language we use says it all:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourself
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • Concentrate / keep in the zone

Frustration, impatience, annoyance, even panic – these are natural reactions to pressure, crisis or looming disaster. But all emergency service workers and combatants are trained to rely on what their training has taught them. Programmed response is as much a part of short order decision taking, as is weighing up options and factoring in more data when you have time to take a considered decision.

Sport – and particularly individual games like golf – can teach us a lot about pressure and the best way to react to it. McIlroy’s triumph yesterday tells us as much about his mental toughness as his phenomenal ball striking.

Sports fans know that the moment a player gives into pressure, technique will falter, with the result that first consistency and then victory will be lost.

That’s just as true in the day job.

Read More

It’s all in the language. Most dictionaries say that a “decider” is the game, set, match, heat, whatever, that decides a contest between individual competitors or teams. Some of the dictionaries allow a second meaning: ‘a person that decides’. But if that usage was widely accepted, authors of books and articles on decision making would use it, as it’s less cumbersome. But I have read volumes on the subject, and they don’t!

So “decider” is a passive term. This is in sharp contrast to the normal verb/noun relationship, which is overwhelmingly active:

  • Do:doer
  • Maker:maker
  • Run:runner
  • Act: actor
  • Sing:singer
  • Lead:leader
  • Manage:Manager
  • and so on

Is this because the people who shape language instinctively understand that there’s nothing simple and finite about deciding? It’s an interesting theory, but we have no problem with parallel examples, like think:thinker or indeed with diagnose:diagnostician or analyse:analyst, even if the endings are different.

The French are straightforward: decider:decideur. By contrast the Spanish talk about taking decisions: tomar decisiones

I’m convinced that there is no coincidence in the language and usage in English. We use a complicated construction, because decision making is acknowledged to be a complicated process. 

“Decider” sounds just too elementary to do justice to an iterative and sophisticated activity.

Read More

 Aspiring authors need to understand that the path of true research does not always have a smooth surface. 

Indeed I’m now particularly wary of that well worn and clichéd adjective: seminal (as in seminal work, seminal article etc). The dictionary tells us that the word means “highly influential in an original way; constituting or providing a basis for further development”. I’m convinced it sometimes means “pertaining to semen – not much use unless it’s fertilised”.

Here’s what I mean. My friend Serge Nicholls drew my attention to a really interesting piece by Oliver Burkeman on the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/may/21/decision-quicksand-burkeman

His piece was about our tendency to assume that the more complex a problem is, the more important it must be. And therefore that hard decisions are more important than easy ones.  

Oliver was writing about a research paper written by Aner Sela and Johan Berger. So I looked up the original paper on the internet. Was it impenetrable, or was it really impenetrable! Then I realised that Oliver had picked up not the original paper, but a highly readable summary of it in Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating neuroscience blog at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex/

Lehrer wrote the excellent The Decisive Moment, and to judge from that and his blog, he has the priceless quality of simplifying the complex – rather than the opposite ‘skill’. 

This is a rambling way of telling you that I’m with the Sela and Berger thesis all the way. Even if I needed Lehrer and Burkeman to explain it.

I’m not questioning the findings. All of us have observed friends, colleagues, partners, clients, agencies, those famous “experts”, and even ourselves adding complexity rather than taking it away. What intrigues me is why we are ‘complexity snobs’, and indeed (as other researchers have discovered) why we seem deliberately to want to complicate a problem, even if someone can show how simple it really is.

Possible explanations: 

  • Does it go back to our education where the tasks and exams we were set got harder as we got older?
  • Is it plumbed into us from birth?
  • Is it a jobsworth thing? A yearning for some kind of status badge?
  • Is it basically mercenary? (The more difficult the problem, the more I can earn (in salary or fee) by solving it.). Good old behavioural economics again!

 What do YOU think?

Read More