Monthly Archives: March 2014

Round up of interesting posts on psychology of the workplace

I have been consulting since 1998 and in that time have visited a large number of organisations, in so many industries.  I came across a few articles this week that either struck me as familiar from companies I have visited or things that colleagues have spoken to me about in the past. I remember a company where the employees fought to be allowed to work unpaid at weekends. I was reminded of this when I read this article on Corporate Stockholm Syndrome by James Ullrich.

Another syndrome was examined by  in her piece including imposter syndrome. This is something that I suspect is rife among consultants and project managers, as well as coders. I sometimes find what I call a “culture of assumed knowledge”, where asking basic questions can seem uncool. It feels to me that people clam up and hope that nobody spots gaps in their capabilities under these circumstances. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cultural layer exacerbated personal feelings of “not quite being the full package”.

Finally, I have been reading How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric this week. A great summary of the literature and full of super quotes. I think my favourite is Goeth

“Then indecision brings it’s own delays,

and days are lost o’er lost days.

Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute.

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius power and magic in it.”

Reminds me of the AGILE approach to trying something out and reflecting. The author took me by surprise by being scathing of psychometric testing and I made a note to look into that more. Still on the subject of “What shall I do with my life?”, this article by Sam McNerney, who spoke with charity founder Adam Braun complemented my reading with a view into the life of someone who had found their calling.

This weeks links that caught my eye seem to have been syndromes and callings.


Who kept the dogs in? – Continuous Improvement Part 2 of 2

In part 1 of this post I was talking about how, when continuous improvement does work, it always strikes me as a much less stressful way to work and I was wondering why that is.

Although there may be conceptual parallels between Thorndike and AGILE, I don’t feel I have yet gotten to why continuous improvement feels like a more forgiving and easy environment. I was thinking maybe the work of Martin Seligman can shed some light on this.  Seligman (and Steve Maier) put dogs into situations where there was nothing they could do to avoid painful electric shocks. They found the dogs behaved in much the same way as depressed people. Other dogs could stop the shocks by pressing a lever. Still other dogs were not shocked at all. After this, Seligman and Maier put the same dogs in boxes (there they go again with their animals and boxes) and experimented with making them shuttle from one side of the box to the other. He motivated them to move using electric shocks. If they jumped over a small partition they escaped the electric shocks. I find this pretty grim stuff and am not at all clear this was worth it. Still, it is interesting to note that the dogs who had not been shocked and the dogs who had been able to do something about it were able to escape by jumping over the partition. The dogs who had been helpless sadly laid down and were shocked. They did not try to escape.

I am wondering if learned helplessness goes some way to explaining why continuous improvement environments are less stressful. We always feel we can try something new.

There is an interesting take on learned helplessness in people here

Who let the cats out? – Continuous Improvement Part 1 of 2

Sometimes I work in agile environments where work goes in cycles (sprints or timeboxes) and at the end of each cycle we ask “what can we do better next time?”. This is hard to get going in highly political environments or teams that are a mixture of client and supplier staff (people don’t like to rock the boat or accept liability) but where it has worked well, I was struck by how less stressful work became. We weren’t counting on things being right, only better than before.

It brought to mind the work of Edward Thorndike. From what I understand he spent much of his time shutting cats in boxes. You might be thinking he should get out more and funnily enough, that is exactly what he wanted the cats to do. Thorndike’s cats tried any number of motions, at random before triggering a lever that operated the door to open. Having stumbled upon how to operate the door, the cats would be put back in the box (doesn’t seem right somehow) and then take progressively less time to operate the lever to open the door. The mental mechanism he identified is called operant conditioning.  He contributed greatly to the behavioural branch of psychology with his systematic studies on learning. I really like the graph that shows what must have been one of the first “learning curves”. Reminds me of a burndown chart. Likewise, Thorndike’s operant conditioning makes me think of an agile environment with it’s “try things out to see if you hit on the answer” style of continuous improvement.

Anchoring and Adjustment

Now I find this really strange. If someone gives you a completely crazy example answer to a question, then asks you the question, your answer is influenced by the crazy answer they first gave you. Even obviously random “information” interfers with our reasoning. Participants who span a roulette wheel before answering questions about how many African nations there were in the UN, gave lower answers if they span a low number before answering.

This makes me think of two aspects of task estimation in project life but, as an aside, it also shows how information can be completely useless but is, nonetheless, data.

So, to the subject of task or cost estimation. You are in a meeting at the start of a piece of work or project and someone asks you “Roughly how long will it take?”. They may even say “we won’t hold you to it”. The anchoring and adjustment heuristic shows us that they will be influenced by what you say, even if you say “Well, it is not 3 weeks”. My experience is, don’t be tempted to guess a number off the top of your head. According to Kahneman and Tversky, we “use” all “information” we receive on a topic and that ties up with my experience. If you must give a number before you have a chance to plan or estimate, be sure to also give a % confidence (which would be very low).

The other thing that came to mind was planning poker in AGILE project management. I always get push back from project teams when I suggest team members think of their estimates and then all write them down before revealing them and discussing them. “We don’t need all that fuss”, they say. Of course, there may be several aspects of psychology effecting group estimation. Nudge Theory and conformity in general come to mind but it struck me that anchoring and adjustment was relevant here too. Also, I wonder if those with low confidence in their ability to estimate tasks would be especially vulnerable to anchoring and adjustment.

Looks like there is more interesting stuff on this here.

Those who shout loudest…

I have been learning about the availability heuristic. Faced with the question “Are there more words with K as the third letter or first?” most of us answer incorrectly that it is “K first”. Kahneman and Tversky suggest this is because it is easier for us to think of words that begin with K than to call to mind words with K as the third letter.

So this got me thinking about project life and stakeholders in particular. I often have conversations with colleagues about stakeholder feelings, for example “How do stakeholders feel about a December delivery?”. I realised that the project team frequently go with the opinion they can most easily call to mind (there is usually little time for these discussions). This view is that which is voiced most often and most loudly. Thinking it over, it is clear that this is often not the majority view. The upshot of this is that other, equally important, stakeholders who feel differently don’t get their voices heard.

One answer I found is to ensure that wide consultations are carried out (e.g. surveys or user conference consultations). It is then important that the views are captured, analysed and communicated to the project team. It might be good to bring this up with the team periodically to remind them that the loudest voices do not necessarily represent the majority view.

I realise this is only one reason why the loudest stakeholder view carries sway in projects and one way to counter that. Loud stakeholders often get more influence because it is recognised that their views influence other stakeholders and can create general perceptions of the project. It just struck me that the availability heuristic seemed to relate to some aspects of “Those who shout loudest get heard”.