A hungry mind fed by the discipline of noticing

Curious people tend to have better knowledge across subject areas than less curious people. Do curious people engage in just about the same things as less curious people but they pay better attention and thus, learn more? Sophie Von Stumm The Hungry Mind lab.

Discipline, stemming from the latin word ‘discere’-to learn.

Noticing or the discipline of paying better attention has an underpinning method which allows us to learn through paying attention.

The act of noticing means to pay attention to a phenomenon, situation or incident; to make a distinction around an event. What matters is that it is noticed; only when we notice are we able to give the circumstance our attention.

We should ‘mark’ the presence of what we notice in such a way that we have a clear record for an initial and crucially repeat reflections. We cannot analyse events until we can first be clear on what they consist of, as impartially as possible. Our first intention should be to give an account of an incident without explanation, justification or in emotive terms.

This gives us an ‘account of’ which can then be analysed through reflection as a ‘account for’. This account for should capture what you recognised about your reaction to what you noticed. It is the arena for you to offer an interpretation or an explanation for your reaction , a value judgement or criticism.

The discipline of noticing should produce 2 artefacts:
an account of what you noticed.
an account for what you noticed about what you noticed!

Over time you can review your original account for and revise it in light of the greater insight that you have gained into what lies behind your reactions. Thus noticing produces food for the hungry mind.

Productivity: locate improvement with those closest to the process!

Productivity and how to improve it has been very much in the news this week. A Financial Times lunch briefing ‘Below potential, but how far?’ contained the following wonderful sentence:
“Productivity gains may rely on protecting or putting in place conditions where workers themselves can and want to figure out how to do things better.”

The same briefing references the recent paper ‘Small steps for workers, a giant leap for productivity’ by Igal Hendel and Yossi Spiegel (published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2014, 6(1): 73–90 http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/app.6.1.73).
The authors write-up their study of performance at a steel mini mill over a 12 year period. The pair had access to detailed output records for the production of an unchanged product.

Their findings and to what they attribute them to, are both heartening and quite amazing.

Daily production of the product doubled in the study period.

15% of this increase can be attributed to capital investment at the mill
18% can be attributed to the use of an incentive scheme for workers at the mill
67% cannot be explained by the use of other external influences. Hendel and Spiegel suggest that “Learning by experimentation, or ‘tweaking’, seems to be behind the continual and gradual process of productive growth”.

Output growth was continuous, suggesting that a flow of small improvements to the production process took place.
These small improvements (or ‘microinnovations’) took the form of experiments with the process; trying new ways to better execute each step of the production process. These experiments can expand capacity substantially.

The authors suggest that these ‘microinnovations’ are necessary to fully exploit physical changes such as improvements to equipment.

“Findings imply that learning by doing is not simply a function of cumulative output and is not guaranteed automatically. Rather it is the result of an active experimentation process”.

The authors’ suggestion is that regular, small experiments with the production process (importantly, not to fix but to get better) were made by the workers involved which led to incremental improvements in output.

In ‘Design education and innovation ecotones’,

Ann Pendleton-Jullian, states that “Experimentation is explicitly about the framing of questions through which we learn about the things we are experimenting with and on. Experimentation also implies that it is not merely a process of providing questions and answers, but a recursive process of repeated questioning in which partial, possible, or probable ‘answers’ are tested and then subjected to new questions with new responses leading to new propositions, more questions, and so on. Because experimentation is recursive and because it is ongoing (fueled by curiosity), this process of knowledge building has the potential to keep pace with its environment while simultaneously affecting this environment.”

“Experimentation is the conducting of specific pieces of work (acts or opera- tions) for the purposes of discovering something unknown, or for testing an idea, a principle, a proposition. It is the means through which creativity is linked to innovation.”

“Innovation requires deeply contextualized knowledge; knowledge that comes from engagement of the context, not before engage- ment of the context.” (my italics)

This reinforces one of the central messages of Kaizen; that the responsibility and the expectation of process improvement should be located with those who are actually involved with the process. With those that have and understand the context in which they are working.

My key question on reading the findings from the steel mill is how did the management create the conditions for success here. Possible answers come from the ideas in ‘Building a Learning Organization’ by David A. Garvin,https://hbr.org/1993/07/building-a-learning-organization here experimentation is defined as an activity which involves the systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge. Using the scientific method is essential, and unlike problem solving, experimentation is usually motivated by opportunity and expanding horizons, not by current difficulties.

Ongoing programmes normally involve a continuing series of small experiments, designed to produce incremental gains in knowledge.

Successful ongoing programmes share several characteristics.
1. They work hard to ensure a steady flow of new ideas, even if they must be imported from outside the organisation. (Go and see)

2. Require an incentive system that favours risk taking. Employees must feel that the benefits of experimentation exceed the costs; otherwise, they will not participate. This creates a difficult challenge for managers, who are trapped between two perilous extremes. They must maintain accountability and control over experiments without stifling creativity by unduly penalizing employees for failures. (The incentive scheme at the steel mill was not individualised but a group one for the whole production team on a daily basis).

3. Need managers and employees who are trained in the skills required to perform and evaluate experiments. These skills are seldom intuitive and must usually be learned. They cover a broad sweep: statistical methods, like design of experiments, that efficiently compare a large number of alternatives; graphical techniques, like process analysis, that are essential for redesigning work flows; and creativity techniques, like storyboarding and role-playing, that keep novel ideas flowing. (Ongoing developmental activity both of skills and behaviours).

Leadership is about relationships-with yourself and with others

Peter Northhouse defines leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”
Gary Yukl relaxes the assumption of a single leader: “the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.”
Defining leadership as a process means that it is not a trait or character- istic that resides in the leader, but rather a transactional event that occurs between the leader and the followers.
Leadership really doesn’t have anything to do with titles, org charts or positions. It really is all about your ability to influence people, and the only way you can influence people is by being able to relate to them. As soon as you realize that you can relate to people, then you can lead them.

For me then, successful leadership is based on relationships; the relationship that you have with yourself and the relationships that you have with others.

About me: being the best that I can be, more often. Leadership of self means creating the conditions for your own success by maintaining a better balance and a greater sustaining of your energies.
About we: being the best that we can be, more often. Leadership of others means creating the conditions for the success of colleagues and the team; by enabling win-win transactions.

Insight to Outsight; creating the conditions for your own success means that you must enable a momentum to your individual growth. Your actions and relationship with others must change and improve as a result of what you notice through your reflection and questioning of self.

I was introduced to the work of Harry Kraemer by listening to this podcast: http://www.thefutureorganization.com/future-work-podcast/

Harry talks about “Actualizing who you are meant to become”.

Becoming your best SELF: The foundation of best self is self- reflection to identify, embrace, and stay mindful of your values—what means most to you.

Sustaining the relationship with self much like sustaining any relationship means being curious and asking yourself questions.
Harry identifies a set of self questions that could make up a regular pattern of self-reflection.
Daily Self Examination Questions from harrykraemer.org
What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?
What did I actually do today?
What am I proud of?
What am I not proud of?
How did I lead people?
How did I follow people?
If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
If I have tomorrow (and I am acutely aware that some day I won’t) and I am a learning person, based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life that are important.

Leading with curiousity, by asking questions

“Personal and organisational excellence demands experimentation, reflection and evaluation, and these things in turn lead to learning and growth. Change precipitates growth; some part of the self or the organisational culture is abandoned, encouraging and allowing a new self or a new culture to emerge.”

“Therefore leadership is associated with risk taking, learning and change. it implies the embracing of uncertainty, the use of trust, and the exercise of faith.”
Robert E. Quinn: ‘Deep Change; discovering the leader within’

But the expectations of most businesses in whatever sector have a clear bias; towards equilibrium. Managers are expected to leverage their expertise; their knowing. They are not to explore risk, to learn or to create; to demonstrate their unknowing. They are not expected to trust and cooperate, only to dominate and compete.

However, there are no recipes for organisational success. The right answer for success today is not the necessarily the right one for success tomorrow. Once you have found the right answer for today, you have to immediately start to find the answer that will be right for tomorrow. Whilst that answer will ultimately have to be defined by the leader, its content will come from others and their differing experiences and perspectives. The leader can only gather the content by engaging others, by building and maintaining the bridges between themselves and those that they lead, their peers and those who lead them. He or she will need to gather content with curiosity; by asking questions.

‘A Curious mind:the secret to a bigger life’ Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman

Questions are a great management tool (and a great leadership tool).

Because asking questions:

* elicits information
* discovers what is possible-find out what ideas and reactions are in other people’s minds.
* creates the space for people to raise issues that they are worried about (these issues may well be unknown to the leader)
* lets people tell a different story than the one you’re expecting
* people have to make a case for the way that they want a decision to go. The answer ‘stress tests’ the thinking
* questions create both the authority in people to come up with ideas and take action, and the responsibility for moving things forward.

Asking questions has these positive side effects:
Can quietly transmit values more powerfully than a direct statement telling people what you want them to stand for.
Shows that the leader is willing to listen, even to ideas or suggestions or problems that he or she wasn’t expecting.
A question can itself imply the responsibility for the problem and the authority to come up with a solution.
Leaders cannot flirt with not knowing. There cannot be a half-hearted, pretending to themselves and others, questioning strategy. They need to be aware of falling into the trap of the instant gratification of asking questions that they already know the answer to, or taking the first answer to a question that they don’t know the answer to.
Leaders need to be aware that keeping on asking questions disturbs the equilibrium, and businesses like people like equilibrium. To find the right answer for success tomorrow means that a leader must keep on asking questions because that is the only way to gather more information about what is going on and what the options may be.

‘Not knowing’ Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner p.237
*“We can choose to reward curiosity and questioning rather than reinforce dependency on answers”*

Play and a developing sense of self

I continue my reflections on the stimulus provided by Herminia Ibarra form her latest HBR blog: The Most Productive Way to Develop as a Leader https://hbr.org/2015/03/the-most-productive-way-to-develop-as-a-leader
In that blog piece, Herminia urges leaders to get or give themselves permission to play with their sense of self. This idea of play is a major challenge to current ways of working as those deemed to be successful in modern organisations may well have foreclosed on options and stifled the discontinuous growth that only comes when we suprise ourselves. Such successful people may be good at consistently relating their actions to a purpose, of being described as having ‘clearsightedness’. Any idea of ‘playing’ with options is perceived to be weak.
So, knowing as we do how organisations value rationality, and recognising the scale of challenge any change will face, how do we get or give ourselves permission to play? Herminia references James G. March’s ‘Technology of foolishness’ piece, an article that I wasn’t aware of so I have turned to it for explanations and a way forward. This ‘voyage of discovery’ into March’s work is an example of the behaviour that Richard Martin describes in his blog piece ‘Make curious with me’; ‘The curious individual constantly moves to the boundaries of their knowledge…we seek to bridge our knowledge gaps through curiousity, combinatory play and serendipity’ http://indalogenesis.com/2015/02/16/make-curious-with-me/

In ‘Technology of foolishness’ March describes playfulness as:

1. as above all, being a temporary suspension of the rules
2. allowing experimentation, but acknowledges reason
3. being obliged to accept that at some point the playing will stop or it will be integrated into ‘normal’ activity

March is clear that playfulness is not:
1. a release of emotional tensions of virtue; a ‘mardi gras’
2. an element of spirtual balance
3. supportive of self indulgence; play is an instrument of intelligence, not a substitute

Play allows a leader to explore alternative ideas of possible purposes and alternative concepts of behavioural consistency; to be playful with their conception of themselves.

March provides us with 5 procedures for playfulness:
1. treat goals as hypotheses-experiment with alternatives to discover new and interesting combinations
2. treat intuition as real-this permits us to see some possible actions that are outside our present scheme for justifying behaviour
3. treat hypocrisy as a transition-to give ‘permission’ to play and contradict our ‘normal’ selves
4. treat memory as an enemy-‘if we keep on doing what we have always done, we’ll get what we have always got’
5. treat experience as a theory-to allow for the retrospective learning of new self-conceptions

March concludes by asking for the design of organisations to attend to the problems of maintaining both playfulness and reason as aspects of intelligent choice. Organisations (and I would suggest leaders themselves) should encourage play by insisting on some temporary relief from control, coordination and communication.

A leader as a bridge

This is the first of a short series of pieces stimulated by “How to act and think like a leader” a blog posting by Herminia Ibarra.
In this posting Herminia writes of the important leadership activity of being a bridge between their department, service or outpost and the rest of the organisation.
My recent experience reinforces to me how important this activity is to successful leadership. A leader must be an ambassador for their team within the wider organisation. The leader needs to build the right bridges at the right time and needs to ensure that the bridges that they build are and continue to be connected at each end and that the bridge is well maintained.
For the bridge to remain strong and connected a leader needs to establish trust as a vital support:
Trust is born out of being credible; do people believe in what you can do, being reliable; do you do what you say, and having good intent; is the balance between being self-serving and serving others right. If trust fails at either end of the bridge it will become disconnected or collapse.
Trust, like a bridge needs to be maintained. This maintainence needs to be proactive not reactive, a programme of preventaive maintainence needs to be followed. A leader needs to have an eye on the future to ensure that the bridge is fit to carry any loads that may need to cross it.

Preparing for both the upside and the downside of uncertainties is not incompatible. Thus in the early 1960s the designers of the bridge across the Tagus at Lisbon built in both seismic protection against the known historical possibility of earthquakes, and extra strength to allow for double-decking of the bridge in case traffic ever expanded substantially. Some twenty years later, the Portuguese exercised this option to double- deck the bridge – a design first (Gesner and Jardim, 1998). To deal fully with the uncertainty implicit in future thinking, (a leader) cannot only focus on risk management; (he or she) must also manage opportunities.

Learning by thinking

I was alerted through Twitter https://twitter.com/gpetriglieri to this paper which I think makes a huge contribution to encouraging the use of reflective practice in the business world.

Learning by thinking: How reflection aids performance. HBS working paper 14-093
In times of greater atomization of work, the individual is the level at which much of the learning within organisations occurs. Individual workers with greater self-efficacy will select more challenging tasks, exert more effort and have less adverse reactions when faced with difficulties. In other words ‘more engaged!’ and the development of such self-efficacy in workers is best supported through reflection yet;
“I don’t see a lot of organizations that actually encourage employees to reflect—or give them time to do it,” (one of the paper’s authors Francesca) Gino says. “When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection.”


Dewey: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
The authors of this paper introduce the concept of ‘learning by thinking’, that is the controlled, conscious learning that comes from reflection and the articulation of the key lessons learned from experience.

Reflection is the mechanism or vehicle through which experience is translated into learning. A motivating feeling of self-efficacy is produced which inspires greater and better learning going forward, so giving momentum to individual growth. Self-efficacy is the confidence is one’s ability to achieve a goal; an individuals’ expectations and convictions of what they can accomplish. Those with a greater feeling of self-efficacy will devote more time and energy because they believe their efforts will translate into success.

The authors call for a “Learning model in which the automatic, unconscious process of learning generated from experience is coupled with the controlled, conscious attempt at learning by reflection.” If we accept that there has “been almost no effort to encourage individuals to reflect” and that time is seen as being the ‘ultimate scarcity’; what is the best way to support individual reflection?
In my view, local leaders can support massively through the deployment of quality conversations with fellow workers that question what has been ‘noticed’ (previous blog post http://matthewpaynelimited.com/2014/04/07/restoring-noticing/)and stimulate the realisation of conscious incompetence and subsequent moves to conscious competence.

Leaders enabling individual learning for continuous improvement

Individual learning and the pooling of that learning is an essential element for continuous improvement.
Leaders have a vital role to play in stimulated and supporting the learning process. Learning can be seen as a process; for this process to be effective the following is required:
1) a focus to plot a course
2) environments that facilitate learning
3) techniques to enable learning to be efficient

An individual will only move through the process comfortably while the driving forces exceed the restraining forces. There is a danger of being stuck and demotivated when the forces are matched. Leaders must attend to the learning process to ensure that the driving forces maintain the upper hand.

The role of leadership in creating a learning environment:

1) Developing and delivering a shared vision of what is expected to raise awareness of the journey
2) Consistent questioning to alert to ignorance; to raise a sense of conscious incompetence that stimulates individual’s learning
3) Developing shared vision of why; the benefits of, learning to promote understanding.
4) Removing barriers, develop ownership, enable and allow risk taking for commitment and enactment.
Throughout, host quality coaching conversations in the workspace to stimulate and support.

(Stimulus for this piece was Bill Buckler ‘A learning process model to achieve continuous improvement and innovation’)

Noticing and building a sense of purpose at Pixar

My reflections on the following article by Ed Catmull in the April 2014 McKinsey Quarterly:


Ed writes of developing a Proactive sense of purpose at Pixar following his discovery that all was not right with the ‘people factors’ within his organisation despite the phenomenal commercial success of ‘Toy Story’.

This sense of purpose is derived from the concept that being on the lookout for problems is not the same as seeing problems.

Therefore proactively ‘noticing’ is better than reacting to the consequences of previously unseen problems.

It is better to discover organisationally ‘consciously incompetent’ rather than suffer from the fall out from ‘unconscious incompetence’.

Such discovery is enabled by leaders asking questions such as:

What are the things (processes that best enable successful interactions) that are being done right?
Can these processes be replicated at other times and other locations?
How are we continually scouting for serious, potentially disastrous interaction problems above/below/around?
Do we know what proportion of success or failure is down to chance?
If we are succeeding; what are the consequences of success; to the individuals/teams/organisation?

Restoring Noticing

‘Noticing’ is a concept developed by John Mason.

‘Noticing’ is a practice which is integral to successful critical reflective practice.
The development of ‘noticing’ begins with a recognition that as an individual you are ‘not noticing’. We all become caught up in the everyday patterns and routines of our practice and whilst these remain largely successful we can fail to realise that we are slipping from unconscious competence into unconscious incompetence; to a point where we are not performing as well as we used to, or could do.
The trigger to begin noticing might be a ‘near miss’ which brings us up short or a comment from a client or a colleague. However, by incorporating ‘noticing’ into your own reflection, the practitioner can become proactive and move on towards conscious competence.
The process of intentional noticing begins internally with the individual but can move to involve colleagues and potentially whole teams.
Begin by keeping an account of not just what you notice in terms of happenings, situations and incidents, but also your internal reaction to them. As you build up a stock of material you will be able to identify threads and patterns to your reactions which will indicate areas for change. At this point you could use a supervision session or 1:1 to talk your findings through or press on alone. Either way, you should then identify a choice for action from a set of alternatives and ‘notice’ what difference or otherwise this new approach makes.
As your skill in ‘noticing’ increases, 2 developments will occur; you will be able to process and prioritise your observations more swiftly and ‘mark’ some notices for deeper analysis. Secondly, you will become more adept at imagining possible alternatives and how these might be tested. Once again, it may be helpful to use these marked notices and courses of action as the basis for a supervision session etc.
As time passes you will have accumulated a good deal of evidence of improvement which can be shared with a wider set of colleagues, perhaps in a team meeting. Begin by giving an account of what you noticed, followed by an account for what you noticed. This build will allow you to test your perspective with a range of views and for you to make a more considered response to what you ‘notice’.
Noticing is then an aid to both individual and team development.