Category Archives: Crumbs!

Group intelligence and small cues

Aaron Saenz reports research from MIT into collective intelligence. They studied the effectiveness of a series of groups of varying sizes and performing a number of different tasks. Then they attempted to pin down the key factors that led to group success.

Interestingly, the IQ of group members was correlated with group performance, but only weakly. So what was strongly correlated? Two things: social sensitivity, and turn taking (ie allowing everyone in the group time to contribute).

Although media have focussed on a third (women members), it turns out that this is really about social sensitivity.

I got sidetracked into the online social sensitivity test mentioned in the article. I can’t speak for its academic value, but it was a good reminder of how much meaning (correct or not) we can make from fragmentary visual information – in this case, another person’s eyes.

I think this kind of sensitivity is easily mocked or despised. I like to stick up for the value of the small connections and push back against the grandiosity of big ideas. I occasionally add things to my Crumbs! category which reflect this.

When doing actiivities for facilitators to explore how they work, Viv and I often play with small differences. We might get people to play a status exchange, inviting them to see if they can shift status just with their eyes. These little games often give us a glimpse of the richness of small cues.

Hat tip: jascharohr

Mention your pet frog

I am huge believer that little details can make bid differences, and I’m enjoying Richard Wiseman’s little book, 59 Seconds for its curation of some. Here’s one good one: In an experiment on negotiation, researchers compared the effectiveness of two versions of a final offer on a piece of art.

In one version, the seller offers to accept $6000. In the other, he makes the same financial offer but with added humour – “my final offer is $6000 and I’ll throw in my pet frog”. Apparently,

Those few moments of attempted humour had a big effect, with particpants making a much greater compromise in their purchase price whenever they heard about the frog.

Just a tweet

This tweet from Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan caught my eye.

With respect I am unsure what the Home Secretary thinks that she told GMP to do different. She listened but said nothing. Tactics were ours!

I think twitter so lowers the threshold for “publishing” that we start putting into the record things more spontaneously. I think it’s one of the ways it subverts more rigid hierarchy and eats away at the power of those at the top.

Little bets

Bob Sutton points to some interesting sources on the value of little ideas.

He reviews Little Bets, a new book by Peter Sims.

This modern masterpiece demonstrates that the most powerful and profitable ideas are produced by persistent people who mess with lots of little ideas and keep muddling forward until they get it right.

He also spots Shawn Acor’s book, The Happiness Advantage and this related article. I fastened on this argument:

Goals that are too big paralyze you. They literally shut off your brain, says Achor… The amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to fear and threats, hijacks the “thinker” part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, says Achor. The amygdala steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, the creative part of the brain that makes decisions and sees possibilities.

Small details and focussed attention

Viv writes about activities that mess with our minds – science experiments on the one hand, improv games on the other. Both draw attention to how quickly we add interpretation to simple inputs. It’s part of what makes us effective and also trips us up sometimes.

Being able to apply focussed attention to how we interpret small gestures can be helpful in unravelling conflicts and creating new ideas. A lot of arguments are what I call pub arguments, where the logical content is only a small part of the heated battle and there is more heat than light. Being attentive to small details may help to de-escalate things.

The mundane can be interesting

I don’t get excited about companies changing their logos, but I liked this time lapse video of the four days to repaint a Virgin Atlantic Jumbo.

I think there’s an interesting moral about marketing. Sometimes something apparently mundane (the process of painting a plane) may be more interesting to onlookers than what most marketeers get excited about (ooh, look at our new identity, it means all these meaningless abstractions).

Virgin Atlantic plane livery time-lapse movie from johnson banks on Vimeo.

Crediting the captain, not the storm

I liked this quote from Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers.

Politicians are in charge of the modern economy in much the same way as a sailor is in charge of a small boat in a storm. The consequences of their losing control completely may be catastrophic (as civil war and hyperinflation in parts of the former Soviet empire have recently reminded us), but even while they keep afloat, their influence over the course of events is tiny in comparison with that of the storm around them. We who are their passengers may focus our hopes and fears upon them, and express profound gratitude toward them if we reach harbor safely, but that is chiefly because it seems pointless to thank the storm.

I think this extends to most fields of human endeavour, not just politics. It also reminds of my favourite cognitive bias.

Hat tips: @timkastelle’s tweet led me to this post by William Easterly. Greg Mankiw and Peter Gordon were in the chain too.

Hold a meeting

I posted this cartoon about six years ago*. It’s one of those throwaway posts that I notice still gets picked up by others.

I often sense that meetings which are apparently being organised to deal with a problem become, unwittingly, devices to avoid dealing with the problem. It’s like a variation of Shirky’s Principle.

Here’s how it plays out. Someone in an organisation identifies a really challenging issue. A big meeting is planned so that it can be dealt with. Because it’s a big meeting, it takes a long time to get folks together. As a result, the need for it to appear to succeed increases exponentially which is often a setup for all manner of politics to get in the way of reality.

Meanwhile, nothing is done to even begin to deal with the big issue, because obviously this need to be left until the big meeting at which all the powerful players will be present. Energy gets focussed on how to influence this future event, and nothing is ventured towards dealing with the issue now.

By the time the meeting arrives, everyone in charge is so full of angst that they try to eliminate or reduce all risks of spontaneity and apparent risks of “failure”. Euphemisms take the place of a real discussion of the issue, and platitudes are formally exchanged.

Not much actually changes. And a few months later, the powers-that-be realise that what’s needed is another big meeting….

* The origin of this cartoon has vanished behind a dead link, apols to anyone concerned.

It’s all connected

Tim Kastelle passes on this rather nice Diderot quote, from the new book Superconnect:

Everything is linked together… beings are connected with each other by a chain of which… some parts are continuous, though in the greater number of points continuity escapes us… the art of the philosopher consists in adding new links to the separated parts, in order to reduce the distance between them as much as possible.

For me it’s not so much about adding links as noticing that they’re there.

I recall a conversation I had with Chris Corrigan, who was describing the home schooling community of Bowen Island. A guiding principle is to allow the students’ learning to be driven by their own curiosity. Concerns about the curriculum being comprehensive are often resolved, he said (as I recall) because “everything is connected to everything”. Thus a child who is fascinated by astronomy will start to learn maths because it serves his interest in understanding the cosmos.

I think a lot of my work is about noticing and valuing subtle connections that are already there but that we may be missing. When we take the time to notice all the small links that make up a chain of thought we gain new insights and choices. In groups, it’s often useful to bring awareness to how physical things like how we’re siting or moving impact significantly on how we’re thinking. Small adjustments in one area have surprising consequences elsewhere.