Thursday, 27 August 2009

Making The Complex Easy

One principle that seemed to underpin many of my university lecturers and some work colleagues was, 'Why make it easy when you can keep it complex?'

This might seem a bit cynical but I think many of us have a real fear when it comes to being the 'Knowledge Broker' ... we want to be the person to whom the others will come when they want help to understand something or learn about a particular process or even start a new relationship.

The gaining of knowledge has always been important but for me the key is not so much what you know: it has a lot more to do with how you use it.

Unapplied knowledge is largely useless, apart from a warm inner feeling of knowing it! And the key to applying knowledge is often understanding it in the first place. If we don't understand we can't act or apply. The danger is of course, that we don't step out unless we know absolutely everything which is equally paralysing and ineffective.

Many hold onto their knowledge from a position of power: they know; we don't; so they hold the power and potentially the key to our forward movement. Some hold onto their knowledge because they may not know how to pass it on ... for whatever reason. The end result is the same: unapplied knowledge and no ability to expand and develop except through the restricted lines of access to single knowledge brokers.

But how do we make it easy for others to understand?

I would argue that in the first instance, we have to want to make it easy for them to understand. If we have this attitude we will be prepared to take the time to think about how best to pass it on to our target audience, whether that is at work, our family, friends or even strangers. There's a lot of psychology that we can bring in here relating to our audience wanting to learn, their background, their ability to learn etc, but I think if we are prepared to look at our audience and also want to pass the information on we will find a way.

Let me give you a practical example that may help ...

My daughter recently took her GCSEs and when it comes to science, she is definitely no Einstein!


As part of her forensics course, she was learning about the process of DNA profiling (NOT a simple concept for GCSEstudents). She was struggling to understand what was happening during the process of breaking down the DNA and coming up with a result from electrophoresis of the sample i.e., multiple bands visible on the gel plate.


Firstly my daughter has a very pictorial way of thinking. Secondly, she has encountered the principle of fishing using nets. Fishing using nets??

Yes. I described the process to her in simple fishing terms as follows:

Imagine that when the DNA has been cut up into smaller pieces by enzymes it resembles a shoal of fish of all types, lengths and sizes. Some pieces are small, like minnows. Some pieces may be a bit longer, like small eels. Some pieces will be larger, like large fish and some will be really big like dolphins, sharks and whales. Imagine that the gel plate onto which the DNA is spotted is like a line of fishing nets. When the electricity is applied to the gel plate it will be like a river or tidal flow and the fish will try to swim with the current, through the nets. The little fish will pass easily through all of the nets so they will swim through each net as they get to it and they will travel furthest in the time allowed. Slightly larger fish may get through one or two nets but they will be slower than the little fish. As the fish get bigger they will be less able to get through the nets and some will be too large to get through any of the nets so will stay where they started.

The result is that at the end of the experiment, the smallest pieces of DNA will have moved furthest and the largest pieces will have moved the least distance, or even stay where they started, showing up as lines or spots along the gel plate.

My daughter understood the principle of fish swimming through the nets and so she also understood the basics of the physical principle of the pieces of DNA migrating along a gel plate under the influence of an electric current (electrophoresis).

The great ending to this story was that she had a question in her science exam on explaining the electrophoresis of DNA ... and she answered the question without referring to fish or nets once!

Sometime explaining things so others can understand is the gateway to future success. As Richard Gerver quotes from a teacher he met in China, who bucked the trend and instead of expecting his class to bow to him on entry to the classroom and thank him for the knowledge he was about to impart, actually bowed to the class and thanked them for allowing him to teach them. When asked why he did this he said something like, "Teaching is my privilege and I never know who I am teaching: I may be teaching the person who will discover a cure for cancer."

The advantages of making anything easy to understand are many and we hold the map to that road. It's not about trivialising; it's about helping others take the next step along a road where they may achieve what we cannot.

And if we can make the complex easy to understand, we open more doors for others to pass through.

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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Seeing Things Differently

Have you ever found it difficult making your voice heard?

Over the years I have had what I thought to be ‘moments of inspiration’, those thoughts and ideas that are going to make a big difference, that will help people change how they see things, new ways of looking at familiar situations … only for my inspired thinking to make no difference whatsoever.

I’m not trying to make out that I’m some sort of genius, or a radical thinker, but I do get frustrated when I see things differently to others and my ideas are rejected simply on that basis; they are different to how others see them. The most debilitating situation is where I have little power to test them out or no influence to bring about the change(s) I see.

When I was working in a large corporate business I would see situations that with little effort (and a bit of common sense) could be positively changed and improved: a process; the situation in the office; how we dealt with customers; how people could feel a greater involvement in their job. But if others didn’t see the same issues as important or relevant (defined as whether the idea would take their career in the right direction) the ideas would just disappear under a mound of ‘more important issues that needed to be addressed’.

However, in my own job within that business I did get some opportunities to apply my ideas to my own sphere of work; how I dealt with others; how I presented the information I had; how I engaged people of all backgrounds and abilities in understanding what I was saying; how I helped others to have some influence in their place of work.

Many of these things were quite small in comparison to the perceived ‘bigger’ issues but they made a big difference for myself and for those with whom I worked. I found I started to receive invitations to speak at a wide range of events and meetings which covered the full spectrum of academic medical and corporate involvement: Professors, doctors, nurses, administrators, students, specialist groups, school children. I also received a lot of positive feedback along with a few invites to be involved in activities outside of my professional and work situation.

One prediction currently voiced is that unless businesses and organisations are prepared to try something different, to listen to and engage with ideas they wouldn’t normally, to find new ways of working and creating environments in which their staff are actively engaged in contributing ideas and to the health of the organisation, they will close. Some of those ‘big boys’ currently ranked in the Top 100 or Top 50 businesses will not exist within the next 5 years.

I still hear many stories from friends who work in organisations and businesses obsessed with the bottom line at the expense of their staff. ‘Our strength is our people’ may be proudly displayed on their advertising and in their corporate lobbies, but in reality they pay not even lip service to these claims, instead actively demotivating their staff through ridiculous work loads and targets (knowing they can be replaced if the burn-out), justifying their removal of simple staff benefits and incentives which are needed most when the chips are down, failing to engage in training and skill-building so that when the recession reverses they are in a position to emerge strong and in-front, and perhaps most suicidal of all, allowing key, experienced staff to leave; removing their advantage when it is most needed.

Why is this? I honestly don’t know!

It defies common sense (which may be part of the issue) and it defies logic. It seems that many companies engage in management styles and policies that would be a part of a great plan for killing-off their opposition … but they use it on themselves!

What better way to kill off a corporate or business community than to restrict its members’ ability to communicate, develop relationships, create and engage with new ideas and yes, HAVE FUN!

Perhaps it arises from a fear of being different or thinking differently (even though that is what they may profess to want).

The world needs new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of engaging people in their daily work. Perhaps listening to some of those weird and wacky ideas may just provide the escape route many are looking for.

Let’s stop resting in the comfort zone so that new ways of thinking and new ideas can at least be evaluated and given a chance … and then we may just find the lifeline we’re looking for.

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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Busy Managers Least Effective

So reads the headline of a recent article posted on the CrimsonBusiness web site (view original article Here).
Here is an excerpt from the article that makes sober reading:

“Busy managers are inefficient because they remain focused on performing tasks and rarely get an overview of what their team is doing,” said Jacobs. “With these kind of people it’s not unusual to see staff sitting around with nothing to do, while their manager is racing around stressed out.

“An effective manager delegates as much as they can to their team, and invests all the time they release into developing that team. Overall it becomes a machine that’s driven to meet goals, with the manager turning into a true leader.”

Jacobs advised managers to be willing to delegate tasks without abdicating responsibility for them, as willing being on hand to review objectives and offer support.

He said it was very important to give clear and specific instructions when delegating and a failure to do so was the most common reason for problems arising.

Wow! What earth shattering news! Is common sense really so scarce in the business world these days that an article like this needs to be written?

If it is then we're in serious trouble.

I believe that it's not only those managers who are overly busy that suffer. Research conducted in the 1980's showed that as a person took on an additional role, their efficiency at both jobs was greatly reduced. There were also arguments for keeping people management and project management roles separated, partly for the efficiency reason but also because the skills required for the two roles are very different. One involves objects and processes; the other involves human beings (who, though it may come as a shock to some, are NOT processes; neither are they objects ... resources!). Although people can be stretched, they are not as resilient as many materials and do snap, at which stage repair is a long, difficult and costly business for all concerned.

How many people do we know who are actually good at both jobs? I suspect that the answer is, 'Very few'. Yet today it is commonplace for people to be split across multiple roles, in multiple divisions and to assume responsibility for people care.

People this does not work!

Not only do we end up with over busy managers, but we also have demoralised staff and I would argue that this is a deadly combination.

Perhaps it's not just the busyness that is the problem, but the nature and the diversity of that busyness.

The problem is that jumping off this accelerating treadmill is a risk that could prove costly, but until people are prepared to take that risk, we chart a course to increasing inefficiency, stress and confusion and we chart a course to slow (or not so slow) self-destruction.

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