Kill the templates

Art – at least, good art – is all about prompting an emotional response.

It makes bold statements. It disrupts. It invites us to think about issues and ideas. It reminds us what there is in the world to love, loathe, fear and admire.

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So it’s probably not surprising that you find very few of those elements in most workplace surroundings. Businesses, on the whole, are uncomfortable with the disruptive and the emotional.

Instead, you’re much more likely to find clean, anaesthetic lines and neutral colours, stock-photography landscapes and motivational platitudes (‘there’s no I in team’, ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’). Nothing challenging. Nothing unexpected. Nothing of much interest at all.

That’s equally true of the communication you find going on inside those businesses. Committee-made messages, couched in ‘safe’ language – and presented with PowerPoint templates that make everything look and feel the same.

Why does this matter?

It matters because of the way our brains work. Our brains process so much information all the time that, if we had to think about it consciously, we wouldn’t be able to function.

So our brains have evolved to be selective. They filter out information that’s familiar and, instead, focus our conscious attention on stuff that’s new and unexpected.

It’s a basic survival instinct: it’s why our ancestors were able to concentrate their brain power on opportunities and threats (that sabre-tooth tiger over there) rather than more humdrum processing tasks (put one foot in front of the other).

What was true on the neolithic savannah is equally true in the office today. Our brains instinctively filter out information that seems familiar or safe (anything that looks like a PowerPoint template, for instance). And they prioritise information that seems new or unexpected.

In fact, whenever a new piece of data is presented in a dramatic or exciting way, it sets off a little blast of dopamine in the brain – and that dopamine acts like a mental post-it note, making it easier for us to access and remember the information in future.

That’s why we notice great art. Ideas that are expressed in a creative or exciting way will always be able to cut through.

It’s also why following a prescribed, familiar format for ‘telling people stuff’ is a total waste of time.

If you want people to notice and remember the things you’re saying, the first thing you need to do is ditch the templates.

Hole in the wall thinking

In 1999, an Indian academic made a fascinating discovery by knocking a hole in the back wall of his office.

Sugata Mitra was a professor of educational technology. His research centre in New Delhi happened to be located right next to one of the city’s biggest slums.

At the time, very few children in India had access to computers. Those that did tended to live in the privileged suburbs – and certainly not in the shanty-towns beside Dr Mitra’s office.

He became used to hearing well-to-do friends boasting about how quickly their children were becoming tech-literate. And, since he knew natural intelligence could not reasonably be the sole preserve of the rich, Dr Mitra decided to try something a little unusual.

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He cut a hole in the wall of the research centre and placed a freely accessible working computer there for the local children to use. No training, no instructions: just a wired-up PC with an internet connection.

What happened next was very interesting. Once they realized the computer was there – and they weren’t going to get into trouble for using it – the children quickly began playing with it.

Now, keep in mind that this was 1999 and a very poor area of Delhi. Most of these kids had never seen a computer before, let alone used one. They had little formal education and very limited English, but what they did have was an instinctive curiosity and a willingness to try new things.

With no outside help or interference, they quickly taught themselves how to use the computer, surf the internet and find information. They even taught themselves enough English to use email, chatrooms and search engines. The result? Their school scores shot up, especially in maths and science, and they were soon able to answer exam questions several years ahead of their age group.

The social consequences were even more intriguing. As well as their significant academic advances, the children became more confident about forming and expressing their own opinions and more adept at detecting bogus claims or propaganda. All the benefits, in other words, that you would hope to see in a better-educated population. And they’d done it all themselves.

Dr Mitra’s experiment won the 2013 TED prize and has spawned a new approach to learning in many parts of the developing world.

The idea is to create an environment where children teach themselves by working together at computer terminals, while the teacher’s role becomes more about supervision and facilitation.

In other words: ask the right questions, provide the right tools, then get out of the way and let them get on with it.

Doesn’t that sound like an approach a lot of businesses could learn from?

Harnessing the power of the herd

A long time ago, our evolutionary system made an important choice. It chose to grow our brains. This is how we came to be the dominant species on the planet.

There was a trade-off, though. Having bigger brains meant we also had bigger heads – and bigger heads pose a significant reproductive problem for a species with narrow hip-bones.

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The only way to get round this problem was to shortcut the reproductive process, by having our babies delivered before they were equipped to fend for themselves (unlike the baby giraffes and gazelles you see in wildlife programmes, who can run from the moment they’re born).

That’s why human beings are instinctively social animals – because, from our first breath, we depend on the group to look after us.

By the time we reach 18 months old (which might be a more appropriate gestation period), we’re equipped to survive on our own. But we don’t. Most of us continue to live as part of a group for the rest of our lives.

It’s a pattern you only find repeated in our closest animal cousins: apes and chimpanzees. They also form into groups for protection, with very clear hierarchies. There are the alpha males, those who are permitted to groom the alpha males and those who groom the groomers and each other. The grooming is an essential part of establishing each member’s place and their commitment to the group.

Human beings operate in the same way. The difference is that our bigger brains have allowed us to evolve more sophisticated forms of grooming than our simian cousins. Instead of picking nits out of each other’s fur, we establish our place and our commitment to the group through our ability to communicate.

And because language is a more time-efficient form of grooming than nit-picking, it means our social groups can be much larger than the average group of chimpanzees.

They can also be more varied. Most of us operate as part of different groups – family, friends, work, community, club – which can change in make-up and location as our lives evolve. These groups inform the way we think and the choices they make. We do what people like us do.

When there’s a discrepancy between the norms of the different groups we belong to – friends and work, for instance – that can make life confusing and unsettling for us. It makes it hard to decide what we ought to think and what we ought to do.

Which is why organisations that make it simpler – by allowing people to act and think in the same way they would with their friends or family – are the ones that tend to succeed.

You can give people all the rational reasons in the world why they should do something.

But the truth is that they’re much more likely to be swayed by what their friends think.

Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In 1965, the United States was the most powerful country on earth, with a vast, technologically-advanced and lavishly-funded military.

But, in the Vietnam war, they found themselves facing an unusual kind of enemy. No tanks, no jet fighters, no conventional tactics. Just skinny guys in straw hats popping out of holes in the jungle and blowing things up.

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So the Americans set up a specialist unit in Saigon called the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project. Its job was to interview captured Viet Cong fighters to understand what motivated them. How did they perceive the US and the war? Did they really believe they had any chance against the most powerful army on earth?

Leon Goure, the head of the Project, became hugely influential. He sent regular briefings to all the American top brass and his conclusions were instrumental in developing US policy in Vietnam (apparently, President Lyndon Johnson used to walk around with a copy of Goure’s latest report in his back pocket).

The conclusion Goure kept feeding them, based on his analysis of 61,000 pages of prisoner interviews, was that the Viet Cong were severely demoralised and that, if pushed just a little harder, they would give up.

But there was another highly respected defence analyst, called Konrad Kellen, who disagreed. He went through the same interview transcripts as Goure and came to precisely the opposite conclusion: America could not win.

When asked why, Kellen highlighted one particular interview, in which a senior Viet Cong prisoner was asked whether he thought the Viet Cong could win the war. The prisoner said ‘no.’ Later in the interview, he was asked if he thought the USA could win the war. The prisoner said ’no’ again.

Kellen’s point was that Goure stopped listening when he got to the first ‘no’. He knew that the United States was the most powerful military nation on earth and that the Vietnamese could not possibly win – all he was looking for was confirmation from the enemy that they knew it, too.

To Kellen, however, the second answer was far more telling than the first, because it revealed an enemy who did not think about success in terms of winning or losing at all. This was a much more dangerous enemy: one who understood the hopeless odds against him and saw it as irrelevant to whether he should keep on fighting. An enemy, in other words, who would never give up.

Unfortunately for both Vietnam and the United States, no one listened to Konrad Kellen. They preferred the story Leon Goure was telling them.

Convinced they were about to break their elusive enemy’s will, the US military boosted troop numbers massively and stepped up their carpet bombing campaigns. A beautiful country was scarred beyond recognition. Hundreds of thousands of people died. And the world’s most powerful nation suffered a humiliating and generation-defining defeat at the hands of farmers in straw hats.

That’s the thing with research. If you only listen to the answers you want to hear, you’re better off not asking the question.

Moving pictures

More than 10% of all the photographs ever taken were taken in the last twelve months. That’s not because technology has changed our instincts. Quite the opposite. It’s made it easy and cheap for us to communicate in the way that’s always been most natural.

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According to John Medina, the molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, the likelihood of us hearing a piece of information and remembering it three days later is about 10% on average. If you add a picture, that likelihood goes up to 65%.

The real power of pictures, however, comes when we combine them with our other senses. The more senses we use to communicate information, the greater the chance that the audience will take it on board and remember it.

Our ancestors understood this long before they learned how to talk. They used to come together in caves deep underground and tell stories by using pictures they had painstakingly etched into the wall. You find this in every aboriginal culture in every part of the world: Africa, America, Australia, Europe, Asia.

Some of the most famous examples are from the Chauvet cave in Southern France.

For years, scientists were puzzled by the repeated patterns in many of the cave drawings: shadowy outlines of the animals and hunters in slightly different positions, as if the artists had changed their minds but been unable to erase the earlier versions.

One day, instead of the usual electric lights, they lit the cave with kerosene torches – and, as the flames flickered, it suddenly all made sense.

One of the researchers stood in front of the wall and moved his torch slowly around. His colleagues watched open-mouthed as the pictures sprang to life: the emphasis shifted from one outline to another, giving the same impression of movement that you get by tilting a flat 3-d image. 15,000 years before Pixar opened its doors, our Neolithic ancestors had invented motion graphics.

Young people entering the workforce today have grown up in a world of visual communication, where everyone has cameras on their smartphones and a choice of social media platforms to share their pictures instantly.

As someone who earns their living from writing, it’s uncomfortable to say this – but, if you’re fighting against visual communication, you’re not going to win.

Context is everything

How long would it take you to cover five miles on foot?

Depending on your level of fitness, your answer would probably be somewhere between 30 minutes and three hours.

And you’d be wrong.

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Because what I didn’t tell you is that the five miles start at Everest base camp in the Himalayas and go straight up the world’s highest mountain. Even if you made it to the summit, you’d be most unlikely to cover the five miles in less than two days.

That’s the thing with information: it’s all about context.

And that’s why the first job of everyone who communicates inside a business – whether you’re the CEO or a junior project manager – is to provide a context that will make the information meaningful.

What do people need to know? What’s it got to do with them? Why should they care?

Until you can answer those three questions clearly and simply, you may as well not bother communicating.

Beware of shortcuts

In 1576, an English sailor named Martin Frobisher set off in search of the Northwest passage. It was the height of the Elizabethan craze for exploration – anyone who could find a shortcut round the obstacle of North America would have been made for life.

Unfortunately, Frobisher didn’t find the passage: after several months of frozen hardship, he was forced to give up and come home.

He didn’t come empty-handed, though. In the course of his exploration, the local Inuit tribes had given him a large lump of rock, which glittered when it caught the light. One of his officers excitedly identified it as gold ore.

fools-goldOn his return to London, Frobisher presented it to the Queen, who was delighted at the prospect of a gold supply to rival that of the Spanish conquistadores.

Frobisher was sent back for more. He returned with three shipfuls, to a hero’s welcome. The ore was carried up to Dartford to be smelted (something they hadn’t bothered trying with the sample), at which point they discovered it was just worthless iron pyrites – fool’s gold.

You see the same thing happen in businesses every day.

Even the most hard-nosed executives find it hard not to be seduced by the idea of shortcuts: silver bullets (if you’ll forgive me mixing my mineral metaphors) that will magically solve the business’s problems.

The trouble with silver bullets is that, every time they turn out to be duds, a little bit of credibility dies. The people who work in those businesses become so used to hearing about ‘the next big thing’ that they switch off and stop listening.

They also stop thinking about the job they were supposed to be doing (in this case, finding the Northwest passage). Because, let’s face it, if your leaders don’t seem to be thinking about it any more, why should you be?

That’s the point. You can’t expect your people to be focused on your priorities, if you keep distracting them with shiny new ones.

(In case you’re worried about Frobisher, the good news is that he bounced back from this embarrassing setback to have a distinguished and successful naval career.

The fool’s gold, meanwhile, was melted down and used as a road-covering for the area around what is now the Bank of England – which is where that story about London’s streets being paved with gold comes from).

Big data will drown you if you let it

You hear a lot about Big Data these days: using powerful computers to collect and analyse information on a massive scale.

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There’s no doubt that Big Data can be a very good thing. It’s made our weather forecasts much more accurate; it’s helping scientists to model and predict natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis; and it’s giving brands the opportunity to understand and connect with customers in a more helpful and personal way.

But too much data can also be a bad thing. It can paralyse decision-making, distract attention and confer an unwarranted legitimacy on bad ideas.

IBM recently estimated that some 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are created every day. That doesn’t even sound like a real number, so perhaps I should tell you that it’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Or, to put it another way, 350Mb of data for every man, woman and child on the planet. Every day.

I don’t know how long it would take you to fill up 350Mb of spreadsheet, but that sounds like quite a lot of data to me.  And, since I’m pretty sure there are some toddlers and people in the Amazon rainforest who aren’t using up their daily data quota, that means the real number the rest of us are getting through is even larger.

We generate vast amounts of information in almost everything we do every day: from the items on our supermarket checkout bill to web cookies to the CCTV cameras that follow us around town. And, increasingly, that information is being used as the backdrop and justification for nearly everything we do in business.

So, is it helping us to make better decisions? Or is it just creating confusion?

The reality is that, in many cases, the sheer scale of information available to us is overwhelming. We don’t know where to start looking – or where to stop. We often carve out data at random. And, worse, we often draw entirely the wrong conclusions from it.

I once saw the same data used in the same business to tell two totally conflicting stories. Not just opposed, but 100% diametrically opposed. What’s odd about this is that the people on both sides were acting in good faith. They didn’t hide anything. They didn’t make anything up. It’s just that they were both interpreting the data according to what they wanted to hear.

Twenty years ago, information was power. Now we’re drowning in the stuff.

The real power lies in being able to explain what it means.

Repeat after me

Repetition makes things easier to remember.

That’s one of the first things they teach you at advertising school. Most of the great brands were built on slogans that have endured for years.

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It must also be one of the first things they teach you at politician school. No-one who lived through the most recent UK general election can have failed to hear the words ‘strong and stable leadership’ repeated ad nauseam by anyone in a blue tie or dress.

The problem with repetition is that it’s only half the story. Getting people to remember your slogan does not necessarily translate into persuading people to buy what you’re selling. For that to happen, your slogan also has to be compelling.

‘Strong and stable leadership’ was not a compelling slogan: it was just a rather dull claim. Worse, it wasn’t even a credible claim. As Theresa May’s gaffe-laden campaign rolled off the rails and into the ditch, ‘strong and stable’ began to sound not just patronising, but needy, desperate and lacking in substance.

By contrast, ‘for the many, not the few’ was a much more compelling slogan. It was a promise that sounded like it might be worth listening to – the promise of a better, fairer country. It was positive. It was meaningful. It resonated with more impressionable, younger voters. And, unlike ‘strong and stable’, its credibility grew over time, as the words coming out of Jeremy Corbyn’s mouth seemed to chime with the promise he was making.

I don’t make this point because I have a political axe to grind (for the record, I didn’t vote for either of them).

I make it because there’s a vital lesson in here that the leadership team in every organisation can learn from. The lesson is that you can’t expect to engage people with a message that’s dull, meaningless or lacking in authenticity. You can make people remember it, but you can’t make them believe it – and you certainly can’t make them buy into it.

Repetition is part of making a message memorable. But the first, and most important, part is to have a message that’s worth remembering in the first place.

There’s a good, chemical reason for this. Whenever we see or hear something that stimulates or excites us, it sets off a little charge of dopamine in our brains. This acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for our sub-conscious to access the memory. But, if there’s nothing interesting, there won’t be any dopamine and you’re going to have to work very hard to get people to remember your message, let alone care about it.

In other words, learn from Theresa May’s experience.

You can’t bore people into paying attention, so don’t waste time worrying about whether you’re ‘on message’.

Worry about the message you’re on.

What we can learn from chickens

Brown hen and egg.

About 20 years ago, geneticists at Purdue University in Indiana set up an experiment to learn more about natural selection, by studying the egg-laying productivity of two groups of chickens.

In the first group, the ‘free flock’, chickens could roam and mingle as they pleased, with no pressure to produce. The second group, by contrast, was made up of all the most productive hens, housed together and encouraged to compete. The idea was to see whether increasing competition would increase productivity.

Several generations later, the free flock was laying eggs at a brisk and productive pace.  The hens seemed happy, the atmosphere calm and contented – and they passed their days doing pretty much as they pleased (which often involved laying eggs).

In the high-achievers’ flock, by contrast, the story was a rather less happy one. Many of the hens were dead, pecked to death by rival birds that had identified them as a threat. Those that survived were eking out a strained and unproductive existence, focused more on protecting themselves and harrying each other than on laying eggs.

The researchers had made a fascinating, if accidental, discovery: when you create a competitive culture among chickens, not only does it not make them more productive – it can have seriously destructive side-effects.

William Muir, the world-renowned geneticist who conducted the study, said that when he showed the carnage to one of his colleagues, she said: ‘That reminds me of my department.’

I suspect a lot of people in business might say the same.

The chicken story is one of the examples quoted by Margaret Hefferman in her book A Bigger Prize, which is a compelling deconstruction of the traditional view that competition is always a good thing.

Hefferman argues that the importance of competition in sport (fuelled by financial incentives) has prompted an epidemic of cheating, bad behaviour and destructive drug use. If you want examples, consider the chequered recent history of FIFA, the Olympics and the tour de France.

Similarly, the world of business – and particularly, in recent years, financial services – is littered with examples of bad decisions prompted by a culture of competition. Bankers offloading toxic mortgages to boost their bonus pot. Executives holding back profit, so they can hit their target in two consecutive quarters rather than declaring it all in one. Managers claiming credit for the work done by others.

As tasks and ways of working become more opaque and complex, we’re effectively encouraging people to ‘game’ the system and to put short-term self-interest ahead of bigger and more worthy motivations.

Which is not to say that competition is always a bad thing.

Just so long as we remember which flock of chickens we’d rather belong to.