Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What the Marshmallow Test Teaches Us About Following Through on New Year’s Resolutions

Self-control is the master empathy ability – build it and your life improves

If you could imagine what you were like as a four-year-old, would you have resisted the temptation to eat two marshmallows on the table in front of you for about 15 minutes? In the 1960s at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, some, not all, pre-schoolers were able to exercise enough self-restraint to wait for two marshmallows instead of one right away. They used all kinds of distractions to extend their ability to put off instant gratification.

Over the ensuing longitudinal study by Stanford through various life stages the high will power four-year-olds as adolescents, for example, thought ahead more, were goal-focussed, not easily side-tracked by setbacks and when under stress did not go to pieces as much as low delayers did.  Follow up brain scans of adult alumni confirmed that high delayers more actively used their “cool” executive functioning (EF) centres. The low delayers activated parts of their brains related to desire, pleasure and addictions. Scores of other researchers have confirmed these findings.

So it seems that if we find ways to improve our self-control, we are by association building our executive functioning. We are developing our higher order thinking skills. In turn, by improving our self-control we are in effect gaining ground on our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others in a positive way. That shows up in less reactive, more measured behaviour, leaving more room for mutual creativity and problem solving.

You are not doomed by your social or biological history

So are you doomed if you were a low delayer four-year-old? No, you are not. Fortunately the high delayers have provided us with bountiful ideas for strengthening our will power, thereby decreasing or protecting us from our vulnerabilities while increasing confidence. Walter Mischel eloquently describes in his book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, that there is hope for us all.

You can learn to turn the on switch to your cooler self when faced with hot moments or triggers that may take you down the wrong path in relationships, stressful situations and when faced with non-technical decisions that have no clear answers. Meditation is a classic way to build such capability. But if that is not your thing, then the “if, then” or “when, then” strategy is worth a try. It’s a great mind tool for bringing New Year’s resolutions into reality.

The key is to plan ahead how you will deal with specific “hot” situations

Here’s how it works – prepare an implementation plan in advance for a hot stimulus situation that stands in the way of a better habit. For example, “If I feel myself becoming impatient in the grocery checkout line (the hot stimulus context), then I will take a few deep breaths and scan the magazines (the cool stimuli).” Another example – “When the dessert menu is offered, I will not order the chocolate cake; instead I will order the sorbets and share with my dinner partner.” Or, in the work situation context, “if so-and so snaps back at me during a team meeting, then I will ask open-ended, neutral questions to explore further her point-of-view, to better understand where she is coming from.” These examples might seem frivolous; however, the self-control strength building from particularly vexing and specific contexts expands to other areas simultaneously. The benefits snow ball. The key is to choose the times and places or cues that trigger your hot responses and then to implement your cooling down, self-control plan.

The lesson for all of us is that self-control is more than determination or an annual resolution. It needs an infrastructure – a plan or strategies – to thrive. The lessons learned as the “If, then” or “When, then” plans are executed reinforce or add new ideas for the new habit-building journey. It is the essence of deliberate practice used by those aspiring to elite status in their respective fields of endeavour. Eventually the new habit becomes automatic. There is no going back to the way we were, for the most part. In this era of many distractions fueled by technology, the insights from the marshmallow and related experiments may be just the antidote for us to recapture the present moment and sustain our grit. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Billie Beane 'got it' - the behaviours that lead to desired outcomes. Any lessons here for the rest of us?

In the late 1990s, the Oakland Athletics baseball team startled the baseball world.  It was the poorest team in baseball. Yet, the Oakland As won more regular season games than all but one of the other twenty-nine teams, the Atlanta Braves. The baseball commissioner chalked it up to “an aberration”. But, it was not. Two men with Bill as their first names changed the course of baseball history.

Some 40 years ago or so, Bill James was an aspiring 20ish writer who loved baseball. In his spare time as a security guard for a pork and beans cannery, he began laying down his ideas. 

James liked to pose questions:

“Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?”

He demonstrated the fallacy of many measurements used by the baseball industry to assess the talent of players. Historical measures related to speed and contact such as stolen bases, runs batted in and batting average were the norm. On the other hand, measures of offensive success appeared to fare better in predicting “wins”. They included on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Bill James developed quite a following among baseball stats 'geeks' by presenting his data and analysis with great wit, insight and frequency. His method described as “Sabermetrics” in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) aroused the attention of many gaining momentum far and wide. He was onto something.

His abstracts, full of in-depth statistics compiled from his study of box scores from the preceding season, were coveted in the 1980s by a huge number of like-minded baseball fans. With James, they debated and challenged each other, in essence forming a kind of Wikipedia on baseball performance. Despite his efforts, James could not convince the baseball league owners and managers that his analysis had merit for gauging and guiding performance.

Meanwhile, around 1997, the new GM of the Oakland As, Billy Beane, set about looking for ways to make his team more efficient. He re-examined everything from the market price of foot speed to the difference between the average major league player and the superior Triple-A one. Sabermetrics was part of his tool kit.

In around 2000 the well-known journalist Michael Lewis decided to investigate. His book called Moneyball was subsequently made into the 2011 movie of the same name starring Brad Pit as Billy Beane. As Brad Pitt says to his young data-mining protégé, “We are going to change the game” and so they did.

More recently Harvard and Stanford examined this “disruptive innovation” in a case study spanning the accomplishments of the major baseball leagues from 1998 to 2013. The Oakland Athletics won hands down for increasing wins while decreasing the cost of the wins. The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox did quite well with wins but were stuck in the expensive realm.

So what are the takeaways for us not in sports but in a range of organizations where we want to progress, be competitive within our industries or domains and when all is said and done – survive?!

Hans Rosling, the “jedi-master” of animating data, provides some clues in his quest to rid us of our incorrect assumptions about the world. In his November 2013 spirited video presentation, Don’t Panic which can be viewed in full on www.gapminder.com , he demonstrates imaginatively and persuasively that a poor family having a bicycle is a critical tool to lift it out of extreme poverty from $1 to $2 per day toward $10 - a significant difference. Granted access to education, clean water, health care and sanitation are vital too. But what if all of those are there but tough to access?

The poor family aided by a bicycle yields insight into where to zoom in to make progress when there are many priorities. Access to transportation enables the family’s daily routines to take less time, such as travelling miles for water, formerly done on foot, leaving more for other creative endeavours.  In metrics terms, from $1 to $10 is the lag indicator (target) and owning a bicycle is the lead indicator (contributes to reaching the target). Put another way, the latter measure (having a bicycle) captures an action that leads to a significant outcome (more money for the family). It compares to on-base percentage in baseball (more people on base increases the probability of home runs).

To arrive at a leading indicator however requires considerable exploration of reality versus the big goals. If achieved, the indicator and its attendant strategies would make a significant difference. Many business authors have written extensively on how to develop “scorecards”. Harvard’s Robert S. Kaplan is one of the most prolific and well-known.

But what if you need a little more hand-holding to sort the wheat from the chaff and not spend a fortune on developing and monitoring a big scorecard?  The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney and Sean Covey is a user-friendly alternative, coaching the reader step-by-step.

The failure to execute strategy well is a chronic problem. But if teams can get their heads around the “how to” via an engaging and inclusive process (taking the high level corporate strategy to the realm of front line in a concrete way), then there is hope to up the gains and lower the failures. 

The magic in the process is to narrow focus and choose only one or two stretch goals while “the whirlwind” of the daily business goes on. Then, create the “yellow brick road” with built in accountability and tracking which everyone excitedly walks. It’s much more manageable and certain than all those spreadsheets with every single goal and objective noted over multi-years. It’s a great way of “busting” silos too and recognizes the iterative or winding journey of plans. We can only imagine and think so far in advance before unexpected change reaches in to disrupt our ideas.