Friday 10 December 2010

The emotional shock that destroys “not invented here”

During the last 2 weeks I have run 3 “Bird Island” exercises, and after the last one, I received some interesting feedback.

“The big learning for me” this guy said “was the shock when I saw what others had done, and how poor our performance was compared to theirs”.

In this exercise, we ask teams to perform a task in isolation – to build a tower as high as they can, to pass certain constraints (so trading off height versus stability). We then allow the teams to share knowledge with each other, and we then show them the best practice from all the (nearly 300) teams who have done the exercise before.

There are three moments when team members get an emotional shock.

Firstly when a team, who is proud of their 80cm tower which they think they could stretch to 95cm with luck, are visited by someone from a team who have already reached 125cm and think they could get to 150. You can see the jaws drop as they realise how constrained their thinking has been.

Secondly when we show the teams the benchmark statistics (current record height, well over 3m, current modal height, 290cm). There is always an audible gasp in the room, as teams who think they might just about get to 150cm, realise how far off the mark they really are.

Then the third moment is when we show a picture of a >3m tower. You would think that the benchmark data themselves would have given enough of a shock, but somehow the picture is even more impressive – a smiling team standing behind a tower which brushes the ceiling. The usual response from the room is “Whoah!”

I think it’s that shock, that destroys the Not Invented Here.

Never do we hear a team say “well they may have got to 3m using that design, but we aren’t going to use it. We will invent our own”. Always they take the design, and maybe tweak it a bit to add some more innovation to push it a little higher.

So what’s going on psychologically?

I think there is something emotional happening, very akin to humility. People see evidence that they need to learn. They see evidence that their own knowledge is inadequate to deliver a reasonable performance. They become fully open to knowledge from others.

Without understanding the inadequacy of their own knowledge, people can be fully entrenched in “not invented here”, and it may need an emotional shock to dislodge them.


Robert Taylor said...

You're right Nick. It's the fallacy of incrementalism - thinking you might do maybe 10% better next time. Yet at that rate it would take a huge number of repetitions to get from (our - when I did Bird Island) first 75cm tower to (our) second 3m+ tower. That's the difference between the top learners and the rest: it will take the incrementalists all eternity to catch up with the best learning organisations. A shift from an incrementalist standpoint is quite a fundamental shift.

Nick Milton said...

Thanks Robert

I like the term "fallacy of incrementalism" - I will use that as another blog post if I may.

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