Month: December 2011

London in “Two Hours”

As I was in London for work recently and had a couple of hours to spare, I took a very quick tour (it was supposed to be two hours, but just like Gilligan’s Island it took longer. I think it had something to do with the exchange rate or something, but the two hour tour was 3 hours and 45 minutes), and absolutely worth it.

Highlights included riding at the top of a double-decker bus (note: bus drivers in London are usually aggressive, and so half the time you would absolutely swear they were going to a. run someone over or b. crash into a car. The fact that this didn’t happen while I was there does not mean it doesn’t happen), walking across two bridges (one which had fantastic views to one side of “Old” London, including Big Ben, and one which had fantastic views of “New” London, including, well, the new stuff), and stopping at Buckingham palace to watch the front door guard sleep whilst standing, and the front gate guard ponder at the two women pointing and waving at him. (Yes. One was me.)

I went to a real live pub (well, a couple…), discovered that if you order wine you must order it in “large” or “small” (my kind of country), had a tasting of beer (warm beer?), ordered fish and chips (plaice), and was introduced to a butty. This would be a sandwich of butter and French fries. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s in the country and you should absolutely try it.

Oh, and then there was the lunch run to Marks and Spencer’s, where apparently nice girls buy underwear and/or sandwiches to go; the walk past Harrods and Fortnum and Masons, where one gets a hamper at disgustingly large prices, the attempt to get into the Ritz for a drink to be told that jeans, even fancy ones, are not allowed.

I had a translator for most of this, whom I shall herein dub The Honourable Lynne, and I am doing so because it allows me to bestow a title I don’t get in a spelling I don’t normally use. While they theoretically speak English in North America (note: in England, you have to distinguish between “North America” and “South America” – because they (accurately) recognize there are more than one), they do not speak the same English in England. You don’t walk on the sidewalk, you walk on the pavement. The road is not made with asphalt, it’s made with tarmac. You ride a lift, you take out the dustbin, you use a brollie if it’s raining and when walking on the pavement next to the road be sure to look both ways lest you get hit by a passing lorry. If you nearly do you may visit the loo (or washroom, but no one rests there), and you may need to wait in the queue for it.  Mashed potatoes are called “mash”, French fries are “chips”, chips are “crisps”, cookies are “biscuits”. There is something called a “digestive biscuit” which purportedly aids in ones digestion and can be eaten plain or with butter and cheese. You have to love a civilization where they acknowledge the improvement of things with butter and cheese.

It was fascinating to be the person with the accent. Me. I had the accent. In an office building of hundreds of people (or in the M&S, where it felt like there were hundreds of people), I was the odd (wo)man out. Let the record state that I did not pull a Madonna and start affecting an accent.

Everyone I talked to was sweet, polite, and assured me that if I loved London (did/do), I would love Devon/Bath/Cornwall/etc.; that will have to wait for another trip.

For this trip, I was working. And despite my four or five hours off-sides, I spent 90% of it working to two time zones (at least the jet lag helped), meeting a double dozen people, and marveling at how, though I live in the land of Starbucks, the coffee makers in London were ever so much better than those back home. In the space of four days I eradicated six years’ worth of decaf-only coffee drinking, much to the dismay (I’m sure) of those I work with. There’s a metric ton of exciting things about at work this next year – naturally, can’t talk about it, except to say that you the consumer will undoubtedly benefit – and the last thing anyone needs is an over-revved Bobbie engineering things. To those who work with me I apologize in advance for the emails, meetings, and over-engineering. The good news is I’m back to only working 1.5 time zones, and it may help if you switch up my coffee.

Winning, Losing, and Persuasion: Getting Spock and your Proto Human in Line

No one likes to lose. This is one of those things that someone actually did a scientific study on, and the rest of us are sitting here wondering who got a grant funded for that. But it’s true: no one likes to lose; and our fear of losing is GREATER than our joy in winning.

To wit: Let’s say I have you pick a coin out of your pocket; a quarter or a euro or a shilling. It’s your coin, so it’s your choice. Now let’s say I propose the following bet: every time that coin flips to “heads”, I pay you $10. Every time it flips to “tails”, you pay me $1. You will take that bet (statistically speaking, that is, most people will).

Now let’s say I keep your potential win still at $10, but your loss at $2. You’ll like it less, but you’ll still take the bet. Most people drop off when the potential loss is $4. Their rationale is this: $4 is a significant percentage of their potential win. This makes sense.

Until you realize a coin toss is a 50-50 chance, each time.

For example, let’s say you take the $4 version of the bet (you’re brave like that). We flip the coin 10 times, each time with a 50% chance of hitting “heads”. Over a large enough data set that means chances are pretty decent that you will have 5 wins and 5 losses; so you’d “win” $50 and “lose” $20. In short, you’d net positive just for playing, by $30.

In theory, it’s a good bet up to values of $10 on win and $9 on lose (you’d still be ahead $5). However, people do not behave this way. The urge to *avoid losing* will actually lead people to make unwise economic decisions. (Actually, this goes far beyond economy – some people will make unwise OTHER decisions just to avoid their notion of what “losing” is).

Evolutionarily speaking this makes sense: say you’re a proto-human and you’re ambling about in the jungles/desert/savannah/etc. You see a flock of birds take off in the distance with no audible warning. You either : 1. Bet they got a wild hair and just decided to up and fly, or 2. Bet there’s a predator nearby and amble your way to the nearest tree, just in case.

The person who bet #1 would likely DIE each time they bet wrongly. The person betting #2 would still live if they bet right or wrong. And so we learn that “losing” – betting wrong, making poor decisions, whatever tag you want to give it – has a cost. And over the millennia, this is drilled into our little proto-human bit of our brain.

The logic-driven, numbers-based sides of our brain can argue all we want with the proto human side of our brain, but proto human will not give in (or not give in easily). This is especially true if we’re not paying attention. The same gut instinct to avoid losing is why people fall for the “sale” that’s on the end caps in a store (try checking those prices against those in-line some time), why they rush to sell (or buy) a house without doing enough of their homework (guilty!), and why, despite all logical evidence, they will race ahead of you on the freeway at 80mph only in order to be sitting at the traffic light ahead that much longer than you, when your car ambles up.

A lot of the job of a change manager – one managing change for themselves or others – is to manage this proto-human angst over losing. People don’t like to “lose” what they are good at/familiar with over the unknown new stuff, they don’t like to “lose” control over where a project or team is going, they don’t like to “lose” the path they’ve envisioned for themselves.

In the book ‘Switch’ by Chip Heath, the idea presented is that when instituting change you have to convince the Rider (the logical part of the human brain you’re working with, let’s call it “Spock”), convince the Elephant (the proto-human), and give them a path to go down (here’s what I want you to do). This sort of change-management can work internally too.

Say you want to lose weight. You need to convince your Rider (this is the part of your brain that goes to purchase nonfat yogurt and lean cuisines and makes you order the salad at dinner), your Elephant (this is the part of your brain that sees someone brought in doughnuts so you’ll be “good” and only have half – well, a whole one, but you skipped breakfast – maybe one and a half because you’re going to the gym – oh what the hell your diet’s busted may as well eat two), and show them the path (I will be able to wear these jeans/this bikini/see my cholesterol go down).

The great part of the above example is you already know what appeals to your proto human and your Spock human (forgive the oxymoron). (Just because your proto human wins out more often than not doesn’t mean you don’t know how to do it, it just means your Spock human is not paying attention).

Management gets tricky when you have to convince other people’s proto humans and Spocks.

(By the way, by “management” we’re not necessarily talking people who work for you. “Management” means managing other people – by design or by proxy – and can extend to family/friends/acquaintances/etc.  You just don’t notice it, because you will tend to hang around people who require very little “management” – their Spock and proto-human already align with yours, pretty much).

The best way, then, to appeal to a Spock is lots of shiny charts and graphs, statistics, quoted sources, approved, sound, logic (theirs). The traditional best way to appeal to the proto-human is to turn the loss into a gain: what is in it for THEM, why is this worth their time, how will life be better/easier once it’s done. Alternatively, though, it is better to demonstrate how their life/work stream/issue will be worse if it is NOT done (again, losing is more important than winning, in a sense).

Rome in a Day (and a half)

This post is unfairly titled, because most of my time was spent in a (rather nice) office building. The perks of said office building include the Best! Espresso! Machine! Ever! And the fact that everyone is bilingual – at least – and kind.  I’m here to meet my team, and other teams that I/they work with; hopefully next time I can stay longer than two nights.

Outside of the office building is Rome, Italy.

Several things I suspected and now know:

  1. Roman food is good. Like really, really good. I had gnocchi twice one day. Pasta. Cheese. Saltimbocca. Chicoria. Baba. So glad I lost a pound before I left…
  2. House wine is good. For 4 Euro you get half a liter of something drinkable and amongst two of us we couldn’t finish it, because you ALSO get a big huge bottle of sparkling water.
  3. Bidets do exist here and they are a wacky piece of swank.
  4. My phone doesn’t work here without adding on international services, which the procurement area of my work completely failed to do, and so I ITCH without the ability to get email or make calls on my phone.
  5. The gym at my hotel is serviceable but not stellar. Having had gnocchi twice, though, I used the hell out of it.
  6. It’s completely safe to walk alone, at night, by myself, on the side of the road (Sunday night = everything dead in Rome (at least where I’m at, on the ‘way north end), so I had to walk a couple of miles to get dinner).
  7. Everybody likes the new government, and no one thinks it will last, because it’s too “reasonable”.

Things I did not suspect and now know:

  1. Coffee is WAY stronger than the strongest stuff Starbucks puts out. Two teeny coffees and I was literally zinging around.
  2. Italians have AMAZING depth perception. I will never again fear sitting in the male person’s Awesomely Huge Truck, because I have seen an Italian park 0.2cms away from the nearest car, back and front.
  3. There are no traffic rules here, particularly for pedestrians. Crossing the street means you make eye contact with oncoming traffic, and once you do, you walk into the street.
  4. Dinner is at 9 because no one leaves the office until 7 and no one gets in before 9. Commutes range from ½ to 2 hours to/from home, and people go to bed at midnight.
  5. Italian women can run, in stiletto-heeled boots, down an icy, cobblestone street, after the bus, and not kill themselves.
  6. There is a high percentage of home ownership here, which drives home prices UP as real estate is more often handed down than sold. An 80sqm apartment with no parking (call it 725 square feet) in the area I’m in goes for about half of a million Euro at lowest. Hence the commutes. People have to move out to own a home.
  7. I am a total princess and cannot handle staying in a hotel where the internet is dodgy at best. They handed me an Ethernet cable. It works some of the time. This plus my brick-of-a-phone makes me sad.

This trip I didn’t get much time to go out and about but I did manage to eat everything in sight and meet with people I needed (and wanted) to see. Later today I head via 3-hour flight to London, where I will have a completely new hotel and social experience. I am definitely coming back to Rome!

Correlation & Causality: Why Money Won’t Drive an Economist, Exactly

In 1992, the beautiful notion that a bunch of disparate countries could get together and form an Economic Union came to pass: the Maastricht Treaty. Like a giddy young couple (well, this would be technically a plural marriage, but anyways…), the countries went to the altar, ’til death do they part.

Because, as is widely touted now, there was no exit clause.

This on its own is enough to give me pause: how, in this litigious, finance-driven society, can ANYONE go to the altar and not have a pre-nup? (No, I didn’t last time — there was nothing to ‘nup, to quote Kirstie Alley — but I will next time).  I get that it’s extremely unattractive to go into a marriage acknowledging the prospect of divorce, but the odds are not in your favor for success. (Nor are they in your favor for combined economies — see “Austria-Hungarian Empire”.)

Lack of forethought aside, someone has come up with a way to arrive at the solution: Simon Wolfson has created a $400k ($250 pounds sterling, 300 Euro) prize to the first person (likely Economist) to come up with a successful, practical way to exit the Euro. (He has a nifty title in addition to the money: Baron Wolfson of Aspley Guise). It’s the second largest economics prize in the world, behind the Nobel.

And here’s where things get interesting: if you read Drive by Dan Pink (or check out the RSA Animate if you’re averse to reading too much), you’ll know that heuristic tasks/jobs cannot, beyond a sustainable living salary, be rewarded via income.  That is to say, if you take someone and you give them an algorithmic task — follow process “A”, exactly — then you can monetarily incentivize them. If their task requires innovation, or creative thinking, though, a monetary incentive will backfire: their solution will be less creative and delivered under greater duress (and likely late).

So why offer a large monetary reward for what is absolutely certain to be an incredibly heuristic task? Clearly they will not be incentivized by the cash.

Best answer? Because they are incentivized by recognition — and this prize is, as stated, second only to the Nobel (one could argue you may win BOTH if you figure out how to do it elegantly). The money itself buys the recognition from people who would otherwise not ordinarily care *who* solved the problem. Think about it: if, some six months from now, someone in a government building figured out how to make this process work, you won’t care — if there’s no prize. The very existence of the prize, by virtue of its sum, is what drives the recognition, and in turn drives the Economist, or Economists, that figure this out.

Here’s hoping it works.