Friday, January 29, 2016

Behavior Change and the Minority Report

This is the third post in a series on New Year's Resolutions (tis the season, after all) and more generally, behavior change.  
The first post was Why You Don't Keep New Year's Resolutions is Way More Interesting than How You Do.  That post reflected a bias of mine to be more interested in what actually happens than what is supposed to happen.
The next post was Want to Change Your Behavior?  First, Change the Odds. This one argued that behavior change is no mean feat and that before you exert one ounce of will power trying to change something about yourself, work on getting the environment set up right to support the change.  
Part of the reasoning there was that if you are not even willing to put in the effort to get the odds in your favor, it sheds some light on how important the change really is for you.  Or, sheds even more light on how important not making this change is to some part of you that you might be less aware of or less identified with.  
Which brings me to this post.  
I am not a huge Tom Cruise fan, but I really enjoyed the science-fiction movie,Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg.  Here are a few key points of the plot (modified from Wikipedia entry):
About 50 years in the future, PreCrime police in Washington D.C. stop murderers before they are able to act, reducing the murder rate in that city to zero. Murders are predicted before they happen using three Precogs, highly sensitive humans with genetic mutations who "previsualize" crimes by receiving images from the future . The Federal government is on the verge of adopting the controversial program and extending it nation wide.
While DoJ agent Danny Witwer is auditing the program, the Precogs generate a new prediction, saying that one of PreCrime's own, Captain John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise), will murder a man named Leo Crow in 36 hours. Anderton does not know Crow, but flees the area as Witwer begins a manhunt. Anderton seeks the advice of Dr. Iris Hineman, the creator of PreCrime technology. She reveals that sometimes, one of the Precogs, usually Agatha (shown in the picture with this post), has a different vision than the other two, a "minority report."  This has been kept a secret as it would damage the system's credibility. Anderton resolves to see if there is a minority report to try to prove his innocence.  And sure enough one of Agatha's minority reports turns out to solve the larger mystery.
I don't want to ruin it in case you haven't seen the  movie and besides, that is enough of the plot for my purposes here.  Why is the Minority Report relevant to behavior change?  
Well, aren't our psyches and inner worlds sometimes similar?  We have a primary we see ourselves and perhaps how others see us.  But then we have "minority" parts that don't fit neatly into the buttoned down image we project.  We are generally healthy but we also engage in risky behavior.  We are responsible providers and caretakers but we stay up late playing music and fantasizing about life in a band on the road.
As the poet Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself:  "Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  (I am large.  I contain multitudes.)"
Our ego decides it has an improvement program for us and we end up making New Year's resolutions or setting goals to change something:  We are finally going to lose weight.  Or exercise more. Or spend less time on social media.  Or quit losing it at work with our staff.  Or be more loving towards our partner.
But we have had this goal before.  And we can't seem to make a dent in it.  In my last post I argued that you should first focus on tipping the odds in your favor. But for many, even when they do set up the environment to support the changes they want to make, they still can't achieve them.  
In these circumstances, it is often useful to search carefully inside oneself to see if there is a minority report...some part of you that does not want to go along with the changes your primary identity is trying to make.  Indeed, we contain multitudes and maybe one of them is trying to get your attention.
I could share dozens of examples, but let me give you just one.   I had a client that was getting feedback about failing to meet commitments and failing to follow up appropriately with clients.  After an honest discussion, it became apparent that my client was procrastinating and spending an inordinate amount of time on social media.  It turns out she had tried many times in the past to cut back but was unable to and the time lost was affecting her output.
So I sat with her as she worked and asked her to do what she usually does.  After working for 30 mins or so, she went on her favorite social media site.  Just as she got on it, I asked her to describe how she felt.  The predominant and overwhelming feeling she said was "relief."
As we kept going into the feeling, she talked more about the pressures at work, the financial challenges she had, the lack of supportive relationships around her.  
I sensed we were close to an edge, so I suggested we stay with it.  I said, "OK, it is time to download some software which will limit social media access during the day."   My client started to cry and said "Please don't take this away from me.   Most days, it is the only joy I have."
Needless to say, there are bigger problems and issues for my client than limiting time on Facebook and Pinterest.  
We came up with a short term solution to reduce but not eliminate the social media time so she could shore up her job performance.  But in parallel, we focused on other things she could do to relieve the pressure she felt, create more opportunities for joy, and address her support needs.  
The escape into social media was not really the was a symptom...a minority faction inside trying to get the attention of "those in charge" that structural change was needed.
The point here is simply this.  If there is a behavior change that you have wanted to make and progress continues to elude you, look inside yourself.  See if you can determine if there a part of you that has no intention of going along with the "improvement" program.  From "its" perspective, your improvement program is not an improvement at all.  It is a threat.  That part of you may actually be sabotaging your efforts as a way to try to get you to pay attention to something that is trying to unfold or that you have been ignoring.
As in society, these minority viewpoints* might be seen as inconvenient and something to be squashed or "outvoted" by your primary identity.  But their message is ignored to your detriment. Because the parts of yourself that you ignore are often the key to a richer, more meaningful life.  
When Tom Cruise's character finds and investigates the truth behind Agatha's minority report about another murder, he is cleared of all charges against him and "freed."  
Similarly, investigating and listening to those inner voices that don't want to go along with the societal...or parental...or religion-based...or ego-dominated programs can liberate you as well.
Please share your stories of when you chose not to "go along" and what it led to.

*Not the viewpoints of minorities in society, though it may include that, but the minority viewpoint vs. the viewpoint of the majority or the viewpoint of the people in power, the latter of which may not be the majority at all.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Want to Change Your Behavior? First,Change the Odds

My last post was Why You Don't Keep New Year's Resolutions is Way More Interesting than How You Do.  In this post, I will describe how we consistently underestimate how hard behavior change actually is.
New Year's resolutions (NYRs) are a little like gambling in Las Vegas.  It is not that you can't win, but it really helps to know how badly the odds are stacked against you.
An article in Fast Company a few years ago called Change or Die, gave an example of patients with heart disease so severe that they had to undergo bypass surgery, a traumatic and expensive procedure that can cost more than $100,000 if complications arise.
"About 600,000 people have bypasses every year in the United States.  The procedures temporarily relieve chest pains but rarely prevent heart attacks or prolong lives. Around half of the time, the bypass grafts clog up in a few years. The causes are complex. It's sometimes a reaction to the trauma of the surgery itself. But many patients could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery — not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them — by switching to healthier lifestyles. Yet very few do. "If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle," Miller said. "And that's been studied over and over and over again. And so we're missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can't."
So if people who know without a doubt they can avoid pain, avoid more expensive surgery, and can improve the quantity and quality of their lives have trouble changing their health compromising behavior, what chance do your NYRs to spend less time on Facebook or make more home cooked meals?
There are multiple reasons why behavior change is so dang difficult.  One well known reason is that the environment still has all the reinforcers for your old behavior and is not set up to support the new ones.  You want to eat less carbohydrates, but your partner doesn't have your weight problem.  Moreover, your kids are fussy eaters and growing like weeds and they really like pasta. Making something separate for yourself is extra work and besides that yummy pesto pasta is right there and sure smells good.
Or you want to quit smoking.  But your friends still smoke.  To not be tempted, you have to avoid your friends.  Not smoking is tough enough and stressful.  And then you can't hang with your friends either?  In a day or two you will be questioning whether it is worth it.
Both of these examples illustrate how an environment that does not change creates challenges for making changes.  They both also highlight the fact that the rewards (health) for the new behavior are long term and are competing with short term rewards (hanging out with friends, extra work to make different food).  The difference in the timing of the rewards is another factor making behavior change hard.
If you can't change your environment or the timing of the rewards, you can still resist but that takes a lot of will power.  And this leads to the next problem.
A third reason behavior change is hard is that a fair amount of research points to the fact that will power is a limited resource. In their recent report What You Need To Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-control, the American Psychological Association states "A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse."
Every decision to not eat a second helping, walk past the candy dishes at the office, not eat the pasta draws energy from this will power reserve and if you have to make too many of those decisions, you weaken and can succumb to the temptation.
None of this is to say that behavior change is impossible.  It is clearly not.  Just because the deck is stacked against you in Vegas, doesn't mean you can't change those odds.  In Poker and Black Jack, you can change the odds if you are willing to put the work Expected Value tables, count cards, study the other players, memorize decision rules, etc.  Not exactly a rockin' good time, but through efforts like these, you can tip the odds in your favor.
So on your resolutions, New Year's or otherwise, if you really want to achieve them, start by acknowledging how difficult behavior change is.  You are not going on a hike.  You are mountain climbing.  A tad more prep is required. Clean your house of all temptations. Change your routine.  Get a coach.  Get a friend to go out with you who does not do the things you are trying to avoid.  Make a public bet.  Commit to giving money to some Hate Group every time you stumble.  Get large visible props.
That last one is something the comedian Jerry Seinfeld did.  In Jerry's case, he wanted to write comedy every day.  Every day he wrote funny anecdotes, he put a giant red X on that day of the calendar.    The objective was to not break the chain of Xs.
This is what it takes.  Doing things like what is listed here will dramatically increase your chances of making and sustaining the changes and is still going to be really hard!
That is why taking on behavior change is best done with a little humility.  Executive coaches like me often tell our clients at the beginning of an engagement that the behavior changes they want to make could take six months to a year.  And all of us have had multiple clients say, “It won’t take me that long.  Just tell me what I need to do and I will change it.”  Ahh, no you won't and yes it will.
In my next post I will talk about an approach to behavior change that is better aligned with how our brains work.

Monday, January 4, 2016

An Organization that Flaunts Failure and Turns it Into Joy: The Northern California Women's Hockey League

Happy New Year everyone.  I hope 2016 brings you what you need.

This is, perhaps mercifully, the final post in a short series on failure.

The first post, The Cornerstone Skill Few Talk About or Even Acknowledge, argued that failure is the cornerstone skill...the skill all other skills are built on.  Part 2 was How and Why to Get Better at Failing, based largely on a talk by Pema Chodron.  The third post, Organizations and the "Portals of Discovery" talked about the role of organizations in helping their people learn to fail better for a host of reasons, one of which was as a means of improving innovation.  (If interested, all three posts can be found here or on my LinkedIn home page.)

In this final post, I want to talk about an organization that I think really understands this notion that failure is the portal to discovery.  They have put in practices to not only make failure okay but to actually flaunt failure.  As a result their members are discovering joy and developing extraordinary skill.

Is it some cutting edge Hi-Tech company?  Is is it an arts organization like Burning Man for example?  Is it an organization involved in charitable giving?  It is none of the usual suspects.

The organization that flaunts failure and turns it into skill and joy is the Northern California Women's Hockey League (NCWHL).

In my profile, I indicate I am a rabid hockey fan.  I love watching and playing the game.  I didn't get bitten by this bug until my mid 40s, but to the dismay of many around me, the conversion was instantaneous and complete.

So obsessed did I become, that in a "if-you-can't beat em, join em" moment, my wife decided to attend one of the NCWHL's "Give Hockey a Try" days and played in the league for a couple years.  This is how I discovered a little about their organization.

From their webpage, the NCWHL is a non-checking, recreational women's ice hockey league founded in 1993 with the following objectives:
  • To provide women of all abilities a place to play ice hockey with and against other women.
  • To promote women’s ice hockey in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • To promote good sportsmanship
In the Give Hockey a Try day, the NCWHL provides all the equipment so no one is deterred from trying hockey by the big investment in equipment.  All the elbow, hip, and shoulder pads, the sticks, the helmets, the skates...everything is free for the day.

Keep in mind most signing up for this day are not fearless kids who will try anything and who easily bounce back from an injury.  These are women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.  There is a fair amount of nervous laughter as people get their gear situated about what exactly they have gotten themselves into.

What's the first thing they have everyone do when they get on the ice?  Please guess.

That is incorrect.

Before they skate anywhere, before they pass, before they shoot, before some of them even let go of the boards they are clinging to for dear life, they have everyone fall down on the ice...repeatedly. 

Why do they do this?  So they can learn that because of all the padding, falling (failing) doesn't hurt.  They tell them it not only doesn't hurt physically, but they should not be embarrassed by it.  The attitude is:  It happens to all of us.  It is how we learn.  It is what happens on the way to having fun.  So let's all do it together and get over it.

Honestly, where else have you seen an introduction to something new that starts with failing, potential pain, and perhaps the most embarrassing thing possible?

There's more.  During the intro session, when someone goes down on the ice like a sack of potatoes, as will happen to anyone trying hockey for the first time, all the women on the ice stop and applaud.  Coaches, players, everyone.  And not in that jeering kind of way you and your friends did it in high school and college when someone dropped a plate or a tray in the cafeteria.  But in a celebratory, no one cares, this is how we get better kind of way.

After trying hockey for a day, some women, of course, take the equipment off, run away as fast as they can and never look back.

But for many others, the hockey gods sprinkle the magic dust on them...they get bit by the game, the challenge, the camaraderie...and they start a life-long love affair with playing hockey.

Some women who decide to join the beginner league are not in the best shape.  Many were not athletes in their youth.  They have worked and raised families.  They have a few extra pounds like the rest of us.  They are courageously starting to play a difficult game as an adult because they have fallen in love with it.

In actual games, if a woman goes down on the ice and is struggling to get back on her skates, they just stop the game for her.  Read that sentence again.  They stop the game and teammates and opposing players will help her up.  Then they just face-off and start the game up again.  No whining from the other team.  No disgusted eye rolls.  No claims of diving.  No delay of game penalties for failing in this league.

Don't get me wrong.  It is not that these women are not competitive and don't like to win as much as the next person.  But when have you heard of a more supportive atmosphere in team sports?

Some women stay at this entry level of play.  They are happy just to be able to be on the ice, playing a game they love.

But many go way beyond that Give Hockey a Try day and end up getting very serious about it.  They practice and work on skating and stick handling and passing and shooting.  And they join or rejoin gyms to improve their strength, mobility, and endurance.  As a result, they get better and progress to higher level, more competitive women's leagues and even co-ed leagues.  In both cases, the hockey can be fast and skilled.

A high level of skill.  A high level of success. A high level of camaraderie.  A high level of joy.  All from going through the portal of failure.  All from starting with failure.  All from celebrating failure so that failure does not become a deterrent to incredible possibilities.

We need more organizations like this.  A lot more.  And we can build them if we get better at failing by understanding what failure is, how to go through it, and how to use it.

Please share your thoughts below on how organizations can and do support failure or your thoughts on hockey...watching or playing.