Thinking about a ‘Physics of People’

Physics of PeopleFurther to Stowe Boyd's piece Socialogy and a Scientifically-Grounded Understanding of People and his Physics of People tag, I've been thinking about other people's thoughts and ideas on the subject. What does the idea of a 'Physics of People' consist of and how it might take shape? The following extracts and quotes chart the thinking and writing on the subject over the past ten years or so.

Starting Points for a 'Physics of People'


The first idea that I'm aware of comes from an article in the IBM Systems Journal. Written in 2003 by Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden, the following extract is an initial call for a 'Physics of People', along with the recognition of the challenge involved:

We would like (but do not expect) to see simulations of human behavior able to encompass multiple dynamic individual and collective identities acting simultaneously and representing all aspects of perception, decision-making, and action.

This quote really leaves nothing on the table, conjuring up the idea of an omnipotent, all-knowing reality. Whilst this has an unmistakable element of 'Big Brother' within it, it's also reassuring to know that physics itself seeks an understanding of reality that is equally, if not more profound.

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Socialogy and a Scientifically-Grounded Understanding of People

SocialogyStowe Boyd is starting some interesting research into what he's called Socialogy. Stowe defines Socialogy as "The theory and practice behind social business, its tools and techniques, and their impact on business culture, structure, operations, and people."

From the piece:

I am going to be talking with a lot of researchers, visionaries, and practitioners who are working to push business into the 21st century, and to explore their ideas about moving onto a philosophy of business grounded in what we know about the human mind, social networks, and the emergent behaviors of connected groups.

In the series, I pose one question to my guests consistently: ‘How do you think a scientifically-grounded understanding of people as social beings will change business in the future and how?’

Incidently, Socialogy isn't the first term that Stowe's coined - he's the originator of the term 'hashtag' and also coined 'social tools' back in 1999 so it will be interesting to see how this new term does.

Socialogy and the Potential to Transform Business

Given Stowe's question, I thought I'd have a go at answering this from the perspective of Four Groups.

A scientifically-grounded understanding of people, such as 4G, has the potential to change business in hugely profound ways, perhaps on a scale comparable to the industrial revolution, the introduction of the PC or the rise of the internet.

Such a statement is naturally loaded with many assumptions and implications, so it's worth exploring both in further detail.

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Team Deficiency Accounts for Startup Failure 33% of the Time

startup failureTeam deficiency accounts for startup failure almost 33% of the time, as reported by ChubbyBrain and Bruce Lynn. Although the original research includes 32 failed companies, it's important to be cautious given the likely possibility of sample bias.

From the research:

Failure post-mortems often lamented that “I wish we had a CTO from the start, or wished that the startup had “a founder that loved the business aspect of things”.  In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances.  As Nouncers founder stated, “This brings me back to the underlying problem I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made.”  Wesabe founder also stated that he was the sole and quite stubborn decision maker for much of the enterprises life, and therefore he can blame no one but himself for the failures of Wesabe. Team deficiencies were given as a reason for startup failure almost 1/3 of the time.

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The Hidden Cost of Collaboration

cost of collaborationAn article on the HBR written by Paul Ellingstad and Charmian Love called Is Collaboration the New Greenwashing? makes some good points about collaboration and the importance of 'walking the walk', rather than 'talking the talk'.

The authors start by highlighting the importance of the human element of collaboration.

From the article:

Who are the players you want to work with? What does each bring to the table? Why would each player be motivated to work with the others? Figuring this out upfront is critical. The next hurdle is figuring out how people are going to work together in practice, including which tools and resources you have available to facilitate the process.

One response to the points above is that commercial interests and remuneration account for people's motivation whilst various communication tools determine how everyone will work together in practice.

Whilst this is reasonable, I think that an important piece is missing from this equation, namely how to determine team dynamics and group relationships amongst everyone who is collaborating. Although this is arguably inferred in the section above, it's by no means clear and explicit - there's nothing directly actionable.

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Why is Understanding People So Hard

Understanding PeopleUnderstanding people isn't just a HR skill for managers.

This has to be one of the oldest clichés in management and HR. I came across this gem via a post from Harold Jarche who wrote about a presentation by Danah Boyd titled Networked Norms. Whilst the major focus for Jarche and Boyd is around increasing internal and external connections for employees and businesses, I think the message about understanding people is as interesting.

From the presentation:

Understanding people isn't just an HR skill for managers. For better or worse, in a risk economy with an increasingly interdependent global workforce, these are skills that everyday people need. Building lifelong learners means instilling curiosity, but it also means helping people recognize how important it is that they continuously surround themselves by people that they can learn from. And what this means is that people need to learn how to connect to new people on a regular basis.

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The Formula in The Formula

Brad Feld put up an great blog post (here) discussing the role of "The Formula" in guiding organisational and individual decision-making. The Formula is a beguiling notion, the idea that sticking to what you know works and has been successful in the past holds deep appeal. For example think Hollywood's interminable sequels and rejigging of former hits  (Feld uses Aaron Sorkin's TV dramas as to illustrate his point). The trouble with The Formula is that with constant repetition, it becomes commoditised, losing effectiveness and the introduction of new players and copy cats signifies the relentless drop to the lowest common denominator.

The Formula is everywhere, it is not just organisations that refine and perfect an approach to the market, repeatedly returning to what has been effective in the past both for themselves and their competitors. As individuals we constantly revert to what has worked in the past and delivered success, in part this is because we are programmed to replicate successful endeavours. For example, when given a new promotion, many individuals will continue with the behaviour that got them the promotion in the first place, when in reality, their new role calls for a completely different set of behaviours.

The Formula appeals to our desire to simplify and control the complex world around us. However, whilst it can deliver results in the short and medium term, in the long-run it inevitably paves the way for steady yet noticeable decline. This is the problem that organisation's big and small have the face up to and deal with if they want to really innovate.

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The Truth About Innovation

Over at HBR (here), Bill Taylor hits the nail on the head regarding the current obsession with innovation. Much like the focus on engagement a couple of years ago, innovation is the current area of focus. Business leaders have co-opted the phrase to launch a number of top down programmes focusing on championing innovation. The advent of the Chief Innovation Officer and innovation teams shows an element of misunderstanding of what is actually required.

Taylor argues that the problem is one of language, the overt use of the word innovation actually hides the fact that very little innovation is actually taking place. Whereas, the companies that really are truly innovative hardly ever, if at all describe what they do as innovative. Instead it comes from passion and purpose, a need to have innovation is a by-product of curiosity

Now, I'm all for leaders who want to ramp up the energy of their colleagues to take more chances and challenge conventional wisdom. But what strikes me about the organizations I've encountered that are genuinely innovative is that they rarely use the language of innovation to describe what they do or why they do it.

For me, this comes down to culture, if your organisation doesn't have a culture of innovation it is almost impossible to artificially create.

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Decision Making in Online Dating

I've been doing some reading about the online dating industry recently and in particular looking to whether there is a potential use for 4G as a means to predict relationship outcomes. This was kicked off by an article earlier this year in the Association for Psychological Science by Eli J. Finkel, Paul W. Eastwick, Benjamin R. Karney, Harry T. Reis, and Susan Sprecher (here) who raised some interesting questions about the effectiveness of methods used by operators in the booming online dating sector.

In an exhaustive study of what is still a relatively new area of research, the authors examine whether the internet has enabled a better way to find a romantic partner. Undoubtedly the past 15 years has brought a paradigm shift in social attitudes to dating and at first glance it would appear that this has been a boon for lonely hearts. However, as with most things the reality is a little more complex.  

 Historically, online dating has been based on a number of simple and seemingly sensible assumptions about how best to leverage the scalability of the internet to help people more effectively find long-term partners. Key components are the searchable online personal profile and the proprietary matching algorithms developed by onlines sites that claim to help identify compatibility.  This would seem to be a simple and sensible approach, letting people to take control and manage their own introductions.

However, the paper concludes there is no evidence to support the claims to the efficacy of matching algorithms. Furthermore, being faced with a huge number of potential matches does not necessarily make for good decision making. This is no great surprise given the lack of transparency within the online dating industry. The authors also raise another interesting point, that when faced with a large number of profiles to peruse on the web, our decision-making processes are different to situations when we are meeting people face to face. Huge choice has the effect of commoditising the the process and in the majority of cases leads us to self-selecting for individuals most like ourselves. Again, this appears sensible yet may not lead to the best relationships. Unfortunately, online dating sites and other social media are heavily geared towards enabling us to find people who share our interests, in effect using a very simple denominator to make connections. As the authors state;

On the other hand, the heavy emphasis on profile browsing at most dating sites has considerable downsides, and there is little reason to believe that current compatibility algorithms are especially effective.

 The more I read about dating, the more it strikes me that direct parallels can be drawn between online dating and recruitment. For personal profiles see online CVs, for matching algorithms see psychometric and other selection tools. Because we now have access to potentially a far large pool of talent through the web, the assumption is that organisations can make better choices when it comes to recruitment. As with dating, I reckon a greater quantity of choices doesn't necessarily equate to greater quality of decision making.

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Culture and Fit

A great post by Fred Wilson (here) looks at the role culture and fit play in growing companies. Rather than the quality of the products or services a company provides being the arbiter of performance, Wilson argues that it is the intangibles within the organisation that ultimately distinguish between success and failure. What do we mean when we talk about fit? Essentially it comes down to relationships, does person A provide a good fit for a team and will they be able to form strong, collaborative relationships with new colleagues, essentially strengthening the team. For those looking for a definition of culture, I’ve yet to find anything better than “It’s the way we do things round here”. I think that these aspects of organisational development are both hugely under appreciated by the majority, Fred Wilson does seem to be someone who appreciates the significance of behaviour, relationships and culture;

And the people side of the business is harder and way more complicated than building a product is. You have to start with culture, values, and a committment to creating a fantastic workplace. You can't fake these things. They have to come from the top...If everyone is a mercenary and there is no shared culture and values, the team will blow apart. But if there is a meaningful culture that the entire team buys into, the team will stick together, double down, and get through those challenging situations.

As individuals and even from an organisational perspective we tend to fixate on what we can most easily influence and change, we are naturally drawn to the low hanging fruit, the activities that promise the most visible return for the least effort. With growing companies this leads to a focus on the tangible aspects of business development, ie products, systems and processes. It is no surprise that these complex, often hidden people problems tend to be swept under the carpet.

Even if you do get a handle on culture in the early stages, inevitably as the company grows this is likely to change and morph so what may have worked in one instance may not work in another. I think that many leaders get lulled into a false sense of security, particularly if they get detached from what is happening lower down the ranks and fail to grasp the ephemeral nature of culture. Unfortunately, by the time things start to go wrong, it is usually too late.

Luckily, Wilson's view is becoming more mainstream and there are now tools such as 4G that are beginning to shed light on these very thorny problems and let both new and established companies get a more systematic grasp of both culture and fit.

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Management Courses that Change Behaviour – Yeah right!

Keith McGregor from Personnel Psychology NZ calls out some of the myths and mysteries around training and development and the prospect of realising change, or not...

Over the years we have run many management training courses and get wonderful feedback (causes a problem trying to get one’s head out of the door). We go back 6 months later and ask the manager how its going and they say “Great”. We ask the staff how its going and they say “How is what going?”. When we ask about the management training they say “Oh, so that where he was for a couple of days”. There may have been a brief flurry of activity and then normality prevailed. How many us can honestly say we have seen a permanent, positive change in managerial behaviour as a result of a management course? This is incredibly ego-deflating and a seeming waste of everybody’s time and money and yet the need is as strong as ever – in virtually every organisation there are people screaming out for ideas on how to manage difficult staff and deal with complex personnel issues.

Via the IONET Google Group

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