so what

so what

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Speaking of Thrill-Seeking

Great news for those of you who can't get enough of my going on and on and on about this stuff!
Margaret and I will be live on the Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio tomorrow morning, Thursday, August 25th, from 9AM -10AM (Eastern), 8AM - 9AM (Central), and Way Too Early (Pacific) talking and answering caller's questions about the culture of thrill-seeking and its influence on modern-day society.
You can also catch it at

You can also read our comments on the same subject in this month's Atlantic Magazine online at:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Why Employees Hate Meetings

Campfires and Waterholes: The Urban Primate’s Guide to The Corporate Jungle

Or: Why Employees Hate Meetings

It was a simple question from a client that made no sense.

“Why do people hate meetings?”

It didn’t make sense because meetings around here at The Center are kind of fun. Most are standup affairs – someone stands in your doorway, poses the problem, and you both bat it around for ten minutes until you reach some mutually-agreed conclusion.  Or at least frame the problem—which is actually harder.

We have lunch meetings and break room meetings over coffee, which are usually interesting and – here’s that word again – fun.  Our business is analyzing how groups make decisions at a subconscious level. We do this by tracking consistent patterns of behavior over time and, frankly, there’s nothing more entertaining than human nature.

The only all-hands-on-deck meeting we hold is the periodic review of our analysis before it goes into final form for the client.  That’s when we all sit around the big table and try to pick holes in our own work.  If we made a false assumption, if we missed a variable, if there is more than one way to read the data – that’s where we ferret it out. Absurdly huge amounts of money may be allocated based on our research and analysis, so if it is going to fail, it will be at that table and not once it’s in the hands of the client.  Or up and running in France, or China, or even in Space (NASA was the client.)

Those meetings can be pretty stressful, but you walk out of them with a feeling of certainty about your results, which you don’t get in a lot of other occupations. Humans instinctively avoid uncertainty. One of the purposes of a meeting is to remove uncertainty.  As much as possible.

I’ll get back to that.

If people hate – and avoid – meetings, then we’re doing them wrong. And I don’t mean wrong in the sense of failure to follow the rules in the dozens of books on meetings to be found in the business section of any bookstore.

They’re all pretty much the same: focused on the organization and process of how to run better meetings.  But scarcely any fundamental thinking about why people feel the need to meet in the first place, what social function they serve, and what their goals should be. 

Which we find surprising, because meetings were invented – and I would argue, perfected -- in prehistoric times.

By apes.

This isn’t one of those “people share 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees” posts. Those are written by someone who didn’t really comprehend high school science. All mammals share most of the same genes because we share the same biochemical and physiological functions – like breathing. That doesn’t make us chimpanzees any more than sharing genes with a banana makes us a fruit.

But humans did split from the ape tree somewhere around four to six million years ago. And we did inherit an array of attributes and behaviors from our ape progenitors.

Humans, like apes, are social primates – that means we need to be with others of our type. That means we are also a hierarchical species. Put a group of strangers in a room and within minutes they’ll sort themselves into a hierarchy. Humans and apes both understand reciprocity - trading goods and services to form alliances or have the favor returned – literally an example of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Both species are born with the ability to understand basic economics – that value is not fixed but determined by how scarce it is and how much the other person wants it. We both punish members of our group who cheat – even if it means a loss for ourselves. We both use reciprocity to form alliances within the group and, ultimately, move up in the hierarchy.  It’s not that animals are “just like us.” That’s getting it backwards. They were here first. We inherited some evolutionary behaviors from them.

On top of this we layer our human traits. We’re storytellers. We can’t deal with unrelated facts. We are driven to establish relationships between fragments of information even when none exist. So we weave them into stories. Then we need to have those stories validated by other people. 

Hello, Facebook.

It is as a collective species that humans are truly unique. The key aspect that so distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to create large complex social organizations—is that we can create, hold, and share beliefs about things that do not exist or cannot be empirically demonstrated. Apes don’t do that. They will trade a token for a piece of fruit, but you can never convince an ape to give you the token now under a promise of unlimited fruit in the future.

But we can do that with people. We have the storytelling skills to convince others to believe in our visions of things that don’t actually exist yet. And we can convince them that we can, and should, develop whatever it takes to bring those visions into being.

All this adds up to one thing: human beings were, literally, born to hold meetings.

We’ve been doing it since before recorded time. Over forty thousand years ago, our earliest human ancestors combined cave painting, music, the animation effect of flickering firelight, sound effects, and a storyteller to create the first multi-media presentation in the caves of Lascaux.

Yes, our ancient ancestors developed the first PowerPoint presentation. And it wasn’t much different from the way we present today – someone points to words and pictures on the wall and explains what they mean.

It’s not much different because it doesn’t have to be. Our technology evolves, but the way we perceive and process information does not. Our tools may be more sophisticated – we project our pictures rather than paint them - but the principle behind them remains the same. We still use multi-media presentations for the same reason our Ice Age ancestors did, because they transmit complex information efficiently by engaging all the senses —the same way our brain processes information in the “real” world.

There have been no evolutionary physical changes in human beings for at least 120,000 years, but the environment in which we live and work has changed dramatically. So we’re working at the dawn of the 21st century with a brain that processes information in the same way as those of our distant ancestors.

When we say, “It’s a jungle out there,” we’re speaking a literal truth. We maneuver our way through the modern corporation using mental models that evolved on the savannas and jungles of ancient Africa. And we do a pretty good job of it - if we don’t overthink it.

Which is the problem with many business meetings today, and the problem with the books written about how to conduct a meeting. They are all about business, without understanding that all meetings are – first and foremost – social events for the purpose of creating and validating a shared future vision and bringing it into being.

It's not that hard. Throughout recorded history, human beings only gather together in two clearly defined sets of circumstances.

The first is the Campfire:

The campfire is probably humanity’s oldest information-sharing environment. It was a place of security where members of the tribe could come together, turn their backs on the darkness, and share food and stories about who they were, how they got there, and what was expected of them.  Campfires were, and are still, a place of shared values, mutual reinforcement, and nourishment—both for the body and soul.  Omens, news, inventions, discoveries, and significant events were shared and interpreted in terms that could be understood by the group.

You can recognize campfire sites around your workplace either by food – people instinctively bring food to a campfire – or by signs warning “No Food or Drink Allowed.” The signs are there because people were bringing food intuitively – that’s what you do for a social gathering. They didn’t think it was a party. They discussed business. But they discussed it as a social group trying to understand and solve a common problem. Campfires are high-trust environments. Which means that, regardless of the structure of the organization, at that moment, in that environment, the hierarchy is essentially flat.  

The “No Food or Drink” signage is prompted by the same sort of thinking that limits the personal items in your cubicle because it doesn’t look “businesslike.” People are social beings. What some people consider “small talk” is, in fact, monitoring the social environment for changes or dysfunctions in in the system. It is building alliances. It is about discovering shared values. It is about mutual reassurance. It is the platform for  cooperation without which business cannot be conducted.  

The lure of the campfire exerts a strong attraction even today.  When communication requires a strong element of trust, we instinctively seek out the key cultural markers of a campfire environment: light, warmth, drink, and food.  The family dinner table, the first date in a nice restaurant, the groups of retirees who gather at McDonald’s to discuss the news every morning, the coffee bars full of young professionals—all these are classic campfire environments. And they are all doing the same thing – managing change, making sense of the world around them in a way that minimizes uncertainty, and reaffirms their role in the hierarchy. Once they have agreed on “what it all means,” they can go about their business with stability--some assurance that they know where they stand.

Campfire meetings create the social foundation that makes getting the work done possible.

Here’s one example. I know of a medium-sized manufacturing company with three research engineers. They worked in a corner of an open-plan office. Their desks were set facing the walls in an “L” shape – one engineer on one side and two on the other. The walls became bulletin boards. They set up a round table behind them where they could lay out their work and meet whenever need be. That was their entire engineering department.

And they talked all day long – they were only feet from each other. They discussed what they were doing, they helped each other, one or another would roll their chairs over to a colleagues’ desk and search his computer together. They joked, laughed, commented, and talked about their families. There was always something going on in that corner.

Until their supervisor decided to break them up because – and this is a quote – “you guys are having too much fun back here.”

Production plummeted. One engineer found another job. A couple of months later a second joined him. The manager had broken up an extremely productive high-functioning social unit because it didn’t fit the profile of what he thought a “business” environment should look like. To monitor their progress, he now had to summon “proper” meetings in his office – and these formal meetings were lengthy because the engineers were no longer in constant communication with each other, so they had to bring each other up to date before they could address the issues of the meeting.

All because the manager didn’t realize that, in their old configuration, engineering had been conducting a real-time campfire meeting all day, every day.

That meant there was no reason to call a meeting to be certain that everyone was “on the same page.” They were writing the "page” together as they worked. All he would have needed to do to find out the status of any project would be to walk over to their corner and ask “How are you guys doing?”

Better yet, he should have moved his desk over and joined them.  

The second traditional meeting place is the Waterhole:

Human beings are drawn to campfire environments because they signal security.  We are driven to waterholes by necessity. As a result, waterholes are high-stress environments.

This is where hierarchy rules. The dreaded Monday morning meeting – with the boss at the head of the table and the written agenda – is a classic waterhole scenario. We dread them because we must operate under the eyes of creatures much higher on the corporate food chain – creatures that have the power to affect our lives. They are rife with uncertainty – which humans are intuitively programmed to avoid.

How stressful are waterhole meetings? They are so stressful that the only thing worse than sitting through them is not being asked to attend.  It’s taken as a sign that the other predators have deemed you unnecessary and your career is now dead.  

Survival at a waterhole depends entirely on understanding your own particular jungle hierarchy. In the natural jungle, animals change position on the waterline every time a superior species arrives - leopards move for lions, lions and leopards move for buffalo, buffalo and the big cats move for elephants, and antelope and gazelles move for everybody. In the corporate jungle, priorities shift depending on who is speaking, and everyone shifts if it is the CEO. Hierarchy rules. In the natural jungle, the waterhole is usually littered with the bones of the unwary, the slow, the unprepared, and the brash. In the human jungle, often we don’t even leave the bones.

Every meeting can’t be a campfire; every meeting shouldn’t be a waterhole. There are specific ways we can use the social dynamic to our advantage without turning our meetings into a party, but we won’t find them in any of the books about how to conduct a meeting. At least I haven’t so far.

The first thing to realize is that the social dynamics of meetings are millennia-old. They have continued in an unbroken cycle since we first became human. Business bestsellers notwithstanding, anything people have been doing over millennia isn’t going to change tomorrow. You have to adapt to these embedded patterns.

A simple rule of thumb for determining which type of meeting will work best in your office environment: When trust is high, precision can be low. When trust is low, precision must be high.

  • When trust is high, precision can be low.  Campfires are high-trust environments. Participants share values, motivations, and goals. They know each other’s capabilities. No one thinks twice about asking for help or advice. They set clear expectations of what should be accomplished, and the confidence to allow others the freedom to determine how it might actually get accomplished.  

  • When trust is low, precision must be high. That’s why waterholes have printed agendas and strict hierarchies. They’re low-trust environments. There are multiple levels of power in the room as well as multiple agendas – such as those of management and other departments - that may conflict with yours. That itself causes uncertainty, which people intuitively avoid. One unintended outcome: people are hesitant to ask questions or ask for help – in that environment it’s a sign of weakness.

If your company has too many waterhole meetings, you might want to cast a fresh eye on your work environment. Companies with the highest-performing employees manage to strike a balance between these extremes by removing as much uncertainty as possible. Set clear goals and guidelines, but allow reasonable individual autonomy in how the goals can be met. That’s when the campfires kick in.