Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Within a turbulant economy and in the midst of an individualist culture, people feel the pressure to find different ways to make themselves an appealing investment for a company. When the social loses its significance in joint creation of wellbeing, people turn to themselves for help. People seek to better themselves in a number of ways during their free time as well as at work. A somewhat ridiculous example of the pressure for self-development and self-help on the modern information worker are the gyms offering treadmills not with TV shows to lookat but simultaneous brain training games. Sounds appealing, enhance your cognitive capacity AND do your cardio at the same time!

Extremes aside, people do invest a lot of time and effort into becoming better and feeling better at what they do. In essence, this is a positive trend, highlighting personal responsibility and ability in self-development. However, with all the offerings and help for self-improvement out there, one may get a little lost, like in the gym example above.

How do you know when and what type of self-development is needed? A simple answer is: when contentment ends. When viewed from an environmental perspective, sometimes there are rules in play that force action that is not good for you or at the end for the environment. This is the case for instance when an employee has to work in an organization according to rules that she feels are not supporting her best efforts; lord knows how many people are at the moment doing for example work in a manner they know is not their best, in unsatisfactory circumstances, or with people they feel are not helping. However, there is no need to succumb to the situation. These are moments where the rules have reached their limits, they are inadequate and do not serve a purpose. These situations open a window of possibility for change: the possibility to take a step back, observe the situation, revise and transcend.

It is quite easy to notice rules and restrictions in your operating environment that make you unhappy and inhibit your success. Discontent about your own actions or thought processes is however easily subdued or avoided. Noticing what inhibits yourself from being better in your surroundings as well as in your own thoughts is vital for going forward. There is no reason people could not step back, observer, revise and transcend in their own minds as well.

What is it that separates highly successful individuals, excellent performance or wellbeing from their opposites? Luck or circumstance, the predispositions caused by individual genetic makeup and the environment, such as the networks we choose to belong to and build, all play their part. However the individual is not a dummy but a willful agent in the world. What are the actions that a person can take that help reach excellence and be better?

It seems that in the end te answer is very simple – reaching good quality and continuing development require: 1) challenging your own views about what you are doing 2) recognizing points of discontentment 3) making a conscious effort to do things better and 3) using your time correctly. Seems pretty manageable. But when looking at the popularity of services and consultation telling people to do just this, it also seems we need some help in the process.

The thing that connects most self-development programs, psychotherapies, meditation, yoga, life-coaching and career counseling, basically anything that promises you development, wellbeing, problem solving is that they aim at making use of the mind is “a combinatorial and recursive system” with the metacognitive capacity to have thoughts about thoughts as well as thoughts about thoughts about thoughts (you can continue this sentence for as far as your metacognitive capacity permits).

Recognizing and developing this particular cognitive capacity would be the first step for any person aiming at developing either outer or inner faculties. It would help in all the steps needed: noticing where and how things could be better in your own actions, understanding what is needed for improvement, what you do not yet know and how you could find this information as well as finding ways to motivate yourself into action. It seems that the power for becoming better is an innate faculty and one that to a great length defines human nature. Without clear and insuperable environmental or deeply rooted genetic obstacles for development, we find there are no more excuses…



Thank you Linda Nordberg and Vesa Putkinen

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Photo credit: ZeroOne, Flickr

According to a case study by Jarmo Suominen at MIT on campus mobility, creative thinking and new discovery does not solely happen in labs, meeting rooms or classes but all the more in leisurely and informal places like out at a park where people go out for picnic lunches. In general, a big theme in the explanation of innovative thinking and creative information intensive work is “encounter”. People seem to be at their most creative when around and in contact to others. New ideas come about in relaxed settings and in contact.

What does fruitful encounter require? As it seems, the surroundings matter. Although a work place may have designated rooms for interaction around work subjects, the most rewarding and rich places for coming up with new ideas are ones that are less obvious, or ones that do not deliberately try to direct people’s thinking towards work. These places include coffee shops, lunch restaurants or parks where colleagues can easily get to from the work place and that aren’t specifically built and designed for efficient working. They are also places where people across business areas and departments can meet, share information and create unusual connections. As work places and offices typically aim at getting cost-effective solutions from human beings as well as the office solutions, what people are mostly surrounded by may not be the most fruitful place for creative thinking.

What do the places that spur on creative thinking have in common? Coffee shops, parks, bars and restaurants are designed for recreation and pleasure. They aim at helping people enjoy themselves in each others’ company, have their needs met, making people feel relaxed, safe and at peace. These spaces are not designed for containing, controlling and streamlining the use of human resources, they are meant to produce good feeling. One way they do this is by supporting relaxation through a combination of thought-out choices and structure but at the same time freedom of choice for the customer. When entering a park of coffee shop, the person can freely choose where to sit, what to do although the surroundings obviously permit only a limited set of actions. Through relaxation, feeling of safety and satisfaction, people can enter into encounters through a positive and energetic mindset.

If a company wishes to support the creativity of its employees and coming  up with innovative new products is a core function, it may be unwittingly be working against these goals through tightly set boundaries for work time and work place. Most employers may think that it is not their responsibility to be there for employees’ “recreation and pleasure”. Employers are however required to provide work tools and other requisites for completing the work they are asking employees to do. The main question here is: is the office a good tool for creative work?

The need to control processes and streamline human action as part of production may have lead to environments that stifle new thought. A process can be defined as repetition of a function that has been defined beforehand. If a company wishes to create something new, they need to free their employee minds from previously defined processes and environments that encourage repetition towards freer interaction and thought.  Making offices more leisurely, personalized and relaxed may be one way to increase creativity at the workplace. At a minimum, it is essential to make sure that people are situated at the office so that are able to relax, concentrate and yet freely interact. This is something that sounds simple, but when you think about how offices are typically arranged, there are a lot of small things that could be changed with big results. For instance, the open office where people sit behind each other creates a, evolutionarily understandable feeling of insecurity – someone can be lurking behind your back.

Nevertheless, even though the office could be transformed to resemble a coffee shop, it will still not be as spontaneous as the outdoors. In the search for new ideas that produce new connections, chance and randomness are important.  Allowing more choice about work places and supporting voluntary, undefined out-of-the -office encounters and engagements with other people is one way for companies to support creative thinking.

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Finland’s innovation system has previously been one of the world’s top systems. However, recently we have begun to fail in global comparisons of development of the information society and international competitive ability in innovation. What factors influence the capability to produce innovation? How could knowledge intensive work be better supported in Finland? The reasons behind the lack of new innovation may lie in the way that knowledge intensive work is led and organized. The quality and value of knowledge intensive work suffer within corporate structures that aim to control instead of support the metacognitive aspects of individuals’ thinking.

National economic productivity and competitive edge have been defined in the government platform to need new and broader innovation for instance in the areas of technology, research, education and organizations. However, with Finland’s increasing disability to produce new innovation and recent loss of global competitive power in this area, new structures and ways to produce innovation and develop the information society are needed. As national economy comes to rely more and more on innovation instead of industry, the systems supporting development of knowledge intensive work become highly important.

From the individual’s point of view, value creation through enrichment of knowledge requires continuous self-awareness with observation, evaluation and development of own thought processes. With a word, knowledge work is learning. From a structural point of view, knowledge work is acting within networked contexts, which further complicates the cognitive demand of information processing. Successful knowledge intensive work happens through flexible and dynamic arrangement and ongoing learning in cooperation with others. The quality and value of knowledge work are defined through the efficiency of learning and the uniqueness and applicability of the results of learning.

With this definition of knowledge intensive work in mind, the relevant question is: how do current organizational structures support individual learning? It seems that through highly defined management processes, a lot of cognitive activity that is an essential part of the knowledge worker’s thinking is actually defined as the responsibility of management. The over-managed organization contains corporate functions that should be re-internalized into individuals’ thought processes in order to support learning. Processes such as motivation, time management, choice over tasks, communication with others or personal wellbeing cannot be defined by someone else and successfully guided by external structures in a way that would still permit creative and flexible learning. People cannot be creative individuals if they are viewed as human resources that need to be managed. With less management of choices related to work and internal thought processes, individuals’ thinking and learning will become self-led and creative activity happen naturally within the most fruitful interpersonal contexts.

However, only decreasing management functions will not lead to desired results. The whole concept of work needs to change, along with traditional conceptions of work-roles, work places and other structural aspects. Human centric, task-based work is a model that defines knowledge intensive work in a fundamentally different way. The basic idea of the concept is that knowledge intensive work is learning and cannot effectively be defined by work roles, places and organizational structures. Knowledge intensive work is about specific task content and the learning and cooperation of individuals interested in the content. Applying the concept of human centric task-based work to how knowledge intensive work is conducted would provide the needed support for organizational and individual learning that enables creative thinking and new innovation. The concept of human centric work as a new mode of function could also in itself be a step in developing the information society in Finland and supporting national economy through increasing the value of locally “produced” knowledge intensive work.

Thank you Esko Kilpi

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Photo credit: Todd Huffman

Meditation, mindfulness, awareness, consciousness and metacognition are terms appearing in different contexts and defined through different schools of thought. They all refer to processes within the mind that have to do with the mind itself. They all try to increase knowledge about the self and help find some degree of control over or release from the automatic verbal and nonverbal hum generated by neural networks in the brain. The idea is that through self-awareness, release and increased knowledge, more control and autonomy can be experienced. A person can more fully concentrate on the most important thoughts at the moment and choose to feel better by centering on adaptive feelings and mindstates.

The brain never sleeps. It continuously goes over information recorded in activity of neural networks, rearranging and combining it with past experience and producing future predictions. Meditation techniques that aim at silencing the brain usually actually result in immense activation because the brain cannot cease doing what it is built for. The brain does not want to be quiet because the fluctuations of activation and deactivation are what define its existence. And as people typically relate the self to activity of the brain, the brain’s activity defines the existence of the whole person. Trying to silence the brain can therefore result in a quite discomforting feeling of nonexistence.

In addition to endless activity, the brain does not understand the word “no”. When your try not to think of something, the mental image of the “thing” will automatically be produced in the mind. There is then, no sense to try and stop the brain from producing for example maladaptive thoughts or feelings. This will only result in activation of their representations in the mind as well as the negative feelings associated with them. Trying to actively stop thinking depressive thoughts will only result in a mind full of depressive thoughts.

However, the ongoing automatic and responsive activity of the brain naturally contains many levels of control and awareness. When there are maladaptive thought processes or mindstates that a person wishes not to experience, what needs to happen is a shift in the level of awareness and a change in feelings towards indifference. Through recognition of malign thought processes, a person can gradually learn to view them more objectively and detach emotion from thought content, which leads to deactivation of the thought and more infrequent appearance in the mind. Techniques that increase self-awareness are thus also the core of many types of psychotherapy. Problems of the mind can be cured by consciously altering processes of the mind.

Although thinking about the functions of the brain and awareness of thought processes may feel detached from normal life, there is a lot of which people without specific problems can make use.  Approaching the workings of one’s mind in a more relaxed and objective state is beneficial for not only people with thought processes disturbing mental health but for everyone. For example, increasing metacognitive awareness and metacognitive skills can support learning . Becoming more aware of own thought processes helps identify the way that knowledge is constructed in the mind. It helps answer questions like: ”That do I know?” ”What do I not know?” ”How could I understand this better?” and ”Where could I find this information?”.

Information intensive work typically requires functioning within hypermedia contexts. Even the more conservative companies have now evolved into complex organizations with numerous parallel processes through which employees have to define their work. When thinking about the nature of modern work it becomes evident that the amount of specific knowledge that people have is actually less important as flexibility of thought and use of metacognition. To succeed it is more essential to understand how to make use of available resources, how to develop oneself and operate within different contexts. Information contents do not matter as much as the employees’ flexibility in using them and viewing their personal contribution from different points of view.

Developing oneself through meditation, increasing self-awareness and training metacognitive skills are not only for those in therapy or those quitting work and leaving for India to become enlightened. They are ordinary human skills that are already needed in day-to-day work. There are ample possibilities for learning more about self-awareness and a lot of scientific and non-scientific information available from studies on metacognition to yogic philosophy about self-awareness and enlightenment. What is still missing is an integration of this knowledge into leadership and management. Ideas about personnel development and wellbeing are typically somewhat regarded as expendable or additional on top of “real work”. However, as metacognition is becoming a vital skill for knowledge workers, companies should consider integrating more metacognitive and awareness-supporting elements into their basic functions. Luckily with the abundance of different types of software and platforms, there are many possibilities to further this kind of thinking and integrate it into the core functions of work. In the future, instead of arranging for separate personal development programs, working itself can contain functions that increase awareness, wellbeing and learning.

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Photo Credit: kevindooley / Kevin Dooley

A startling discovery was made around the 70’s in psychological research about motivation: money doesn’t cut it. In fact, giving a small monetary reward for completing a task resulted in decrease of intrinsic motivation. Also, what seems to be more important than reward is how the person perceives meaning in the task: if a task is truly intrinsically motivating, by for example producing information about the performer himself, then extrinsic rewards such as money have little effect on subsequent motivation. It seems then, that money as a reward can meaningless or even detrimental for motivation. More recent studies have found the same with some specification.

An intricate psychological event like motivation can of course not be simplified to only an interaction between reward and choice, but research such as the ones cited above do highlight a quite obvious thing that is still, for indeterminate reasons, not completely understood in business: people need more than money to be motivated. More specifically, people need tasks that are personally meaningful.

This is a troublesome and quite inconvenient thought when building incentive systems or trying to lead people so as to increase motivation. Experience of personal meaning at work varies endlessly according to personal and quite immeasurable human logic, not to speak of feelings and emotions. There is no common algorithm available be applied to everyone because motivation is a sum of so many personal dimensions. There can be no common incentive system in the name of equality – it will fail to provide truly compelling incentive.

For corporate motivational or incentive systems to work they should be different for everyone and vary not only pay but also the content and structure of work. This is attainable in small organizations but gets too complicated in bigger ones where there is no sense in expecting leaders or corporate functions to be involved in such a level of detail.

So how can bigger companies support enduring motivation? The answer is that the company shouldn’t actually try to motivate the employees – they should provide support for employees to motivate themselves. People clearly are the best experts themselves when it comes to personal subjects such as motivation and happiness. Choosing the kinds of tasks, teams and environments that support personal motivation and wellbeing is best done by the person whose motivation and wellbeing are in question.

People are however not always fully aware of what they need in order to experience fulfilment. In fact, the bulk of career coaching centers around the question “what do I want?”. Building good self-awareness is a lifelong development process, but support is available in many forms – e.g. coaching and psychological measures can provide a wealth of tools for people to think about their happiness and increase the freedom to have an impact on personal motivation.

Thinking about motivation like this is a definite challenge for management because what is literally needed is less management. Adding freedom of choice about task content, composition of work teams as well as work environments is the only way to support people in building sustainable personal motivation. This requires that companies don’t see people and their knowhow as something they own and must “milk” but as a developing, self-organizing intelligence that is temporarily leant to the organization to achieve a specific goal. If a company is afraid of losing knowledge and strives to incorporate and detain it in itself, it will result in structures that decrease motivation and obstruct development of information. Giving more power to employees, acknowledging the importance of personal factors, sense of meaning and self awareness in motivation will result in more power in thought and action, and since money is a necessity, ultimately be a more cost-effective incentive system.

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Photo credit: Nrbelex / Brett Weinstein

Computer-based information systems are an analogy of the dynamics of the mind and human information processing, just as the steam engine was in its time. However, the human mind is never as direct in its logic and decision-making as information systems seem to be. In fact, human decision-making is full of irrationality and prejudice and is often based on the use of simplification and heuristics. It is the only way that people can cope and balance between the mass of information that comes from the environment and the mass of internal information and activity.

Corners are cut in reasoning especially when complex mind structures attempt to make sense out of other complex mind structures. People tend to group and judge others based on single experiences and make decisions in relationships according to obscure feelings and irrational logic. Situations that are especially full of questionable logic and reasoning are ones where people are required to evaluate each other. Most are familiar with development discussions and job interviews. It has been shown that without specific advice on what to evaluate, the assessment that people make of each other and themselves are influenced by e.g. gender and acquaintanceship or even height. In competitive situations at work, our evolutionary base and survival instincts take control and bias our evaluations in favor of the opposite sex.

The only way to keep objective in situations where people evaluate others is to tie the assessment to some objective measure that directs thought and eliminates the influence of irrelevant factors. Another way to increase objectivity is to develop self awareness so that personal bias can be recognized and questioned or to use experts that have more awareness and objectivity.

One method of the mind that permits function with the amount of information available is creating categories, hierarchies and relationships. Within large groups of people such as companies and other organizations, people are bound to try and organize information about others through perceiving hierarchy. Some people in leading positions would rather not be perceived through power structures but as equal coworkers with only somewhat different responsibilities. However, due to the weight of past experiences and management practices originating from industrial times as well as the nature of human thought processes, equality is just an illusion in most typical organizations.

Perception of authority and leadership can also produce feelings of security. Leaders are expected to take final responsibility which diminishes pressure from others. It is also simpler to think of business occurrences as the result of only one man’s decisions instead of complicated interaction between all the employees involved, global economic customer needs and pure chance.

Perceiving work through task content and not outer structure such as work roles or positions in corporate hierarchy will in itself be a huge challenge for information processing. Luckily, the cognitive burden of this change will be divided among individuals.  Because leaders will no longer have to manage the metacognitive elements of work, they can freely concentrate more on the information content and the potential of people doing it. Also, as work is identified with task content and the people that work on tasks, the bias that people have of attributing the company’s success or failure to single people will diminish.

As business becomes more knowledge intensive, human centered and less computational, there are specific laws that come to effect. Specifically, obscure human reasoning and creative thinking, which cannot be reliably modeled or predicted, will have to be somehow managed and fostered to reach company goals. This requires that leadership incorporate an understanding of human reasoning and offer structure and specific tools to overcome prejudice and oversimplification that are innate to everyone. In addition, tools to assess and support personal development and potential can no longer be viewed as a service for only the few but as essential part of every employee’s work.

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