The Institute of the Future

I consider myself to be very lucky.

I work for the University of Edinburgh. In doing so I am exposed to some of the fascinating, game changing research and teaching that this world renowned, ancient seat of learning produces. There aren’t many other roles where my insatiable appetite for learning and knowledge can almost be sated. Today was one of those days…

Today was the University’s General Council meeting, an old tradition of governance which came alive for me today with the event shaped around the fascinating and groundbreaking work of our four Global Academies of Health, Justice, Development and Environment & Society.

A Global Academy at Edinburgh University could be likened to the Scottish rugby team, but instead of men of all shapes and sizes valiantly pursuing excellence in the face of what seems to be insurmountable odds (or at least I think they are!) we have academics and students from all different schools, colleges, disciplines and backgrounds coming together to pull as one and address some of the worlds BIG (scary, seemingly impossible, unsolvable) problems.

Action, not apathy was the vibe of the day. My fellow Alumni and I rallied around the idea of an Institute of the Future. Where we, our students, our researchers and academics can curate the conversation around some of these big challenges facing our societies. Challenges such as mass migration across the planet, climate change, conflict, gender equality, urban justice, marine conservation, to name just a few that occupied our thoughts.

Although the challenges are daunting these academies are not daunted! They are a place for differences to be set aside and collaboration and innovation to flourish. As an alumnus as well as a member of staff I felt proud to be a part of the conversation today about what we want our university to be, what role we want it to play in the future, as these big challenges will not solve themselves!

Our academies, in their research, teaching, and dialogue with the world around us, provide a heartening dose of hope and direction around which we can rally and participate. So come on Alumni #rally, its #all4one and #one4all time!

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From arguing…to Negotiating

I should start this post with a huge warm shout out to Natalie Reynolds of Negotiations firm Advantage Spring. She took me from bolshy and argumentative (so my mum says) to sleek, fair, primo negotiator in one afternoon….

Well, that is what I am telling myself, and you.

The last two days I have been living my favourite two days of the year…that is, I have been in London for the 3rd Annual ‘Women in Leadership’ trip for Edinburgh Uni. As ever, it felt a little like a car whizzing past nnnneeeeeeoooooowwwww – a whirlwind of events, workshops and uplifting and thought provoking conversation. Now I am breathing, rebooting and figuring out, like I do every year, just how this one has changed me for the better (helped by a delayed flight and a glass of picpoul!).

I was at a bit of an advantage, as I am every year, in that this trip is my baby. I organise it from the ground up and feel very fortunate I am in a role where I can essentially CREATE the learning and sharing experiences that I truly believe enrich business school experience outside the classroom.

This year we focused on ‘VOICE – Negotiations and Executive Presence’, something I have thought long and hard about given at various times I have felt like speaking out, like keeping quiet, like I kept quiet when I should have spoke out, like an introvert, like an extrovert, like an extrovert’s life coach.. you get the picture.

Natalie stepped in and quietened the noise in my mind about what my voice is and should be, and helped me figure out how I want it to SOUND to the people I am engaging with. Her approach to negotiations is simple… that is is simply…SIMPLE. Often, she says, negotiation skills are dressed up, overlaid with too many models, and almost held up as something that is a natural talent and very hard to master.

Given we banish the fixed mindset from the Knowledge Zig Zag, her approach we like – it has growth mindset all over it. You can learn how to negotiate. So we did. I have included below some of her top tips:

  1. Firstly, just flippin’ do it – often we do not ask for what we want! If we don’t ask, we never enter into any negotiations, we never practice, and we lose out. AGREED.
  2. Be aware of anchors – do not let others set the tone and language of your negotiation. Own it. If they open with a number, do not negotiate from that point – state your own opener and re-calibrate the conversation around YOU.
  3. No is an invitation to negotiate – this is great news for me, as when I hear NO I think, great – a challenge! This is good apparently…
  4. Leave the other side SATISFIED – you are not out to destroy them, you are out to achieve what you need whilst not destroying business relationships.
  5. See the world through their eyes. Bring your capacity for empathy to the negotiating table and success will follow.

In short, negotiation is part of what is is to be human. It is an essential and unavoidable part of what makes us us and binds us together in the push and pull of life. I must remember that my negotiation voice will sound different to everyone I engage with, but that always underpinning it will be one of my most valuable yet fragile muscles – my negotiation muscle.  Like a muscle, negotiation skills can be grown, exercised, strained, torn and re-built, and that for all these things it can be the different between getting what you want, credibly, and ending up with nothing!

Thank you Natalie!

 

Success, and its bittersweet aftertaste!

Today is the end…. the 9th European Conference for MBA Careers Professionals and Employers here in Dublin, has closed. We shared openly, we laughed, we scribbled notes, and I think more than once we all had a bit of decision anxiety about which sessions to go to! I have come away, as I always do, with a warm feeling that only coming together with your favourite network can provide.

This conference, my 3rd in Europe, was my swansong and it was a labour of love 9 months in the planning. As the co-chair I was able to shape the programming and really design a conference I felt would support my peers and I to develop our skills and help us navigate in an increasingly complex and volatile market.

Our theme: Disruption, Resilience, Change: Sharing value in a dynamic world was the outcome of many interesting conversations in the planning committee, through which it was very evident that we were all preoccupied with the relentless pace of change both in, and at the interface between postgraduate business education and the employment market. The ‘war for talent’, the ‘business school of the future’, the ‘new leadership paradigm’, the ‘everything-tech revolution’ are some of many changing dimensions that we must be cogniscent of as we review, re-evaluate and in some cases re-boot how we work with postgraduate business talent.

We know we are not the first to feel like we are drinking from a fire hose in trying to keep up with the pace of change. Today is another page in a very long book characterized by invention, innovation, renewal, struggle, sacrifice, failure, and of course, success.

If we looked in the index of that book for some of Dublin’s most famous sons; George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Dracula creator Bram Stoker to name but a few, we would find that 100 – 150 years ago these men were observing and writing about these same concepts.

Disruption : “You see things; you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

We’ve all met ‘disruptive’ people, the ones who simply refuse to accept the status quo and the next thing we know are launching the next app, product, service that will change the way we consume, interact and live. More and more this idea of ‘disruption’ is not just the purview of the start-up, but is something we can see and experience in any industry.

Resilience: “It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature” (Bram Stoker)

It seems like every day I am thinking about my levels of resilience…and every day my store is called upon! James Joyce is quoted as saying “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day”. This tells me that resilience is a product of our life’s experiences and the choices we make about how to process, store and learn from those experiences.

For example, on Monday I swallowed my fear of tripping on the stage, muddling my words, dropping the mic and deafening the audience and got up in front of 158 of my peers to launch this conference. I knew, If I did indeed ‘trip’, literally or metaphorically, then my level of resilience (and/or the volume of laughter) would dictate whether I would be able to go back in that room the next day! The good news is I didn’t trip, but even if I had, I am certain there would have been 158 hands out to help me up.

Change: Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. (George Bernard Shaw).

Certainly, the pace of change is increasing as more and more demands are placed upon time and resources, and competitive pressure means that customer expectations are increasing exponentially. Shaw’s idea of the possibility of progress through change is an important one. Change for change’s sake is a ‘challenge’, however change for the sake of progress, to meet those enhanced expectations and to better use time and resources, is where I want to focus my energies.

It is this intersection between ‘focus’ and openness to change, a resilient mindset and an innovative and disruptive approach that I hoped we would set up camp for the duration of this conference. And I think we did! I have had a swelling sense of pride these past three days in seeing our programme unfold, and hearing all the positive feedback after every session from my peers and colleagues who were getting as much out of it as I was – I couldn’t believe it! SUCCESS.

But, it is bittersweet for me. I am having to make the difficult step of detaching myself from this CSEA network, as a new role points me in new directions. Leaving behind these colleagues, some of whom I would also now consider friends, is really hard. I wish everyone could see the value in engaging wholeheartedly with peer networks like this. If we spent more time sharing and creating, instead of hiding and competing, then imagine what we could discover!

So success this time is tinged with sadness, BUT… my amazing CSEA friends, I leave with the words of Magnus Lindkvist ringing in my ears…
1. look for secrets…
2. experiment…
3. be patient…

and you know, we can all say we were there when…. and we will always have Dublin #MBACSEADublin

My crumbling palace of memory…

They say elephants never forget…. lucky elephants, what is their secret I wonder…

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I think I’m not alone in sometimes feeling a bit ‘unstuck’ when it comes to memory. I am by no means old (unless I am in a room with undergraduate students, then I find myself the only person with a pen and paper and sounding like my father referencing ‘that cloudy thing’), but more and more I struggle to recall information, words, facts, figures just when I need them.

Maybe I am being dramatic, but as someone who has worked hard all her life to be ‘knowledgeable’ these moments of blankness are alarming to say the least. 

So it was great timing when I heard about a ‘Making Learning Stick’ seminar event where I hoped I would finally find out exactly why this happens and stop it happening again. I was dismayed to find it is not that simple.  As with all things worth having, memories, it seems, are hard to hang on to. This is because memories are hard to encode into our brains and consolidate in the first place and more often than not, we don’t take the time to do this properly.  When we think about remembering something we are really only referring to our ability to ‘recall’ it, which in turn is only as good as our ability to encode and consolidate it in the first place – are you still with me? Good. 

So, therein lies my new big question; where should I start work, my encoding, consolidating, or recall? It sounds like I am building the Matrix! 

Apparently, when we encode our memories they are filtered by what we consider important at the time. That makes sense to me, we take things in ‘in the moment’ – this also helps me understand why my husband and I remember completely different things when we see the same play… this will give me a new found patience in those post-curtain conversations. But it remains that it is impossible to know how a piece of information is going in, and what neural pathways (or something like that!) are being created with the memory for me to access it again in the future. 

One technique is to try to create as many ‘sensory’ associations as we can for each piece of knowledge. For example, using a certain aroma for a topic, which then means that smelling this aroma again could take us back to that learning point. Clever brain!

Another technique we tried was palaces of memory, where you ‘allocate’ a learning point (or an item, from a list for example), to a place (for example, your kitchen or hallway). Then when you walk through that space again, in real life or in your mind, you are reinforcing the learning point you wish to ‘stick’. My coat stand will now forever be the brain stem, my long-term memory (hippocampus) is in the den, and my habit formation and emotional processing are done by my basal ganglia in the garden. Who knew!

Equally important to encoding memory properly is consolidating it. This is most effectively done at night while we are sleeping or during some other period of quiet relaxation. Taking the time to process our new points of knowledge at a time when we are not distracted by new stimuli gives our brains the chance to turn this into solid synaptic coding, or hardwire it into us if you will. Great news, I’m good at sleeping. 

Finally, recalling. This is using any of the sensory cues we used to encode the memory, to recall it, smelling the same aroma for example to trigger a thought or learning point. Great you might think, well unfortunately we can suffer from what is delightfully called ‘graceful degradation’. Graceful degradation means we lose neurones, and by extension lose ‘access’ to the memory through that sensory pathway. This reinforces the need for more than one way ‘in’. Thinking this over I would certainly prefer if my problem were with recall, since it is far scarier to think the knowledge never went in in the first place! 

Final tip, if you re-read this in three hours and whilst simultaneously riding a bike or jogging, you will remember every word… if you want to that is! Research shows that raised heart rate and re-learning or spaced practice (3 hour intervals) are the best practices for making learning stick. 

Either way what is sure is that for effective encoding and recall of memories it really does matter how much we want to learn that information in the first place. This is good news for someone like me, who really WANTS to learn, and also makes me feel less bad about forgetting those pesky physics formulae that I simply HAD to know at the age of 16 but have been of no use since…

The authentic political leader…..and facebook…

An oxymoron you might say.

Many of us are consistently underwhelmed by the politicians and the political dialogue we hear echoing from the hallowed halls of Westminster and Holyrood, but are things changing?

At a recent event hosted by the Asia Scotland Institute we listened to Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s Government and Policy Specialist for EMEA, and Carl Miller, of London based think tank Demos talk about the way Facebook (and social media more generally) is changing how we engage with and in political dialogue.

What struck me most was how I felt listening to Elizabeth talk about Facebook as a steward of the democratic process. As she spoke I could not help but get excited at the power this one medium has had and is having, at connecting political leaders directly with their electorate. Even more powerful, that the electorate feel that they are seeing the ‘authentic’ person behind the leader. Interesting, that politicians who have historically spent too much time behind walls, physical or metaphorical, are now using a virtual wall to break down this distance between them and the people who will put pen to paper and vote for them.

This was a change for me, to see a Facebook wall as something other than a daily dose of soap opera madness filled with pictures of peoples food, teeth, lips, babies and free opinions on everything from the new John Lewis advert to the Syria crisis – everyone is an expert on Facebook now it seems. And there was my problem I think, I had always focused on the individual comments and things my ‘friends’ were posting and in doing so had not really considered the vast opportunity such a platform presents for how we collect, process and regurgitate information in our networks.

If a platform like Facebook then becomes a go-to place for political discussion we have to also think about whether we need to have some etiquette in place – just the same as if we have these conversations off-line. I live in Scotland and during the Scottish Referendum I was stunned by how quickly people who claimed to be ‘friends’ (granted we are not friends with everyone we ‘friend’ on Facebook ironically) turned on each other and sent out vitriolic diatribes that I’m sure one day in the future they might be ashamed for their grandchildren to see.

This of course is not Facebook’s fault – they are the means, they are the platform, they are the stage – but we are the players and this is why Elizabeth’s talk resonated with me so much. If political leaders, as she says, are running their own accounts (with advice I’m sure) and are actively making the effort to engage with the people, and the electorate is responding then perhaps this can only be a good thing.

Imagine what impact this could have for businesses if the CEO harnessed this trend to talk directly to his or her employees. Increased engagement, satisfaction, connection with the business purpose and the boardroom conversations – all things that research shows increases productivity.

It seems to me we are riding the wave of a great opportunity to better use Facebook and other platforms, to access and disseminate knowledge and opinions. We do however need to be mindful that political engagement on-line brings with it a whole new set of challenges for managing your ‘digital footprint’. This openness or access to our political leaders can lull us into a false sense of security – and we must remember that these conversations are not happening down the pub, where a lively debate or an ill-timed comment can be quickly forgotten. Just ask Jon Ronson.

The carrot, the stick….or something else?

‘If you do this…then you get that…’ GREAT, you might think, but is it? the old ‘If/Then’ rewards mechanism has come under increasing scrutiny as the way we think about and sustain our motivation has changed in line with the kinds of jobs we are doing.

To elaborate; if/then rewards were and are great for simple, short term, algorithmic tasks because it forces us to focus and lock in on the desired outcome. The more complex our roles become however, the less if/then rewards work because we cannot sustain that focus. Firstly we might burn out, but more importantly HOW we approach these tasks and what is required from us to get it done has changed. We can see therefore that the old carrot or stick ‘do this and get that’ is only useful for a shrinking number of tasks in the 21st century.

Similarly, the old ‘motivator’ of money often looses its salience in this more complex creative environment. Yes, if you want 40 widgets produced per hour, pay by the widget and pay more for over 40 widgets, but in a role where the output requires creativity and sustained effort or ingenuity, we need to create a system that focuses the mind on the work, not the reward. The motivator of money does not operate the way we think it does here – it is not about how much we get paid, it is about FAIRNESS- internal equity (my worth) and external equity (my value is recognised in relation to others)  – that allows us to dial down any grievances we may have about pay and can essentially take the issue off the table, clearing the way for our focus to be on the work.

Not only are we seeing increasingly complexity in our roles, but how these roles are ‘managed’ is evolving. Dan Pink, a leading psychologist and my inspiration for this piece, believes ‘management’ is is an outdated technology, historically used for organising people into productive capacities. It is designed to get compliance. The problem is that increasingly we, employees and employers alike, are looking for ENGAGEMENT, and we don’t engage by being managed or controlled. So how are we motivated to engage when if/then rewards and just paying people more no longer does the trick?

Pink’s answer? Simple, focus on AUTONOMY, MASTERY and PURPOSE.

If you ask a person to describe the best boss they ever had and the answer will most likely involve someone with high standards and who allows for you to have a level of autonomy – I know this is true for me (Thanks Amanda!). Giving people more control over their time, who they work with, and how they go about their tasks can have a huge impact on their level of engagement. The best example Pink uses here to illustrate is the Netflix relaxed expenses policy, arguing their employees will ‘act in the companies best interests’ because they do not want to abuse the trust placed in them by the company.

Autonomy aside, another huge motivator, and again I know this to be true for me, is making progress in meaningful work. This is intellectually satisfying and can really fire you up to keep going. The challenge here is this does rely on feedback, which is often in rare supply in most organisations (unless you have a boss like Amanda, again, thanks!). Pink suggests the key to this is changing up how we give feedback and when (1-1’s with a twist or a theme, or even standing up!), making it easier to have discussions on the relevance of the work we are doing and how we are getting on that are not tied up in the once a year formal performance review. Get into a progress ritual where you record your progress regularly, and share it with your peers and leaders to keep the fire in the engine lit and the train going in the right direction (to borrow a metaphor from my father).

Finally lets think about purpose (am I making a contribution?) and Purpose (am I making a difference?) . Pink argues we need to spend more time thinking about the WHY, not the HOW and eliminating the barriers between customers and employees to raise the salience of purpose and understand better who our work is ultimately servicing or benefiting. Engagement now is inextricably linked in the minds of many to purpose, and employers are becoming more aware that they need to be better prepared to harness this motivator in the workplace and understand its power as a motivator.

Autonomy, Mastery, P(p)urpose…. sounds much better than the carrot, and most definitely better than the stick!

 

 

Can I tell you what I want, what I really really want?

You know when you meet someone who just blows you away with their togetherness and spirituality…? That is how I felt when I first heard Alan Wallace speak back in March about ‘cultivating conative intelligence’. Wallace, who counts the Dalai Lama as one of his close friends is described on his website as ‘dynamic lecturer, progressive scholar, and one of the most prolific writers and translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West’.

Before trying to explain what conation and conative intelligence is and inevitably not doing justice to his concept, I feel I need to preface this post with a few lines about The other three types of ‘intelligence’ Wallace touches on; attentional, emotional and cognitive (a.k.a mindfulness).

Attentional intelligence, Wallace argues, is knowing how to direct attention to the right things, and then sustaining that attention in a focused fashion. This is important as we want our attention to be in high definition and congruent with the original idea. Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognise emotions, to discriminate between different feelings, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour. Cognitive intelligence meanwhile is bringing all your understanding, wisdom, intelligence to the task at hand.

This was interesting to me as I knew all about emotional intelligence (not necessarily from having a great deal of it) as I had recently been trained to deliver EI diagnostics, and attentional intelligence seemed to me to be a no-brainer, especially given all the things that now compete for our attention every second. Where I struggled previously was with the concept of mindfulness. Like many inquisitive people, the more I kept hearing the word the more I was desperate to ‘get it’, to ‘master mindfulness’, but many of the people I spoke to about it likened it to meditation, which the cynical part of me instantly dismissed. It wasn’t until Wallace referred to mindfulness as cognitive intelligence and explained this simply meant ‘bearing in mind’ that I began to see the illuminating effect these three intelligences might have when combined.

The fourth ‘intelligence, ‘conation’ according to Mr Wallace ‘is the mental faculty of purpose or design’, it is the ‘where do you want to go’. By extension conative intelligence is ‘thinking which desires and intentions truly lead to one’s own and others well-being and adopt them, whilst releasing desires and intentions that undermine one’s own and others well-being’. To borrow a phrase from Life Coach Maria Nemeth, this could be translated as ‘doing what you say you are going to do, with clarity, focus, ease and grace’ – this, she argues, is how you can master life’s energies and be successful.

Conative intelligence is about having sound, meaningful aspirations and intentions, and acting on them and them alone. What most of us find is these sound intentions are often hijacked, or we do attend to them but in a dysfunctional way. Wallace argues we need to better understand which desires and intentions will truly lead to happiness. Not hedonistic happiness which is derived from what we can get from the world around us, but genuine happiness, derived from what we bring to the world. We then need to draw on our capacity for mindfulness, bearing in mind these sound intentions and topics without distraction or forgetfulness.

Wallace argues that one of the reasons we as humans struggle with concepts like mindfulness is that we have become addicted to stimulation; to sensory and intellectual stimulation, to perpetual ideation, and to activity itself. When I hear these things laid out I certainly see a lot of these in me and my ‘excuses’ every time I explain why ‘mindfulness is not for me’. But what I have realised is that it is not my capacity for mindfulness that is in question, it is in developing my attentional and conative intelligence that I stand to gain the most.

So I have decided is that CONATION is for me. I want to devote my energies to only those things that will add to my well-being and the well-being of those around me. I also want to be ATTENTIONALLY INTELLIGENT, to be able to attend to my goals with ‘clarity, focus, ease and grace’ (thanks Maria Nemeth!). Finally, I hope to do this in an EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT way, using my understanding of my emotions to guide my decisions and behaviours in a way that is congruent with my original idea… If I pursue only those goals worth pursuing, and do so in a focused and attentional fashion, perhaps the mindfulness might not seem such an alien concept to me. I think I’ll start now.

Introducing the Knowledge Zig-Zag

Why read me? Well, why not?

Until recently the word blog just sort of flitted around in my head, as something other people with real things to say used to say real things. That’s not me, I thought!

Then I realised something, I was coming back from conferences or meetings or events, or from having finished a book, or an article or anything and realising that although I was sharing this new information, these nuggets, this new knowledge, with peers and friends, it was not satisfying me enough.

I was literally bursting at the seams with intellectual curiosity and finding I was overloading the few people in my immediate circle who, our of deference to our friendship or my obvious enthusiasm were indulging me, listening politely and going on about their days.

And why not, that is their prerogative for sure. But that got me thinking, perhaps I should find a place brain dump all the interesting information (subjective I know!) I gather out and about so that perhaps one new person can read and share in it with me, or tell me I’m wrong, or add some of their own knowledge to the mix.

Who knows. I suspect I am being overambitious but I am hopeful this will be an enjoyable experience so if nothing else this is a record of what I am seeing, reading, listening to and watching, that I can reflect on at a later date. That is why I called it the knowledge zig zag – a collection of confessions of a serial connector with a serious case of intellectual curiosity.