My crumbling palace of memory…

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


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.

Re-imagining the performance review…

At a recent conference I had the pleasure of listening to Ashley Goodall from Deloitte speak about how they are reinventing performance management and it struck me – why are more firms not doing this?

The premise of Goodall’s changes to the review process was that to fuel performance we first need to recognise it, and then truly see it, reliably. The challenge with this is naturally performance reviews are subjective, and if this is the case how do we generate reliable data, reliable information against which to measure performance?

Goodall’s response – look at what is happening in the best teams, the ones that are excelling, the ones with low turnover, the ones with higher productivity, as what we have truly been missing in the performance measurement paradigm is at the team level. In his words ‘we have missed teams in performance measurement, we do lots of individual stuff, and lots of organisational stuff’.

Think about your motivation, does it come from the actions you set following your traditional, staid review, a throwback to the days of mechanistic management techniques. I would suggest not. According to Goodall, in Deloitte the most powerful predictor of performance is when employees have the chance to use their skills every day. To you and I, as well as Deloitte’s employees, this means FULFILMENT! It trumps everything else.

From a motivation point of view fulfilment is closely followed by EXCITEMENT, being enthusiastic about the mission, and then ALIGNMENT, knowing what is expected of you. Given we want to make more teams like our best teams, if we look at what drives their performance and replicate these conditions then we might be going some way towards fuelling performance across other teams in the business.

So how do we do this? Goodall argues we should put all the data about the experiences and motivators of the team in the hands of the person who can do most about it – the team leaders! Their power to positively impact team productivity just by moving away from the past focussed feedback to forward focussed recognition has taken even Goodall by surprise in Deloitte where studies have shown increased engagement across all teams in the pilot.

He left us with a final thought ‘A career is doing your best work over and over again’. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all focus on what makes our best work our best work rather than the annual cycle of looking at what we didn’t do quite so well.

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.