July 24, 2007

Cognitive reserve: stimulating activities build a buffer that protects us

I came across something called cognitive reserve theory (on the photo: researcher Yaakov Stern). Cognitive reserve theory says the following:
  • Lifetime experiences, like education, engaging occupation, and leisure activities, have been shown to have a major influence on how we age, specifically on whether we will develop Alzheimer's symptoms or not.
  • This is so because stimulating activities, ideally combining physical exercise, learning and social interaction, help us build a Cognitive Reserve to protect us.
  • The earlier we start building our Reserve, the better; but it is never too late to start. And, the more activities, the better: the effect is cumulative.
Reading this I can't help but think about Carol Dweck's work on The Growth Mindset. Seems like the growth mindset helps to build a buffer against certain types of mental illness. This corresponds directly with a tenet of positive psychology that building strengths has the effect of building a buffer against problems.

July 20, 2007

How good does it get? (7) - Is the growth mindset applicable to happiness?

Most psychologists assume that the extent to which happiness is developable is limited. They think there is a so-called set point. This is a biologically determined range within which your happiness would move. Many laypeople also seem reluctant in the achievability or developability of happiness. Brad Pitt, the movie star once remarked in response to the question whether he was happy: “I don't believe in happiness.” Now, the thinking about happiness seems to shift among experts. Ed Diener, a well-known happiness expert says: “Set-point is not destiny. In fact, happiness probably is really about work and striving. Happiness is the process, not the place. So many of us think that when we get everything just right, and obtain certain goals and circumstances, everything will be in place and we will be happy…. But once we get everything in place, we still need new goals and activities. The Princess could not just stop when she got the Prince.” The article Do you have what it takes to lead a happier life? describes a very simple approach that seems to have helped many people to increase their happiness: think every night about three good things that have happened that day and analyze why they have happened.” I have talked several times about the growth mindset on this site. Then, the question was whether intelligence is developable. Is the growth mindset also applicable to happiness? I don't know. The exercise might help. It seems worth a try.

July 19, 2007

Carol Dweck

Today, I came across this interview with Malcom Gladwell. He is the author of the bestsellers The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In the interview he says:
"One of the most popular pieces I ever did relied very heavily on work done by Carol Dweck. [The piece Gladwell is referring to is “The Talent Myth” published in The New Yorker, July 22, 2002. Dweck is the William B. Ransford Professor of Psychology at Columbia University.] Carol Dweck deserves a big audience."
I agree with Malcom Gladwell. Carol Dweck's work deserves broad attention. I had the pleasure of doing an interview with her last year. You can read it here: The Growth Mindset.

July 18, 2007

The True Nature of Intelligence- collective intelligence

In my 2004 article The True Nature of Intelligence one suggestion I made (along with two other suggestions) was to view intelligence as an interpersonal phenomenon:
"Intelligence does not need to be seen only as something that is inside the head of the individual but can also be seen as something that emerges between people when they co-operate. This view makes opens the possibility that intelligence also happens between people. Every time when two people deliver intellectual performances that they could not have accomplished on their own, we see an example of the interpersonal aspect of intelligence. Hard to imagine? Think about this. The human brain is a network of approximately 100 billion brain cells (neurons) of different kinds that each are connected to very many other neurons. It all adds up to an estimated total of 100 trillion connections. Although the brain is capable of impressive intellectual feats, the neurons of which it is built are not very intelligent. The intelligence of people is not in the neurons but in the connections between the neurons, so between the neurons, or in the network. The comparison between the brain and co-operating people should not be taken too far, if it were only because brains are unimaginably more complex than even the most complex organization. But the analogy does make it easier for us to imagine organizations as networks of interconnected people in which the value and intelligence of the organization is not solely in the people but also between the people. It makes it easier to think in terms of a collective intelligence."
A new paper by Alex (Sandy) Pentland presents evidence for the existence of collective intelligence. Read the paper here: On The Collective Nature of Human Intelligence.

July 17, 2007

‘No’ seems to be the hardest word- Interview with William Ury

Here is a new interview I did with William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive NO.

‘No’ seems to be the hardest word
Positive thinking is hot. There seems to be an abundance of positive change approaches, for example solution-focused practice, appreciative inquiry, positive psychology, strength-based management, and positive deviance. Does this emphasis on the positive mean that we have to agree and go along with everything that we meet on our path? No, says negotiation expert William Ury, co-author of the well-known book Getting to YES and Director of the Global Negotiation Project, part of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. William Ury is convinced that the skill of saying No is indispensable. However, according to him, saying No does not imply that you can no longer be constructive, respectful and positive. He explains this in his new book, The Power of a Positive NO. Here is an interview with him about the book. Read the interview

July 16, 2007

People are motivated to accept compliments

In his new book What Were They Thinking, Jeffrey Pfeffer writes an interesting chapter about good manners, friendliness and compliments called How to Turn of the Charm. He writes: "Complimenting people works quite well to increase likeability. That's because of the self-enhancement motive - our desire to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments. We like people who help us do that. People often underestimate the power of flattery, because we think we won't be taken in. But we are motivated to believe compliments are sincere..... Given the motivational desire to feel better rather than worse, the odds are you are going to not look a "gift compliment" in the mouth or subject in to too much scrutiny." I still go for sincerity in compliments but what Pfeffer says here makes me realize we don't have to be too afraid people will take well meant compliments the wrong way.

July 14, 2007

You don't have to fully understand yourself or anyone else

Complete understanding of social phenomena is often not possible. Fortunately, it is also unnecessary. Solution-focused pioneer Steve de Shazer once said: "Real understanding is not possible; there are only useful and less useful misunderstandings." His partner Insoo Kim Berg said something in the same vain: "I don't ever expect anybody to understand me completely. Sometimes I don't understand myself or I may change my mind." Social psychologist Timothy Wilson, author of Strangers to ourselves, explains why it is not possible or useful to fully try to understand yourself. He explains that there is a hidden mental world of judgments, feelings, and motives that introspection may never show us: the adaptive unconscious. This is a set of pervasive, sophisticated mental processes that size up our worlds, set goals, and initiate action, all while we are consciously thinking about something else. Trying to completely understand ourselves can be a confusing and frustrating process. Trying to fully understand another person of to confront him can be equally confusing and useless. Maybe your perspective on him is essentially unaccessible to the other person. He may simply not be able to see what you see. In the best case he may respectfully listen to you and take into consideration what you say. But it is hard to really accept what you cannot perceive. Perhaps we have to let go of the idea of complete understanding (at least when we are not doing science). Solution-focused change offers useful perspective. In SF, more important than having a absolute picture of what is true, is finding out what works. What you need is to understand just enough about anything to make progress.

July 12, 2007

The seven steps approach (step 7): Determining the further desire for change

A next step is to ask specifically what further change is desired. Doing this allows you check your motivation for further change and to adjust you goals, if necessary. The benefits of frequently asking what further change you want are threefold: 1) motivational: by remembering why you want things to be different you re-inject new motivation for change, 2) fine-tuning: it allows you to fine-tune your goals by taking into account new things that have happened, or new insights you may have gained, 3) efficiency: it keeps you from doing too much. The question may help you to realize that you have already done enough and that you don’t need to make further changes. Questions in this step may be:
- What further change do you need?
- When will you know you have made enough progress?

July 11, 2007

The seven steps approach (step 6): Monitoring progress

After the small step forward has been taken you, focus your attention on what goes better. This purposeful improvement-focus helps you to notice positive changes, even small ones. Noticing that you are moving forward is supportive to making further change. First, is it encouraging to notice you are on the right way. Second, it provides you with a clear sense of what works so that it will become easier to take next steps forward. In this step, the following questions are answered:
- What is going better?
- What helped?
- What did you specifically do that worked?
- What else went better?

- Etc.

July 9, 2007

The secret of happiness according to Daniel Dennett

"Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it." (Source)

Review of What Were They Thinking?

Jeffrey Pfeffer is an exceptional management author, who has written twelve great books, among which The Knowing-Doing Gap, Hidden Value, The Human Equation, and Hard Facts. His new book, What Were They Thinking, is based on a series of columns Pfeffer wrote for the magazine Business 2.0. In it, he covers a wide range of topics, from people centered management strategies to creating effective workplaces, using power strategies, thinking differently about success, executive pay and corporate ethics. The great thing in all Pfeffers writing is that whatever he says is so well argued and facts-based. If you're familiar with his earlier books, you will surely recognize many of the points he's making in this book. At the same time, however, there is a certain freshness in this book, maybe due to the fact that it is based on columns. Another reason is there are new examples from the corporate world, and there are many new research references. Friend and colleague of Pfeffer, Bob Sutton, has said this about him: "And no matter how strongly you disagree with him, he has this annoying habit of basing his arguments on the best theory and evidence in peer-reviewed academic publications. Plus when he writes about an unstudied topic, his logic is often so compelling that refuting his arguments is extremely difficult." When reading this book (and practically anything else he has written) you'll find it easy to agree with Sutton: it is very hard to disagree with Pfeffer once you follow his reasoning and evidence. Some of the chapters I liked best in this book were: The courage to rise above, Dare to be different, More mister Nice guy, Curbing the Urge to Merge, In praise of organized labor, Stopping corporate misdeeds. A great book. I think every student of organizational effectiveness should read it.

The seven steps approach (step 5): One small step forward

Then, the attention shifts to taking action by looking at how earlier success is useful for the current situation. This is sometimes called building a bridge between successes in the past to success in the future. You focus on taking one small step forward instead of taking a big leap. Taking small steps has several advantages: 1) it is easy: the required energy, motivation, and trust are minimal, 2) it is safe: if it does not work not much will be lost, 3) it is encouraging: aiming for a small step implies something positive, namely that there is already a lot functioning well as it is, 4) there is a chance of positive snowball effects: the one small step approach has a surprising side effect: it may lead to a snowball effect: one small improvement may unexpectedly bring about more positive change (read more). Associated with this step are questions like:
- How is what we talked about relevant for your current situation?
- What small step forward could you take?
- How would you notice that this small step would work?

July 8, 2007

The seven steps approach (step 4): Analyzing past success

The following step is to identify specific situations in the past in which things have already gone better. This might involve: a) an exception to the problem: the current problem was less problematic, or b) an earlier success: the situation you want to achieve was already happening to some extent (read more). When you have identified such a situation, you answer questions like:
- What went right in this situation?
- What was different in this situation?
- What made possible for things to go better?
- What was your own role in this success?

Analyzing situations of ealier success helps to find what I call internal solutions, solutions that have already once been applied and have proven effective. Internal solutions work so well, because they 'fit' in the sense that the people involved (1) know how to apply them, (2) have the skill to apply them, and (3) trust in the relevance and effectiveness of the solution. That internal solutions fit so well creates a sense of ownership, which makes it easier for people to restart using them and to keep on using them. Focusing on internal solutions is focusing on what is already there, instead of what is not there. It is based on the assumption that the person or organization has the resources available to be successful. It is an appreciative way of looking at individuals, teams and organizations. It implies they are already good.

July 6, 2007

Brief solution-focused questionnaire for pupils: "Wanna do better"

The school year is nearly over. Mary, the teacher, has determined all the pupils grades for their end-of year reports and all the relevant topics of her subject have been covered. Today is the last lesson. Mary thinks about how she'll use the time. She has thought about having the pupils do some extra work. And she also has thought about showing a movie to the children. But she decides to do something different. She asks the children to complete a brief questionnaire with questions like:

* What do you think went well this year?
* What has made you proud this year?
* What are you not so satisfied about?

* How would you like next year to go?
* What will you do differently next year?
* How would you like your life to be after you will have finished school?

Mary invites the children to answer these questions and says she is very curious about how they will answer them. Some children begin to write right away. Some others have to get used to these questions first, before they start writing. Then, a few children ask if they can draw the answers instead of writing them. Mary says that is fine. One of the pupils, Ali, only writes one sentences on his paper and hands it in right away. He has written: “I wanna be a gangsta." Mary looks at the paper for a second and thinks about whether she should say something about it. She decides not to. She walks past the children who are answering the questions. After about 10 minutes Ali suddenly asks: Miss, could I have another paper? What I just wrote was a joke. Now, I wanna answer it for real." When he is finished Mary has a quick look at what he has written. The first thing she reads is: “Wanna do better at school.”

The seven steps approach (step 3): Seeing what is already there

The third step usually is to see what is already there. I usually call this the platform, the current situation, the place from which we will start to make progress in the direction of the desired state. Key to establishing the platform is asking and answering are questions like: ‘What have we already achieved?’, ‘What is already there?’, ‘What has helped to bring us to our current position?’ As you see, these questions are very positively and constructively formulated. You know the saying that you can see a glass as half empty or half full? Well, in this step of the solution-focused change process, we ask how full the glass is and how it became that full. By focusing on this, people usually become aware that change in the desired direction has already begun. By focusing on what has already been achieved, people get a completely different perspective both on their current situation (it is not all bad!) and on their future. Once they start looking at the glass as half full instead of half empty, they become more hopeful that they will be able to achieve their change goals. Establishing the platform helps to recognize that some good things have already been achieved and how that happened. It helps to build confidence, optimism and trust.

A great way to help people see what is already there is through scales. Here is a basic explanation of the use of scales:

  1. Explanation of the scale: the coach explains that the scale goes from 0 to 10. 0 stands for the situation in which the problem is at its worst and 10 stands for the situation in which the problem is completely gone and the desired state has been achieved.
  2. Ask for the score: the coach then asks the coachee what his current position on that scale is. The coach has does not judge whether this score is ‘right’ or not.
  3. Focus on what is already there: then the coach asks how the person has already come to this position. What made this possible? Thus, the coach focuses strongly on what is already there, instead of on what has yet to be done.
  4. Visualize the desired state: then, the coach invites the coachee to describe higher points on the scale. For instance, the 10 position, in which the desired state will be completely achieved.
  5. Invite to take 1 step forward: then, the coach invites the coachee to take one small step forward.

July 5, 2007

The seven steps approach (step 2): Defining the desired state

After the need or desire for change has been made explicit, the solution-focused practitioner takes a positive turn. Once it is understood how a situation is problematic, the question is asked how we would like things to be. This is done in order to help the client to start formulating his goal. Clients, whether they are individuals in personal coaching or organizations helped by management consultants, are viewed as both able and responsible to determine their own goals. With the exception of goals that violate law or ethics, the client’s choice of goals is respected. That the client is free to choose his own goals is very supportive of the change process because the motivation for change will be greatest when you can choose the direction of that change yourself. The coach or consultant does not argue with the client about what he wants to achieve. Instead, he helps the client to make specific what it is he wants to achieve. There are many possible terms for positively formulated change goals. Here are a few good examples: Desired outcomes / Desired success / The desired future / The future perfect / The goal / The desired state / The dream. I think all of these terms may work well. Some authors call the outcome of the change process ‘the solution’. Personally, I'd rather reserve the term ‘solution’ for anything that helps you reach the desired state and I'd rather not use it to describe the state itself. Suppose, I have found out that asking my colleague how his weekend was helps me to develop a more pleasant working relationship with him. In this example I'd call asking the question how the weekend was a solution, and the more pleasant working relationship, the desired outcome (or the success, goal, etc.).

I believe that one of the main reasons people fail to change successfully is because they define their goals ineffectively. Sometimes goals are vague or negative; sometimes they are by definition unachievable. Well-formed goals are an important step towards achieving success, which is illustrated beautifully in the following quote by Robert Ardrey (1970): “While we pursue the unattainable, we make impossible the realizable.” The next table contrasts unachievable and achievable goals.

Here are three ways of helping clients to develop achievable goals:
  1. Leapfrogging: when clients keep talking about the problem or about some prefered approach you may inveite them to leap directly to the desired state by asking something like: how will things be better when the problem is solved?
  2. From emotional states to visible behavior: When people express themselves in emotional terms the solution-focused consultant will ask questions to help the person to take the shortest route to translate them to positive and specific behaviors so that the outcomes desired will be very specific.
  3. Perspective-change technique: With this technique you basically ask the question: ‘How would others notice that things were different?’ This helps makes it easier for people to take a wider angle and to look at their situation more objectively.
  4. Visualizing desired outcomes: a great way to help clients form specific goals is to ask them to describe the desire situation als vivid and visual as possible.

Related: The seven steps approach / The seven steps approach (step 1): Clarifying the ...

July 4, 2007

The seven steps approach (step 1): Clarifying the need or desire for change

American author Elbert Hubbard once said: "Life is just one damned thing after another." Wow! Is life really so problematic? Well, that depends on your definition of the word ‘problem’. I define it as either the presence of something bad or the absence of something good. Problems, in this sense, are all around. People everywhere experience lots of difficulties and unfulfilled desires. But that is not only bad. Of course, problems are unpleasant but they have a positive side too. The useful thing about them is that they help you take action. Problems can be so unpleasant that they motivate you to change your situation. Changing the situation helps to get rid of the hurt of the problem. Thus, problems generate a desire and energy for change. Helping people to clarify what causes the desire for change is often a very useful first step. Acknowledging problems by clarifying how they are a problem and to whom they are a problem can be an important key to clarifying the need or the desire for change. The table below shows some key differences between problem acknowledgment and problem analysis.

July 3, 2007

The seven steps approach

Several years ago, I developed - together with my colleague Gwenda Schlundt Bodien- the seven steps approach to solution-focused change. This approach has proven particularly helpful for teaching people some of the most important ingredients of the solution-focused approach. The seven-steps-method is about purposeful change. The method can be compared to a recipe. All ingredients and steps have their specific function and can add to the taste. But the recipe allows you to determine the order and quantities in which the ingredients are used. The seven steps are:

1. Clarifying the need or desire for change
2. Defining the desired state
3. Seeing what is already there
4. Analyzing past success
5. One small step forward
6. Monitoring progress
7. Determining the further desire for change

Use the method flexibly
The seven-step method is a descriptive instead prescriptive method. It reflects how effective change often happens but it does not claim effective change should always happen like this. Often, not all of the seven steps will be relevant and the order in which the steps are used can vary from situation to situation. In other words: don’t take this model to strictly and rigidly. Nearly always the method will be applied iteratively. For instance: after step 7 you go back to a previous step and restart from there.

An Example of how this can work:
Frank is a team manager who asks for the help of a management coach to improve the financial results of his team. First they think about why exactly it is important to change: if his team will not succeed in making the budget people may lose there jobs and Frank can surely forget about promotion within the company. Next, with the help of his coach, Frank defines de desired state: within three months he wants to have his team performing on target again so that everybody will be able to see that they are on the right track again. This would mean more security for the team and better career prospects for Frank. Then, Frank and his coach identify where the team stands now and what has already been achieved: a good cost control, satisfied customers and some good-performing team members. Through this, Frank realizes that there is a reason for optimism. Then he analyzes past successes. He remembers a situation in which he has managed to turn a disappointing team result into a better one: he informed the team fully about the situation and mentioned his worries without detailedly instructing team members what to do. Instead he asked them for ideas which led to some great ideas and initiatives and collaborations. He decides to try out this aproach again. Soon there are some promising results. Frank gets complimented by the business unit manager. The thread is out of the air and Frank begins to believe again in the possibility of a promotion.
In following posts I will discuss each of the seven steps.

July 2, 2007

The test-and-learn model of change

Herminia Ibarra explains in her book Working Identity that the conventional way of thinking about career change corresponds with the plan-and-implement model. This model says that you first have to analyse and reflect in order to be able to develop a clear picture of what you want to achieve and only then you can take steps to realize this picture. However, Ibarra’s research shows that effective career change follows a different pattern, one which is described by the so-called test-and-learn model. This model is based on the idea that learning is a circular and iterative process. “We take actions, one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of those actions such that an intelligible pattern eventually starts to form”. On page 34 of her book she explains this by the following table:

July 1, 2007

Support clients in working out solutions on their own

"Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effective coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients in working out solutions on their own."
- David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, The Neuroscience of Leadership

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