Archives for April 2012

Obama Uses Cool For School

jimmy fallon barack obama

On 24 April 2012, President Barack Obama appeared on NBC TV’s ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’.

His objective – galvanise public support to pressure Congress into not doubling the interest rate on student loans on 1 July 2012.

‘Now is not the time to make school more expensive for our young people,’ said the President. The issue of student debt burden, now approaching $US 1 trillion, has become a major political debate in the US, with the Occupy movement targeting it as a key arena for action.

But it was not what he said, but how and where he said it, that will give this issue the best opportunity to capture the public support the President needs to keep college affordable:

‘Slow jammin’ the news’ was a clever approach to both use comedy, and make a policy point in simple language.

This stunt had its critics of course, but it certainly grabbed the public’s attention – how many more people would have seen and grasped this message than if it had been buried in the day’s ‘political’ news?

Well, we know it’s impact in terms of outreach – aside from the broadcast media exposure, the ‘slow jam’ has clocked up almost 1.4 million views on YouTube in less than 48 hours. This is no doubt because it involves the POTUS, but it’s also because it’s about someone in a position of leadership delivering a message in an unexpected, extraordinary and amusing way.

It will be interesting to see if this phenomenon garners popular support for not increasing the student loan debt, and translates into change within the halls of political power in the United States.

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Motivating Sustainable Behaviour

More people than ever before are conscious of what is meant by ‘sustainable behaviour’ – recycling, being energy efficient, saving water, using public transport, buying local.

Even so, we seem to be encountering a lot of this when it comes to actually getting people to engage in these behaviours at the individual level, and particularly in relation to system-level change nationally and globally:


n. The tendency to think or act irrationally in certain situations, despite having sufficient intelligence.
dysrational adj. 

Along with many other people, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to bring about behaviour change, and looking to psychology, neuroscience and studies on motivation and values for insights.

Here’s a few learnings that could help your work.

5 Things Change Agents Should Know About People

In terms of ‘why won’t people do x?’ (usually accompanied by a few #@&%*s!) here are five things change agents need to remember about the psychology of people when designing programs and messages.

1. People don’t always do what you want them to do, even when they have clear information

seagull perched on a sign featuring a pic of a seagull with a red line through it

Even when you’ve made the signals obvious, people make decisions unconsciously, as being on ‘autopilot’ stops us from having to make an unmanageable number of decisions a day.

Neuroscientists have estimated that our five senses receive 11 million pieces of information every second with our conscious brain only processing around 50 pieces. The rest is being assessed automatically by the unconscious brain.

2. People will do what is easiest, most convenient and time saving

…even if they know it’s not the ‘right’ thing.

car being driven along with owner holding leash of dog trotting alongside the car

3. People will resist change when it conflicts with their most deeply held values

Sesame Street's Cookie Monster sitting at his computer exclaiming 'Delete Cookies?!' in horror

This is called cognitive dissonance, a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions simultaneously. If something conflicts with an existing belief or value, people will be more likely to move out of the discomfort by rejecting the new information or request than changing their belief or value.

4. People will resist change until the pain of not changing is greater than the effort involved in changing

cartoon of the Capitol, with water from sea level rise lapping at the upper dome, and cartoon caption 'the special committee to investigate climate change hysteria will now come to order'

It literally takes more energy and effort to change habits; how many of you go to the same places for lunch each week?

5. People will respond more positively if they know you’re making the effort to understand their perspective

cartoon of king on a balcony, talking town to his people with the caption 'try to see things from my point of view'

If people feel they’ve been heard, they’ll be more likely to hear what you have to say. Cultivate being a good listener, before asking something of them.

What Kind of Change?

To bring about change, it helps to recognise whether you are dealing with a technical problem or an adaptive challenge.

Technical Problems

Technical problems are those for which we already have answers, necessary know-how and procedures.

Darth Vader attempting to fit a new fluorescent tube into his light sabre

Heart surgery is a technical, or tame problem, because although it is complicated it has clearly defined processes and a knowledge base.

Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive challenges are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. It is an adaptive situation when the solution is unknown, and diverse participants have to work together to create a new approach.

camel driver leading camel with solar panels mounted on its hump through the desert

Climate change is an adaptive challenge, or wicked problem, because the problem is complex rather than complicated; because what appear to be simple solutions can trigger unintended consequences; and because there is no single, known process or easy answer.

A situation can also straddle the two and be technical-adaptive, where although the solution is known and the processes exist, new learning is required. Recycling falls into this category.

Understanding whether your challenge is adaptive or technical can help you choose the right tools and approaches.

Treating adaptive problems as technical challenges is a leadership failure.

For more on distinguishing technical from adaptive challenges, see Harvard University’s Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s book ‘Leadership on the Line’, or flick through this presentation (long, but comprehensive overview of the book).

Which Brain?

Which brain are you dealing with in a given situation?

conceptual image of three layered brain - reptilian at the core, limbic overlaying the core, and neocortex enclosing the first two as the most recent brain layer

The triune brain model is a theory developed by neuroscientist Paul MacLean in the 1960s to explain how the human brain has evolved – we don’t have one brain but three. These are all layered on top of each other, and were developed during different stages of evolution. We all use all three of our brains, depending on context.

The Reptilian Brain

Wile E Coyote in pursuit of the Road Runner

The reptilian brain is the oldest, most primitive part of the brain, and is primarily concerned with instinctual behaviour and survival – it is constantly scanning the environment for threats and benefits. It is also in charge of automatic functions such as heartbeat, breathing and regulating body temperature – in other words, it repeats the same behaviours over and over again.

The Mammalian (Limbic) Brain

Pepe Le Pew and his kitten love

The mammalian or limbic brain is the primary seat of emotions, memories and attention; it is where positive or negative feelings arise, and is involved in emotional bonding between parent and child. MacLean proposed that rather than the rational brain, it is this emotional brain which is responsible for perceptions of what is true, and the biological basis for the tendency of thinking to be subordinate feeling ie. to rationalise desires.

The Neocortex

Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, often engaged in battles of wits

The neocortex is the logical/rational part of the brain that gives us higher cognitive functions, such the ability for language and abstract thought. It reasons, plans, worries, invents.

Although we have three brains in the same skull, and they are connected, each brain does not communicate well with the others, and often the ‘unconscious’ brains are dominating the conscious mind without us realising it.

A useful metaphor for understanding the triune brain is the elephant and rider:

elephant with rider atop - elephant represents our subconscious minds, the rider our conscious brain

We think the rider, or the conscious mind, is directing traffic, but we’re unaware of the power and intent of the unconscious brains.

Knowing which brain you’re dealing with can help inform how you approach someone, or frame an issue – if you’re making what you think is a reasonable, rational request, being aware that you may be encountering a reptilian or limbic brain response, and understanding what’s driving that can help you to be more successful in your work.

This theory has application from the level of personal interaction right up to the global level.

Conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich, who authored The Population Bomb in the late 1960s, recently formed the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB – originally the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior) at Stanford University in the US.

screenshot of MAHB web site

This is a social and cultural counterpart to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was a comprehensive scientific study of the state of the Earth’s physical systems. MAHB is researching why it is that despite overwhelming scientific evidence, we can’t get any rational response to tackling serious, global system issues like species extinction and climate change.

What Motivation?

What kinds of motivational approaches are you using?

Extrinsic motivators – punishment, threat, reward – can work, but behaviour is less likely to be sustained once these are removed.

cartoon of carrot and stick - carrot thinking 'psycho' about stick; stick thinking 'wimp' about carrot

Intrinsic motivation leverages our values which are directly tied to our emotions, and which underpin our attitudes to almost everything we encounter.

In his excellent TED presentation ‘The Surprising Science of Motivation’ (18 mins), career analyst Dan Pink talks about how people are intrinsically motivated by:

  • autonomy – the desire to have control over their lives;
  • mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters; and
  • purpose – the yearning to do what they do in the service of something larger than themselves.

Which Values?

Which values are you appealing to?

In a previous post about Values, Campaigns and Change, I highlighted the work being undertaken in the UK, where three decades of extensive values research has enabled creation of Values Modes, a nationally representative database and mapping system.

Developed by recording people’s responses to questions in accordance with grouped values, it reveals what values motivate different groups of people with respect to sustainability, and how communication needs to be adapted so that it resonates with each group. It’s like a Myers-Briggs for sustainability.

screenshot from Campaign Strategy Values Planner showing distribution of values into typologies

Click on image for higher res version

There are of course overlaps, as people tend not to fall exactly inside the lines of such typographies, and all of us have some of each type within us. However in summary the three main segments are:

Prospectors – outer-driven, esteem-seeking, success-oriented people; communicate with Prospectors in ways that enhance self-esteem and status.

conceptual drawing of what appeals to prospector values - red car, money, sunglasses

Pioneers – inner-driven, oriented toward self-actualisation, ethical living, global issues; communicate with Pioneers in ways which involve self-fulfilment, ideas, innovation or ethics.

conceptual image of diverse group of people (age, race, gender) and what some pioneer values are - knowledge, value, people-focused

The environment/sustainability movement has made the mistake of designing communication approaches that speak to everyone as if they were Pioneers.

Settlers – primarily sustenance driven; communicate with Settlers in ways that enhance safety, security, identity or belonging.

conceptual drawing of castle, house and some 'Settler' values, security, family, thrift

If you can better understand a person’s values, then you will be able to understand more about why they do what they do, and better placed to influence them – not in the sense of being manipulative or controlling, but by framing the issue so that making a choice or behaviour feels natural for them.

Campaign Strategy has compiled this useful resource for communicating with the three top level Values Modes – ‘Some Guidelines for Communicating with Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers’ (pdf).

How People Learn

Peer to Peer

While instruction and abstract thought is one way to learn, the main way we’ve evolved through millennia is to learn by doing, from each other.

What happened when a Nintendo DS was accidentally dropped into the gorilla enclosure of a zoo…

a nintendo DS game was dropped into the gorilla exhibit at the zoo - here the parent gorilla plays with the DS while baby looks on intently

Through Story

Storytelling is a method of persuasion, and works almost like the process of hypnosis. People tend to suspend rational thought when they’re thoroughly engrossed in reading or hearing a story, allowing engagement to occur in layers of the brain beyond the neocortex.

black and white stylised cartoon, silhouette of storyteller holding an audience captive

Listeners are still fully conscious, but their mind is operating at a different level as they actively visualise the situation, generating images to accompany the words they are reading/hearing, which creates emotions.

Inspiration Rather Than Instruction

Develop your own interpersonal and communication skills – to move people, is it more effective to rationalise and instruct, or to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation?

Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.


Martin Luther King Jr acknowledges a large crowd on the day he delivered his 'I Have A Dream' speech in Washington

Key Questions for Motivating Sustainable Behaviour

  • What kind of challenge? Are you trying to solve an adaptive challenge with a technical approach? Is the problem within the known realm of how to solve it, or is it a ‘wicked’ problem?
  • Which brain are you interacting with? People are not always rational or logical, and behaviour does not follow information, instruction or reasoning.
  • Which ‘world’ are you speaking to? Understand the different types of people and their values.
  • What kinds of motivators are you employing? Foster intrinsic motivation wherever possible, and be mindful that people are intrinsically motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose – or more poetically:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Poet, Aviator, Writer

yacht in open ocean, spray over the bow, under full sail, perspective of person standing on deck

And if you still find yourself dealing with the frustrations you feel when people just don’t get it…

statue of Superman, hands on hips, with president Obama standing in front of it, shirt sleeves rolled up and hands on hips, appearing to resemble the Man of Steel

…remember that even the most powerful people in the world are in the same boat as you!

president obama appearing to explain something with cartoon-like caption: 'why do I constantly feel like I'm explaining shit to you people?'

Which motivation techniques have you tried in your work? What worked, what didn’t, and  what do you think were the reasons for their success or failure?

What other areas of people’s lives reflect the Elephant and Rider metaphor?

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A note on images – its almost impossible to find the original source for many of these images; all have been used in a spirit of illustrating an idea. Please contact the author if you are the owner of any of these images and would like an image credit.


Know Your Logical Fallacies

poster of logical fallacies with a short description of each and a picture of the Greek philosophers

Click on image for higher res version – please see the site for instructions on how to print a readable version

Ever found yourself reacting with disbelief – rage, even – to any kind of public debate where there are massive holes in the logic of the arguments?

Even more maddening is when these holes are not pointed out by anyone who is moderating, or others participating, and the debate proceeds based on a flawed basis.

The field of sustainability is no exception – watched a debate on climate change or the carbon tax lately? If we could improve the quality of debate on sustainability issues, and public issues in general, we could cut out all the superfluous, time-wasting diversions faulty logic enables, and get to the core of what we need to resolve.

In previous posts I’ve discussed how logic and rational appeal won’t necessarily change someone’s views on an issue – but where logic is used, it’s important to be able to spot when someone is using a dodgy basis for making a point, and be able to call them out on it.

It’s also crucial that you become aware of any fallacies you yourself may commit, so you can purge them from your communication repertoire!

But how do would-be fallacy-spotters, with little training in rhetoric and reasoning, know what to look for?

Luckily, Jesse Richardson, Andy Smith and Som Meaden have created thou shalt not commit logical fallacies, a clever, well designed and useful site that has condensed the wisdom of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle (and others) into a bite-size form, using easy to understand language.

The trio describe a logical fallacy as:

…usually what has happened when someone is wrong about something. It’s a flaw in reasoning. They’re like tricks or illusions of thought, and they’re often very sneakily used by politicians and the media to fool people.

The creators have developed icons to represent each of the 24 identified fallacies, which include ad-hominem – attacking your opponent’s personality traits or character instead of engaging with the issue; and strawman – misrepresenting your opponent’s argument to make it easier to attack.

screenshot of strawman logical fallacy

Mousing over each icon gives a one sentence summary of the fallacy, and clicking the relevant icon links to a short description and example.

In a fun twist, the site suggests that if a logical fallacy is spotted, the link to the relevant fallacy from the site be forwarded to the fallacy-committer, or included in a comment or response to them!

Even more entertaining would be if the site could also collect and publish fallacies submitted by people who spot them – like a crowdsourced rogues’ gallery of logic-underminers.

The site is a useful teaching tool for sharpening critical thinking and debating skills. It is a simple idea, but it serves an important function – it allows this knowledge to be quickly accessible without needing to have studied the Greek philosophers, and it supports a healthy democratic process. The quality of much of what passes for ‘debate’ in the public domain can only improve with a citizenry well-equipped to spot a strawman or a tu quoque.

A free pdf poster of the fallacies can be downloaded from the site. The creators have made this resource available for free – so please consider tipping them a few bucks using the Donate button on the site.

Do you recall a time when you were watching a debate, or when someone with whom you were having a debate came out with a lapse in logic that left you incredulous, or in fits of laughter?

Have you ever caught yourself using any of the identified fallacies? Which ones? 

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The Lotus Leadership Practice Guide

cover of The Lotus e-book

The development of leadership skills – for all of us, not just those we think of as ‘leaders’ – is integral to bringing about the shift toward sustainability.

Being a leader has its challenges at the best of times, but with respect to sustainability – where leaders are calling people’s worldviews and accepted norms into question at a very deep level – leadership can be much more complex and challenging.

The Lotus – A Practice Guide for Authentic Leadership towards Sustainability, authored by Christopher Baan, Phil Long and Dana Pearlman, is the result of their 2011 Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability (MSLS) thesis research at Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden.

The trio asked the question:

How can you lead authentically and effectively engage groups in collaborative processes towards sustainability?

The authors’ approach to developing authentic leadership is that it is ‘contagious’ – the more people can become more self-aware, intentional and ‘present’, the greater their capacity to lead others towards a similar state.

Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders. 

Mary Parker Follett

Just as the Group Works Card Deck ‘codifies’ wisdom relating to shaping effective group processes, The Lotus presents nine personal leadership capacities that the authors’ research revealed are essential ‘design elements’ of authentic and effective leadership, particularly when seeking to bring about complex transformational change in organisations and communities.

The authors summarise the nine capacities as follows:

screen grab of text of leadership capacities

Click image for higher res version

Being Present means being fully aware and awake in the present moment – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This includes connecting to others, the environment around you and current reality.

Suspension and Letting Go is the ability to actively experience and observe a thought, assumption, judgment, habitual pattern, emotion or sensation like fear, confusion, conflict or desire, and then refraining from immediately reacting or responding to the situation.

Intention Aligned with Higher Purpose is the alignment of one’s authentic nature with one’s internal resonance with mani fested actions in the world. This alignment trickles down to all facets of life including one’s personal, professional and spiritual dimensions.

Compassion is having unconditional acceptance and kindness toward all the dimensions of oneself and others, regardless of circumstance. Compassion involves the ability to reflect upon oneself and others without judgment, but with recognition and trust that others are doing the best they can in any given situation.

Whole System Awareness is the capacity to quickly switch between different perspectives, scales and worldviews to see the big picture, interconnections within the system, and being able to scale down to small details. Whole System Awareness is not just cognitive – you ‘sense’ the system. It is the understanding that everything is interconnected within a system.

Whole Self-Awareness is the continual, lifelong process of paying attention to knowing one’s self; it involves consciously and intentionally observing various dimensions of the self (including the physical, mental, shadow, emotional and spiritual realms). It is the capacity to observe how one is thinking, relating, feeling, sensing, and judging. Whole Self-Awareness includes perceptions beyond the rational mind, such as intuition.

Personal Power is the ability to use energy and drive to manifest wise actions in the world for the greater good, while being aware of one’s influences on a situation.

A Sense of Humour, or ‘light-heartedness’, is the universal experience of simultaneous amusement, laughter and joy culminating from an experience, thought or sensation.

Dealing with Dualities and Paradoxes is the capacity to sit with ambiguity in a facilitation session, manage polarities, and hold multiple perspectives. It includes the ability to ‘sit with ambiguity’ in the face of high uncertainty, risk and being comfortable in ‘not-knowing’.

Each of these capacities is explored in further detail in the guide, including a description of what each is, how it is relevant for the work being done, practices to cultivate each capacity, and questions for both self-reflection and during facilitation. Further resources and suggested readings are also provided. The Lotus can be purchased in hard copy, viewed online or downloaded free here (low res pdf 6MB, high res pdf 15 MB) – please consider making a donation to the authors if you find the work of use.

One aspect of authentic leadership I’m interested in is how we can help people give leaders permission to be authentic – consider the capacities above, what all too often passes for political debate, and the spectrum of leaders we have in our societies. If we equate leadership with being forceful, and being compassionate and kind with ‘weakness’; if we associate leadership with being extroverted, and fail to recognise the leadership qualities of those who may by nature be introverts; if we expect black-and-white answers from leaders who are dealing with ambiguity inherent in complex challenges; we will undervalue the very authentic leadership we dearly need at this time.

Consider your own capabilities in a leadership role – do you already practice some of these, consciously or unconsciously? Which capacities could you put more attention to?

Do you think there are other capacities that are integral to authentic leadership? What makes them essential?

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Balancing the Visual and Verbal Minds

Image Credit

How do people’s brains process information and ideas? A crucial question for communicators, and yet one that hasn’t adequately been addressed with respect to sustainability communications.

Visual thinker Dan Roam, author of ‘Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work’, delves into the deeper subtleties of the left brain/right brain model. He points out that while human beings are of two minds, it’s not quite as clear cut as the left side of the brain being ‘analytical’ and the right side being ‘creative’.

Roam explains that while one half of our mind has evolved to perceive the world in ‘bits’, lines, sequences – and this is where words are stored – the other half likes to see the ‘whole’, maps, pictures, and this acts as the ‘glue’ to synthesise the words.

He uses the metaphor of a Fox to represent the verbal mind and a more linear communication style, and the Hummingbird to represent the visual mind, and a non-linear style of communication where the mind flits, darts and leaps.

Roam says that over thousands of years, we’ve taught our verbal ‘Fox’ mind to dominate our visual ‘Hummingbird’ mind:

Ever been to so many meetings that you couldn’t get your work done? Ever fallen asleep during a bullet-point presentation? Ever watched the news and ended up knowing less? Welcome to the land of

the words 'blah-blah-blah' in blue

The Problem: We talk so much that we don’t think very well.

Powerful as words are, we fool ourselves when we think our words alone can detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today. They can’t – and that’s bad, because words have become our default thinking tool.

Roam’s approach is to combine the verbal and visual into an approach he calls ‘vivid thinking’, balancing out the Fox and Hummingbird minds.

As a wordsmith, I would love to have more visual abilities in my skills kit, to create images and visual metaphors, to learn more about graphic arts and making short movie clips – I know that in terms of content disseminated on Facebook, images are shared much more extensively than links or words, and the meteoric rise of image curating/sharing site Pinterest also demonstrates the power of images.

Roam also notes that visual thinking is often dismissed as being of lesser value than the use of words, as we have been conditioned to think of art as just for artists, or that a visual approach has no role in the workplace. How can drawing stick figures and smiley faces possibly be as credible as pages and pages of words? Yet by their nature, images demand brevity and clarity, something that is even more essential in today’s fast-paced, information-saturated, limited-attention span world.

The devaluing of the visual begins long before we arrive in the workplace – we keep writing into high school, university and beyond, but many of us leave our visual skills behind in childhood. Roam is on a mission to highlight the value of visual skills and show why words don’t always work:

What do leaders today do to clarify their ideas? They talk, talk, talk, talk. We’ve come to equate intelligence with our ability to speak. That’s a big mistake.

Standardized testing focuses on math, critical reading and writing. It ignores visual reasoning. But while our educational system may ignore visual thinking as soon as we leave kindergarten, some of the world’s greatest minds keep returning to it.

‘I rarely think in words at all. My visual images have to be translated laboriously into conventional mathematical terms.’  – Albert Einstein.

Aside from the possibility that the meaning has not been effectively synthesised from pages and pages of words, visual thinking requires the brain to use different processes and neural pathways, which could mean creative breakthroughs that would not have otherwise emerged.

The Power of Visual Communication

Still skeptical of the ability of the value of visual communication? Take a look at how Ukraine’s Kseniya Simonova uses it to tell a story and move people (this clip has almost 22.5 million hits).

Not only is it one of the most amazing pieces of visual art, but the viewer doesn’t have to be ‘of’ the culture or the place, or know the history, to feel the emotional power of her story:

Not a word is needed. Note the audience’s reaction. The music adds an extra element, but the story is still easily conveyed without it. There are clearly cultural references which are of profound importance to the people watching, but without a viewer even being aware of what they are, the story still resonates.

The advertising world has long been aware of the power of images and visual communication, and while there have been some vivid examples in sustainability communication (artists such as Chris Jordan spring to mind with his ‘Intolerable Beauty’ series), it would be fair to say that the vast majority of what is being produced by government, business, science and well-intentioned educators is not engaging with the Hummingbird mind. We train people to write well – could we put equal emphasis on developing visual skills?

Given that 75% of our brain is devoted to visual processing, in creating a world of wall-to-wall words, are we missing vital opportunities to connect with people through other means of sensing and perceiving?

How could we begin to give more weight to our ‘Hummingbird’ minds? 

What would it take for visual approaches to be afforded the same credibility as verbal?

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