A Zen Story About Dealing With Our Demons

In a discussion thread at Naked Capitalism I found this Zen teaching story about dealing with a troubling hallucination (below). It shows how perceptive and practical Zen discipline strives to be. The master sees the ghost for what it is (a figment of the learner’s imagination), and he thinks of an experimental way the learner can discover for himself where the ghost comes from. Telling the man the truth would contradict his experience and lead to denial. Enabling his own discovery of the truth resolves the problem.

The challenge of teaching lies in having just such ideas again and again, in ever-changing circumstances, for people seeking answers to problems that cannot be resolved because they are sustained by the perception of the seeker himself. Objective answers reinforce the belief behind problem. Insisting on the truth of what one says leads to unresolvable debates–secondary rationalizations employed to win arguments that only obfuscate reality.

Even more challenging is that most of us don’t know what we are looking for when we ask for answers to our problems, as the learners in Zen stories never fail to express in their surprise at what they discover.

Mastery develops when the teacher can be relied upon to enable an effective learning experience for the learner. Even greater ability is demonstrated when he has given up wanting to teach altogether, and begins to respond without purpose as the situation demands.

The larger historical issues addressed in the Naked Capitalism post are beyond individual actors to influence. Change comes through collective experience, to which we can be but witnesses. But to witness is not passive. Collectively, awareness can move mountains.

The Subjugation of a Ghost

“A young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.”

Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married.

Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what had transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep. Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help.

“Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do,” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give your beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”

“What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.

The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know that she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.”

The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything.

“Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”

“And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!”

There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.”

The Soul of Talent Management

In our daily work, we often forget that management is a tool, not an end in itself, and so we miss the reality of what it is we are managing. In the case of “talent,” we want to support the growth of people, and to this end management can be at odds with the needs of talent.

The goal of talent management is to find good people to hire, motivate them to join us and give the best of themselves, and support them in seeing their strengths and weaknesses and developing themselves in the time they spend with us. From the organizational side, it wants to understand the needs of the managers looking for talent, bring the right people together for the right functions, and enable the succession process which ensures that the best people will succeed the current managers in steering the fate of the company.

Management systems can do none of this by themselves, only people can. There is no replacement for personal contact and interaction, where experience and insight enable us to exercise good judgment about who we can and want to work with. Many companies have understood that they are in the “people business.” But very few seem to have grasped what it means to live with people as people, not functions, on a professional basis.

As always, grasping the soul of something is complex. At a first level, talent management is about relationship abilities.

At a talk over coffee this week, a friend who does global talent management and I reflected on some of the leaders she supports. What I enjoyed from the start was the absence of manager-speak. The way she talks about people is based in complex perceptions about, e.g. their ability to connect with their staffs (or not), how they are able to see interrelationships and relate details to big pictures (or not), and of combinations of great skills with breathtaking blindspots and how those go together in personalities with a history she knows and reflects upon as the context of her understanding. Her complex understanding lets her describe developmental paths that the personalities behind the functions could take to realize their potential, and the ways she could provide the environment and the resources they would need. If I were in their place, I would feel seen und supported in ways the management systems by their very nature cannot do.

When we focus on people like this, solutions are often quite simple. Difficult is managing the emergence of insight into the nature of the problem. How many talent management teams devote their time to emergent insight into the potential of their people?

At a second level, understanding the essence of a task takes a philosophical bent of mind. Thinking, as one of my philosophy teachers used to say, has little to do with logic and much more with the presuppositions which inform our reasoning. For example, if we believe that business is about making money, and people are but resources to be used to that end, then we can spare ourselves the effort of talent management from the start and reduce HR to the transactional processes of contracts and compensation. In a shareholder value environment, talent management is a waste of time. It is much more efficient to focus on performance through outcomes than to invest heart and soul into developing people.

But if the company embodies a philosophy of customer intimacy, great and innovative product development, or service to customers and society, not to mention the internal success factors of creating value through knowledge or design, talent management will be the company’s most important success factor (incidentally creating more shareholder value obliquely than the direct approach).

The contrast between these two philosophical world-views could not be more fundamental. In a rip-roaring blogpost on the consequences of the transactional model of management for employee engagement, James Altucher (@jaltucher) explains to the downtrodden and disengaged masses of workers 10 Reasons Why You Have to Quit Your Job This Year (e.g. reason 3: Corporations don’t like you). I suspect that one of the reasons many corporations with a shareholder value philosophy still survive in the face of the way they manage their talent down to its lowest possible denominator (viz. Dilbert), is that their people haven’t yet grasped the more dignified alternatives. Had they enjoyed a talent manager like my friend, they would have had no choice but to leave, which is another serious argument for not investing in talent management worthy of the name for classical corporations. It just creates a mismatch between people’s expectations and company vision which harms the bottom line.

A third level is strategic and concerns how we understand work. In “Race Against the Machine,” economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that one of the root causes of unemployment is not a slowdown in the pace of innovation, but quite the opposite. Technological innovation is accelerating, so that tasks can increasingly be automated which only a short time ago were considered to belong to an inviolably human domain. Google is bringing the driverless car close to the breakthrough point for production and public use; Philips is insourcing shaver assembly to Holland, not to flee rising costs in China and produce jobs at home, but because robots have reached the point where they can do fine mechanical assembly without many people; and the Singularity Hub reports on Philip M. Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School who has over 100,000 books to his name and 700,000 books listed to his company at Amazon.com, each written in about 20 minutes by a robot (a computer system which can write technical books, and whose cousins are working on doing novels). Automation is reaching the sphere of literary production!

In a video post on the book, Rethinking Race against the Machine, John Hagel recognizes how automation makes many jobs vulnerable to elimination, but questions the framing of the fact as a technical challenge. The strategy of corporations has been to define work in ways which make it a perfect target for outsourcing and automation, by striving to define standardized, highly scripted work. But in the current environment of uncertainty, where black swans define our reality more than stability, such work provides little value and is in fact best done by machines. Hagel calls on managers to innovate our institutions and work practices to allow us to race with the machine, rather than compete with it. By inventing work which deals with complexity, our human capacity for pattern recognition and creativity once again comes into its own, and the machine can support us rather than replace us. The lazy dependence of companies and managers on the mechanical paradigm of work is creating a world in which work is an increasingly rare commodity–a paradoxical situation in a world crying out for innovative solutions to complex and systemic problems whose implementation will give everyone more than enough to do.

It is in such an environment of human and complexity-centred innovation that talent management, in the deeper sense of profound interest in the development of human beings to deal with complex problems, comes into its own.

On the Emptiness of Thinking and the Richness of Experience

Reposted from the Cognitive Edge Guest Blog I am writing this week:

I’d like to comment on Keith’s comment about my notion in my first guest post that ideas in themselves are empty. I agree that many ideas lack substance not because they are empty in themselves, but because they have not been fully thought through. Even when they have, however, they remain just ideas. There was a nice report on research into the evolutionary function of reasoning a few months ago, which posited that thinking had developed to win arguments about decisions post factum. My sense that this is true is reinforced whenever I listen to people’s opinions (something I try to avoid as much as possible), and get caught up in the infinite progresses and regresses of reason Kant warned us about which they engender (the sound and the fury, signifying nothing, of Shakespeare and Faulkner).

What interests me is the process that takes place prior to thinking. Or, put differently, how thinking might be understood as but the superficial manifestation of physical processes on a higher level of abstraction. When I do change processes in companies, breaking down strategy into practical initiatives is infinitely more difficult (it is logically simple, but never really works) than picking up on the tacit knowledge of the people doing the work, i.e. on their lived experience, and to refine that knowledge into policy and strategy (a lot of hard work, but very fruitful). In this second approach, the priority of experience is respected, and thinking adds refinement and consciousness to what people already know (something which works well as long as it has management buy-in and support).

Thinking that sees its function as making conscious lived experience adds genuine value. It does so by introducing useful distinctions into the undifferentiated mass of experience, thereby giving us influence over what we do. On a second level, thinking allows us to test our distinctions against reality with experiments, which produce second order experience and provide additional food for further refinement through reflection in a trial and error process of conscious evolution.

A colleague of mine likes to make a distinction between “decision” and “decisiveness.” Decisions are intellectual. They are usually model-based, and are ultimately inconsequential (or, they often produce catastrophic consequences, but these are usually framed as having been unintentional, showing how irrelevant the thinking which led to them was). Decisiveness is not something we can do, but is much more something that happens to us. I experience it as coming from our tacit knowledge, and it is less something we think about than something which we know. We experience decisive action as deeply embedded in reality, such that reality moves with it of its own accord because, I suspect, our decisiveness is part of that reality. (What exposes pseudo-decisiveness is the way it seems to skip off reality and reveal itself as posturing without connection to any deeper sense of what is needed).

The first ten years of my adult life I spent at York University in Toronto, which at that time had a strong focus on the humanities. The program I was in was called Social and Political Thought, and was a collecting basin for Marxism, Feminism and Post Modernism. I was one of the few people studying classical philosophy, politics and religion, and my take on the intellectual processes around me happened from a certain distance provided by my old fashioned interests.

It was a time in which I believed in the ability of thinking to know truth (a fundamentalist arrogance I put down today to youthful folly and learning). What I took away from the decade was a deep sense of the futility of ideological battle, as it is not amenable to scientific testing and so to resolution beyond agreement on the level of opinion.

What I have come to appreciate and respect deeply is less a thinking about things than the ability to influence them. For example, many managers have theories about leadership, but only few go beyond administration and actually lead organizations to sustainable success. Many therapists talk about neuroses, but only few are genuine healers who enable their clients to change their state. Whether we look at consultants, politicians, military leaders or teachers, there are few whose thinking is so deeply rooted in ability that what they think has any positive transformational effect on what they do.

These are the kinds of people I seek out and, to the extent that I can, strive to be as well. Anyone who has had the good fortune to have a good teacher (I am lucky to have had several) knows the difference. A good teacher’s thinking changes you as you follow it.

Narrative Strategies and the New Approach to Irrationality

Enlightenment reason is dead. The final nails in the coffin are being provided by neuroscience, which has made clear that our thinking is embodied (Antonio Damasio) and not Cartesian, emotionally inspired and dependent (Daniel Goleman) and not objective, and based on pattern recognition rather than logic. Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) has debunked the premise of homo oeconomicus, or the rational, self-interested economic actor on which economic theory is based, by showing that if we can predict one thing about decision making, it is that thinking is shaped by the forces of emotion, subjective comparison and social norms far more than the other way around.

Yet what we know in advanced research is still a long way from being integrated into the way we act as a society or in business. In a Science and Democracy Lecture  given at the Harvard Graduate School on the role of emotions in politics, policy and life, David Brooks encourages listeners to learn to love the irrational mind. Colleagues attending, like Steven Pinker, were apparently skeptical, holding on to the notion that trusting irrationality could only lead to bad decisions (like voting for George W. Bush because we would like to have a beer with him!), and that quantifiable measures like IQ were clearly a better indicator of success.

Here we face a gap between what science knows, and how policy is made. I think one reason may lie in a confusion between two notions of irrationality—one pre- and the other post-rational. The one we (justifiably) fear is the pre-rational orientation to superstition, blind faith, unreflected emotion, and the reliance on untrained instinct which invariably expresses itself in the incompetence and corruption that give us poor decisions.

Post-rational thinking, by contrast, simply understands how our brains actually work, and takes this into account. A research colleague of mine here in Germany, Klaus Grochowiak, has come to view the biological functioning of our brains as simply flawed. In an article on the neurobiological aspects of compulsion disorders, he explains (in German), for example, that our dopamine system makes no distinction between sustainable and unsustainable behaviors, rewarding the intake of addictive substances and addictive behaviors as freely as success in achieving goals that improve our lives and our chances of survival. Irrationality is hardwired into the very biology of our brains. Rather than despair at the results of our biological evolution, however, we can celebrate the insights we are developing into the lack of its perfection.

Since it is our very nature, it would seem to be better to understand irrationality than to fight it. For if we can predict the ways in which our brain misleads us into poor decisions, we can design policy to deal wisely with our irrational nature. Just as there are two kinds of irrationality, there are (at least) two kinds of reason, and the two are not equally qualified to deal with irrational complexity. The first is atemporal and is expressed in logic and analysis, and is the objective reason which reached its end in the Enlightenment. The second kind of reason is subjective and narrative, and is expressed in our giving reasons for what we do.

Reasons can be understood. Motives, no matter how “irrational” from a given perspective, can be taken into account. Dealing intelligently with our irrationality is likely the highest expression of reason we are capable of. Narrative strategies show us how to deal rationally with our irrationality. Listening to stories in the context of lived experience gives us the chance to recognize patterns in the stories that make sense of what we perceive. What we can make sense of, we can deal with, though the actions we will need to take will seem counter-intuitive to those identified with pre-rational instinctual approaches to decisions, or planning approaches based on analysis. Narrative approaches to strategy require a new and different skill set:  the trust in the face of uncertainty typical of entrepreneurs, the ability to deal with ambiguity which is a mark of emotional and social intelligence, and good judgement in the face of a broad range of potential solutions to complex problems, to name a few. And it requires a network of relationships in which our stories can be told and understood, and actions be taken to respond to them intelligently.

All of this points in the direction of sense-making as becoming the key ability for developing the successful strategies we need to solve the challenges we face.