Pull, Push, Fast and Slow – Part II

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact

Danile Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed

Danile Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

This post is the second part of two posts on a challenge posed by Steve Nguyen on Linkedin. The first post covered the implications of our preferences for push messages over employees pulling the information that they need as and when required. This post will look at fast vs slow styles of communication and its implications for our work.

The Different Ways we Talk

We have different styles of conversatiosn to suit fast vs slow thinking:

  • Chats: support shared information and can be incredibly rapid. Much of the highest velocity conversations in the Swoop Analytic Microsoft Teams benchmarking report would have been simple exchanges of factual information and status with little need for reflection or understanding
  • Conversations: support shared understanding. We need to slow down to ensure we understand each other’s thinking. We need to step outside of assumptions and shorthand and explore topics more deeply. Much of leadership and coaching occurs in the conversation.
  • Collaboration: supports shared work. We can work fast individually sharing status and information through chats. However, when we want to draw deeply on others talents and experience, it is a slower process of exchange and work. We know this work.

Fast vs Slow Conversation

These different modes of conversation support and are supported by different modes of thinking. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow explores two key modes of human thinking from his behavioural economics research and they map well to this discussion.

Fast thinking is tuned for the quick response. It leverages patterns, automatic processes and emotions to be able to make rapid judgements. Chat is ideally placed to suit the needs of fast thinking and fast thinking supports the rapid fire cognitive demands of a fast flowing stream of information.

However, fast thinking and fast chat have their limitations. They are prone to bias due to the heavy reliance on heuristics, patterns of thinking with which we can associate new information received without time for processing. We aren’t looking to create new patterns here so we will gather information to confirm our biases, reinforce our stereotypes and reinforce our existing narratives. The error rate of these mental models is likely low if we are working on common problems synchronously with our usual team, but these become real issues when we are doing something new at pace aynchronously with a new team.

I had a simple example over Easter. I was advising a friend making hot cross buns via chat. I had flicked a simple recipe to them and simply told them to follow. The friend was busy doing many things while they made the dough. I was not following along as I had gone about my day confident that the recipe was no fail. They came back to say there was a problem with the recipe. The bun dough looked like a wet batter rather than a dough. I asked if they had followed the recipe and they answered yes. After many back and forths trying to diagnose the issue, we realised that they had added 250ml of flour rather than 250g. Executing a new task in a low information fast-paced environment, my friend had assumed that the flour measures in the recipe were the same as the milk and warm water. It was written as grams on the page but their brain had formed a pattern and ignored information that didn’t fit the pattern.

Wet hot cross bun dough is easily fixed, but in our work environment errors like this from rapid communication of new tasks in low context can have major implications. We are currently grappling with a new environment where context is reduced, work is more asynchronous and our natural high bandwidth of communication is strained. We are more dependent than ever on tools like Microsoft Teams and Yammer to support our work. In this environment, we don’t want to be thinking and communicating faster than the judgement that says, ‘that doesn’t look right’. For example, there is already evidence that hackers are trying to use techniques to gain access that leverage the current environment.

Kahneman’s slow thinking is that process of considered reflection using effort and our rational logical thought processes. Our conversation to diagnose the issue with the dough needed to move slowly and methodically with effort through the potential causes and effects. We needed to confirm and check our understanding, unravelling the confusion and assumptions as we went. Much of our leadership and coaching is this work of building shared understanding and moving towards new ways of working through innovation. It can’t be done at the pace of chat. Just as we have Inner and Outer Loops of work we need to think through the slow and fast cycles of communication around our work and use tools suited to the different speeds of thinking.

Align the Speed to the Problem You are Solving

Leaders need to pick the communication style and thinking style that supports the goal that they are trying to achieve in each interaction and each team. The work to make people aware differs, from the work to align goals and from the work to motivate action and manage performance. I have previously explored how the different leadership challenges of Awareness, Alignment and Action map to different styles of conversation and the value maturity model.

Leaders need to identify when it is best to transition to a new mode of discussion on a new platform to ensure that the group dynamic is productive and that bias is not limiting performance. As noted previously, the need to learn and receive feedback is a good signal of the need to change pace. My previous post also identifies a range of specific triggers that might signal the need for transition.

Yammer is a tool to put people and organisational capability to work to support your strategy. The high velocity execution can and should occur in a tool like Microsoft Teams properly administered to manage the velocity and relevance of messages in teams. Together these tools form a platform for the digital transformation of your business and critical capability to continue to deliver our work goals in this time of enforced isolation.

The role of leaders is to leverage these tools and to manage the balance of push/pull, synchronous/asynchronous, fast and slow conversations to suit the delivery of the strategy of the organisation. There is no one size fits all, but alert leaders will manage these challenges adaptively and empower their teams to get the best from the platforms in each circumstance.

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