Short Attention Spans – May 15, 2007

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 30
Short Attention Spans

Over the years that I have been doing Future’s Ramblings many of you have passed along your comment on the articles: if you liked them, were exposed to new avenues of thought , or had a spark of inspiration that came as a result of reading them. Not all of the comments are rosy. My personal favorites are those that are quick to point out grammatical errors and typos, advise me to get a technical advisor and the guy that ever so gently reminds me – over and over and over again – that Sony did not make the IPod. Yes you know who you are.

One of the most frequent comments I get is about the length of the articles and the fact that they ramble so much! (Hey maybe that’s why I call it Ramblings) After all, how can a busy executive be expected to read such a long diatribe off a blackberry in the airport? Well I want you to know that I do appreciate your comments both good and bad, and have taken many of your suggestions on board – I now use spell check. Just to show you how much I care I have also put my normal defensiveness aside to seriously considered the length of the articles. My conclusion is that it’s near impossible to cover a topic with any detail in much less and that you all must have seriously short attention spans.

Fortunately, I do have a soft side which I got in touch with, so upon further reflection decided my stance was a bit harsh. Consequently, this months Ramblings is dedicated to learning more about our ability to pay attention; in hope of gaining a better understanding of why some of you just can’t do it. My research began with an online quiz from Psychology Today that consisted of a series of questions. Here are a few examples:

 How often are you late for work or an appointment?
 How often do you find yourself daydreaming at work?
 Do you lose your patience easily?
 How often do you interrupt people during a conversation?

Well I must say it came as a shock, A SHOCK I SAY, to learn that I have a rather short attention span. The website advises this might make me disorganized, miss deadlines, and pay my bills late. They offer that it could be due to fatigue, the side effect of medication or a personal problem and suggest I visit a psychologist to asses whether ADD might be a factor. Well what do they know, that’s not a reputable magazine anyway. Not like Who Weekly and their excellent quizzes on how sexy are you? Or determine if you need a daily moisturizer.

It appears the US government is as shocked as I am about my inability to pay attention, which is why they have funded an effort to counteract what some medical professionals have termed “epidemic-level shortness in the attention spans of American citizens”. This was done in response to a study that determined Americans, compared to other nations, and themselves a few days or weeks earlier, suffer from dramatically short attention spans.

Psychologists in America think this may be due to the overabundance of irrelevant and distracting information. Thank goodness there is none of that here! Even though the irrelevant and distracting information comes from multiple sources, the television is a major contributor. In America 90% of children under the age of two and 40% of infants under three months old watch television regularly. Studies link television watching to not doing your homework, being bored in school, not going to college and shortened attention spans.

Another reason given for short attention spans is the time we spend web browsing. Apparently too much browsing can leave you with the attention span of approximately nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. The positive side to that is that every time a goldfish swims by the little castle in the fish tank he thinks it’s a new thing so has high job/life satisfaction. According to Ted Selker an expert in body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things, if we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” This does not seem to be the case with people who read news articles on line, apparently 77% of online readers finish an entire article where their print reading counterparts measure in at only 62%.

Having a short attention span, or making people think you do, is not completely bad. Last week articles appeared in the paper commenting on the Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd’s lack of concern for Peter Costello and the other Government backbencher’s yahooing. Everyone wondered why Rudd was unfazed by the yelling and heckling going on around him and questioned whether he was in fact paying attention. Rudd appeared to be tidying up papers and writing a speech while there was utter mayhem happening around him. This lasted about six months and then Rudd finally lost his cool and yelled at the Prime Minister. So good news, he wasn’t sleeping on the job or wearing ear plugs – a good move considering he wants to be the next Prime Minister.

You don’t need to have a long attention span to lead a country. Doug Hannah, a friend of G. W. Bush’s since childhood, has found that an attention problem runs in the Bush family: “They have an attention span of about an hour.” When he and George were boys, he remembers, “Mr. Bush would pick us up to take us to the movies and leave after an hour and 20 minutes…. At ball games George would sometimes want to leave in the fifth inning.” “Even today,” writes Gail Sheehy in the October Vanity Fair, “nothing engages Bush’s attention for more than an hour, an hour max? more like 10 or 15 minutes. His workday as governor of Texas is “two hard half-days,” as his chief of staff, Clay Johnson, describes it.

He puts in the hours from 8 to 11:30 A.M., breaking it up with a series of 15-minute meetings, sometimes 10-minute meetings, but rarely is there a 30-minute meeting, says Johnson. At 11:30 he’s “outtahere.” He tries everything possible to have at least two hours of what he calls private time in the middle of the day to go over to the University of Texas track or run a hard three to five miles on a concrete path at a pace of 7.5 minutes a mile, then relax and return to the office at 1:30, where he’ll play some video golf or computer solitaire until about three, and then it’s back to the second “hard half-day” until 5:30.”

Generally we don’t think about what we are doing between 80 and 90% of the time and for the most part this is harmless. Many of the common tasks we do through out the day do not require our full attention. The problem is when we are distracted from things we should be paying attention to. This can have catastrophic consequences, at the least you may miss your exit on the freeway, but in extreme cases you might end up like the guy that went to work and forgot his 10 month old son in the back seat. It was in California and it was very hot, unfortunately the child died.

Main stream psychology hasn’t paid much attention to distractibility, but now some scientists are beginning to see positive aspects of mind wandering and link this to basic operations of the brain. Since mind wandering taps into the same part of the brain that we engage when we are doing nothing, it serves the purpose of calming us. We can then apply idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems which is a perfect situation for creative thought.

As we move into an age where creativity and innovation will take centre stage it is worthwhile for us to consider how we can better tap into our natural tendency to day dream. We also need to acknowledge that, as interesting as we think we are, when we make presentations to clients they will most likely zone out part way through. This can be quite a challenge because we don’t want to dilute our message to the point that it loses meaning, nor do we want to make it so complicated that the average person can’t see it through to the end.

This is particularly prevalent in Futures. It is not uncommon for us to do months worth of work and have only three minutes at a companies board meeting to present it. In this kind of situation it is critical to make our point quickly and effectively. Since you know all of us you will understand what a challenge this is, we have the gift of the gab and getting us to stop talking is no small feat.

As with most things, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to solving it. So please have some patience, I for one am trying to muzzle myself. You could help too by improving your concentration by purchasing one of those new electronic games they have been marketing to senior citizens to keep their minds active. If that doesn’t work go get yourself a prescription for Ritalin.


Online Readers Have Longer Attention Spans: Study
By Humphrey Cheung
April 2, 2007

“Short Attention Spans Serve Purpose”
By Malcolm Ritter
Discovery Channel News
March 19, 2007

“The Empire Strikes Back”
By Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 12, 2007

“Nine in 10 US Babies Watch TV”
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 8, 2007

“Are We turning into Digital Goldfish?”
BBC News
February 22 2002

Bush Watch
March 16, 2007

“Effort Underway to Improve Short Attention Spans of Americans”
By Ion Zwitter
Avant News EditorWashington, D.C.
January 19, 2007

The Wikiworld – April 9, 2007

The Wikiworld
Future’s Ramblings – Issue 29 – April 9, 2007

The Wiki world in 3 parts

Part one – World of Warcraft

My son Harry spends an incredible amount of time playing World of Warcraft. This game, created by Blizzard entertainment, is a MMORPG or massive multiplayer online role playing game that takes place in the world of Azeroth. In this game each player controls a character within a persistent game world; they explore the landscape, fight monsters and perform quests on behalf of computer controlled characters (sounds like a day in the office to me). What intrigues me about the game is that it requires players work together to solve problems, or in this case defeat monsters. The players do not know one another personally; never the less, they are in constant communication with one another via e mail developing strategies, discussing what has worked or not worked in the past and sometimes just chewing the fat.

There are 8.5 million people in the world that play this game, a little under half the size of Australia! Harry is now in level 70, which is the highest. A testament to his nerdity. Of course if you own shares in Blizzard you would be delighted that 8.5 million players happily fork over 30 dollars a month to play the game. However, as a mother of a child who plays, I have concerns. Mostly I wonder why can’t he do useful things in his spare time like sit on the couch with a beer and watch TV like his parents. Also I fear he is neglecting his formal education, even worse, he might get gaming addiction. Don’t laugh there is such a thing. As a matter of fact in an extreme case a couple in China was arrested for neglecting their baby because they spent so much time playing the game.

On a more positive spin, improving ones communication and collaborative abilities is a great thing to do given the role these skills will play in the future. Another bit of good news is the mainstream has now recognised that there are plenty of gamers out there who can work collaboratively to solve tough problems. A bunch of nerds playing a game to one mob is an untapped labour pool to another.

This is why researchers at Stanford University have struck a deal with PlayStation 3 which will enable PS3 owners to convert their consoles to help find a cure for cancer. The PS3 is powerful machine, its user interface and 3.26 Hz power PC processor allows the machine to download a segment of a problem from another source. Therefore, by connecting to Stanford’s systems through your PS3, any gamer can download their information and help out with specific program if they choose.

One such program at Stanford is Folding @ Home which is a study of how proteins fold. When a protein folds incorrectly it creates problems none us want to have, like Parkinson, Alzheimer’s and Mad Cow disease, not to mention cancer. This is similar to another system, SETI @ home, that crunches data from radio observatories looking for extraterrestrial life, despite the added manpower no aliens have been located. Never the less, the point is that by adding additional machines and brains your chances of solving a problem increase.

Part two – Living in the Wiki world

The reality is that Harry and all of the other kids that play this game live in the wiki world, and though you might not know it, you probably do too. If you don’t maybe you should because it is the wave of the future.

Wikis, blogs, chatrooms, open source, social networking, crowd sourcing, smart mobs, crowd wisdom what ever you call it the ‘blogsphere’ and new ways of collaboration are enabling millions of people to actively participate in innovation, wealth creation and social development by collaborating with others. People are using a growing suite of collaboration technologies to brainstorm new products and services, manage projects and share ideas and data. According to Brad Anderson CEO of Best Buy, North America’s largest consumer electronics seller, it is all about “unleashing the power of human capital”

Already this new economic model extends beyond software and music to every part of the global community. The new art and science of collaboration, ‘ wikinomics’ will force us to think differently about how we compete, how we maintain profit, and how we harness mass collaboration to create real value

We work in the ‘wiki workplace’ by collaborating with piers across organizational and geographic boundaries. We consume products that we helped to create online. If we at Geyer are smart, we will begin to brainstorm how we should design for the wacky wikiworld’s workplace. Amanda Wood put this challenge to the Melbourne office in a past presentation by asking how are we going to design for the ‘flat world’ because the status quo isn’t going to cut it.

In the flat wikiworld workers will develop their own self organized networks that will cut across company divisions, they will have the ability to communicate and interact as a global, real time workforce. This will be exacerbated by the entrance to the workforce of the Net Generation, a group with familiarity and comfort with working with web-based tools. All of this combined will drive a massive shift in how we design, produce goods and services, store service and sell product.
As a result, the way companies and countries compete will change; smaller companies will have the ability to go neck and neck with giants by creating partnerships to increase their size and skill base.

Not everyone embraces the wiki world, some are concerned with intellectual property and the risks of airing dirty laundry to the world, but the reality is that in the wikiworld you will not be able to hide. Every individual will have the ability to post data or a picture of you on the internet doing something you should not be; like watering your garden during restrictions or leaving your dog’s poo on the grass. This will be an especially enlightening time for politicians, organizations and companies. They will no longer be able to afford to not walk the talk.

Part three – Wiki Companies
Companies like HP, Chevron, Boeing and Telstra agree this is the way of the future and have joined the wikiworld through company blogs. While many are controlled vehicles used to blow the company’s horn, others are open means of communication engaging employees, customers, shareholders and the general public. The Telestra blog bears all, complements and complaints of the company. The site launched in December and already it attracts 7000 hits a week. Editor Rod Bruem says “The company philosophy now, since Sol Trujillo came, is to be open and honest. What is worse? Somebody coming to us with a problem or going to Ray Hadley or the Today show?”

He has a point. No company, politician or person is immune to having their personal lives on view in the wikiworld. One of my favourite examples,, is a site offering dating advice to young women by profiling men that are unfaithful, have sexually transmitted diseases, don’t pay child support, or are just plain cads. I have not checked the site yet to see if there are any Geyer guys there. Last week Judge Stanton Wettick ruled that he had no jurisdiction over a lawsuit filed by Todd Hollis who was profiled on the site. Lawyer Robert Byer summed it up well “I think he must have the idea that just because you can access the internet anywhere in the world you can sue someone anywhere in the world” clearly not true – there is no wikijustice.

Nope no justice for Mr. Holis or Tony Blair – pranksters added an entry to his profile on Wikipedia stating his middle name is “Whoopdedo” they also said that Kylie Minogue “is the more beautiful and more talented older sister” of Michael Jackson and that Sharon Stone and Demi Moore headed the Soviet secret service. Interesting but untrue and that is the challenge with open source collaboration it could be really good or really bad. This is why proposed guidelines are being created for blogging netiquette.

It gets a bit overwhelming, what does it means to free speech and personal rights, copyrights and most important to us, what does this mean to upholstery fabric?


“All Profit in the Wiki Workplace”
By Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams
The Australian Financial Review
March 29, 2007

“Kill Baddies and Fight Cancer”
By John Davidson
The Australian Financial Review
March 20, 2007

“How Gamers Can Help Cure Cancer”
By Jim Martz
Wired Magazine 6.14.05

“Baring It All on the Company Blog”
By Fiona Smith
The Australian Financial Review
August 15, 2007

“Don’t Date Him’ Site Beats Law Suit”
By Joe Mandak
The New Zealand Herald
April 12, 2007

“Wikipedia gets Minister’s Vote Despite errors”
The New Zealand Herald
April 12, 2007

“War of Words Prompts Call for Blogging Netiquette Code”
By Brad Stome
The Sydney Morning Herald
April 10, 2007

“As Gadgets Get it Together, Media Makers Fall Behind”
By Saul Hansell
The New York Times
January 25, 2006

By Don Tapscott

The World is Flat
By Thomas L Friedman
Penguin Books

Distractions Part Two – February 9, 2007

Distractions part two

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 27 – February 9, 2007

In response to the last Future’s Ramblings I received an e mail from a colleague who pointed out that iPods are the least of our worries when it comes to workplace distraction. Of course he is right, and he would have been right even if he wasn’t from the Melbourne office; that as you all know, has been living through an office renovation that took longer than anyone imagined. Who could keep focused with loud saws, paint fumes and construction workers in shorts? Never mind poor guys like Lorenzo who has been skipping lunch for the past six months out of fear he might gain a few pounds and not be able to squeeze through the one foot aisle leading to his desk.

We are all rejoicing because the Melbourne office renovation is complete and it looks great!  Now we can get back to normal, a relief not only to the occupants of the Melbourne office, but also for those of us that talk to them on the phone. Working without distraction is necessary in the workplace. The Journal of Facilities Management  conducted a study in the US in 2002 and found that the workplace attribute found to be most effective was the “ability to do distraction – free solo work” followed second by “support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)”. Now with the construction complete all we need to do is worry about all of the other distractions.

When it comes to distractions the most explored subject area is around acoustical privacy. In studies done by ASID 70% of the respondents claimed they could be more productive if the workplace was less noisy. Noise level is something that can be easily measured in the workplace but it is not the noise that is the issue as much as how annoying that noise is. Annoyance levels fluctuate with sound level, but also are impacted by predictability and variability. Spikes in variable noise can be annoying but less so when they are expected. This is why the guy that presses the button on the printer does not get as annoyed with the sound as the guy sitting next to him who didn’t anticipate it.

Visual privacy is also important in work environments but visual distractions are different from auditory distractions because they elicit a different response from the brain. It is more difficult to return to ones thoughts after a visual distraction than an auditory one because the mechanism that helps re-orient task relevant information in the brain does not engage; making visual distractions more harmful to our productivity. Boy there are so many visual distractions that confront us each day! In the futures pod alone we can lose a good thirty minutes of work if someone has a new outfit or haircut.

Clothing or the lack there of, can be quite a distraction in the workplace. This is why I will share with you David M Kruk’s feelings on what people wear to work. In his article “The Corporate Dress Code” he identifies the clothing that is not suitable for the corporate environment because it is too distracting.

  • Sweat suites of any type – Sorry Sean I know you wanted to wear your orange track suit and diamond necklace from the Christmas Party again.
  • Clothes that are transparent or any part of an undergarment
  • Lack of proper undergarments
  • Unsafe footwear and flip – flops
  • Halter tops, bare midriffs, crop tops, tank tops – There goes my plan of wearing my Christmas Party outfit too, $20 down the drain! Good news for all of you that appeared in a wig at the party, they’re not on the list.
  • Low-cut clothing, thin shoulder straps, sundresses

Mr. Kruck makes exceptions if you are good looking, which is of course subjective. He also suggests that many of theses outfits should not even be worn outside of the workplace, particularly if you weigh more than 150 pounds. I should point out the source for this is Red Tractor USA touted as The Best News Satire in the Field. David has apparently not heard that the world is changing and that people wear jeans to the theater and camisoles to church. Jamie Oliver did not wear a tie when he visited The Queen and the NorthwesternUniversity women’s lacrosse team went to the White House in flip – flops.

Sorry I got distracted; there are so many interesting things you can find on the internet!

Draught is rated as the most annoying climatic factor in a work environment. This is characterized by varying air velocity and turbulence intensity. One third of employees in large offices complain about draught, this can reach 60% in a cold workplace. Environmental quality has been linked to productivity in offices, studies done by The University of Sydney measured occupant satisfaction with seven comfort factors and found that these had a direct  impact on performance at work – they measured: thermal comfort, air quality, activity related noise, spatial comfort, privacy, lighting and building related external noise.

So big deal, we all know that noise, visual and climatic factors can be distracting, we experience this daily, but why and what do we do about it?

To perform well at work, or in anything else, we need three things; first the knowledge, skills or abilities, second the motivation or desire, and third positive psychological factors. It is the psychological factors that give us a tough time because these impact our ability to concentrate and focus. There is no doubt that some people are able to control their attention, even in times of great stress, while others like Leyton Hewett cannot. This is psychological factors at play.

According to Robin Pratt from Performance Equations, Inc. our focus or concentration works in channels which range from external to internal and broad to narrow. There are three attentional channels that each of us moves through at any point in any given day.  The first channel is External and broad – which is about environmental awareness, concentration on the things happening around you. The second channel is broad and internal – a more analytical, conceptual style. Focusing on process, this style connects past information with the future and is good for planning and strategy. The final channel is narrow and external – this channel will focus on follow through and execution of tasks.

We use all three channels as needed; the catch is that we cannot be in two channels at the same time. Each of us has a different pattern of attentional strength and weaknesses and we differ in how quickly we are able to switch styles. The higher your distraction level, the more difficulty you have of switching channels and it is the ability to switch quickly that makes you productive. For example if I am happily concentrating in Channel two, perhaps  working on a spread sheet or reading something and suddenly an ambulance goes by my brain sifts to Channel one, external broad awareness. My effectiveness and the level of my productivity will depend on my ability to quickly shift back to Channel two. Some people are just faster channel shifters than others.

We each have a dominant attention style and if we are lucky we will choose professions that align with that style, I think we can all agree that we want an air traffic controller or brain surgeon to maintain a strong internal – narrow focus. Each of these dominant attention styles will have a different reaction to stress or distraction; therefore, a person’s attention style can be influenced by the type of environment they are in. As a result when someone says they cannot possibly do their job in an open office environment; depending on which attention channel is dominant for them, it may be true.

Someone like me has broad – internal focus this is good because it allows me to analyses and synthesizes input from various sources. I am able to conceptualize relationships among events, so I can easily develop strategies or plans and anticipate the consequences. My approach is conceptual and I like solving problems. On the other hand because I am broad, I have difficulty with focused concentration. Staying on topic long enough to take care of the details and finish something is a challenge for me. I am seduced by a new idea or project more than finishing the old one. Unfortunately I also have high external distractibility.

External distractibility falls into three types: the first is due to boredom, you would rather pay attention to things you find more interesting than the task at hand. The second is due to irritation, you get distracted because you’re irritated at someone talking or the phone is ringing. Finally the third type of external distraction is from feeling rushed; you’re so distracted by all the things you have to do that you cannot pay attention to what you are doing at the moment.

We can’t change who we are, but we can learn to deal better with our weaknesses by altering our environment and surrounding ourselves with a team of people with complementary skills. If you have a high level of external distractibility you may need to put yourself in an environment where there are fewer distractions, like the quiet room for certain tasks. If you have a high level of internal distractibility, you get lost in your own head, it may be best to team with others who can help you to see a broader perspective. If your dominant channel is broad you may need to learn to slow down, learn to not overload your agenda, keep notes to maintain focus and team with more focused individuals who will keep you on target to get the job done.

Finally, at a business level here are a few thing employers can do to help:

  • Be more flexible – allow time outside of work for people to deal with their family issues
  • Provide an employee assistance program – to resolve personal problems relating to health, financial situation or family
  • Install acoustic products that absorb office noise – sound masking
  • Institute a work – safety program – disaster plans, fire safety procedures
  • Control the rumor mill – be honest with employees about the company, its financial situation and their future.



“Removing Employee Distractions”

Business Toolbox – A library of business management info.

By Vicki Gerson

October 2, 2004

Paper – “Environmental Quality and Productivity in Offices: Some Local Research”

David Rowe – School of Architecture, Design Science and Planning

The University of Sydney.

Paper – “Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace.”

Justin Mardex – CornellUniversity, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis


“The Corporate Dress Code”

By David M. Kruk

Red Tractor USA – June 13, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe on office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

Paper – “The Psychology of Distributed Workers”

Robin Pratt

July 2003

Future of Work Executive Roundtable

The Attentional & Interpersonal Style Inventory

TAIS Business Report for Laurie Aznavoorian

October 2, 2003

Enhanced Performance Systems Inc




iPods at Work – January 10, 2007

iPods at work

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 26 – January 10, 2007


Happy 2007!  I wanted to get this to you before Christmas because I am sure some of you had an iPod on your Christmas list – but it wasn’t meant to be.

My son’s grades arrived in the mail about a week ago, they were by no means bad, but I must admit that I expected them to be a bit better. After all this kid has been scoring top marks since he was six years old and even skipped ahead a year in school when we moved to Australia. If a person does not do as well at something as you know they can, you cannot help but wonder why. I suppose it is human nature to want to point the finger at something as a catalyst to the change and in this particular situation I am pointing my finger straight at the Sony Corporation. Why, because it is Sony who developed the iPod that is permanently attached to my son’s ear.

Soon to be 17, my son is quintessential Netgen – he blissfully multi-tasks, IMs, e –mails, reads and does all of this while he talks on the phone and listens to his iPod. Prior to this set of grades, it appeared he was quite capable of doing this all at the same time. I think extension English was what upset the apple cart, they made him read Dostoyevsky. Doing that and listening to the iPod appears to have tested the limit of his multi- tasking brain. Call me old fashioned, but being from a generation that believed it  risky to light a cigarette while holding an open beer for fear of spillage, it is difficult to comprehend how effective work can be done with so many distractions. Especially reading, even I miss important information when I try to read New Idea while watching Australia’s Biggest Loser, just imagine Dostoyevsky.

You can’t grow up surrounded by gadgets and not expect to bring some of your toys to work with you when you grow up.  Looking around the office I see I am pretty much alone, being one of the only people in my immediate area that is not supporting the Sony Corporation by listening to an iPod. The reality is that one in five workers is listing to iPods or similar listening devices at their desks. Obviously, the type of work that one does has an impact on whether they can listen to music:  80% of technical and creative workers listen to music more than 20% of their working hours, while at management level the proportion of workers listening to music drops to 20%. Clerical workers spend 40% of their working day listening to music.

With over 40 million people worldwide using iPods, there is bound to be an impact in the workplace. Determining the distraction level of these devices, and weighing their risks and benefits will be a challenge for many employers. Companies will struggle with drawing the line because many employees will argue that using a personal music player helps them concentrate and therefore improves productivity. It is true that in today’s ‘always on’ culture people find it difficult to concentrate. No wonder, a report from New Scientist noted that petty distractions: e mails, phone calls, people coming to your desk and computer generated reminders take up on average more than two hours of our working days. Another study by London’s Institute of Psychiatry found constant disruption had a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana.

Years ago while doing work for Netscape I was told that if a computer programmer was interrupted while writing code it would take him or her 30 minutes to get back to the same place. According to a University of California study, if you’re interrupted while trying to remember what it is you were doing you might as well go home. The study showed more than 20 percent of interrupted tasks were not resumed the same day. The same study found that most distractions in a typical work day are self- inflicted: sending e mails, playing with things on your desk, bothering your busy colleagues, getting 37 cups of tea.

Tuning out distraction is only one of the reasons people listen to music at work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and you thought Aznavoorian was a mouthful) who directs the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Management says workers are turning to music as a form of distraction from otherwise boring work. The implications here are far greater. If employees are so uninvolved in what they’re doing that their minds need to be distracted, at the least there will be losses in productivity, in the worst case scenario there may be safety risks. If our people, particularly the younger ones, are listening to music because they are bored what hope do we have of keeping them in the workplace?

Some of the problems with iPods at work are the real or perceived message wearing headphones sends of being inaccessible or not wanting to be bothered. Some believe that this is creating a wedge between older and younger workers due to the fact that it is predominantly younger people donning the headphones, making the older ones feel alienated. There can also be risks to the company’s network when employees connect MP3 players to their computer to download and store songs; those same players could be used to download other information making it possible to infect a network with a virus. In the event that you have not thought of this, MP3 players that have the video capability may be used to watch pornography or other inappropriate material on the job! Of course you would have to be pretty dumb to do that, the screen is too tiny and you would strain your eyes.

The more obvious issues are with not being able to hear people talking to you, or the phone ringing, which puts a real damper on the type of collaboration we are trying to encourage in many of the workplaces we design. In some industries not being able to hear can be a source of broader safety issues; particularly if it is critical to hear warning alarms and bells, warnings shouted by co workers or other workplace sounds such as moving forklifts. Some claim there are also problems with inaccuracies and mistakes on the job due to people being more mentally engaged in the music than the task at hand. If the TV dramas are accurate, this is not true because doctors always have rock music pumped up to the highest volume in the theater during surgery.

In the event an employee is tuned out a co workers may be forced to get their attention by other means. As an example when I want Josh I just throw one of my old imperial scale rules or an adjustable triangle at his head, it is good to put this obsolete drafting equipment to use. However, employees with poor aim may be required to get up to touch their co worker to get their attention. This can scare or startle the person, or in extreme cases (like if you live in the USA where suing others is as common as birth and death) the touching could be misconstrued as harassment. The lesson here is that if you want to get a co workers attention it is better to tap their shoulder and not their behind, breast or crotch area.

In some instances listening to music can be a distraction to others. Surely you have had the experience of being next to someone listening to music with the volume on so loud that it is clearly audible right through the earplugs. The only thing worse than this is those people who like to sing along, dance or drum on their desk.  Also not everyone likes the same music – Adam Weissman from DBA Public Relations says “Sometimes in those random occasions when someone is having an extremely bad day, there is nothing quite like scrolling through my iPod and cranking the Muppets theme song” Yep I bet there is nothing quite like that, thank goodness Adam does not work here. When you add  visual distraction to auditory, environmental distractions such as thermal comfort and air quality and the internal distractions we all have: your hungry, your sleepy, your feet hurt  –  there are so many distractions encountered in the typical work environment you wonder how we get anything done.

So what is an employer to do – ban the iPod?  Cary Cooper a professor of organizational psychology and health at LancasterUniversity said “It’s crucial to give workers autonomy and bans of any sort can alienate them. Bosses shouldn’t care about how employees accomplish their objectives as long as the job gets done” (sounds like something the late Kenneth Lay would have said). Others believe that if people spend time listening to music instead of working it is a firms right to ban MP3 players. In the end it is up to employers to establish protocol for personal electronic devices and enforce them.

Some companies are being quite innovative when it comes to iPods and are using them to their advantage. Capital One uses iPods as a part of an audio training program for employees. Pod casting enables companies to put training programs on files or shows, which enable employees to listen to them when it suits such as while riding to work. Other companies like Homestead Technologies in Menlo ParkCA have used iPods as a perk when they gave all 77 employees engraved devices as 10-year anniversary gifts.

Clearly office cultures vary, a technology company in the Silicon Valley will be different to a law firm. Either way the atmosphere in the workplace is changing by becoming more informal, more gadgetized, and more employee centric. The demands and expectations of the next generation of worker we hope to attract are having an impact on the work environment, and the rules are shifting for everyone.  As these shifts take place grey areas in workplace decorum will emerge, in sorting through those many employers will be put in the uncomfortable position many of us with children find ourselves in – determining whether something is really bad or just different to the way you did it.

Whether to allow flip flops to work, strappy tank tops, encourage properly punctuating e mails, allowing the use of  emoticons and acronyms in office correspondence, as well as when and how you can use your iPod all be a parts of the new work landscape companies will need to navigate their way through. As for me, my son can keep the iPod. After a summer working for Hoyts sweeping up popcorn off the floor he now understands the importance of getting better grades. He now recognizes that without a formal education the best he can hope for is being elevated to the Hoyts candy counter, and if he is really stellar, some day ticket sales.


“The Disrupting Influence of Technology”

By Tim Dowling

The Sydney Morning Herald

August 21, 2006

“MP3s Banned as Workers Switch on and Switch Off”

By Ben Quinn

The New Zealand Herald

November 2, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe in office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

“iPod use in the workplace”

Employment Law Bits

August  28, 2006

“Are iPods Good for the Workplace?”

The Chicago Tribune

February 13, 2006

“Music Hath Charms for Some Workers – Others it Annoys”

By Stephanie Armour

USA Today

March 23, 2006

“iPod @ Work”

By Matt Krumrie

Star Tribune – Minneapolis – St. Paul Minnesota

October 30, 2006

Auditory, visual and physical distractions in the workplace

By Justin Mardex

Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis



Workplace Trends – November 30, 2006

Business issues that create workplace trends

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 25 – November 30, 2006

I have been in New Zealand so much that I am beginning to wear nothing but black and white. You will note the affect this has had on me at the Christmas party when I break out into the Hakka after a few drinks. Needless to say it has been quite a busy time, so when the request came out to attend a session to discuss workplace trends my first response was, sure I’ll get right on that in my plentiful spare time. Fortunately, it occurred to me that  I could kill two birds with one stone and turn this exercise into this months Ramblings. One item off the to do list – 7000 to go.

You can view this months ramblings like the fashion magazine’s yearly “ The big hair issue” except in this case it will be the “Big trends in workplace” issue you have all been waiting for. What I have done is assemble a collection of what I believe are the pressing issues that drive workplace trends. This is after all the purpose of the Ramblings, especially now that the thrill is gone from the secondary purpose of Futures Ramblings – summed up beautifully by my friend Susan in Seattle who wrote in an e mail  “It is ALMOST not as fun to poke fun of Bush these days. Since the elections he has been so humble it is nauseating”

One of the challenges we have in identifying workplace trends is the gravitation toward thinking about responses before thoroughly considering the issues that drive the response. Business, social and political issues are catalysts  that companies react  to, which in turn start trends. We put a desk on wheels to respond to a desire for greater flexibility which is a response to a volatile business climate.  This is why I believe it is necessary to consider broader issues as a starting point, mostly because it will give us a greater number of touchpoints to generate interesting solutions from.

Imagine five blind men trying to describe an elephant. The blind man holding the tail says it is as skinny as a snake, the blind man holding the ear says it is big and thin like a fan, the blind man holding on to the elephants leg says it is strong and solid like a tree trunk – you can see where this goes. It is impossible to effectively define or describe something if you can’t  see the big picture. Such is the case with understanding trends, this is why I have formulated what follows into issues.  I am hoping that you will begin to see the more of the whole picture, you will begin to see the way the issues link to one another and hopefully by having more to grab on to will generate many more fantastic ideas for how we solve these problems.

  1. ISSUE –       Shrinking talent pool  –  To focus on recruitment      and retention is too limiting, this is a broader issue. There are fewer      people to choose from when it comes to finding talent, not only do we need      to make sure our clients are able to attract the dwindling source of      company sustainability, the cities and countries  we live in are in the same boat. They      too are trying to attract people, and people attract companies, and      companies bring money and then the city thrives.  This elevates the discussion a bit. It is      not just about getting people to work for our company, but getting them to      come to your country or community. What makes them come? assuming we are      after young talented knowledge workers they want to be in places where the      ‘three T’s’ are present.  Talent –      more smart people to learn from and hang out with Technology – a      government and community that will finance research and development and      embrace new technology (eg if I am an up and coming biologist am I going      to go live in a place where the government will not allow the type of      research I want to do, such as stem cell research?).  Tolerance – living in an area that      tolerates diversity: age, sex, religion, sexual preference. These are the      types of communities that will be attracting the next generation of      talented workers.  What does this      mean in terms of environment: We need to create environments for knowledge      transfer and to create learning communities that give younger workers      exposure to senior workers enabling their careers to advance – this too      plays into generational drivers. For the same reasons the environment must      be used as a communicating device (perhaps through technology) to let      workers know what else is going on within their company and the community,      and the world.
  2. ISSUE –       Outsourcing / off shoring / partnering –  As companies respond to      shrinking talent pools and increased competition they will want to      leverage themselves for competitive advantage. Particularly in places like      New Zealand,      a country who is geographically isolated but has an  insatiable passion to align with the      rest of the world in technology/ consumer goods/ art/ fashion ideas etc.      For a small country like NZ to play in the big world scene they need to      join forces or partner with others to       become a part of a larger community. Increasingly smaller companies      and countries are doing this as a means to increase scale and reach. What      does it mean in terms of environment – the physical environment will need      to accommodate people who do not work for them but are working on projects      for specific periods of time. We need to design more ‘partnering rooms’      that can be a home base for employees and outsiders. Technology will need      to be better to enable clear inexpensive communications with out sourced,      off shore partners (this is why the HP halo communication is making such a      big splash) Also security issues will need to be addressed physically and      virtually.
  3. ISSUE – Conflict resolution – Not a new idea but one that has hidden      impact on how a business will perform. While we cannot make people get      along and work together many of our clients hope that the environment can      help repair severed bonds (the same way couples think babies will fix      there problems perhaps?) Some times there is conflict due to personalities      and differences, an extreme case is our client Ngai Tahu who are joining      several  Maori tribes to come      together to promote their culture and business proposition. The issue of      conflict resolution or difference is more often seen with companies that      have merged and are attempting to create a single culture. What do we do –      This one is really tough, going back to the couple analogy perhaps focus      on what the common goals are and create an environment that support common      values but allow the differences to still exist? EG the building and work      environment  communicates      overarching value but each employee has a name tag that is customised,      graphics to define groups?
  4. ISSUE – Technology and technology backlash – While we demand and      require great technology that is simple to use and gets beyond security      issues, we also need to consider that many people are bloody sick and      tired of it. There is a bit of generational differences here too, the      younger generations have much more tolerance for multiple points of      stimulation. We need to consider environments that provide opportunities      to just get away, Cisco has done this in San Jose with the creation of a library      space where there is no technology or noise permitted. Do we help our      client develop signals and protocol (like PMC did last week with no e mail      Friday)? Obviously, creating spaces that foster community – particularly      as workers have greater mobility and flexibility in work hours,  will encourage face to face      communication to augment the great freedom we will have due to technology.
  5. ISSUE Consumer activism, awareness, corporate social responsibility  –  This      is a big issue. People are beginning to question authority more and are      drawing stronger connections with a companies values and their behaviours.      Companies in the US      are spending lots of time and energy defending themselves and their      motives – taking out full page ads in the New York times to tell everyone      they are really good guys and not just a big multi national that only care      about money.  A while ago I wrote      about Wal Mart creating a ‘situation room’ to brainstorm and respond to      negative press. The public and employees have greater expectation that      companies do not behave the way Enron, Worldcom or the AWB did.  What does this mean in terms of      environment? – Clear ESD implications, also alignment of brand values to      building and workplace image. Provision of community spaces on company      premises .
  6. ISSUE Faith and meaning – As people we are searching for meaning, I      am not sure why there is more of this now than before, but there is. There      is a definite push in the US      toward religion to achieve this – sadly thru fundamentalist views, just as      there is with other cultures and religions. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have a large number      of new immigrants, and are also seeing more ethnic gang activity and      violence. In a simplistic level these gangs are a means of providing      community, connection and meaning to people who cannot find another way to      fit with the culture – in the US I believe it has more to do with social      and economic differences. Others are increasingly finding meaning through      other means, such as yoga obsessions, or environmentalism – which has been      coined as the new religion. What does this mean – People want a community,      people want meaning in their life, particularly gen Y. Work environments      must support differences and provide a sense of community that allows each      person to feel like they belong.
  7. ISSUE Depression, stress general well being – As I described in last
  8. months Future’s Ramblings organizations are now being held responsible for      the well being of their employees. About a week ago Michael       Greer sent out an article describing an Australian      company that was in some hot water because they did not tell their      employees before hand that they were shifting from offices to open      worksettings. What does this mean?       Depression and stress are closely related, and we can certainally      have an effect by designing workplaces that don’t drive people nuts. It sounds      like design 101 but: zoning loud activities away from quiet activites to      avoid distraction, use full height spaces as buffers, provide a variety of      ‘fit for purpose’ spaces, create areas to decompress, provide good      acoustics,

Depression in the Workplace – October 18, 2006

Depression in the workplace

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 24 – October 18, 2006

Do you ever have those days where you feel like the black dog is getting the better of you? The black dog is the term Winston Churchill used to describe depression. Churchill, like many other famous people including Dawn Frasier, Buz Aldrin, Claude Monet, Mozart, John Cleese and even Prince Charles all suffered from depression. In fact 72% of famous writers, 42% of the artist, 36% of intellectuals, 35% of composers, 33% scientists and 41% of politicians suffer from depression.

In the past, if I had woken feeling a bit blue and decided the best way to remedy that was stick the pillow over my head and call in sick I would have felt like a complete loser.  Now that I know Buz Aldren does the same thing I feel a sense of empowerment that comes from having a special alignment with the FIRST MAN ON THE MOON CONSARNIT. Yep me and Buz Aldrin who said

“There were days I could not get out of bed.  Some mornings I responded to the doctor’s questions, other mornings, I ignored his questions and carried on my litany of self-doubt and self-hate. At times I felt hopelessly snarled in the tangle of my mind.

Okay so I am not in the hospital and you would be correct in pointing out that going to the moon is not tantamount to going to New Zealand – even though sometimes it can feel that way. Never the less,  there is something quite sobering about discovering the flight crew on the Qantas Sydney to Auckland route, the customs guys and cashiers at the duty free liquor counter all know your name, but your kids greet you with who are you? when you walk in the door after a business trip – Ouch.

Everyone experiences days when they feel a bit down, and most of us have pulled a sickie at some time in our working career, except for my pal Neil Shoebridge at the Financial Review who has NEVER called in sick in 18 years. The bigger issues is that the greater portion of the population  go to work when they are not emotionally prepared  – you could say a few bricks shy of a load, they have one oar in the water, or are one enchilada short of a combination meal –  they go anyway. It is these walking wounded, particularly those with serious depression or anxiety disorders, that are wreaking havoc with workplace productivity and that is what we need to pay closer attention to.

The leadership and workplace gurus don’t talk much about depression, it has been coined the last taboo of workplace issues. Having confronted discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, sexual orientation and religion, we are only just now beginning to scratch the surface on the implications that mental ill health has on business. I am not referring to days where there is a minor setback that ruins your morning, such as feeling like skipping work because your butt looks too big in these pants, or the baby puked down your back and the other suit is at the cleaners. I am talking about genuine physical illness which impacts ones ability to do their work the same way the old work -related illnesses did: coalminer’s lung, match girl’s jaw and chimney – sweep scrotum. Real stuff.

It is estimated that a quarter of workers will suffer some depression, anxiety or related substance abuse problem each year. One in five of us will experience this at some point in our adult lives (If the empty beer bottles after Friday night drinks are any indication I would say that substance abuse is affecting all of us here simultaneously – forget the one in five) Depression is the most common reason for people being off work in the public sector and it has the greatest negative impact on productivity for non manufacturing companies. In the UK Mental ill health is costing up to Pounds 9 billion a year in pay alone, in the US untreated mental illness cost the USA $105 billion in lost productivity each year, and in Australia it cost 3.3 billion dollars a year in lost productivity.

If those figures were not convincing, here are a few more to sober you up complements of Beyond Blue the National Depression Initiative:

  • Un healthy workers had 18 days sick leave compared with 2 day for healthy ones.
  • Unhealthy employees worked an average of 49 effective hours a month compared to 143 hours a month for healthy employees.
  • There are 6 million days lost each year due to absenteeism, and another 12 million days lost each year due to lack of productivity

At Geyer most of us work in teams so it will be no surprise to hear that the cost of a health related absence is often more than just lost wages paid to the worker who is out sick, there are broader implications to productivity. When it comes to measuring the cost of ailments to companies, diabetes, arthritis and circulatory disorders were responsible for higher direct medical costs; but interestingly depression / anxiety had the highest cost, particularly when “Impaired presenteeism” is taken into account. This is the term used for the impact on others, of those who come to work while ill. I love that term impaired presenteeism, you could take the idea much further: impaired jerkism, impaired moronism.

In Australia we have started to pay more attention to depression and mental health after the resignation of WA premier Geoff Gallops. More recently Queensland’s attorney general Linda Lavarch resigned from the ministry and Labor’s front bench for similar reasons. As has been mentioned, it is tough going for the politicians 41% are depressed. In fact Comcare the federal government’s mental health program has seen clams increase from 5.9% in 2004 to 22%. I would imagine these figures would be higher in the US given the dismal performance of the current administration there (if they were real men would go stick there head in the oven given their track record). By the way mid term elections in the US are in the next two weeks – I live in hope!!!!!!!!!!!

One of the biggest problems depression presents to an organization is the cost. In Australia mental stress claims have risen from 6813 in 2001 to 8093 in 2004 and that trend is likely to accelerate. For those with serious depression the average claim is $80,000. Naturally, with money to be earned the lawyers are not far behind, in the US you can sue your employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act, issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if they do not account for your depression. In 2004 federal guidelines were issued in the US describing how employers could make ‘accommodation’ for employees with serious mood disorders, such as changing their work hours; and if they didn’t their employees could sue .

In 2004 the EEOC took in $469,000 in financial settlements for employees who complained they were discriminated against because of their depression, this has ballooned to more that 3 million in 2005. Wipe that smug look off of your face, its not just happening in the US! In 2003 the WA Supreme Court awarded an employee $856,742 after they were diagnosed with depressive illness. The employer was found negligent for not heeding the warnings that the employees work load was too great.

As an example of how this could work, my niece who is a university student in PhoenixArizona works part time at a department store where she is a manger of her area. As the manger she has no recourse over an employee who frequently decides not to come in to work or is late, because the other girl has gone on record as being ‘depressed’. The other girl shows up when she pleases and leaves when she pleases and there is nothing that her manager can do about it. Just imagine trying to run one of our projects with a team like that.

The last thing I want to do here is make light of depression, but it would be safe to say it is tricky situation when the symptoms pretty much describe a typical work week for many of us. Unfortunately for some of you in Melbourne, and you know who you are, traits like irritability, anal pickneyness or chronic lateness are considered behaviours and not mental impairments that would require ‘accommodation’ by your employer. The real symptoms are:

  • Persistent sadness or anxious mood
  • Loss of interest in or pleasure from ordinary activities (I know I am in trouble when I lose the will to be cynical)
  • Decreased energy, fatigue or feelings of being slowed down
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating disturbances
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or attempts at suicide – interesting they don’t mention thoughts of boss homicide
  • Irritability
  • Excessive crying
  • Chronic aches and pains
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.

If Australia follows in the footsteps of the US, as it often does, employers will need to make accommodation in the workplace for those with mental health issues. If the lost productivity doesn’t drive such initiatives then potential legal ramifications will. Commonwealth Bank is already taking depression in the workplace seriously. Commonwealth Bank Chief Executive Ralph Norris says “Commonwealth Bank is committed to the health and well being of our staff and is proud to offer our employees access to information and advice about depression and how to identify it or seek treatment for it,” he goes on to say “We are pleased to provide the resources and information for our staff and to be recognised as leading edge within the finance sector for this type of initiative.” “The program will ultimately lead to positive outcomes across the Bank – first and foremost for our people – in addition to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and reduced direct and indirect costs.”

I am going to leave you with an assignment.  I would like all of you to go away and challenge yourself to come up with ways, even seemingly insignificant ones, that the physical environment could be used to combat workplace depression. Send them back to me and the futures team will distribute prizes for the best ones. You see, I am feeling a bit depressed, I heard through the grapevine that there is an expectation that Future’s identify new workplace trends. Well I’ll be gosh darn, that’s why I write these Futures Ramblings! (I would use other words but you know how picky that mail marshal is)

So to be perfectly clear – one of the trends you should think about when designing a work environment is the possibility that employees may be depressed.  If the environment you create can in anyway elevate that, for instance through happy face upholstery fabrics, that would put Geyer on the leading edge.


“Depression, a disease that we must defeat”

By Richard Layard

The Observer

une 18, 2006

“Aetna to Pay For Program To Manage Depression”

New York times

November 2, 2005

“Stressed Out”

By Amita Tandukar



“Depression Knows No Boundaries”

By Shane Nichols

The Australian Financial Review

February 23, 2006

“Third of men drink to drown out job stress: Survey links depression to long hours and insecurity”

By John Carvel

The Guardian London, England

June 8, 2006

“Sick Job Syndrome – The Office Psychologist”

By John Nash

The Times – London England

March 30, 2006

“Beyond Blue: Opening our Eyes to the Cost of Depression in the Workplace”

Web site

Multiplier Effect: The Financial Consequences of Worker Absences

Knowledge at Wharton

December 14, 2005

“Workplaces Quit Quietly Ignoring Mental Illness”

By Stephanie Armour

USA Today

August 22, 2006

Holidays and Baseball – September 18, 2006

Holidays and Baseball

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 23 – September 18, 2006

As most of you know I have just returned from being in the United States for two week where I was watching my son play baseball and visiting friends and family, if you have any expectations that this version of Future’s Ramblings will be about workplace or business issues you should stop reading now. Other than chatting with friends in the industry, and a quick sojourn to Minneapolis to visit the Medtronic’s campus, it may shock you to learn I did very little thinking about work. So as advised when I first started writing these newsletters, there could be times when Ramblings gets reduced to a bit of fluff and this is one of those times.

My return to the office coincided with the monthly Geyer ‘Show and Tell’ lunch, which I attended. As I was going up to get my third helping of food Matt Sheargold made the comment that sitting between an American and a buffet table was an unfortunate place. Pretty cheeky don’t you think? Matt is lucky I am thick skinned, besides if I had gotten upset about that comment it may have spoiled my digestion and I would have had to skip desert. Never the less, I have given this some thought because this is the second time in a matter of weeks an Australian has made comment about American eating habits. Prior to leaving Australia my son’s baseball coach gave the boys this bit of advice “Those Americans all eat way more than they should, and you will need to exercise self control when you’re around them to remain in peak physical condition”.

Sadly after spending time in suburban New   Jersey I did wonder whether there was some truth to these slanderous comments. I began to notice that every meal was excessively large and generally deep fried. If the size of the typical beer gut was any indication, the fried food gets helped down with a few cold ones, particularly if you happened to be dining in a sports bar which I rarely go, but in suburban New Jersey there was little choice. Sports, beer and fried food kind of go together like Larry, Moe and Curly Joe. And Allen, I was wrong, you can watch both baseball and football at the same time because they have extended the seasons and if you got to a sports bar to do it you can have lots of beer and fried food too.

You will think that I am making this up, but at the ball park in New Jersey they actually served deep fried Oreo cookies. This guy in the stands told the woman sitting next to him, who was stuffing them in her mouth that it was giving him adult onset diabetes just watching her. What a great comment, they didn’t know each other. I miss the brutal honesty and obnoxious candor of Americans and that one made me feel warm and cozy. As another example, at the ballgame the parents were yelling “Hey umpire, how about you watch the game with your good eye” you don’t hear that at Aussie baseball games. Perhaps it is an unfair assumption because I have never been to one, but I just can’t see anyone yelling anything like that at a cricket game. Heck at a cricket match I figure you would need to go around with a mirror to see if anyone in the stands or the field is alive let alone spirited enough to yell rude comments.

I would have been quite disturbed about my birth land and what it had come to if I hadn’t spent a few days in Manhattan after the baseball tournament. At least there people there are normal! There was the woman I saw walking her dog that had shoes on – not the woman the dog. After a week of fried food and beer drinking I felt the need to do a bit of Bikram yoga. At the studio in Chelsea there was a tall black man next to me in class with waist long dread locks, he must have been working on them since he was five years old. When it started to get hot he tied them in knots at either side of his head which impacted my ability to meditate, he looked like Princess Leigha. That aside, I felt more alignment with this guy and the other yogis with their tattoos and body piercing than I did with the woman taking up a pair of seats in the bleachers eating fried Oreo cookies.

So it is with a heavy heart that I must admit that in that region of the country the stereotype of Americans eating habits are accurate. Another change I noticed was more religion. While I have always been aware that parts of the US were more God fearing than others, my theory was that the closer you got to major metropolitan areas the less R& R you get (religion and republicans). This is why I advise sticking to the East and West coasts if you’re visiting just to be safe. That being said, Chicago is an exception, what a coincidence I am from Chicago. Chicago is a city firmly divided along the supporters of the two baseball teams:  Sox fans and Cubs fans. Despite the deep divide, both ball parks – Wrigley Field and ComiskeyPark mark the top of the 7th inning with the tradition of the ‘Seventh Inning Stretch’. This is a chance to take a bit of a break, stand up and stretch your legs and if you’re not too drunk and join the other fans in singing “Take me Out to the Ballgame”. Guess what they sang in New   Jersey? God Bless America.

To my surprise, the kids from the US teams would have a group prayer prior to the start of a game. You will be happy to know the Australian kids did what baseball players are supposed to do: a few stretches, eat a hot dog, and adjust and readjust and adjust and readjust their cup (or box as you call it here).

Mixing sports and religion is bad, but not nearly as bad as mixing religion and politics. In the US there is meant to be a clear distinction between church and state, one progressively blurred by the current administration. If you think I am wrong go stand out in front of the white house with a sign that says US out of Iraq, or Show me the weapons and see how long it takes them to relinquish your right to free speech.

Unfortunately, like Australia, many parts of the United States are suffering from drought conditions. I read a story in the Chicago Tribune about some politician; I can’t remember whether he was the governor, in the house or senate of South Dakota requesting his constituents “pray for rain”. He was not suggesting a silent personal prayer, but a formal moment of silence where everyone in the state would stop to pray for rain. This is the country where we stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance when I hit the 8th grade because of the “one nation under God” part.  Now people in government are encourage all to formally pray for rain.

To be honest, I did succumb to the power of prayer. After having my laptop nicked somewhere between Sydney and New York, my luggage lost from LA to New York, my luggage lost from New York to Chicago and both me and my luggage caught in the security line while my flight from Chicago to Phoenix departed, I too turned to the power of prayer. It paid off, both my luggage and me got on the flight from Phoenix to Seattle without a hitch. To top that, I was not arrested for telling the woman feeling me up for weapons in the security “a little to the right, up a bit more”. In fact she even laughed when I asked her if it was as good for her as it was for me, and if she would be sure to call me.

I will admit I lied, I did think about work when visiting the new Apple store on 5th Ave. which is entirely underground and open 24/7. The purpose of an all night computer store is beyond me; perhaps it is a geek mecca that your geek genes draw you to when you hear the calling? Further up 5th Ave I visited the new Abercrombie and Fitch store with the appearance of a nightclub rather than a clothing store, including two ‘bouncers’ at the entry. Both of these boys were clones of the larger than life photos of male beefcake on the walls of store (the photos were clearly not of models from New Jersey). A friend told me the store was involved in a law suit when it first opened over a request that the boys out front be half naked, blond haired and white. After being slapped with a discrimination lawsuit they wear A&F button down shirts and are of mixed ethnicity.

While visiting these places I asked myself as I often do what would Peter Geyer do in this instance? The answer came to me – obnoxiously take photos of everything whether your allowed to or not. Sadly, I have learned nothing about clandestine photography from hanging out with Peter because I was immediately caught and asked to leave.

MoMA had and exciting exhibit by Herzog and De Meuron, it was the Artist’s Choice where artists are invited to organize exhibits from MoMA’s collection, so unfortunately not a representation of their architectural work. The exhibit titled Perception Restrained consisted of thirty plus plasma screens attached to the ceiling of the gallery. Each ran a two or three minute segment of a scene from a movie, some I recognized and some I did not, each with explicit reference to violence, drama and sex. Under the plasmas were benches with small mirrors enabling you to watch the ceiling without straining your neck. I appreciated this because after viewing the explicit sex scenes for two or three hours I would have gotten quite a kink in my neck. I got kicked out of there too.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz I agree there is no place like home. I also live in hope that the republicans get kicked out of office, and then I might even consider living there again. For the time being visits like this one will have to do and they are good because they enable you to close chapters of your life out. There are a few issues I have put to bed, such as feeling like I’m fat. I also felt a sick sense of justice in learning that the ballet teacher who told me I was too fat for the boys to lift me now must relying on an oxygen tank to breath. Or the joy in letting those close to you know the impact they made – I got to remind my brothers that I will forever be messed up as a result of their farting into their cupped hands and releasing the smell in my face. For these reasons trips home are priceless.

As a last thought, I want to share with you the questions about Australia I was most often asked.

  1. The obligatory      and horribly boring – does the toilet whirl go clockwise or counter      clockwise?
  2. What’s with      your e mail, when are you going to get rid of all of that blatant      promotional material and PLEASE tell the mail marshal to lighten up we      can’t use any of our favorite words.
  3. Is that Steve      Irwin guy for real?

Making Mistakes – August 14, 2006

Making Mistakes

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 22 – August 14, 2006

Alexander Pope said ‘A man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday’. I came across this quote at the same time that I saw the July 2006 AFR Boss Magazine on CEO Mistakes, which oddly coincided with the passing of Kenneth Lay the former CEO of Enron. (Did you know that if you type in hugs and a kiss on an e mail –XXOO- the spell checker comes back asking if you really mean Enron? Interesting don’t you think?)

My misguided belief about CEO’s is that they should know all of the answers and not be making any mistakes. After all, some of them earn an average salary which exceeds our company’s yearly earning. That doesn’t even include their bloody bonuses – I see in the AFR today that Sol Trujillo got a $2.6 million dollar bonus, Allan Moss from Macquarie Bank rakes in 21.2 million a year salary, and our client Wal King from Leighton Holdings earns the pittance of 12.8 million per year. Therefore my reaction to seeing a magazine about CEO mistakes is “what the”.

In researching the topic of mistake making in greater depth I discovered that making mistakes in business can have high payoffs, but only if the mistakes are smart.  Great business ideas such as Fed Ex’s distribution system were the happy outcome of what many in that business considered to be a major blunder. Along the same lines, Thomas Edison pursued the ideal of the phonograph even though he considered the idea to have little commercial value. Organizations need to make mistakes in order to improve and to challenge themselves to discover new things.

Mistakes are a critical part of our learning which can help us avoid traps in our thinking and decision making. By intentionally taking the wrong road, high payoffs can be achieved. In his book “Celebrate Your Mistakes” author John W. Holt Jr. says “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking risks, and that means you’re not going anywhere” “The key is to make errors faster than the competition, so you have more chances to learn and win”. It is through the process of making mistakes that great ideas are born. It is unfortunate that many business today create organizations where mistakes are rare; rather than creating cultures where it is understood that the process of trial and error is not only a necessary cost of doing business, but can also ensure you remain competitive.

It is not hard to understand why companies don’t like making mistakes, after all they are made of people, and people don’t want to make mistakes. Generally as humans our driver is fear, the fear of failing, of looking like a jerk, of being rejected, or not being liked, and of course the fear of making a mistake. On a human level the reason we don’t like to make mistakes has much more to do with our own psychology, but we see the same expressions in the culture and strategy of organizations. The main reasons we avoid mistakes are that we as individuals are:

1. Overconfident and often blind to our limitations.

2. We do not effectively challenge ourselves to get the best because we are risk adverse and are rewarded        for good decisions and penalized for bad ones.

3. We look for confirming evidence to support our self serving perceptions; we favor data that supports our         beliefs and don’t see alternatives.

4. We assume that the feedback we get is reliable (which it can’t be if we do number three, it is tantamount to determining how cute you are by only asking your mother, sister and grandma who will of course vote for the affirmative).

The experts say that to get the most out of them, your mistakes must be deliberate. It is a bit of a paradox in that a mistake committed on purpose is what many of us would call an experiment, but the experts don’t agree. The Harvard Business Review explains that conducting experiments to confirm your assumptions is quite different from making a mistake; the difference is that deliberate mistakes are expected to fail, because they are based on your current assumptions. When a deliberate mistake unexpectantly succeeds, your assumptions are turned on their side, and that is when break through innovation happens. A good example is the advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, who deliberately included ads that he thought, would not work in order to test and improve his rules for evaluating advertising. More often than not the ads were failures, but the few that succeeded led to innovative approaches in advertising.

The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article “Israel admits mistake in Qana attack” The article described the attack on a residential building in the southern Lebanese town of Qana, causing the collapse that killed dozens, mostly women and children. Clearly this was not a deliberate or good mistake to make. The expense of a failed mistake should not be too high in comparison with the reward; naturally companies need to limit their risks in their mistake making. A company like Qantas would be foolish to test their jet engines on airplanes full of people, but would be really smart to test them in a simulator or wind tunnel.

To analise the trade off between making mistakes and the potential risk of those mistakes, companies should consider the following:

  • The potential gain outweighs the cost of the mistake.
  • Decisions are made repeatedly – e.g. Geyer would be better off making a deliberate mistake in the selection of a chair, than of a new headquarters sight for a client. The chair decision will be repeated again, so if we were wrong we could learn and make adjustments. The building decision is something our client will live with for 15 to 20 years; you don’t get a second shot.
  • The environment has dramatically changed – there is a new competitive landscape and the current approach may no longer work
  • The problem is complex and the solutions are numerous, the more complex the problem the less likely you will be to understand it completely. Your chances of getting it wrong are increased.
  • Your organizations experience with a problem is limited – if you are unfamiliar you should be open minded in your approach again your chances of getting it wrong are high.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates noted that “every company needs people who have made mistakes – and then made the most of them”. This is really the key to mistakes isn’t it? We must learn from them and hopefully be smarter the next time round.  Executive coaches, customer service gurus and people on the front lines of business offer the following six steps to help you learn from mistakes

  • The surest way to diffuse a mistake is to fess up early. However they advise against using highly charged phrases like “I screwed up” or it is “all my fault” because people will remember such phrases and may well come back to haunt you. Apparently some companies prefer to call these “teachable moments” or “opportunities for improvement” but being from the ‘call a spade a spade camp’ I am the sort that needs to hit over the head pretty hard to get it. If someone told me I had just experienced a ‘teachable moment’ I would worry they were trying to get me to join the Church of Scientology or something.
  • If it is your team, it is your mistake – If you lead a team or business unit and a mistake happens it is yours whether or not you had a direct role in creating it. Guess that points to the end of Ji Wei being my scapegoat.
  • Follow – up and follow through – Mistakes don’t always have simple causes, they can be the result of a systemic problem that will happen again if not corrected. Since mistakes often involve more than one person it is worthwhile to conduct a thorough evaluation, which may well reveal something about you, or your colleagues work process.
  • Isolate the ‘moment of truth’ these are the rare times when people can gather to learn from their mistakes. To do this you must act quickly and gather people for a play – by – play analysis of what went wrong to avert similar errors in the future. It is recommended that if you embed learning in your process you will not make the same mistake twice.
  • The smartest mistakes you make are the ones you make yourself. However, avid supporters of doing things for yourself must acknowledge that there is danger in doing this too often. You must pick your lessons and learn from them, you can’t have 15,000 lessons.
  • The best fix is a quick fix. For most of us who are struggling with keeping up with the pace of work it is difficult to find time for post mortems or learning plans. According to Bill Rosenzweig a partner at the San   Francisco based Venture Strategy Group which consults with emerging companies on brand marketing and organizational development we at Geyer should pay particular attention to this. Rosenzweig says that “in companies that value passion and creativity over discipline and focus, people often claim they don’t have the time to evaluate their mistakes. I would argue that you don’t not have the time”

It is the people who most need to make mistakes that are the ones least likely to admit they have made one. Over confident individuals, and businesses, are generally not interested in subjecting themselves to being proven wrong. Such views are shortsighted, and can often impact the ability to succeed in the long run. Around the turn of the century Thomas Edison created a place where people could tinker, test their ideas and in some cases blow things up and try again. It is in this kind of environment that a tolerance for failure can be developed, and in turn real progress can be made. If a company wants its people to come up with ideas quickly, they need to cut some slack and tolerate failure.

I will leave you with a quote from the American baseball player Babe Ruth “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way”.

Speaking of baseball, I will be heading back to the United States this Thursday to watch my son participate in the Babe Ruth Junior World Series. Unlike the real World Series this tournament includes other countries such as Australia. My next Rambling will be from the road and may be less about workplace and business and more about airport security, perhaps supporting Peter Ruehl’s suggestion in this weekend’s AFR that the only solution to the airport security issues is “that people board planes in only their underwear. This should speed things up, make the trip more interesting and boost Mile High Club membership”


The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes

By Paul J. H. Schoemaker and Robert E. Gunther

The Harvard Business Review   June, 2006

CEO Mistakes

By Mike Hanley

Financial Review BOSS Magazine July, 2006

When NOT to Trust Your Gut

By Max H. Bazerman and Deepak Malhotra

HarvardBusinessSchool Working Knowledge

July 31, 2006

Undies Only, the Safest Way to Fly

By Peter Ruehl

The Weekend Australian Financial Review

August 12 -13 2006

Big Rewards Can Stick in the Craw, Howard Admits

By Fleur Anderson

The Weekend Australian Financial Review

August 12 -13 2006

It’s OK to Make a Mistake

By Robyn Henderson


Israel Admits Mistake in Qana Attack

By AP Digital – breaking news

The Sydney Morning Herald

August 3, 2006

My Smartest Mistakes

By Pamela Krueger

Fast Company October, 1997

Make Smarter Mistakes

By Pamela Krueger

Fast Company October, 1997

Why Can’t We Get Anything Done?

By Alan M. Webber

Fast Company May, 2000


Middlescence – June 27, 2006


Future’s Ramblings – Issue 21 – June 27, 2006

A lot of you know that I do Bikram yoga, it is the type done in a room heated to 39C. This past weekend I went to a special class with one of Bikram’s most experienced instructors who came over from the US to teach a handful of masters’ classes in Australia. I found this teacher very inspiring, not only did she have a great command of the postures and their medical benefits but she looked great too. As you might imagine, when one exercises in that kind of heat they wear as little as is legally possible, and the teacher from the US was no exception in a black one piece bathing suit. Watching her move through the room I couldn’t help but want to be like her, be as smart, as peaceful and look that good. Fortunately for me, I still have some time to catch up, she is in her 80s. When I wasn’t thinking about being nauseous and on the verge of fainting from the heat, I was thinking I would like to have the confidence to walk around in a bathing suit,  do an effortless sit up and be a yoga teacher when I am 80. Doing the math, I could go to the 8 week Bikram training in Los Angeles now and still get in a solid thirty plus years teaching before I hit 80.

I thought the fixation about what I should do next in my career was just a passing phase; I seem to have an insatiable quest to find things that give me a greater sense of purpose in life. Naively, I thought that I was the only one who did this and assumed the rest of you were content with your chosen professions. I imagined you were all like my old boss Art Gensler, once when I said good morning to him he replied “if I was any better there would be two of me”.  It was surprising and disappointing to suddenly read that I am not the only one who spends time thinking about what’s next.  In fact it is quite common. Go figure, my crisis is not even my own, and it is not even unique, it is so common with people my age that it even has a name.  Middlescence!

Like adolescence, middlescence can be a time of great frustration and confusion which explains the poor state of my household with a pair of each. People like me, mid career employees, between the ages of 35 and 54 make up more than half the workforce and we work longer hours than our older and younger counterparts. Unfortunately, only 43% of us are passionate about our jobs, 33% of us feel energised by our work, 36% say they feel they are in dead- end jobs and 40% feel burnt out. As a group we have the lowest satisfaction rates with our immediate managers and the least confidence in top executives.  We are working more, enjoying it less and looking for something else to do that may put a little joy back in our lives.

When it comes to mid career employees, the companies they work for mistakenly believe they are settled and content, the solid backbones of the organisation; and unfortunately often ignore them. This can lead to middlescents becoming so dissatisfied that they will leave their jobs, or worse stay and fester with a bad attitude. Every day companies all over the world are paying the price of lost energy, enthusiasm and a lack of innovation and focus from their middlescent employees, which is often more threatening to productivity than employee turnover. The Harvard business review states “companies are ill- prepared to manage middlescence because it is so pervasive, largely invisible, and culturally uncharted”.

The outcomes for business are not good, with fewer emergent workers entering the workforce and those that are, planning their exit, many companies could be caught out by their valuable experienced people quitting sooner than necessary. As workforce demographics shift over the next ten years, it would be wise for any company that wishes to control its fate to learn to recognise the early warning signs of middlescence frustration, and to actively develop strategies to combat it.

For obvious reasons I will not disclose which of these symptoms that I still have or had. However I will confess to having already gone through one middlescent crisis. Because it was more than shrimps on the Barby and distaste of the Republican administration that got me to: move around the world, switch jobs, and do something completely different. In the event you in the 35 to 54 age group and fear you may have this condition, here are some signs of middlescence:

  • Being stuck in a bottleneck – you are competing for too few leadership positions in an organisation
  • Stuck in work life tension, once referred to as the sandwich generation you’re caught between caring for the kids and the parents
  • Burnt out, being in a career for 20 or more years, you are stretched and stressed and find your work unexciting or repetitive.
  • Disappointment, realising that you haven’t achieved what you thought you would and probably never will.
  • Unimpressive boss, distrust of the company, great gaps in compensation between you and those above
  • Lengthening horizon, realising that you can’t retire and will have to work for quite a while longer.

As most of you know, Bill Gates has retired from Microsoft. While he plans to maintain a large holding in the company, he and Melinda are going to put all of their energy into the philanthropic organisation they founded several years ago. His primary motivation in retiring is a desire to spend more time on the issues that he really cared about. Whadaya reckon, Middlescence? Yes it is perhaps easier to search for greater purpose in life when you are worth 50 billion US, and you are the boss. Never the less, it is somewhat comforting to see that this condition can happen to just about anyone regardless of your position in a company or the number of noughts on your pay cheque.

For those of us without a spare billion let alone million to finance our pursuit of greater meaning, there are other strategies for revitalizing careers that are more attainable for us commoners. First is what the employer can do, followed by a few tips on how to take matters into your own hands.

For employers, it is advised that two preliminary steps are taken before embarking on the six following ideas. The first preliminary step is to remove barriers to occupational mobility, such as the policies within your company that may block employees. Second, it is advised that you ‘find the keepers’ and this means going beyond the stars in your organisation, who are probably already recognised, to identify the people whose skills and experience you need and want to retain. Once you have done that you can zip up a mid career employee by doing the following:

  • Offer fresh assignments in different geographical locations or other parts of the company.
  • Offer an internal career change, allow the employee to assume a different job.
  • Put experienced employees into mentoring, teaching and other knowledge sharing roles
  • Offer fresh training, refresher courses, in depth education to develop new skills in new areas
  • Let your people take Sabbaticals, (only 5% of the 500 organisations surveyed by Hewitt Associates offered sabbaticals)
  • Expand leadership development; there are shortages in leadership succession. Corporate restructuring and flattening of organisations has eroded career paths. The result is people can’t accumulate needed leadership skills on the job anymore.

In the event the company you work for does not recognise the signs or worse chooses to ignore them.  How can you take charge of your own work/life and find meaningful absorbing work?

Richard Leider founding partner of the Inventure Group has over three decades of experience as a career coach and counsellor. He believes that each individual is born with a reason for being and that life is a quest to discover that purpose. To help people decide where they are going he asks his clients to answer two questions honestly: What do you want? And how will you know when you get it? Leider believes that people have their own solutions; they just don’t know how to discover them or avoid that discovery. He goes on to say that if you want to make good decisions for your work in life, it all comes down feeding your three hungers.

The first hunger is to connect deeply with the creative spirit of life; not in the classic sense but to “touch creative energy and be touched by it” this could come from bringing a child into the world or introducing playfulness and creativity to the workplace.  (or for you clients might I suggest you could just hire Geyer) The second is to know how to express your gifts and talents, each of us has something to contribute we just need to figure out what that is. Aristotle said “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation” Determine what needs doing in your organisation? What needs doing in the world?  Finally you must know that our lives matter, we are here to leave behind something of ourselves. Work can and should give you a sense of joy, you spend 60% of your life doing it, make the most of it.

Many of us know all too well that there is nothing like a few kids, aging parents to care for, a mortgage and school tuition to make you feel like you have lost the opportunity to search for meaning and purpose.  We all want and need money but we also want to use our talents and want the ability to control our own time. We want to work on something we feel is worthwhile. Sadly, many of us measure our worth by our work. The good news is we don’t always measure this in dollars anymore. “The search for meaningful work is the heart of middlessence, just as the search for an identity – a calling – marks adolescence.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us” From the time we are small children we are asked what we want to be when we grow up. Looking at my children, both teenagers, it is hard for me to imagine them making a career choice now that will satisfy them for another 50 or 60 years. They’re not bad kids; it is just the chance of getting it right the first time is slim.  If research on career choice has any validity, they will not be the only ones.  The reality is that most people don’t choose their career their career chose them; they start down a path and never stop to ask what their calling might be.

According to Leider you need to understand your choices as well as understand the different points in life. He likens it to a spiral, there are times when you’re on a plateau and all is balanced and then something comes along and knocks you off balance. It is when these events occur that you need to take stock. You need to look at everything you’ve been carrying with you, unpack your bag and then repack it considering these four elements: discover how to live from the inside out, discover your gifts, discover what moves you and finally discover solitude because it is there that you will be able to deal with the first three.

I will leave you with a letter written to Fast Company magazine in response to the article “Are You Deciding On Purpose” Now, at 78, retired from major industry, I was stuck with the profound truth and beauty of your philosophy. In retrospect, you could have been writing about me… Now that I am retired and doing what I truly enjoy, looking back I wish that I had taken a few more risks and dealt with the opportunities that I chose to ignore. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

One last question, following the popularity of Big Brother can you e mail me back you thoughts on what you feel would be the best opportunity for me:

Vote A or B

A – Laurie should be a yoga teacher in her next career

B – Laurie should become a romance novelist, focusing on sleazy workplace trysts (keeping with my passion for the workplace and its issues)


Managing Middlescence

By Robert Morison, Tamara Erickson and Ken Dychtwald

The Harvard Business Review   March, 2006

My Battle with the Misery and Malaise of Middlescence

By Lucy Kellaway

The Financial Times May 15, 2006

Are you deciding on Purpose (extended interview with Richard Leider)

By Alan M Webber

Fast Company  February, 1998

Are you leading two lives?

By Richard Leider

The Inventure Group On Purpose Journal Vol. 6 No. 1

Gates to Reduce Microsoft Role as Era Changes

By John Markoff and Steve Lohr

The New York Times June 16, 2006

Personal Business; A Burnout Cure That Few Companies Prescribe

By Lynnley Browning

The New York times June 6, 2003

Downsizing Worm turns

By Deirdre Macken

The Australian Financial Review October 7, 2005


Talking Up – May 29, 2006

Talking Up

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 20 – May 29, 2006

At the recent opening party of our Brisbane office someone overheard me greeting Peter Geyer. Later they confessed surprise at my greeting, I am not sure whether they had an expectation that I curtsied or lay prostrate on the floor, but telling Peter that I had prepared myself for seeing him by taking a double dose of anti depressants that morning was not what they expected. The person said “you talk like that to your boss”? My reply, actually I report to Peter Mac but hell yeah why not just because the guy’s name is on the door doesn’t mean he’s not up for a laugh. Maybe it is the camaraderie built from catching 6am flights from NZ together that has given me this sense of comfort; on the other hand Eliza has been ill so perhaps there has been a delay in issuing my pink slip.

It is great to have fun at work and I confess to be the kind of person who likes to laugh which is why I have not chosen a profession where joking is prohibited. You will never see me working at the X-ray machines at the airport. I am lucky I can keep my mouth closed long enough about the Bush administration to walk through the machine; if the queue is long the pressure on me to not make a smart mouth remark is almost unbearable. For many of us, it is unimaginable to think of a day going by without sharing jokes or our thoughts with co workers, regardless of their rank with in the organisation. Unfortunately, in many businesses ‘talking up’ is discouraged; and those companies that do not encourage free and open interaction between all workers can suffer greatly for the loss of knowledge and experience.

Last year I wrote about my brother the rocket scientist and the little mishap they had at NASA with the space shuttle. You may recall that the disintegration of the shuttle was blamed on damage caused to the heat shields of the ship that occurred when a piece of insulating foam hit the hull on take off? Junior engineers at NASA expressed concern about the damage, but their superiors told them to mind their own business and shut up. This is an extreme example of the negative impact of not being able to speak up at work; fortunately for most companies the stakes are not so high.

According to Julie Cogan from the Australian Graduate School of Management, office culture can encourage or discourage employees from speaking up. Organisations need a culture and process for employees to voice dissent or bad news. “If you don’t – you keep vital information under wraps” Cogan says. There are a number of ways companies can encourage employees to share their views. One is to appoint a rotating devils advocate, another is to  employ some of Edward De Bono’s techniques of provocation –  the six hats theory or introducing a process of presenting alternative views such as the ‘fishbone diagram’. What ever a business uses, it is important to encourage employees to speak up and communicate positive and negative ideas at work.

Research done by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Professor James Detert from Penn State explores the reasons we are hesitant to speak up to internal authorities in the workplace. They believe that it is possible to create environments that encourage employees to engage both their “latent voice” and “upward voice”. The latent voice is when an employee considers speaking up about an issue, problem or an improvement opportunity and chooses not to. It is all of the potential communications that may not in fact occur. Having exposed you to this term, we can now have a secret language within Geyer. Similar to the way that mothers gently correct a loud child with “honey lets use our inside voices” we can softly urge one another “Can you please make that statement with your latent voice” in other words time for you to shut up already.

Where latent voice refers to the things we thought of saying but didn’t,” upward voice” refers to the fear or hesitancy in communicating with people higher up in the company, those with the perceived power to actually act on your suggestion. The hesitation comes from not wanting to subject yourself to embarrassment or the fear of losing your job. The research suggests that it is in this area that the signals leaders send are important. To encourage communication a leader must be open, interested and most important, willing to act on a subordinate’s voice. Anything an organization can do to prevent the widespread belief that voice is unsafe or not worth your time is likely to increase the upward communication flow. This in turn will create greater value by getting more ideas on the table by utilizing the knowledge and experience that exists within.

There are two factors that lead people to feel more or less safe in speaking up in the workplace: individual differences and contextual factors. Not everyone has the personality or disposition to communicate to the boss and having the ability to challenge in a way that does not cause others to become defensive is a developed skill. Context refers to the type of organisation we work for, is it hierarchical or egalitarian, does the company make the time or have a venue for such conversations, a suggestion box or gripe session? Interestingly, one of the reasons we are hesitant to speak up is instinctive human behaviour. Since living in caves we knew it was better for survival to avoid risks or threats, therefore according to Edmosdson and Deterts research we have “inherited emotional cognitive mechanisms that motivate us to avoid perceived risks to our psychological and material well-being”

It is critical to note that in encouraging people to express their ‘upward voice’ may not produce what some people think is a “nice” workplace. Receiving direct criticism or comments from your co-workers whether they are senior or junior can make you feel pretty bad. It is important to remember that the bad comes with the good and to grow and learn and progress in our careers we need open and honest feedback. At my last job I was responsible for leading several groups of designers, once they all banded together to let me know how “mean” I was because I had told them that the vinyl wall coverings they were considering were inappropriate. After I explained that it had nothing to do with them personally, it was and issue of choosing a high maintenance product for low maintenance client they still did not get it. I had to knock them over the head with a club; workplace violence is a terrific motivator!

To grow and learn as an organisation, or as individuals, it is important to get honest feedback about the work we do. Responding to issues we are unaware of is good for the psychics amongst us, but for the rest of us poor sods we need the facts. For many the prospect of directly challenging or delivering bad news, is so uncomfortable they figure why bother? I suppose you bother because you really want to go out there and make a difference. We should all consider ourselves lucky in that in our line of work we will never have to deliver really bad news to anyone, not yet at least. “Sorry Mr. client we need to inform you that the groovy paint we specified has been emitting higher than normal  VOC levels and it is likely to cause brain damage to most if not all of your staff ”  Laurie’s latent voice

Some of the changes that we can make in environments to encourage upward voice are obvious. Creating workspaces with fewer barriers, allowing people to interact with greater frequency. It has also been proven that people speak up more in smaller groups and in settings that are more intimate. For companies where there is physical distance between sites, along with the added burden of cultural and generational differences there is a real challenge. As we begin to design more spaces on larger floor plates, and those with side cores we may want to think hard about creating intimacy.

Last year we designed a space for a company that had merged with another, we created wonderful lounges that provide the organisation physical space to connect with one another, unfortunately we heard that the two groups remain distinct to the point they will not even share a beer together on Friday nights. One group has their drinks an hour before the other!  In addition, there is further division created by people speaking different languages in the office. Before the merger, the reigning CEO felt it was the companies point of differentiation to hire people who spoke different languages, the new CEO did not. What had been a good thing quickly turned to a bad thing. The point is that a lot of this has nothing to do with the physical space; a company may change leaders as they did in the example above, leaders can change philosophies, they can be arrogant or too busy or lack the interpersonal skills. All of these factors contribute to an organisations ability to speak up.

From the research that I have done for this piece the most disturbing thing I learned is the degree of fear that appears to be the present in many people’s work life. Being older and have a bit more experience under my expanding belt, it is unimaginable to think that many workers are too scared to challenge their boss and as a result are put in harms way. The Sydney Morning Herald did a feature article on the risks younger workers are at because they are hesitant to question or challenge their bosses: one kid had his arm caught in a dough mixer in a bakery, another fell from an unfenced platform, another died when the forklift he drove tipped over on a ramp. The risk is not only for youthful employees but also for those that are part time. Unfortunately the new industrial relations legislation will exacerbate the vulnerability of the young and temporary workers; this could lead to Australian businesses being slow to innovate.

We must consider ourselves very lucky that in our line of work the dangers are minimal; yes I know that Ella Lee almost broke her foot when she dropped a stack – perhaps she should avoid the materials library after the two martini supplier lunch. Oh I’m just joking and I was joking when I told PG I needed a double dose of antidepressants to face him. The real message is that we should not fear sharing and talking and being honest with one another and in the likely event we go out and hurt someone’s feeling we just need to go back and say I’m sorry. Even if it hurts, it is what makes us great.


Do I Dare Say Something

By Sarah Jane Gilbert

Working Knowledge – HarvardBusinessSchool Publication   March 20, 2006

Latent Voice Episodes: The Situation – Specific Nature of Speaking up at Work (Research Abstract)

By Amy Edmondson and James Detert

Double Whammy under New Industrial Laws for the Young Worker

By Michael Quinlan

The Sydney Morning Herald April 24, 2006

Dissent Vital Part of Organisations

By Fiona Smith

The Australian Financial Review May 16, 2006