Bridging Behavioral Science & Government Policies for a Meaningful Work Experience | Voices | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Bridging Behavioral Science & Government Policies for a Meaningful Work Experience | Voices".
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So welcome everybody. I'm excited about this voices with Raveki. I'm here with Karla Grum. Karla reached out to me a while ago and I've been having conversations with her and some of her co-workers on a pretty regular basis and I saw her also at the final digital campfire and in-person campfire for Rebel Wisdom in London, UK, just at the beginning of November. So welcome, Karla. It's great to have you here and tell us a little bit about yourself and why you reached out to me and how you're interested in my work, etc. Oh, well, it's really great to be here. It's a bit of a dream come true. So thank you so much for inviting me on. So I'm Karla Grum and I work in the UK government as a behavioral science advisor. I set up a behavioral science team and one of the largest departments in government about seven years ago. After working in government for a long time but I trained as an experimental social psychologist back in the late 90s, early 2000s and then I went into, I thought I could be a bit more practical in what I'm doing.
Analysis Of Carla'S Work And Ideas
Carla's work (00:55)
So I went into government and now I get to put the two together in terms of practicing behavioral science in the heart of government. And one of the things that I love about what I do is part of my job is to know where the cutting-edge ideas are that can help solve the hardest problems because part of my remit is to find ways of solving the hardest problems and bring whatever ideas, skills, capabilities will help with that. So I've stolen ideas from design thinking, I bring in systems thinking.
Valuable ideas (01:24)
I find that quite a lot of the mainstream psychological literature that I was trained in is not actually that useful for what I do. So things like the sort of heuristics and biases literature that has been, that's a lot of that's been sort of been run out of values, been run out of that in government. But actually I'm sort of, when I saw your work, I thought, oh, cognitive science is I'm not done with this yet.
Where Karla's work meets John's (01:57)
There's some ideas here that actually I could use. And so I think there's so many different applications of your ideas that strike me as helping to make sense of the kinds of problems that I'm wrestling with, which are sort of the hardest problems, I like to think some of the hardest problems in the country that I work on, things like how do you get people back into work if they've got health conditions, or if they're, how do you stop them falling out of work if they take on caring responsibilities, we work in the pensions arena, child maintenance. So really there is just all of these really difficult problems. And then there's what I find the most interesting problems, which are how does government think about these things, and what are the limitations the ways to think about it, we might be able to overcome, to develop better solutions to problems we haven't been able to crack yet. And particularly at the moment I'm obsessing about the four P's and different kinds of knowledge, and going on about this to anyone who will listen to the department. It's really hit me that if there's any way that feels like a place where propositional knowledge is privileged above everything else, with a bit of a concession to skills and procedural knowledge in a quite a narrow sense. It's a sort of traditional bureaucracy, but actually to where we see things that really succeed, there has been perspective taking, lots of perspective taking, integration of perspectives, and then more and more interesting participatory approaches and co-production, both in terms of evolving different teams within government as well as those outside. So I think this is a really useful lens for me to be able to explain some of the stuff that my teams are tripped over, inciting to look at how they could solve some of these problems because I hire people from all the different social sciences into my team to try and see what fresh lives we can bring to problems. So yeah, that's how I ended up coming and bothering you and starting some really interesting conversations with not only me, but some of my team getting involved. I think one of them has got a plan as well to sort of take Socrates' and Socratic method and to see if we can build some training around that as well. So I think that's a little different.
Meaning crisis connection (04:16)
Well, then look forward to after Socrates that comes out January 9th. The new series will be all about that and how to turn it into a way of life and something that can really afford responding to the meaning crisis. Does my work around the meaning crisis have an impact on what you do as well, like this idea that people are suffering from a lack of significant and reassuring connectedness to themselves and other people and the world? I think the place where that's most directly applicable is in thinking about job design because I work in an organization that has over 80,000 employees. So I get the privilege of being able to sort of help job design and things like that. So one of the talks in fact I gave recently and we'll be giving again internally is about person-centered job design and how we can fit things around people's strengths, how we create conditions of flow and things like that. So I think that all kind of fits in the same idea of we need to build in purpose and meaning that's how you get productivity. Rather than necessarily that is a social problem because a lot of the problems that my department department for apprentices is thinking about is people need the money to live. And it's materialistic for a good reason and those are the people who are talking to us need us to focus on making sure their material needs are met. Right, so it's more internally you're applying it that externally. I see. And so what did you think about what happened at the the the the the Rebel Wisdom Campfire about how did you find that event?
Catching glimpses from the Rebel Wisdom Campfire (05:52)
Oh, I mean, it's it's great because all of their events are great. It's sad that it's the last one because I have got so much from the Rebel Wisdom Project in terms of both ideas, theory, but also practice and then realizing that I need to be selling the practice as well as the ideas because we need to get down to understanding those sort of participatory cues and things inside us in order to make better decisions. But the bit that really stuck with me was your conversation with Daniel Schmachtenberger, where you where you talked about the the importance, if I hope that I'm paraphrasing accurately, of learning to take someone else's perspective. And then not only does that give you a better understanding of a problem, but by integrating that with your own, you get a better understanding of you get better medical mission, you become better able to see because you're seeing through your more than one set of eyes. And I thought that describes some of what my team has discovered. So the sort of emotional labor of helping people to expand their vision, to include the perspectives of others, is key to some of the successes that we've had. And so you say you think that your basic training in, sorry, not your basic training, your significant training in basic social psychology didn't really afford you any sort of preparation for this, this kind of thing. What was it oriented around then? The reason I asked this is social psychology is the part of psychology that's suffering the biggest part of the replication crisis, overwhelmingly so not.
Experimental social psychology (07:33)
And that doesn't mean there isn't good work still being done in social psychology. My colleague, Jeff McDonald, U of T is doing amazing work on attachment theory, and its relationship to romantic relationships, and that stuff replicates, etc. But what do you think what like, what was that what was lacking? And do you think that has anything to do with why it's going through the troubles it's going through right now? So I mean, I wanted to work on how you bring together psychology and practical real world problems, especially with financial from from when I was undergrads. So before I went into experimental social psychology, and the real sort of hardcore social cognition stuff was was my focus. I was, I thought that we would be understanding lots about the the limitations of the human mind, which would tell us how we could support people to overcome those and to make better decisions. But what I discovered was that the the research wasn't necessarily in such a form that was particularly applicable. I had my doubts about the generalizability of a lot of the experiment, though not just the replication crisis, but the generalizability crisis. So all the things that geared Gigarendza has written about, about I knew because my sort of instinct perspective take, I was thinking that the way that the participants are interpreting these stimuli doesn't necessarily bear any relationship to the presumed interpretation that comes from the hypotheses that the experimenters are similar.
Cant generalise, replication crisis (08:58)
So I couldn't, I thought not only could I see the replication crisis coming because it was kind of obvious from the way that data has been collected in sort of North American social cognition labs at the time. But also I didn't think that it was even generalizable. And even if it was generalizing, it wasn't necessarily all that useful. So there was, I got out of it after I did my programming for years. And then I sort of went and did a bit of individual differences and personality psych for a postdoc, which I think is more applicable. And I still talk about the big five quite a lot. Right. I think that is useful. But then I sort of came into the practical world for consultancy and then government and was rather struck then that sort of 10 years later, all of that heuristics and biocedes work and the social cognition work and priming and all these phenomena that I knew had severe boundary conditions, was suddenly being used to make decisions that were really important. Oh, well, right. So you know, that's the whole behavioral insights movement is saying, well, let's use these as a way to design interventions that we might use to help people. And fair enough, you've got randomized controlled trials to see if they work or don't work. But the opportunity cost of putting those in place rather than thinking things through from different psychologically informed perspectives to me was quite big. And doing randomized controlled trials in a lot of areas is just not particularly possible. So then you don't have that sort of backstop. So that's why what a lot of what my work has been has actually been saying, you know, what psychologists sociologist I'm supposed to have a lot to bring to the table, but don't just do that through the lens of randomized controlled trials and a list of cognitive biases, because there's so much more to psychology than that. Right. So you you generally find the more expansive and integrative frameworks of cognitive science better and more used to you. Exactly. Exactly. That's very interesting. What about you personally? I mean, how does all of it, so this is great. And of course, I'm not trying to intrude on your privacy in any way, but you know, right. So this is all, you know, I can see how this is all really central and important to what you're doing in your job. What about all of this literature and the stuff you're watching and how is it impacting you personally? That's a really good question, because I think it has changed me. I mean, I think doing this job of trying to work out how do you create the capabilities to solve the hardest problems has been something that has been much more than a job for me for the last seven years. So it's very much I go around seeing, okay, I'm really struggling with this or how do I explain this to people? And then I look out in areas like all the areas that the rubber wisdom was covering, I think, ah, there's a bit of the answer there and a bit of the answer there. So it's sometimes it's hard to separate the work and the personable. What I do know is that a lot of that practice work, whether it's breath work to help moderate the nervous system when you're when you're feeling stressed, so that you respond in a more level way. Certainly a lot of, I feel like I'm ever even more able than I than I was before to see my own thought processes. So it's like I've got, I've got, yeah, two perspectives running at the same time. I'm seeing through my eyes, but I'm seeing my eyes at the same time and I can sort of choose between them and I can record or mentally record what's going on there. So that later, I can say, ah, that's the kind of thought process that might lead to that. So I think more and more and more and more sensitive to those so that a I can, I can think about them changing them, but also I can explain them to other people because so much of my job is explaining real things that can be quite naturally into some of my team, but teaching those to a wide range of people is it's trying to requires that you sort of meditate a lot on how you on how you think. That's interesting. What you just made it brings up a question that and I'm talking to a lot of people about this in different ways about, you know, more and more trying to create the bridge between people's work and their personal life about this stuff, because if we can talk all we want about sort of spirituality, etc, etc. But if it's disconnected from people's work lives, it's disconnected from the single biggest chunk of their life that they dedicate themselves to in a consistent manner. And so, you know, trying to figure out how, I mean, obviously, whatever the work is, it has to do what it's doing, right? You have to, the government has to run and you have to help the people, but right, do you understand what I'm getting at? Like, but nevertheless, people have to take it up in a way that or by means of practices and frameworks that bridge between their personal life and their work life. Does that make sense and land for you? I think so. Let me try. So, is this about how, how do those practices and ideas affect you personally? Maybe give me one more go at it. Yeah. So, what I'm saying is there's there seems to be an additional dimension, all frame it in terms of responding to the meaning crisis, an additional dimension. And I'm talking a lot of people about it is, right, yes, we can talk about all the practices people need to be doing out here, right? But we need to create bridges, bridging practices that help them transfer these practices into work and also take patterns that and habits that they might be cultivating work and I learned how to bring it home and work on it. Get a two-way bridge built between work life and personal life. Did that, was that clear? Yes, absolutely. I think that was really important. There's a couple of thoughts that come to mind. One is the work that I've been doing on person-centered job design, where the very, my team brings people in who have the variety of different social scientific backgrounds, different professional experiences. But although there's a certain level of consistency of practices that we train people, it takes about two years to learn to do what we do properly.
Person centered job design (15:30)
What I'm really keen to do is say, well, what is it that you're bringing with you from, what is it that you, A, sort of have a real passion about? And what is it that you have real expertise in? So not the traditional model of a corporate organization and civil service is no different. So we've got a role, we've got some tasks that we do and we create a role. The role might well be influenced by the person who did it before, so you're the new Susan or you're the new John. But actually nobody is the new, they bring their own expertise. So in my team, we tell people that they don't need to become someone else. In fact, we're interested in finding out more and more about them so that we can get the maximum value from them, not in a kind of exploitative way. But actually people love that. And it also gives them another way of getting a sense of progression status that isn't just about climbing up a pyramid, which obviously is, as Eric Weinstein has pointed out, there's a bit of a ponzi scheme feel about that. To get those promotions, but everybody can become an expert. So in my team, it's not that you're, oh, which grade is it that I'll go talk to somebody as a team leader. Who's the person who knows about this topic? Who's the person who's in systems thinking or theory of change? And then you go to talk to them. So that really levels everything. And it just gives people a sense that they are bringing their whole selves to work, that they're not just, they're inhabiting work in a full sense. It's not just a role. In fact, I hate the word roles. And I think we need to move past a lot of the connotations of roles. If we're going to progress as an industrial society. Okay, well, first, let's slow down on this, because this is a really juicy point. First of all, let's philosophically profound thing about, let's try to get past the notion of roles, which were drawn from sort of the dramatic, right, you know, theater and stuff like that. So that, I want to come back to that. But I want to get a little bit more. Again, you don't have to give away secret sauce or anything. But like, what do you, what is this, this, you know, person centered job design? Like, what does it look like more specifically? What do you do with people? How would it work? How long does the process take? Sounds like it's very dialogical back and forth. Is it iterative? Like, how does it work? Oh, absolutely. And I don't have any problems sharing any of our workings. There's some, some stuff about the way about the policy problems that we work on, that I can't share. But I'm very keen to give away as much of what we've discovered as possible. At least because it's a good, but secondarily because if people can comment on it, then I can improve it. So more than happy to talk about the way that we've been playing around with things in the team. So we've got a number of new starters that are actually coming in over the next six weeks. And we've been having a rethink about exactly how our induction process works. And one of the things we do is matching those new starters to roles where they can, they can hit the ground running because they already know something about the area. So we have, however, one person who's got a health services background and we've got a piece of work on how carers navigate the system of support for their sick or disabled family member.
Matching people to domains that fit their expertise (18:48)
So we put her on that project. So she's already bringing in her expertise to work in that area. So we think carefully, we don't just say, oh, we've got four new starters, we've got four empty posts, so we'll just stick them in there. We think, okay, what's that fit going to be? What's the qualities that we saw in interviews? I mean, to use a way more in depth than the normal civil services, everyone happy to talk about that as well. But we get a real sense of who people are. And I sit on every single board, so I can see all of that and I can match people up and say, okay, you'll learn best from this person. But then something that came up in a recent meeting was the team was saying, we should have managed moves every 18 months, not compulsory, but an option to work in different areas. So you learn from different people. But one of the things that we do in those in management conversations, we have lots and lots of forums for coming together as a team, but lots of one-to-ones. And in those one-to-ones, we don't talk about development needs, which is the traditional sort of euphemism for there's something about you that doesn't fit the box that we need. Please change. And I say, roles have development needs, people don't, people might have learning goals, things that they can learn to do that either they're excited to learn to do or that would make their lives a lot easier. But I don't think we should be doing that kind of messing around with the participatory level in the self without fully informed consent and knowing what we're doing, because actually if you change somebody's self, well, what if the thing that you really like to interview goes away? So some of it is about planning people's initial couple of years, who are they going to see, what projects are they going to work on? But right from the beginning, we'll be asking people about their past, about their experiences, we'll see the way they approach problems, like, oh, you're bringing this to the party. Is that because you got a psych background or a geography background? Is that because of the work you did before? Tell us more about that. And we really encourage those conversations. We also have something called journal club, where each week, each month, I think it is, we have a slot to bring a paper, a book, or a blog post. And that really encourages people to bring things there that they're passionate about, they know something about from their discipline, and you teach, then that professional perspective and language to all the others. So we're constantly trying to draw out, make us more than some of our parts, and to integrate that into a sort of a new whole that is even better than any of those individual disciplines or individuals could have done on their own. And you said your interview process is much longer, towards what end and how so?
Designing a flexible interview process with deep probes (21:29)
So it's the interview itself that's longer, rather than every more stages. So the standard civil-centered approach is first you do an application, and then if you're sifted in, then you have an interview. The traditional approach is 40-minute interviews with sort of the exact same questions for every candidate. And they usually give us an example of a timeline, which is essentially it favors, I think this is a technical term bull shitting. It favors people who can quickly tell a story to match the piece, the evidence they've got, and to the question that you've asked, dress it up nicely, and tell a story. Whereas we actually authentically want to know what people are bringing to the party. So our interviews aren't 40 minutes, they're 75 minutes. That's as long as we can go before people get so tired that they're not doing themselves a good service at that point. But there's a huge limit to how long they can be. And we start them with give us a five-minute presentation on a piece of what you're proud of. So that is bringing them at their best. What is it that you really, you know, really makes you shine. And so A, it relaxes them, B, it gives you an impression of them at their best, how they talk, how they think, what they would most enjoy bringing to the party. And then we have three questions covering the three different criteria of my team, which is collaboration and co-production, design and systems thinking, and behavioral thinking. And what we do there is, is they say, give us your best, give it what is the best example that meets those criteria. So no clever questions. And we tell them that crucially in advance. So you're not having to work with it on the spot. So they can sit down and think, what is the best evidence I can bring to this? In multiple examples, one example, none of this formulaic approach. And then the real deck skill in the interviewer is to probe. So instead of saying, give me this example of time, then so I can check it off. It's, okay, well, you're saying that now with their stakeholders there that challenge you. So it becomes more of the pressure on the interviewer to find out if their depth behind the story that the story they've told you, but also to understand if they're meeting the whole range of criteria through actually asking about their world. So people come away from the interview saying, they've never felt so heard before. Right. Right. So I can see how the participatory and the perspectival is playing a role in what you do. Yes, yes. Wow. That is so, oh, wow, that is so cool. That's so cool. So, Carl, do you do do you do follow up with them? Like, you know, five months later, whatever, like, see how they're doing, or do they find are they finding the work more meaningful, et cetera? What kind of follow up or do you do any follow up? So, I mean, everyone who's too successful stays in the team. So I get to see that I'm in a really privileged position. If I do all the interviews and I get to see all of the performance, so I know for a fact that people who've been through our full interview process, I have 100% success rate, they're all brilliant. I don't, obviously, I don't know who we might have missed, but I do know that even people who don't get it say that they really love the experience, especially people in neurodivergent conditions. And that's the whole thing we can talk about if you like, which is that my team is heavily skewed towards people in neurodivergent conditions who often don't know that until they get in the team. Oh, wow. Realize that there's something very different about them. But I'm pretty sure that we would, they would often have not got through a standard recruitment process. But this process is designed to be accessible to people whose brains work in different ways. But in, we certainly always ask about the people who do get in the team, we always ask them for follow-up multiple times about how the recruitment process worked, how the induction process worked. Even now that we're doing the induction for new starters, we had a hive mind, a kind of a brainstorm about, well, what's been the experience of the people who have been most recent new starters, what have been the people who are supporting them, what are the things that are at the unmet user needs, what things work well. So we kind of keep, they keep that feedback loop going as much as possible. And because we tend to have a very much lower rate of churn than other simple service jobs, we can, we can really look at the longitudinal progress of people. So yeah, you struck my interest there. So you get, you have quite a neurodiverse group.
Neurodiversity in Carlas team (26:01)
What does that mean? So I didn't know when I started this team that I'm autistic. But it explains a lot about why I have the particular and unusual, but in some cases, very effective, unusually effective, why I'm doing policymaking and strategy and analysis. So part of the rationale for putting me in charge of this was that, well, can we get more of what Carla does? We don't really know how she does it. As well as the fact that I had the background in behavioral science, and I'd come up with a bit of an idea about how behavioral science might be practiced in our department usefully. And there's a kind of an interesting question of, is it the behavioral science that is delivering the remarkable outcomes of my team? Or is it the fact that I hire people with neurodivergent conditions? And I think that's a false dichotomy. And interestingly, they're not the people in my team, are not necessarily all autistic. In fact, I'd say that the largest group is ADHD. But we also have dyslexia dyslexia, dyscalculia. And I think it's that process of being different that leads you to be able to look different, to not get sucked into process and norms and the shared understanding that dominates, well, most environments, but especially something like the civil service. And so I can pick this up when I'm interviewing, is are people making assumptions that they're not testing? Are they questioning the way things should be done? Are they looking at things from the first principles? And if you do that, chances are, when they end up with a team, it's like, you probably tick one of those diagnostic boxes. And then they go through a process of feeling safe to raise that possibility, and then they go and get a diagnosis. And then the team's like, "Yeah, join the club." So it's really, it's amazing to watch these often young people come in and go through that journey. That if they've been in a traditional corporate environment, they might come in and all of that special skills and potential would be squashed. And instead, we harness it. And then we also think about the person said to job design extends to things like, "Well, does one person have to do it all? If you've got super power, that probably comes with a weakness. And does that actually match this person up with this person?" Oh. You do a job share so that you are complementing each other. You implement opponent processing in collective intelligence. That's fantastic. Oh. And so you're looking for those cognitive styles and the complementarity in the interview. 100%. That's brilliant. That is brilliant. Wow. We certainly do it when we're matching people up as well. So we're looking, in the interviews, we're looking for people who we think can do that questioning, gentle questioning of the status quo, taking other people with them, being able to not only understand problems differently, but act in the world differently. But then when they come in, we make sure we recognise that superpowers come with limitations. And I'd rather have people with superpowers and work around it than have people who are kind of moderately good at lots of things. Yes, yes, yes. I see that. Really tapping into opponent processing within distributed cognition.
Challenges faced by Carla in the Civil Service (29:35)
So there's a lot of innovation. It's really exciting to hear. Now, you'll forgive me if I have some of a somewhat Kafka-esque view of the civil service. But so put this in context. But I take it that this is not how the civil service in general is running. And so that sounds like it poses particular challenges for you. Obviously, you're successful and you're team to be doing what they're doing. But I imagine you bump into a lot of often, probably implicit resistance and sometimes explicit resistance. Because that's not the way it's done and that sort of stuff. Is that true? Or am I just projecting? That's a good summary of my life. Oh, no. Gosh, I'm so sorry that they've got noise coming through. Can you hear that? Nothing at all. Okay, great. In that case, I'm just going to ignore those noise. Now, that is a very good description of my life. I would say, well, on the positive side, we are starting to spread these practices more widely. I'm really excited about that. So because my team kind of has the excuse of being a new discipline and relatively, well, a tiny team in the ground scheme of 80,000 employees, I've been able to use it as a laboratory for testing out different ways of doing things. And then things that seemed to be completely inadmissible, like the notion of questions and advances the best candidate. So giving it questions in advance to interview candidates has for a while been recognized as a reasonable adjustment for people with autism or similar conditions. But the problem for me is, well, what biggest one is, what about the undiagnosed? You're going to be screening all of those out. And secondly, questions and advances actually better for everyone. If you've that kind of shared reality bullshitting type conversation is the sort of play the game is the best way of saying it. If your process is, if your recruitment process is encouraging you to play the game, you're going to be ruling out people from a different class, different culture, lots and lots of differences. People with caring responsibilities might not have time to prepare for all the millions of different questions. You're also, we just say, we're looking for this and this and this, give us your best examples of those and we will probe the hell out of it. We will really try to understand where you're coming from. That, on one hand, seems completely obvious and normal. But if you've grown up in a system where that is seen as thinking on your feet and thinking on your feet is a useful skill in much of the civil service. I think it's probably overvalued, but it's important. I mean, if I don't see a minister, I have to be able to think on my feet, but I can't do work with that questions in advance because they're two different cognitive processes. The question from the minister about, "Well, how do you think I would solve that problem? I'm getting my brains going to light on all of the things that might be able to help them solve their problem." But if you ask me a question about autobiographical memory that says, "Why don't you give me an example of a time when?" But you don't really mean an example of a time when you did that thing. You mean an example that you know will hit the script or competency, which that question thinks it's designed to get at. My autistic brain doesn't do it. I will give you literally what the best example of a time, when I won't give you the best example that you're looking for from my past. So for very clear reasons that I've been able to start to put a name to, the advantages that the civil service thinks it's getting from the process of requiring people to do this quick thinking in an interview, I've said, "No, look, there's actually science behind why that might you might question that hypothesis." And secondly, I've tried out this process of questions in advance and we've had brilliant experience from panelists, from candidates, the people who get through are brilliant. So what's the problem? And by the way, there's an awfully large number of undiagnosed people with Asperger's who quite likely to be well suited to civil service workers, detail-oriented systems, its analysis. So we've been able to start to get first people interested with the analytical community, because they know that they've got over-representation of people from these conditions. So lots of bits of the department across government are all starting to get on the bandwagon. It's like, maybe we could do questions in advance. And it's actually within the rules. So there isn't a rule that says you can't. It's just a very strong convention. So that's a good example of me taking something that was a real problem, especially for my team, testing alternatives, fixing it, coming up with an explanation of why that fix works, and then selling it more widely. And if in our department, we can start to understand the implications of choices in recruitment processes, we're the ones who work with employers to take on unemployed people. I mean, the abilities for us to take this one little practice and expand it across the entire society are really huge. Sorry, I'm like, oh, no, no, no, no, not at all. That was great. Catch fire all that you want. It's fantastic. So very close to that, right? Like you said, that you think a lot of your team, you say things with good reason, is actually ADHD. Why might you think that? So I often teach that ADHD is probably not a disorder. It was probably extremely beneficial cognitive style in the environment in which we evolved for 99.9% of our biological history, hunter-gatherers.
Role Dispensing And Team Building Concepts
Why Maggie hired so many smart people with ADHD (35:18)
It's only when you take those people that would be high status in that world and then plunk them into this sedentary, abstract, symbolic world that's largely instrumental and meaningless, that they are diagnosed as having a defect. So I'm just wondering, what is it, and I get it that I'm asking you to just speculate intuitively on the spot, right? But what is it about that cognitive style that makes them so useful to your team? So such a good fit for your team. That's a really, really great question. So the obvious answer is they're part of the neurodivergent tribe, sort of neurotribes, and that means that they are set up to spot what's going on, more than people who are neurotypical. They're not part of the same shared reality as the other ones. So that's a part of it is simply having a different brain, is useful, and even that being left handed might lead you to be able to be constantly able to come up with new solutions and work around. That's what we're doing with problem solvers. So say, okay, how do we think about this problem differently? What's a different way around it? So if you spent your whole life having to very quickly come up with a way to do something that isn't the way everyone else has been doing it, because you can't, then that means that when the way everyone else is doing something is not leading to a solution, you might be able to come up with a new one. Ah. So I think that's part of it. But ADHD in particular, now this is a speculation from having known lots of ADHD. People have been married to one, but I think that they can be really observant, because the world jumps out at you. So I think the noticing skills of people with ADHD are exceptional. Yes. And my team does a lot of observational work, and even whether it's formal observation, like going and watching one of the assessments that's to see whether somebody can get a benefit, or whether it's informal, so how is that meeting work? Why is this piece of work or is program not performing well? There's some kind of conflict going on, and they will notice things. They don't tend to just zoom in on the process and then block everything else out. They notice. So I think those would be my lead hypotheses about why, and they just tend to be really sociable people as well, that kind of extra version seems to be ADHD. And we need people who really love people, and are prepared to have some quite difficult conversations, because relationship earlier point, it is part of the skill set that we need is to help our colleagues outside the team to navigate quite a difficult journey, which, well, I'd love to talk about if there was time, but that process of realizing that they thought they were seeing the whole problem, that the problem is in front of them all the time, that actually if you reframed it looked in a different way, the solutions there was there in front of them. We know as cognitive scientists that there's nothing wrong about that. You haven't failed because you didn't see all the frames at the same time. In a world where you assume that what you see is all there is, and that all there is is what you see, then you're going to you're going to find that an ego threat to have somebody come in and say, not, oh, well, you know, we can we know from the cognitive science literature that that humans have biases in this, this, and this way, you couldn't possibly know that therefore we have a new idea for how we might solve this problem. Therefore, we can write a set of recommendations that's put in some randomized control trials and recommend that to the minister. That has no ego threat for the person who owns the problem that we're helping with. But to be told, if you just looked at it this way, but new solution pops up, that is a really, that's a that's a traumatic process. So I need people who can hold that space through that. And for some reason, I think people with ADHD and dyspaxia actually are able to do that with a remarkable sensitivity and resilience. Yeah, I mean, those are two features. The one you just mentioned about that sort of, you know, role resiliency, but also, you know, the the perspectival resiliency also, the ability to disidentify and the noticing that those are precisely things that make them very good hunter gatherers, right? So that that's exactly right. Right. So you're hunting the deer, you got to be in the deer's mind. But wait, wait, there now there's an opportunity to actually shift to this. Oh, wait, we can actually, you know, find the elk, consider the deer and shift and right and then notice and all that stuff that's going on. Yeah, that really, that that jives well with with the with the with the hypothesis that I was talking about.
AB testing opportunities, and why role dispensing is an obsolete idea (40:26)
That leads me to something that I wanted to come back to. And you said something really philosophically provocative. So I want to give you a chance to develop it a little bit more and maybe I can probe it a little bit more. You say we should try and get get past or dispensed with the notion of roles. That to me is a really juicy and profound thing to say. And given that you're you said so much that's already so exciting and interesting. I want to hear what you have to say about that. And well, I might my thoughts on this. I'm not as developers as I was. But to me, actually, I haven't thought about roles necessarily in the sort of the dramatic I've thought of roles more mechanistically, like organizations that are set up on a model that was designed for factories, where people are being treated as either poor substitutes for machines or machines plus, you're you're and very clear process interdependencies between those those different pieces. Don't give a lot of room for flexibility or maneuver. You need people who come in and do a thing in a prescribed way that somebody else can come in and check. And there's that I think that whole approach to thinking about how humans add value in a particularly in the service as all knowledge economy context is utterly unhelpful. And that instead, we should be saying, well, what's the problem that we are trying to solve and what can this person bring to it rather than what's the task that we think is most likely, well, it's not even that you really think through is that task going to solve the problem because people don't even think about the problem. They've already the system as a whole has designed decided that the problem falls into this group of tasks. And therefore, that the tasks will be solved using the set of processes. And then you bring people in who have a capability why the performance process is already or can learn it. And it's but if you wait instead to, so let's not look at the work to be done or the task to be done, but the problem to be solved, that gives you much greater range of ways that you can add value to that problem, which gives you space then to say, hey, we've got this person who we then broad set of criteria that we that we need for the team. There's lots and lots of variation in what they might be able to bring to this. How would you look at this problem? Watch a bunch of other people do it, but don't feel like you've got to. How would you bring that? And in fact, when you've got an approach to that, bring that to our whole team and then get them to pitch in and say, how else they would help solve that problem. And to me, that is how you really you solve problems better than turning them into work streams and turning people into cogs in those work streams. I think it's dehumanizing. I think it's wasteful. And I think there's a sense, some implicit sense that this isn't a good way to work. But nobody knows how to name why it's not a good way to work and how to transition to something better. Do you think that particular sort of rapid narrowing and mechanization is also related to the point you just made a few minutes ago about people presuming that they know the whole thing because they have the whole system and how things slide into the system.
Rapid narrowing, models of the system (43:39)
And that gives them the pretense that they know the whole because they have the whole system model and how it has determined everything and where everything goes and how everything fits together. Do you think there's a relationship between those two? I don't think that the people think that they know the whole thing in terms of the whole system. So I think they're related but they're different. So what I think is going on is that people assume that it's not possible to know the whole system, which up to a point is true. And that the way that the system is designed is almost ordained to be the right way of managing. Oh, I see. I see. Right. But they all expected to be able to understand the bit of that system that's been plonked in front of them. Right. Even though they're actually not seeing that whole piece. They're just seeing one piece that the system has plucked in front of them. And there's a bigger problem underneath. So if they're in communications, they think their job is to move words not to think about the needs of the people. I mean, I'm paraphrasing it. There's lots of fantastic professionals. But that is the way the system is set up. So what my guides are doing, another level of which it's challenging, is that I tell them you need to own the whole is not okay to say, well, that's somebody else's problem. That's something else. Oh, thinking in a problem-centered and user-centered way, you can't get away with that. And that's really takes a lot of confidence to be able to work in an environment where you are trying to own the whole and not the bit that the system is spat out at you and that the system will credit you for achieving or not achieving. So it takes quite a lot of leadership from me to carve out an incentive structure within or culturally within my team to keep those other incentives out and to create this sense of where's the problem? Who cares about it? What does it look like to them? How do we solve? What's the problem? And how do we understand it better and therefore bring on the people to help solve it? Right, right. That's an excellent explanation. So let me sure I understand you. There's the idea that nobody can possibly understand the whole. Some God-like beings in the past somehow constructed this system. It can't be any better than it is. My best thing is to understand my peace. And then what what what what conceit I get is that because of my my obedience to the system, it gives me the capacity to know this piece perfectly well. And then all I have to do is do that. Do I understand you correctly now? I think that I think that's most of it. I think the bit that I probably should should correct is the idea that it couldn't be better. Everybody all knows that it could be better. But the fact that it could be better and nobody knows how to make it much better is just is another thing you learn to deal with. Oh, I see. So that learned helplessness that is crucial. Oh, most to a survival of a number of people, well, a large number of people in this sort of organization. So it's it's beyond my can. I can't understand it. But I can understand this little piece really well. It doesn't work as what probably it's not probably working very well, but nobody can possibly know how to fix it. And so we'll just do the best we can. And that's probably at times thought to be not very much at all. But I just do my job and I get rewarded for what I do in my job. Is that is that the picture? Am I getting it better now? I think so if I could actually, I think there's a way of clarifying this by when you've got it spot on. The problem statement that sits underneath my team is that the department, just like any other organization makes decisions based on assumptions about behavior that are sometimes not true. Right. So that was that was how I set up the whole team was around that problem statement because everybody in the civil service could say, yeah, that does sometimes happen. Yeah, it's a problem and no other professional function is set up to fix it. Now, there's two parts of that statement. One bit is that DWP makes decisions based on assumptions about behavior that aren't true. Now, if we focus on the assumptions about behavior that aren't true, that is something that's that's relatively easy to fix. You can come into a problem, you can say, okay, let's look what the assumptions about behavior here. There's a decent chance some of them are even recognized as dodgy assumptions. It's just, you know, you've got to make the best assumption you can economic models and notorious for this. They have to have them. They have to have assumptions. They'll be very carefully cabbiated by the economists, but they're in there. So we do a version of expanding that out, finding all the behavioral assumptions and then finding ways to test them and say, but what if people did it this way? And they're likely to do it that way, and let's go and see if they do it that way.
Assumptions and democratic challenges (48:40)
That's going to screw up that system is not going to work. So that's the bit that's quite easy to wrap people's heads around. But I've always thought that there were two parts of the problem statement because DWP makes decisions based on assumptions about anything that aren't true is also part of what social science can come and fix because the decision making process itself, the nature of the collective intelligence that is a civil purpose, that is what we are there to do. We are a collective, we have an institution that is a is a set of collective intelligence is they're designed to understand what the electorate wants from us via our elected officials and do things that citizens either can't do or don't want to do for themselves that they've handed over to to government. And yet the process by which decisions are made isn't anybody's focus. I mean, everybody's engaged in it. Everybody knows that their job is to make those decisions as well as possible and to contribute to better decision making processes. But there's no theory of that kind of systemic consciousness. It's almost like that's divorced from the people, which is why that sense of it being ordained isn't it? Sometimes it's kind of seen as well, either it's the politicians are making decisions or the senior officials are making decisions. But up to a point, there's also a sense which is accurate that historic decisions collectively may on the basis that we don't entirely understand that interacting ways we don't entirely understand has created an environment, a socially creative environment. Right. I'm talking to that you can't look at. Well, my team's looking at it and we're going to start to make some progress on this, but it is a whole field of organizational thinking that I just don't think a lot anybody's been playing in that. Yes, yes, totally. I'm glad I pushed you on that.
Questioning and improving collective thought (50:22)
Well, I didn't push you drew you out on this because that is so profound what you just said. So you there's this, there's this, there's this, I don't know, I want to use a term like from almost like from like from like there's this tradition that has a life of its own running, you know, you know, diachronically through the collective intelligence and it's almost transparent to people. They look through it, but they never step back and look at it in an ongoing manner to see if it should be questioned or if it could be improved or if it's misleading or if it's bullshitting in powerful ways. And even if they did look at it and there are plenty of people do spot it, which is why we have civil service reform agendas or internal change agendas, but there's a lack of proper ontological understanding of what it is. Right, right. Who can change this collective decision making? It's not necessarily the permanent secretary. It's not even the prime minister necessarily that can make these changes. It's something else. Yes, you're talking about something that in a very real sense is a cultural change rather than just a an administrative reform. Yes, yes, exactly, exactly. You've got you've got to get all of this down on paper. We've got to write something about this because this I think a lot of this would translate out into a lot of the work that I'm doing about, you know, trying to build these communities of communities, build the religion that's not a religion, all this kind of stuff. It's very valuable info. I hope you're like, I hope you're writing stuff down and taking notes and writing a book because this I'll help you with it. This is so so that is so important. This is so important. It does feel like we the civil service is simply an example of organizations everywhere. Yes. So particular ones and the ones that don't are the startups who have a particular kind of set of characteristics and produce different kind of stuff. But as soon as they reach a certain size or a certain longevity, they turn into this.
Presumption On Cooperation
Presumed cooperation (52:23)
This is something about the way that humans cooperate in the modern world is not seem doesn't seem to be subject to change. It's a systematic change in a way we know how to do think, talk about, but I'm building my little team or the right people to start to be able to notice this, think about it, talk about it, name it, and then start to think about ways that you could actually get purchase on it. This is amazing. Well, I mean, I've been having ongoing, they're not just discussions. We sort of think allowed together with me and your team and I and your team, I should say. So of course, I want to keep doing that. But this has been so, you just, it was just so great. I always like to give my guests sort of the last word. It doesn't have to be summative, doesn't have to be cumulative. It can be, it can be, you know, provocative, it can be inspiring, but I just want to give you, you know, now just stepping outside of how you're within the civil service, what would you say to the broader audience that's been watching this? Well, if it's, I'm guessing there's a significant overlap between your audience and sort of rebel wisdom, audience of the people, blessed to spend so much of the last four years with. And I do think that there's a, we need to talk about institutional reform and it's not that the institutions don't want to reform either. I'm not saying anything that isn't fairly commonly said in every civil service reform document that comes out every couple of years and it always changes me. But I do think that one of the things that I found, well, exciting that I'm doing, but frustrating that no one else is doing is bringing those, those ideas into institutions as a sense that, oh, we've got to work outside of the institutions to make anything better. It's like, well, A, I don't think that's possible. And B, it's not necessary. And C, it could be very dangerous if you, if you don't work in the institutions. So I think it's a plea to look more closely and in a more sort of human to human way at those institutions to not stereotype them and anthropomorphize them, to recognize that the people in them are people like, you know, people who really want to do good, who are really smart, who are following the rules where they need to. And if you can find ways to engage, support, come up with ideas, there will be a way to make that happen. And it doesn't, we don't just have to look at this kind of cultural level and then say, well, all we can do is little stuff in our community. That's great. I mean, do stuff in our communities. But we need to work with the institutions that can be good. Yeah, that's beautiful. Thank you so much, Carla. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.