Positive Psychology is one of the biggest of the big ideas to emerge during my adult lifetime. It starts with an even bigger idea: that insights into the way our minds work can help us address problems. And then it turns that idea on its head.
The impact has been no less than phenomenal. Yes, it has spawned a vast and growing library of books and self-help programs. But it has also genuinely helped people.
Not only has positive psychology given us the tools to live a more fulfilling and happier life. But it also equips us to make workplaces better, more sustainable, and more productive. So, if that doesn’t interest you, I do wonder just how big an idea has to be to grab your attention.
Why do you get up every morning? Is it out of a sense of obligation, duty, or even compulsion? Or is it ikigai?
In Japanese culture, ikigai is a reason for getting up in the morning. it is the meaning to your life and your reason for being. It is your ‘raison d’être’, but in a more profound sense than English speakers commonly use that French phrase.
Ikigai is a big idea for English speakers, because we don’t have our own word, but the concept is important.
Ikujiro Nonaka has been described by a long-term colleague and collaborator as the ‘Father of Knowledge Management’. He takes a radical view – in the true sense of radical: he goes to the route of how we acquire, create and share knowledge.
Very Short Biography
Ikujiro Nonaka was born in 1935 and grew up in Tokyo. He studied political science at Waseda University, gaining his BS in 1958. He started work that year at Fuji Electric, where his principal accomplishment was to create their management programme. He went on to further develop this, in alliance with Keio University.
Nonaka left Fuji in 1967, to study in the United States, at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded his MBA in 1968, and his PhD in Business Administration, in 1972. He took posts at US universities (Claremont Graduate University and then the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley), before returning to Japan, as a professor at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University.
There he collaborated with another staff member, whom he had known as a grad student at Berkeley, Hirotaka Takeuchi. It was the latter who describes Nonaka as the ‘Father of Knowledge Management’.
At the heart of Nonaka’s thinking is the rejection of the common view of Knowledge Management as fundamentally an IT function. The data management part of knowledge management is a minor – indeed, incidental – component. The fundamental part is the creation and sharing of knowledge, which takes place via the relationships between people.
He therefore asserts that spending tens, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology systems misses this essential truth and argues that true knowledge creating companies are ones with a generous community feel.
‘Ba’ is a word Nonaka coined to mean a meeting place for minds. Whilst it can be a physical space within the organisation, Nonaka sees it more as a mental state, where people are able to share and create knowledge together. He likens the concept to that of ‘flow‘ – in the sense that both are states of total focus and immersion. However, unlike flow, Ba is a shared mental state.
The SECI Model
Nonaka and Takeuchi’s most notable contribution is their SECI Model of how knowledge transforms in organisations. Regular readers of Pocketblog will know just how much we love models, so here goes.
The SECI Model is a representation of the dynamic way that knowledge flows from explicit to implicit and back. It sets out to unite the Western preference for Explicit knowledge (‘Know why’ or, to use the ancient Greek term, ‘episteme’) and the Japanese focus on tacit knowledge (‘know how’, or ‘techne’).
Nonaka and Takeuchi start their cycle with social knowledge sharing to build tacit knowledge and move around to internalization of explicit knowledge to make it implicit, or tacit. They then see that knowledge being shared, restarting the cycle (they originally drew it as a continuous spiral, but I prefer the loop metaphor). At each stage, knowledge is converted, and made more useful.
In his latest work, Nonaka draws the ancient Greek analogies of episteme and techne, and highlights a third sort of wisdom that the ancients cherished: ‘phronesis’, or ‘practical wisdom’. He describes phronesis as the wisdom to know what must be done – judgement, if you like. He sees this as the antidote to an overly rigid focus on theoretical know-why knowledge, or practical, know-how. In Aristotelian ethics, phronesis is usually seen as rational thinking and prudent judgement.
Nonaka thus connects up knowledge management with leadership. Phroneis gives us a clearer understanding of how our organisation relates to the rest of the world: purpose, choices, actions. This can give the organisation a resilience that a less self-aware organisation will lack. Nonaka argues that phronetic leaders can foster improved judgement and decision-making by creating a culture of sharing, nurturing, and creating knowledge through informal social connections: ‘Ba’.
Donald Schön (Schon for the rest of this article) differs from other thinkers and managers in this series, because he was more a philosopher than a business thinker. Therefore, his ideas are subtle, but no less important for managers and professionals to understand; at least in outline.
Very Short Biography
Schon was born in 1930, in Boston and grew up nearby. In 1951, he gained his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale and went to France to study music at the Sorbonne. He returned to the US to pursue philosophy at Harvard, where he earned his PhD in 1955.
After a short spell teaching philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Kansas City, he joined consulting firm Arthur D Little in 1957, and remained there until 1963 (AVGY).
From then on, he produced a series of books, joining the faculty of MIT in 1968 and becoming Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education in 1972. It was in the years that followed this that he collaborated fruitfully with Chris Argyris.
Donald Schon’s Ideas
Within Schon’s writing are three big ideas that are especially relevant to managers and professionals.
The Learning Society
The rapid pace of technological change means that our systems and technologies no longer provide a stable base for society or its organisations. This means that we need to be constantly learning. This idea was picked up by Peter Senge in his writing on the ‘Learning Organization’. We need to be constantly learning lessons as we go and the same is true for society as a whole and organisations within it. Yet governments and organisations both like to centralise their policy making processes, isolating them from the people who have the experiences to understand and therefore solve the new problems that emerge.
Schon wrote about how powerful a metaphor can be in framing the professional response to an issue. Schon suggested that the challenge is often less in problem-solving, and more in problem-setting. How we state a problem dictates the type of solution we find. So, for example, if the problem of poor communication is fragmentation, then we look for a solution of co-ordination. An example he gave from the social sphere was when we refer to the problems of a neighbourhood as a ‘blight’ and therefore frame our response as a treatment for disease. This is something that is the subject of current research, not least by Paul H Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky. I have written about the dangers of metaphor choice elsewhere.
Reflection in Action
Perhaps Schon’s most important contribution was in thinking about the process of learning. In addition to his collaboration with Argyris – which led to three books and the idea of double loop learning; he also focused on reflection.
He started by setting out reasons why what he termed ‘technical rationality’ is a poor model of professional learning. This is the process of filling new students and professionals-to-be with knowledge at the start of their careers, and expecting them to apply that knowledge. The common response to this approach was then ‘reflection on action’. This is the process of stepping back after each piece of work, project, or experience, and reflecting on what we have learned from it.
We know that this is an excellent route to developing wisdom, but Schon argued that professionalism requires something else, as well: the ability to think o our feet. For this, we require the ability of ‘reflection in action’ – reflecting while we are carrying out our tasks and exercising our skills. This seems to me to be intimately linked with both Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow states’ (in which we lose ourselves in activities where we are able to constantly monitor our progress) and Kolb’s idea of ‘Experiential Learning’(in which we learn through a constant cycle of experience, reflection, generalisation, and application).
Csikszentmihalyi was born to a Hungarian family in a city long disputed by Hungary, Italy and Croatia – now called Rijeka and part of Croatia; it was, at the time of his birth in 1934 a part of Italy, named Fiume. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, and got a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago, going on to become a a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. He is the founder and a co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center – a non-profit research institute that studies positive psychology.
Flow, in a Nutshell
Csikszentmihalyi’s signature research was into Flow States – those states of mind when we are totally absorbed in an activity, and can therefore want nothing else in the world, at that time, than to continue uninterrupted. He describes these Flow States as the optimum states for a human being, and catalogues the three conditions under which they arise:
The task has a clear and worthwhile goal
The task is sufficiently challenging to stretch us to our limits (and maybe a little beyond) but not so challenging for us that we find ourselves anxious and hyper-alert for failure
The task offers constant feedback on our progress and performance levels
In the book, he relates interviews with over 90 creative people from many fields of the arts, sciences and humanities. From those, he distils a great many lessons. For me, one of the simplest is most valuable, his five steps to creativity:
Becoming immersed in a problem that is interesting and arouses curiosity.
Ideas churn around at an unconsciousness level.
The “Aha!” moment when the answers you reach unconsciously emerge into consciousness.
Evaluating the insight to test if it is valuable and worth pursuing.
Translating the insight into a workable solution – Edison’s ’99 per cent perspiration’.
This to me explains why we seem to get our best ideas when out walking, sipping a coffee, or in a shower. These are not the times when we solve our problems: they are the times when our conscious mind is sufficiently unoccupied to notice the answers that our unconscious has developed.
What does this mean for managers?
If you want creative thinking from your team, I think it tells us four things:
You need to give people time to understand and research the problem, making it as interesting and relevant to them as you can.
You need to let people go away and mull, allowing a reasonable period for ideas to incubate.
You need to bring people back together with no distractions and pressures, so that the ideas can naturally emerge.
You need to create separate stages of your process for evaluating the solutions and then for implemental thinking, when you hone the preferred solution into a workable plan.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at TED
Here is an excellent video from 2004 of the man himself…
This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
If you need to motivate your team, then you absolutely need to understand the concept of ‘needs’.
Most psychological models of motivation, starting with the best known of all – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – are based on a simple premise:
Human beings have needs. Therefore the promise to
satisfy them is necessarily motivating.
Maslow is overdone in training courses, management guides and, yes.. blogs. So we’ll skip that for a moment, but you can always take a look at The Motivation Pocketbook.
Modern thinking focuses strongly on four workplace needs:
1. The Need to Master our Work
We have a deep psychological drive to achieve proficiency and mastery and, when we do so and are able to work at that level, we find our work deeply satisfying. We fall into a ‘flow state’ where our work totally absorbs us.
2. The Need to Feel a Sense of Purpose
What question do small children ask, continually?
Why? Why? Why? Why?
As adults we equally need an answer to this and if we sense that our work has a real meaning and purpose that aligns with our values, then it is highly motivating.
If you work full-time, then you probably spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with the person or people you thought you had chosen to spend your life with. People are social creatures and we have a powerful need for strong social relationships in which we feel there is a place for us – and ideally some sense of esteem from those around us. Respect is also a very important motivator.
Once again, young children hold a mirror to us as adults. Much toddler mis-behaviour (and the same is true for a lot of teenage actions) is driven by a desire to control our lives, our environment and our choices. Rob people of control and stress is a rapid result. Give workers more control and that is intrinsically motivating.
Two other Needs Based Models on the Management Pocketblog are:
It only seems like yesterday when we did our first Adult Learners’ Week blog. Do you remember what the Three R’s really stand for? If not, check back to last year’s blog.
What is Adult Learners’ Week?
Adult Learners’ Week is a campaign that ‘celebrates learning and learners in all their diversity, inspiring thousands of people each May to try something new. The initiative promotes the benefits of all kinds of learning, whether it is for fun or leading to a qualification.’
Of course, with spring in the air, it is a good time to feel happy, but what has this to do with Adult Learners’ Week?
Flow and Happiness
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about flow. Flow is a state where you become so immersed in something that time seems to stop, so that, when you finish, you have hardly an inkling of how much time has passed? You may only then realise how cold, how hungry or even how desperate you are for the loo.
The originator of the concept and author of a fantastic book on the subject (Flow: The Psychology of Happiness) is Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. Note the subtitle of the book: in it, he describes flow states as states of great pleasure and enjoyment. So forget wealth, parties and drugs: get immersed in something with a clear goal and evident measures of progress, which stretches you to perform at your limits.
Flow and Learning
Let’s re-read the last part of that last sentence:
‘…get immersed in something with a clear goal and evident measures of progress, which stretches you to perform at your limits.’
This describes Csikszentmihaly’s three criteria for a flow state: a goal, feedback, and challenge. It also is the definition of learning: knowing what you want to be able to do, understand, or create; being able to monitor your progress; and moving beyond your present capabilities.
Back when I did maths at school, we took a little foray into classical logic, which is based on maths, of course. We learnt about robust and faulty reasoning, and in particular, I recall the concept of syllogism. Take two statements:
Learning creates flow
Flow creates happiness
A syllogism is a form of argument that makes a deduction from two statements of known truth…
Learning and Happiness
Stephen Hawking was told by his publisher that every equation he put into ‘A Brief History of Time’ would halve its sales. He didn’t do so badly! So I’ll take a chance and put one of my own into this blog, knowing you don’t pay to read it anyway:
Learning = Happiness
So here’s the Deal
If it is not already a habit, make this week a week to learn. Here are ten top tips for how.
Check out the Adult Learners’ Week website for ideas and opportunities
Set yourself a challenge to take your hobby or passion to the next level and start working on it
Watch a documentary on TV
Find a new blog to read
Take an hour to research a topic you’ve always been interested in
Go out to lunch with a colleague and ask them to tell you all about their specialism, hobby, degree subject or favourite book
Sign up for an evening class
Pick up a quality magazine or newspaper and read it cover to cover
Go to a library or a bookstore, choose a subject at random, pick the most appealing book on the shelves and read it
Go for a long walk, notice the things around you (weather, buildings, trees, animals, people, vehicles, …) and when you get home, research any one of them that captures your interest
Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy
It’s tempting to say: ‘all of them’ but let’s face it; we all have our favourites and there are some you won’t like as much. So, as a learner, or a trainer, or a teacher, here are some pocketbooks you might like:
Management Pocketbooks was at the CIPD’s HRD exhibition in full force last week. It’s always a good opportunity to see what’s new in the worlds of training, coaching and management development.
Thank you, by the way, to the hundred and forty or so people who sat or stood for the forty five minutes of my talk about Handling Resistance, and to everyone who visited the stand. More on the talk in a future blog.
Is it a trend?
One thing stood out for me at the exhibition. Maybe it represents a trend – it did catch my interest.
At least two businesses exhibiting had deep expertise in Positive Psychology, which I’ve covered in one form in an earlier post, and applying it to the workplace.
I remain convinced that this is a field whose time is coming – I’d put it about where Emotional Intelligence was in the early 1990s. Who will be the Dan Goleman of this field?
I picked up a copy of the new Positive Psychology at Work by Sarah Lewis and my wife (who nabbed it on the train) tells me it’s really good!
Another Aspect of Positive Psychology is Flow
Have you ever found yourself so immersed in something that time disappears from under you and so, when you finish – or are stopped – you have hardly an inkling of how much time has passed? You may only then realise how cold, how hungry or even how desperate you are for the loo. That was flow.
Flow experiences happen when we are in a directed task with clear goals, plenty of sense of how we are doing and, crucially, just the right amount of challenge.
The typical flow state diagram looks like this.
High Performance at Work
Flow states are the key to high levels of motivation and performance. We need to get ourselves, or the people we manage, into a flow state by making demands of them with just the right amount of challenge. This way, what we are doing always tests us to our limit of competence but not so far beyond, that we feel stressed by it and not so far below that we get comfortable, complacent and bored.
How can we increase the challenge further?
There are two ways to increase the challenge we place on a team member and still maintain the possibility of a high performance flow state:
we can either provide suitable training, coaching, practice or other intervention, or
we can offer our support, leaving them feeling safe from potential failure and able to ask for help, thus extending the range over which they can operate before feeling stressed.
So here’s the deal
Good management is about matching the challenge to the person – and positive psychology shows us why this is.
I have been using the “Psi plus” symbol for about three years now as a shorthand in my notes for positive psychology. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, but it seems such an obvious shorthand. Anyone seen it elsewhere?