The placebo effect isn't something I think about very often and when I do it is usually in the context of dismissing it as a trick of the mind or something like that. Maybe the placebo effect is just someone getting better on their own where it would have happened anyway, with no medical intervention at all.
I suspect a lot of us think this way.
But there are people out there wondering why it's happening. Why does the body sometimes heal itself? Can we understand it? What mechanisms are at work? If it is a trick of the mind, why does it seem to happen so consistently?
For a long time, nearly 250 years, we've known about the placebo effect, but we have done very little to study it.
That is changing now.
Experiments are focused on understanding how the placebo effect works, in the hopes of understanding it and putting it to work for the betterment of man kind.
It's a fasciating article and you should read the whole thing.
There are two parts of this article that interesting as leadership examples, and I want to take a few minutes to talk about those.
The origin of our understanding of the Pacebo effect come from 18th century France and involves a famous American.
Benjamin Franklin was part of a panel that was tasked with analyzing the work of the mesermist Charles d’Eslon. Mesmerists (disciples of Anton Mesmer) claimed to heal people of chronic illnesses and pain using a force called Animal Magnetism.
The panel developed experiments where the patients cannot see d'Eslon, thereby separating the effects of the mesmerist from what the patient might be supplying themselves. In doing so, the panel creates the first blind medical experiments and isolated the placebo effect.
The results of the experiment were quite clear: something besides animal magnetism, something the patient's themselves are supplying, is producing the effects of the treatment.
Having been told that imagination produces the effects attributed to his work as a mesmerist, d'Eslon responds:
the imagination thus directed to the relief of suffering humanity would be a most valuable means in the hands of the medical profession.
I find d'Eslon's reaction remarkable as an example of leadership.
I have seen people go to great lengths defending things not very integral to their livelihood and profession. How many times have you seen people defend turf for the sake of defending turf and maintaining the status quo?
D'Eslon, whose career is on the line, responds very differently.
Imagine being told you're a fraud and instead of reacting with hostility, you analyze the data and retrieve the key insight. Instead of defensiveness, instead of anger you simnply extract that conclusion your detractors seemed to have overlooked.
I've seen some people who are cool under pressure, but I've never seen anything like that. It should probably go in the record books under, Most Reasonable, Self-Aware Reaction Too Bad News, Ever.
I'm not sure what happened to d'Eslon after that. But I'd curious to know what such a man did with the rest of his life.
Imagine seeing your work discredited in public and responding with a valuable insight.
He saw the value in the placebo effect and applying our imaginations to relieve suffering.
The second thing that I think we should think about as leaders:
Some pretty brave people applying imagination to something that had been dismissed by medical science for nearly 250 years. As the article mentions, this isn't an easy journey for them. To take a topic that has been dismissed for that long and try to get people to pay attention to it is a pretty amazing feat. There are a lot of detractors, but they think it is important so they are dong it anyway.
We should take a lesson from the strength of people when confronted with challenge - Do we persevere when people question us? Or do we press on?
Those studying the placebo effect are pressing on because they believe there is something valuable and interesting, that medical science can finally come to grips with.
I'm glad that now there are those in the medical profession paying attention to how the placebo effect might be used differently and I'm glad we have the tools so that we can begin to understand it. New tools (DNA sequencing and MRIs are mentioned specifically) give these researchers the ability to peer inside us and look deeper than we ever could before.
But while the technical frontier that has opened, the frontier of human complacency, tradition, and established opinion must still be confronted and there is no new tool for that. There is only courage and perseverance, just as there always has been.
These are both great examples of human beings facing the challenge of change - one story of someone faced with a challenge/change and reacting with equanimity and grace, and one story of those taking on the establishment because of what they believe is the right thing to do.
Both of these are worth thinking about as examples of how to face challenges and show leadership during times of change.
Having a "keeper test" seems like a reasonable thing to do. I wouldn't do it the way that Netflix does, but that's their business. They're a successful company. How they keep their top performers, get rid of people who don't work, and put out an amazing product is their business. More power to them.
My problem with the article is that they say they do this without emotion. If you think you're making decisions without emotion you're not just wrong, you're deluding yourself about how decision making even works. You have to have emotions to make decisions, it's part of it.
If you go out and Google that topic you'll find lots of people saying that you should avoid emotions in decision making. And if you read the articles, they're right - you should avoid making decisions when you're really angry about something and when you're feeling euphoric - those aren't good states to make decisions in. But that's different than saying there's no emotion involved in decisions or you're completely analytical, that just doesn't work.
The trick is to look at data, be analytical, but be realistic about what you're feeling and why.
Often, business leaders have to make decisions with incomplete data.
If you're totally without emotions or gut feel, what are you going to do if you have to make decisions in absence of data?
The best book on this subject is Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence - specifically Chapter 3 in the section "Why Emotions are Important in Business".
When Netflix execs say they're firing people without emotion I suspect they really mean they are making these decisions, "without sentimental attachment to things that happened in the past and regardless of what my relationship may be to the person who I'm thinking of firing." That's a mouthful, but it is a lot more meaningful.
So, if I believe that is what they're really saying, why does it matter what was said?
It matters for 2 reasons:
What they said shows a misunderstanding of emotion and it's role in decision making. If you say things like that you are wearing blinders about what emotions you're feeling.
Saying that you make these decisions without emotion feeds the notion that decision makers are robots. I think that is dangerous for company culture and human beings.
If this is true, then they are using some emotions at Netflix to make these choices. What emotions are they (or should they be) using?
They're using emotions that derive from their commitment to the business and its vision. They're trying to build the greatest entertainment company in the world, they really care about that, and they're willing to get rid of people who don't quite live up to that ideal.
Those are probably pretty strong emotions. Strong enough, even, for you to fire an employee who was once successful and now is struggling.
But you definitely aren't making such decisions without emotions.
The question I would ask, but to which I do not know the answer is, "Is one of those emotions fear?" It's hinted at in the article.
I doubt the CEO is doing these things out of fear, though you never know. The rest of the organization could easily be affected by fear of "looking soft" as the article says or by fear of losing their jobs.
If fear is a big part of the emotional cocktail, that is not healthy in the long run.
Whatever the formula is, it seems to have worked thus far.
As it relates to my second point, there is a sense that the ideal CEO is someone who is able to make these decisions like a computer or robot. Does that match someone's ideal? I've worked with a lot of executives and I can't remember one who wanted to be a robot.
Visionaries, yes. Great leaders, yes. Builders of great companies, yes.
Even some who saw firing as a key component of building workplace culture - by which I mean they would never keep people around who didn't work hard and contribute at a high level. But this was not because they were cruel, and not even because they were ruthless in pursuit of efficiency.
No, it was because they responded so significantly to those who gathered around them and shared their vision. The leaders understood the emotional toll it took on those hard working, results-driving people to have to prop-up someone who couldn't cut it.
Non-contributing and failing team members can drain the life out of a team quickly. Suddenly hard fought gains are lost and the team is struggling.
This is to say, emotions were at the very core of why those business leaders chose to remove some team members.
So, I understand the sound byte. I wouldn't have said it that way and it is not what he meant, but I think a lot of people will read that article and see the CEO of Netflix acting "without emotion" and take that to heart.
It's wrong and misguided. I hope that at least some people stop and think about that.
What's a better approach? This is off the cuff, but I'll throw out some ideas about how to deal with emotion in a firing decision process:
What emotions are impacting this decision I'm about to make? Be clear with yourself - emotions are impacting you, which ones are they?
How does this person's performance impact those around them?
Is this person a fountain (someone who brings energy to those around them) or a drain (someone who sucks energy away from teams)?
Are these challenges temporary (life-change driven or tied to a new position) or permanent (a person is constitutionally unfit for a job or role)?
On this last point, it is important to note that people rarely change. And even if you think someone can change, can they change in time to make a difference? The odds are against them changing. Do you want to base your business plan around the need for a person to fundamentally alter their behavior?
It's difficult to change, though I have seen it happen.
But if you've put a person into the position in which they're struggling you owe it to them to at least ask the question.
All of these things relate to emotions. Emotions are important and we can't make decisions without them.
Even as an executive you need to be human. You can't help it anyway.
Acknowledge what you're feeling and why. The most successful executives I've worked with all understood exactly what's impacting them and they have been good at communicating it to others.
They don't let it blind them. They manage it and use it to their advantage.
Software and technology are bringing a lot of changes to our lives - just think of the things in the news set to make waves in the near future - robots, AI, blockchain, and self-driving vehicles.
If only part of the revolutionary claims for this tech comes true, the world will look very different.
This cocktail of technologies brings a lot of opportunity as well a great deal of upheaval.
One thing I've noticed about this digitally transformed world: every technical requirement of a project is also a business requirement.
I've often heard these words spoken: "That's just technical detail."
But I agree with less and less as time goes on.
It sounds wrong now. Just a technical detail? What product are we building here?
Yet it's true, in a way. It is a technical detail. But that doesn't mean that it isn't important or you can just ignore it or you can pretend to ignore it until it becomes a problem.
So how do we deal with this?
Over time we'll all benefit from current changes in eduction - more focus on reasoning, outcomes, and learning code will help. More people who know what code is and who have written a line or two will help demystify the whole thing a bit.
Business people: You need technical awareness and patience and you need to ask the good questions. Again, eduction will help.
Technical people: You also need patience and improved listening and communication skills. I've written before about the pain of the unasked question. Ignoring hard questions because you don't like the answer isn't OK. Ask the question you know is there.
We all need to get better at explaining trade-offs in non-technical ways. This really shouldn't be that hard.
But what is the quickest fix? What can happen now? Where do I see people stumble?
The answer is more agile adoption and commitment to great product owners.
Needed to spend half their time talking to people buying the product (getting their thoughts on the latest incremental release and how it delivered value) and half their time with the team creating the Backlog (showing them what the customers valued and what they didn't).
That would definitely help a team move fast and understand the right technical/business requirements very quickly.
It's why I believe so strongly that Agile is the right methodology and that following as closely as possible to the recommendations makes sense. I've seen a lot of product owners who did a lot of the first or a lot of the second, but only a few who did a great job of balancing both (and who were given the organizational bandwidth and charter to do it).
Today everything - every part of an application - is a business requirement. Waiting around for business experts to answer questions, when they have many other responsibilities, is a delay that almost no one can afford any more.
We all have to go fast.
And we all need the business expertise and customer awareness built into our teams.
I recently conducted a book club using Dr. Alan Watkins book Coherence. The most useful tool in the book is the idea of the emotional roller-coaster related to change in an organization.
The basic idea is that for every change in a company (and we all have no shortage of those) the individuals that make up the company must pass through a spectrum of emotions that looks like this:
Yes, every time, with every change.
The picture in the book is better, but I don't have permission to reproduce it so I've Cliff-Noted it for you.
We've all seen this before. When confronted with change, people resist. This turns out to be normal (and required) human behavior to process this change.
The key insight for leaders? You can't force people to move forward on the roller-coaster. You can appreciate where people are, acknowledge it, and help them move toward the future.
This was a very helpful insight for me. I know that several times over the course of my career I have tried to force people to where I was on the roller-coaster. I remember one series of meetings in particular where a group of unsuspecting people were essentially expected to attend a 30 minute meeting and arrive on the right hand side, without any time to process at all.
I've also questioned why they couldn't instantaneously reach acceptance (at the tail-end of the upswing on the right). They can't because none of us can. Though time and the right kinds of experience can help you move faster.
But something has occurred to me after all this. The roller-coaster image is very helpful in order to grasp the initial idea, but it misses something important. As a leader, you need to help people with the left side so that you can gain their help on the right.
In real life the down part of a roller-coaster is the fun part. It's the pay-off for have ridden up to the top. So, with organizational change: you work through the hard part on the left to get the help you need on the right-hand side.
So initially I wondered if something like this wouldn't be more useful:
This is nice in that it matches how you actually feel on a roller-coaster. Trepidation going up, thrilled going down.
But it doesn't work at all and here's why. It flies in the face of the up=good, down=bad metaphor that is deeply written into the brain of every human on earth.
Even looking at it and seeing negative emotions going up sort of gives me the heebie-jeebies.
So, that's a no go. What it gets right (in addition to how it feels to be on a roller-coaster) is the notion that in the emotional build-up is a build-up of potential energy. Going through the necessary negative emotions helps us to be ready for what comes next. We wouldn't be sent careening down the thrilling part of the coaster without the build-up of potential energy that occurs.
Similarly, people who can work their way through the change and the associated negative emotions are really positioned to truly accept the change, embrace it, and become champions once they reach the right-hand side.
The processing of negative emotions are what sets that positive trend in motion in a real way.
So what visual does capture this? The best visual I've been able to come up with is the idea of the slingshot. In the slingshot, potential energy is captured as the sling is drawn back - nicely matching the work required (as both a leader and individual) in order to actually pass (constructively) through the negative side.
Then, with the potential energy of the work captured, you can release the slingshot and actually draw all the momentum you need on the positive side.
I could not come up with a way to capture this in a single drawing, but I think a two part drawing does the trick:
My apologies to the artists in the room.
This is really a leadership view of this path through change. I think the original roller-coaster is probably best and sufficient for everyone else in an organization.
In searching for images on potential energy, I came across this image:
This turtle is about to undergo a change (and probably highly negative emotions).
But that doesn't have much to do with organizational change. I'm not sure it has a lot to do with potential energy either - at least the turtle part.
You've worked at a business for several years, you're really starting to understand how it works. You're grokking it. You're gaining a deep understanding of the innerworkings, outer-workings, and every kind of work-between.
And you suddenly have it - a moment of insight - a blinding flash that helps you to solve a problem you've been stuck on.
They're great when the happen. But how often do they really occur for you? For the lucky, perhaps several times a year. For the rest of us, less often.
One of the great promises of AI is to be able to achieve these types of insights faster and more repeatedly by asking the right questions.
AI will allow us, as it becomes more ubiquitous, to ask better questions and find the answers faster.
Here are the stages of inspiration and insight as we move forward with Assisted Inspiration (we need a new acronym).
Human-Only Insight - the amazing and super-powerful capability that we humans possess to understand our world and make amazing leaps forward. Pattern recognition, dreams, emotional resilience, quantum gravity. It's all part of it.
Tool Assisted Insight - explicit use of math and spreadsheets and literature to figure stuff out, in addition to our own powerful minds.
AI Assisted Insight - use of machine learning and other sophisticated computer tools to value information and create models for problem solving.
As we get better at formulating our questions, generating and processing data, and creating these models - as these skills become more pervasive in the workforce - then the pace of AI Assisted Insights is only going to INCREASE. Think the world is going fast now? Think it's changing? Think we're in a VUCA phase?
Buckle your seat-belt. As our kids join the workforce and spend less time writing code (it probably really will happen this time) and more time thinking about problems and using AI to assist them, the more the pace of change will accelerate.
Will this be challenging at times? Yes, definitely. It also represent a fundamental new phase of work, life, and society.
What an amazing time to be alive.
I've been lucky enough to have some human-only and data-assisted insights in my life. Those moments are joyful when they occur. They are real breakthroughs when you see things in a whole new light.
Imagine having more of those. More breakthroughs. More insight. More inspiration. It will be challenging, and for those of who are willing to face these challenges a broad new plateau of opportunity and human potential awaits us.