“Working here makes us better humans”

A daily thought from Leandro Herrero:

I have had a brilliant two day meeting with a brilliant client. One aspect of my
work with organizations that I truly enjoy is to help craft the ‘Behavioural DNA’ that shapes the culture of the company. This is a set of actionable behaviours that must be universal, from the CEO to the MRO (Mail Room Officer). They also need to pass the ‘new hire test’: would you put that list in front of a prospect employee and say ‘This is us’?

There was one ‘aspirational’ sentence that I put to the test: ‘Working here makes us better human beings’.

It was met with scepticism by the large group in the meeting, initially mainly manifested through body language including the, difficult to describe, cynical smiles. The rationalists in the group jumped in hard to ‘corporatize’ the sentence. ‘Do you mean better professionals?’ The long discussion had started. Or, perhaps, ‘do you mean…’ – and here the full blown corporate Academy of Language – from anything to do with skills, talent management, empowerment to being better managers, being better leaders, and so on.

‘No, I mean better human beings. Period!’- I pushed back. Silence.

Next stage was the litany of adjectives coming form the collective mental thesaurus: fluffy, fuzzy, soft, vague…

I felt compelled to reframe the question: ‘OK, so who is against working in a place that makes you inhuman? Everybody. OK, ‘ So who is against working in a place that makes you more human? Nobody. But still the defensive smiling.

It went on for a while until the group, ‘organically’, by the collective hearing of pros and cons, turned 180 degrees until everybody agreed that ‘Working in a place that makes you a better human being’ was actually very neat. But – there was a but – ‘Our leadership team wont like it. They will say that its fluffy, fuzzy, soft etc… In the words of the group, it was not ‘them’ anymore who had a problem, it was the infamous ‘they’.

The “difficult to describe” cynical smiles are familiar…. indeed I am sure I have perpetrated such smiles more than once myself!

Medicine can be a dehumanising profession, sometimes literally. Dehumanising in both ways – patients, especially some categories of patient, colleagues, but also we ourselves. Of course, the rationalist part of us can pick apart what “better humans” means…


Information underload – Mike Caulfied on the limits of #Watson, #AI and #BigData

From Mike Caufield, a piece that reminds me of the adage Garbage In, Garbage Out:

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson has yet to treat a patient. It’s hit a roadblock with some changes in backend records systems. And most importantly, it can’t figure out how to treat cancer because we don’t currently have enough good information on how to treat cancer:

“IBM spun a story about how Watson could improve cancer treatment that was superficially plausible – there are thousands of research papers published every year and no doctor can read them all,” said David Howard, a faculty member in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, via email. “However, the problem is not that there is too much information, but rather there is too little. Only a handful of published articles are high-quality, randomized trials. In many cases, oncologists have to choose between drugs that have never been directly compared in a randomized trial.”
This is not just the case with cancer, of course. You’ve heard about the reproducibility crisis, right? Most published research findings are false. And they are false for a number of reasons, but primary reasons include that there are no incentives for researchers to check the research, that data is not shared, and that publications aren’t particularly interested in publishing boring findings. The push to commercialize university research has also corrupted expertise, putting a thumb on the scale for anything universities can license or monetize.

In other words, there’s not enough information out there, and what’s out there is generally worse than it should be.

You can find this pattern in less dramatic areas as well — in fact, almost any place that you’re told big data and analytics will save us. Take Netflix as an example. Endless thinkpieces have been written about the Netflix matching algorithm, but for many years that algorithm could only match you with the equivalent of the films in the Walmart bargain bin, because Netflix had a matching algorithm but nothing worth watching. (Are you starting to see the pattern here?)

In this case at least, the story has a happy ending. Since Netflix is a business and needs to survive, they decided not to pour the majority of their money into newer algorithms to better match people with the version of Big Momma’s House they would hate the least. Instead, they poured their money into making and obtaining things people actually wanted to watch, and as a result Netflix is actually useful now. But if you stick with Netflix or Amazon Prime today it’s more likely because you are hooked on something they created than that you are sold on the strength of their recommendation engine.

Let’s belabor the point: let’s talk about Big Data in education. It’s easy to pick on MOOCs, but remember that the big value proposition of MOOCs was that with millions of students we would finally spot patterns that would allow us to supercharge learning. Recommendation engines would parse these patterns, and… well, what? Do we have a bunch of superb educational content just waiting in the wings that I don’t know about? Do we even have decent educational research that can conclusively direct people to solutions? If the world of cancer research is compromised, the world of educational research is a control group wasteland.

The world of Policy and the Salzburg Statement

With his recent elevation to Taoiseach, something Leo Varadkar (who was supposed to work with me when I did a locum in Tallaght in May 2007… but he was occupied with some election or other) said in the late 1990s got a fair bit of coverage. This was to the effect that as a doctor you can help a few people, but as Minister for Health you can help millions. While at first glance this seems like a truism, it has for some reason got under my skin. There are various reasons for this, not all of which I will get into. Perhaps I am jealous of a road not travelled! (I am pretty confident I am not)

In a way it sums up a particular seduction – the seduction of the World of Policy. Get interested in any field – from the natural world to technology to medicine indeed – and sooner or later the siren song of policy will be heard. Wouldn’t it be great to Make A Difference not just on the piecemeal, day-to-day way, but on a grander scale? Increasingly I think not. Clearly someone needs to formulate policy and to think about things on a broad scale – but they should do so without illusions and with a certain humility. People have a habit of behaving in a way that the enlightened policy makers don’t foresee.  The circuit of conferences and “networking” can become an echo chamber of self congratulation. Doing good, perhaps, is best done on a smaller scale.

These thoughts are occasioned by reading about the Salzburg Statement. This is something I heartily approve of – a call for action to ensure all children enjoy the right to play in a nature rich space within ten minutes of their home.  The statement is made up of eight key actions:

Eight actions to transform cities for children

  1. Ensure children of all ages, backgrounds, income, and abilities have equitable access to nature and play regularly and in meaningful ways to promote good health and wellbeing.

  2. Embed nature in everyday places used by children, such as schools, backyards, parks, playgrounds and city streets, to make the city into a natural outdoor classroom.

  3. Involve children in designing and planning natural spaces for recreation, education, inspiration and health, to give them ownership and pride in their local communities, schools and parks

  4. Build curiosity, wonder, and care for nature in children (for example by greening school grounds and involving children with community gardens).

  5. Protect natural features across cityscapes and create an equitably distributed network of accessible green and nature-rich spaces that all generations can reach on foot.

  6. Connect cities with the broader ecosystems in which they are embedded, creating corridors for people, plants and animals to move safely across the city and into its surroundings.

  7. Establish more urban conservation areas to increase access to nature and connect cities to the broader protected area network.

  8. Work together through cross sectoral and multi-level partnerships to build an inclusive culture of health in cities.


There’s nothing there I would disagree with, though as with all these kind of interventions I would like more robust dissection of what, say, Item 3 would mean in practice.

I am always a little wary of dressing up worthy activity in the mantle of Health. What Resting a case for nature on the vagaries of purported health benefits can be a dangerous and debunkable game – especially with the media. This visual  handily shows how media can seize on single studies to generate headlines:statins.png

One can easily imagine a Katie Hopkins-ish journalist seizing on the inevitable ambiguities of research to “debunk” the claims for health benefits of nature.

I should state very clearly I have no reason to think that the Salzburg Statement is a wonderful initiative I look forward to hearing more of. But I am a little wary of the siren call of the World of Policy.

Beyond Knowing Nature – 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Once again I am reblogging an interesting post by psychologist Miles Richardson on connection with nature and well being.

Particularly interesting is the research finding that factual knowledge does not necessarily correlate with emotional connection with nature. As Richardson writes, “the brain feels before it thinks”, and by focusing too much on how well species can be identified, we can miss the potential of emotional, experiential connection.

Finding Nature

Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.

General nature contact and knowledge based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined…

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Leandro Herrero – “The best contribution that Neurosciences can make to Management and Leadership is to leave the room”

A while back I reviewed I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, and discussed a couple of studies which illustrate the dangers of what could best be called neuro-fetishism:

In 2010, Dartmouth University neuroscientist Craig Bennett and his colleagues subjected an experimental subject to functional magnetic resonance imaging. The subject was shown ‘a series of photographs with human individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence, either socially inclusive or socially exclusive’. The subject was asked to determine which emotion the individual in the photographs were experiencing. The subject was found to have engaged in perspective-taking at p<0.001 level of significance. This is perhaps surprising, as the subject was a dead salmon.

In 2007, Colorado State University’s McCabe and Castel published research indicating that undergraduates, presented with brief articles summarising fictional neuroscience research (and which made claims unsupported by the fictional evidence presented) rated articles that were illustrated by brain imaging as more scientifically credible than those illustrated by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. Taken with the Bennett paper, this illustrates one of the perils of neuroimaging research, especially when it enters the wider media; the social credibility is high, despite the methodological challenges.

I am becoming quite addicted to Leandro Herrero’s Daily Thoughts and here is another. One could not accuse Herrero of pulling his punches here:

I have talked a lot in the past about the Neurobabble Fallacy. I know this makes many people uncomfortable. I have friends and family in the Neuro-something business. There is neuro-marketing, neuro-leadership and neuro-lots-of-things. Some of that stuff is legitimate. For example, understanding how cognitive systems react to signals and applying this to advertising. If you want to call that neuro-marketing, so be it. But beyond those prosaic aims, there is a whole industry of neuro-anything that aggressively attempts to legitimize itself by bringing in pop-neurosciences to dinner every day.

In case anyone doubts his credentials:

Do I have any qualifications to have an opinion on these bridges too far? In my previous professional life I was a clinical psychiatrist with special interest in psychopharmacology. I used to teach that stuff in the University. I then did a few years in R&D in pharmaceuticals. I then left those territories to run our Organizational Architecture company, The Chalfont Project. I have some ideas about brains, and some about leadership and organizations. I insist, let both sides have a good cup of tea together, but when the cup of tea is done, go back to work to your separate offices.

It is ironic that otherwise hard-headed sceptics tend to be transfixed by anything “neuro-” – and Leandro Herrero’s trenchant words are just what the world of neurobabble needs. In these days of occasionally blind celebration of trans-, multi- and poly- disciplinary approaches, the “separate offices” one is bracingly counter-cultural…

Leandro Herrero – What I learnt from the monks: a little anthropology of leadership and space in one page.

Another Daily Thought from Leandro Herrero that I am tempted to simply cut and paste completely. The whole thing is worth reading. I have blogged on my other site a fair about both the positive side of monastic practice and the risk of romanticising monasticism with the attendant danger of spiritual pride.

Monasteries were, of course, key institutions in the development of Western institutional life and culture. We often like to think that we have moved way way beyond learning from the communal life of monasteries. Of course, the themes and patterns of human interaction recur in superficially different guises:

There is something special about creating space. For me, leadership is mainly architecture: create the conditions, find the spaces, protect them, make them liveable. Architects also have maps, and compasses. The leader needs to provide maps (frameworks, such as the non negotiable behaviours) and navigation tools (a value system). But, above all, it’s about space.

Providing spaces for people to breath, to growth, to deliver something, to get better, to think critically, to interact, to collaborate, to travel together. This is all about space. Space is the psychological sister of place. Space may be only, or mainly, mental. As such, it is a precious asset. No wonder the word space has been often associated to the word sacred. As in sacred spaces. To provide space, to create and protect spaces for others, is something a good leader does. It’s a great deal of his servant-ship.

But we, sometimes, are not very good at this. We take over other people’s spaces by insisting in discussing, wanting to ‘go deeper’, being intolerant with leaving things open, dictating our own terms and providing unreasonable borders to their spaces.

At a threshold point of two people living together in one place, they may come to inhabit one single space. It requires a lot of maturity to live in one single space with others. Occupying one single place, is the easier part, space is not. Indeed, that single space may end up being too much to ask. It may be better to have separate spaces to respect, often overlap. Psychotherapists have known for many years that a temporary split, or making tangential connections for a while, may be the solution to some problems. Un-bundle the spaces that have become blurred, that is.

#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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