Have You Had Your Culture Change Today?

In 2008, the “neighbourhood coffee shop” closed its doors across the US at precisely 5:30p for three hours to retrain its employees on everything from the sound the milk should make when it’s being heated to the particulars of the colour of espresso shots. Fast-forward ten years and the “neighbourhood coffee shop” is at it again, but for much different reasons this time. While there is lots to be said about what happened earlier this year that motivated Starbucks to take action (and what should/could happen next), I’m more interested in the approach employed by Starbucks of closing its doors, in an effort to get all of its employees to ‘swim in the same direction.’

The cynic in me screams that this is more likely a PR stunt than it is an effort to shift the culture, especially when considering that Starbucks stands to lose approximately $20 million in sales by closing its doors for the afternoon (out of $14 billion in sales annually). But, when was the last time Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, or Tim Hortons closed its doors for the same purpose? I think we can all agree that Starbucks has done pretty well since it first employed this tactic of closing its doors for training in the winter of 2008 (FYI – stock price in February 2008, approximately $8, stock price in February 2012; approximately $22; stock price in February 2016, approximately $56).

While we, as public servants, don’t measure value in the same way as a publicly traded corporation like Starbucks, the question still remains: is there a takeaway in there for the Public Service?

Every year, each of us attend all-staffs at varying levels – branch, directorate, division, etc. Depending upon the size of the department/agency, some may even be lucky (?) enough to attend an event for which the intended purpose is to gather the entire department/agency. [Side note: can you imagine trying to get all the folks who work at the CRA, DND, or ESDC, each with greater than 20,000 employees across Canada, in the same place at the same time? I don’t advise attempting to calculate the cost of those meetings via @Sean.Boots‘ meeting cost calculator.] These all-staff meetings are supposed to (emphasis on supposed to) bring the various parts of the organization together to realign and refocus itself on a shared purpose. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work.


I wonder… if you suspend your disbelief for a moment, can you imagine what it would be like if the Public Service were to “close its doors” for a few hours from coast-to-coast-to-coast in a similar fashion to what Starbucks has done (and is about to do again)? What if the Public Service were, proverbially, “shutdown” for two or three hours in the afternoon (Eastern Time, to accommodate the west coast folks, too!)? What would it be like to be part of something so clearly bigger than ourselves? What do you think the message of the Clerk might be to shift the culture within the Public Service? Would that message filter on down through the DM’s (etc.) and have an impact on the way you operate on a day-to-day basis? Maybe more importantly, can you imagine a world where this serves as enough of a jolt to arrest the machinery from moving forward in a way that continues to leave 35% (!) of public servants wondering what the vision, mission, or goals of its department/agency are… annually since 2011!?

PS: For those with a keen eye, yes, the title of this post was meant to be an ode to the McDonald’s ad from the 1990’s – “have you had your break today?”


This post originally appeared on GCconnex/GCcollab.

Success Is Not Always What You See

bd1698xrbdf31Contrary to our hopes and wishes, success does not happen overnight. I repeat, success does not happen overnight. Now, when someone hits it big, when something successful happens for someone else, it might appear that they’re an “overnight” sensation. It might appear that they went to bed one day and woke up the next with fame and fortune. Disagree.

You weren’t with them in the days, weeks, months, and often times, years, that preceded that one moment where it appeared that success came for them all at once. You weren’t with them during the dozen times that they were ready to give up. Those times where it was just too hard and they wanted to pack it in. And you most certainly weren’t there when they decided, through their own will or encouragement from someone else, to remain steadfast. To keep going. To key in on their goal and maintain its course, regardless of how many times they get knocked down along the way.

No, success doesn’t happen overnight.

It happens from putting the work in everyday. It happens from persisting. It happens from dedication. How do you build a house? One brick at a time. How do you walk from Vancouver to Toronto? One step at a time. How do you write a book? One page at a time.


Today’s image and title really drive home this point. Success, and the act of being successful — it’s not always visible. In fact, often times, it’s not. It reminds me of a similar analogy I heard many years ago along these same lines.

Let’s say you want a beautiful organic garden. You want fruits and vegetables to flourish and give you a bounty. The idea of being able to stroll down to your garden and pick fresh raspberries or strawberries in the summer or harvest the delicious carrots or green beans in the fall — yum! For this lovely picture to come to life, you’ve got to plant the seeds when it’s time. Plant the seeds in the spring when the soil is ripe. In your excitement for the vision of fresh carrots, would you dig into the ground a week after planting to see how the carrots are doing? NO! You absolutely wouldn’t do that. You’d continue to tend to the garden in the way that you know — watering, weeding, etc. The “what” of what’s happening underneath the surface is the byproduct of the hardwork you put in at the beginning to get the garden started and all the hardwork that you’ve continued to do along the way.

Your “success” is in that initial push to start a new habit. Your success is in buying the gym membership and committing to go everyday for the next month and then following through on that commitment. Your success is the initial push to start a website and then committing to write something every workday. Your success is in downloading Duolingo and then committing to practice a new language everyday for the next month. And then committing to continue learning that same language the next month. And the next month. Until you’ve strung together 6 months and all of a sudden, you’re finding it easier and easier to come up with words in your new language.

Success only appears to happen overnight. Success truly happens in that initial burst of energy to start something — that initial burst to do something — followed by the perseverance to remain steadfast.

NOTE: Title and image courtesy of Reddit.

Switchbacks Get You Up The Steepest Mountains

tanner-larson-rgmUbg4VsqE-unsplashNow isn’t that a quote!? I heard this the other day listening to Alie Ward’s 100th episode of Ologies. In just about every episode, Alie will interview an expert about their “ologie.” Just to give you an idea, here’s a smattering of relatively recent ologies:

  • Saurology (Lizards)
  • Acarology (Ticks)
  • Mycology (Mushrooms)
  • Scorpiology (Scorpions)
  • Astrobioliogy (Aliens)
  • Ludology (Video games)

Pretty cool, eh?

Anywho, in Alie’s most recent episode, she wanted to be a bit more celebratory, given that it was her 100th, so she riffed a bit on motivation. And in that riff came this golden quote: “Switchbacks Get You Up the Steepest Mountains.” In the context of what she was saying, she discussed some of the lessons she’d learned from the ologist’s that she’d interviewed — just about all of them had no qualms about diving head first into their profession. Diving head first into trying. Diving head first into trying.

She lamented about her struggle in starting the podcast — she had the first episode in the can for 9 months (!) before releasing. The things we do are never going to be perfect. We’ll always be getting better. We’ll always be iterating. We’ll always be perfecting. Never perfect. Always perfecting.

For some folks (okay, many?) there can be a paralyzing fear about starting. A paralyzing fear about hitting send. A paralyzing fear about publishing. A paralyzing fear about putting yourself out there. Unfortunately, until we put ourselves out there, until we’re “off the deep end,” we won’t know what we’re capable of. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You — yes you! — could be the next Picasso (er, or, famous artist, in case you’re not a fan of his story). But if you never let anyone see your paintings, how can you get from you to Picasso-level fame?

Maybe you don’t want fame. Maybe you’re happy living as a recluse. I don’t buy it. I don’t think that’s true. We all yearn for human contact and human connection. The “recluses” among us are those who’ve been hurt the most. They’ve been taught, through their upbringing or interactions, that it’s not safe to venture out. That when they venture out, they get hurt. And that makes me sad. It makes me sad that humans, because of their own pain and suffering, lash out and bring pain and suffering to other humans.


Switchbacks Get You Up the Steepest Mountains.” Venturing out, dipping your toe in the pool, taking that first baby step… Is it going to be on the “right” path — no, almost certainly not. Does it matter — heck no! It’s the act of taking the step. It’s the act of venturing forward. It’s the act of becoming a person who takes steps. It’s the act of becoming a person who recognizes that there’s a vulnerability in putting yourself out there and does it anyway because they know that the rewards are far greater than the perceived — perceived! — losses.

When you steel yourself and take that first step, is it going to be “up” the mountain? Is it going to be straight up the mountain? No, it won’t be. Because getting from here to there rarely ever happens in a straight line. Instead, you’ll start out on the path and get to a point where you realize, “Oh, I need to be going this way, now,” and then you’ll turn on your heel and up the switchback you’ll go. While it might seem like you’re backtracking, after a few minutes, as you gaze ‘down’ the mountain, you’ll see that you’ve ascended quite a bit by moving through these switchbacks. By moving through your life and venturing out. By moving through your life and putting yourself out there. By taking calculated (and sometimes not calculated) risks.

It’s the switchbacks that get you up the steepest mountains.

Quick Thoughts: Recess, Change Management, and the Frequency Illusion

markus-spiske-uVrpmz1ATVg-unsplash.jpgI only have time for a quick (er, quicker than usual) post this afternoon, so I thought I’d riff on a few things that I’ve been thinking about recently.

Recess (Let The Kids Play!): Did you see this tweet from Adam Grant the other day?

I love it. Love it. It makes me think about Waldorf education in how there’s a big emphasis on playing, rather than learning. That is, kids, at a very early age, aren’t meant to be chained to a desk. Sitting still for a 6-year old is crazy-making for the teacher and for the child. So why do we do it? Well, there’s lots of reasons why we do it, but none of those reasons are present-day reasons. That is, countries aren’t fighting the same wars they were fighting when those rules and processes were put in place. [NOTE: I know, we could quibble over the ‘same-ness’ of some of the wars that are still happening today, so let’s just put a pin in that for a later date.] The long and short of it is that we don’t need to ‘churn’ out students in the same way we used to. Great! So, then what?

Well, then, theoretically, we’d all sit down and decide what it is we want out of education for our children. We’d decide what outcomes it is that we’re gearing towards and we’d rework the education system to support those outcomes. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t end up with the exact same system we have, though I’d be very surprised if that were the case. My point is that we’ve just kept on keeping on, such that we’re stuck in this inertial loop of doing the same thing in the same ways that we’ve always done it. It reminds me of what I wrote earlier this week about there being no elected officials who’s sole job it is to represent the ‘future.’ We wouldn’t ever get a person like that unless we took some time to review our political systems to determine whether they’re meeting our needs.

Change Management: I had a conversation earlier today that reminded me of the importance of change management (change leadership?). If we’re going to be instituting large-scale change, we need to bring our people along. We need to engage them early, engage them often. Let them know what it is we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how they can stay involved, and how they can contribute. We’ve got to inspire them, we’ve got to inform them, we’ve got to engage them, and by golly, we’ve got to empower them.

Frequency Illusion: Another conversation today reminded me of the frequency illusion and after a quick search, I realized that I didn’t write about it when I wrote that series on cognitive biases several years ago. Quick example — let’s say you buy a new Toyota. A few days after you buy it, you start noticing that everyone has a Toyota, too. As it happens, your noticing of everyone having a Toyota has more to do with the fact that you just bought a Toyota. Meaning, there were just as many Toyota’s on the road when you bought it as there were before you bought it.

How Might We… Stimulate Information Sharing?

you-x-ventures-NYMJYXfZG-g-unsplashBefore I went on an extended hiatus, I used to try and string together a few posts into a series. In that same vein, I thought I’d start another one of those, but I won’t specifically string them together by appending “Part 1, 2, etc.” on the end, nor will I necessarily link to previous posts in the series. It’ll be more like an anthology series, in that each post would be able to standalone. This series, the “How Might We…” series is a way to inspire us to think broader. To think blue sky-y. Imagine the possibilities.

OK. With that aside, let’s move onto a bit of pedantry. I spent far too much time hemming and hawing over using the subtitle “Incent Information Sharing” or “Incentivize Information Sharing.” Incentivize is one of those words that’s been unnecessarily created (the verb from incentive is incent, there’s no need to go on and add an -ize). I very nearly stuck with “incent” because its very definition (i.e. rewarded for doing something) is what I meant to be discussing. In the end, it felt more important to use accessible language (i.e. incent is a tad jargon-y). Alright, so let’s dig in.

I saw a tweet from Scott Galloway (see below) the other day that made me want to reflect on the idea of “information hoarders.”

Scott’s keying in on managers and it’s certainly important for managers to be more forthcoming with information, but there are far more non-managers than there are managers. Couldn’t it subvert the problem if there were incentives for employees to be sharing information within their teams? How about… within their divisions? What about… across silos?

From a private sector standpoint, one could argue that the information-sharing might stop at the company’s edge, but for folks who work in government, as long as you’re not divulging any secret/protected information, is there any reason why we can’t be more openly sharing information between departments? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m actually asking.

To my mind, I think the frame we have is all wrong. Everything starts as being close to the vest and then we decide what we’ll share after-the-fact. I can understand why things would have begun this way, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s in our (both the government and the Canadians we serve) if we continue this way. What if we flipped the switch and everything were open tomorrow (gasp!). OK, that’s a bit off-the-ledge, so let’s frame it this way. What if, starting tomorrow, everything we did started from a frame of being open? Meaning, if something were meant to not be shared, then we’d have to specifically identify it as such (a little bit of behavioural economics, eh?).

I have no doubt that there’d probably be accidental goofs, but would the tremendous amount of openness allow the government to better realize efficiencies within itself? I bet that there are things that some folks might now in one corner of some department that would be helpful to some other corner of a completely different department, but that there’s no obvious way for the information to get from A to B. Simply opening things up won’t necessarily mean that there’ll be a connection, but there’s a far greater chance that it would, than if there weren’t openness.

Sure, maybe it’s easier for me to propose an idea like this because I don’t currently have any vested authority to implement this kind of an idea and that’s why I want to key in on that first pedantry discussion — incentives. While it’s possible that an executive might, out of sheer principle, decide to swing open the doors and ask everyone to share openly, I don’t expect that that will be the prevailing opinion. Instead, we’ve got to find a way to make it halfway required — incentives. Incorporating this into a performance management agreement might be a good place. If one will be evaluated on one’s openness, then one is probably far more likely to be open (at least, that’s how the theory goes).

So, what might this look like in practice? Well, let’s start with a simple, relatable example — Outlook Calendars. Have you ever added peeked at someone’s calendar to try and plan a meeting with them? Of course — I’m sure nearly everyone has. My guess is that when you were doing this, you noticed that their calendar only showed you busy/free times, unless you happened to have been given special access to ‘view’ the subjects/locations of the meetings. And, if you’re super-lucky, you might even be able to OPEN those meetings and see the agenda/content. What if, hmm, what if, the default was that our calendars were open? (Gasp!) Would that be scary at first, sure! Maybe you don’t want people to know that you have a bi-weekly meeting with your podiatrist? OK, so what can you do? Well, fortunately, Outlook has a way to make those meetings “private,” so even someone with “access” to view your calendar wouldn’t be able to see it.

And I know, this idea isn’t new. I’m sure that others have proposed it and even tried to implement it within their teams or with the executives in their reporting line. The difference here in what I’m suggesting is that there’s an element of ‘requirement’ by way of a performance agreement.

I don’t expect this to change overnight, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if you take a new job in a new department and when you get there, you’re able to view meetings on your Director’s and your Director-General’s calendar!? Wouldn’t it be so cool to know that one of your executives is meeting with an executive from a different department on a subject that you know about because of your time in a completely different department, so you tell your manager, who tells the executive and then you find yourself in the meeting, too, because your perspective is invaluable?

Electing Officials to Represent the “Future”

bob-blob-ycW4YxhrWHM-unsplash.jpgI was catching up on some podcasts this weekend and I heard a particularly interesting one — Ezra Klein interviewing Astra Taylor. The conversation is wide-ranging, but there were a few bits that stuck out to me.

Astra talked about the differences between democracies, aristocracies, and lotteries, and discussed the idea of every citizen serving in the political body at some point. Not entirely a new point, but one thing that stood out was that there’s nobody in the political body who’s sole job it is to mind the “future.” As in, where’s the Congressperson or MP who’s elected to represent the people who have yet to be born? And I don’t mean the choice/life dichotomy, I mean — what about the child who’ll be born three generations from now and has a right to clean air and water.

She also raised the point that some could make the argument that we’re violating the Constitutional rights of people not born, yet (/mind–blown!).

I want to circle back to the Congressperson/MP to be the one minding the future. Of course, there isn’t someone like this (at least not in any of the political bodies I’ve seen), but wouldn’t it be cool if there were? Wouldn’t it be cool if we had an “at-large MP” who were part of the House of Commons and there sole role was to take into account (or represent?) the interests of the people who were to be born seven generations from now (I don’t think I’ve talked about this on here, but there’s a whole movement around “for the next seven generations“).

And this made me think about some of the founding documents of our nations. Take, for instance, the US Congress. By all accounts, there’s quite a bit of intransigence in the way the system is arranged. Some argue that this is intentional and some argue that the business of government has ground to a halt. What if… what if we were to remake the business of government in the US? I know, I know, it would never fly, but let’s just imagine a world where we can redesign the Senate, redesign the House, etc. Would it look the same after we were done? Probably not. Would we include representation for people who are to be born seven generations from now? Also, probably not, but I’d like to think that maybe we would. Maybe we would think beyond ourselves in this moment about those who will inhabit the space in the years to come.

Quick Thoughts: Planning Fallacy, Sci-Fi, Gendered Language, and Scarcity/Excess

glenn-carstens-peters-RLw-UC03Gwc-unsplashAs I look to breathe some life back into writing, I thought I’d take a quick peek at some of the “drafts” I had saved from when I used to write regularly. Fortunately, there aren’t too many there. In the interest of trying to start fresh, I thought I’d do a quick post addressing some of these ideas kind of in the same way that Wikipedia has stubs.

Planning Fallacy: Many years ago, I wrote about the planning fallacy as part of my series on cognitive biases (i.e. how to make decision better). Something I didn’t talk about in that post was the difference between a 7-day and 5-day workweek. Let me explain. For those that go to university, everyday is eligible for a “work” day (i.e. homework). Many things are due on Monday morning and rather than push to complete something on Friday afternoon (or night?), students will often be writing things on Sunday night. Not only am I drawing on my experience as a student, but I’ve been teaching for the last 7+ years and I can say with authority, if I give students a full week (7 days) to complete an assignment and make an assignment due at 1159p on Sunday night, 50%+ of the class will complete that assignment sometime on Sunday. I’m digressing a bit from the point. So, we get used to this “7-day workweek” to complete things. When we move into the work world, that “week” shifts from 7 days to 5 days (and even less in cases of holidays or even less than that if you take into account mandatory meetings, etc.). So, when someone estimates how much time they’ll have to complete a work product, they’re used to (primacy effect?) how they were estimating when they were a student and don’t take into account the ‘truncated’ week.

Science Fiction, Humans, and Aliens: In those sci-fi movies that have some form of alien (i.e. non-human), often times, there’ll be a scene where the humans are kept in a cage. It made me think about how humans keep some animals in cages (i.e. zoo). Maybe to a different species, we (humans) would be treated in the same way we treat animals.

Gendered Language: There was a journal article from a few years ago that caught my eye. Here’s a bit of the abstract:

The language used to describe concepts influences individuals’ cognition, affect, and behavior. A striking example comes from research on gendered language, or words that denote individuals’ gender (e.g., she, woman, daughter). Gendered language contributes to gender biases by making gender salient, treating gender as a binary category, and causing stereotypic views of gender.

Like I said yesterday, if you’ve been following me for any sort of time, this bit about our words having an effect on us shoudn’t come as a surprise. However, this journal article is strong evidence to keep in your pocket if you need to point to something evidence-based in a discussion.

The Problem of Excess: Another good journal article that I’ve been saving for over 5 (!) years. /facepalm. I still remember my first grad school economics course and the professor was explaining the fundamental principle that underlines economics — scarcity. I wanted to raise my hand and disagree on the merits, but it didn’t seem appropriate. I can see and understand how scarcity came to be the dominant theory of the day, but a part of my being just feels that that interpretation is… near-sighted. Seeing this journal article a few years after that class highlighted a different perspective. Here’s a bit of the abstract:

This article argues for a new branch of theory based not on presumptions of scarcity—which are the foundational presumptions of most existing social theory—but on those of excess. […] It then considers and rejects the idea that excess of one thing is simply scarcity of another. It discusses the mechanisms by which excess creates problems, noting three such mechanisms at the individual level (paralysis, habituation, and value contextuality) and two further mechanisms (disruption and misinheritance) at the social level. […] It closes with some brief illustrations of how familiar questions can be recast from terms of scarcity into terms of excess.

Enjoy your weekend!

Are You Full: What’s in a Norm?

pablo-merchan-montes-Orz90t6o0e4-unsplashLanguage matters. Belief matters. Thoughts matter. How we speak to each other matters. How we speak to ourselves, matters. All of it. If you’re reading this, these ideas probably aren’t news to you, so I want to take this to a concrete example and then, zoom out to consider its effects.

There are many things that unite the human experience, but one that is absolutely universal — eating. We all need to take in nourishment (nearly all of us — daily) to sustain our existence. While there are examples of the human body being able to sustain itself without food for three weeks, I can’t think of anyone who would recommend doing so with any kind of regularity. Some folks will eat three times a day, some folks will eat five times a day, and some will eat more or less.

Depending upon your upbringing, where you grew up (geographically), and the kinds of events that were influencing the time (or had an influence on your lineage), you may have a particular relationship to food and eating. Some may have been trained to eat everything on their plate, so as not to ‘waste’ the food (ignoring any kinds of signals from your body). Some may haven’t been able to eat as much as they wanted because there wasn’t enough food to go around. Some may have had an abundance of food and never had to worry about either of those things.

Let’s focus on the scenario where people were trained to eat all the food on their plate. There are very good reasons as to why someone may have had this message communicated to them — (i.e. growing up in the Great Depression, there wasn’t a lot of food to go around, so if you had food, you ate it). This same way of thinking would have been passed down to the next generation and when they became parents, they would have said the same thing to their kids (even if they were living in conditions that would have seemed “rich” compared to the situation in which they grew up in when they were kids).

One step forward from this is being “full.” Have you ever been asked by someone whether you’re “full?” Have you really thought about what that means and how you’re answering? “Have you eaten so much food that you could not eat a single bite more or else you’d burst at the seams?” Is your “cup” (i.e. body) filled to the brim, such that any additional drop of water would case it to overflow? Do you really want to feel “full” after you eat? [NOTE: I’m abundantly aware that there are people out there who don’t get enough to eat and are perpetually hungry and if you happen to be one of those people reading this post, then please forgive what may seem like insensitivity. While there is obviously a problem on the one hand where people don’t get enough to eat, there is also a problem on the other hand, where people eat too much — and that’s what I’m trying to address here.]

Right, so, “are you full?” What an awful question to ask someone. A question where the norm being held up as positive is, “being full.” As a parent, I’m forced to confront commonplace words and phrases on a daily basis. Do I want my kids to develop an aggressive language for when they’ve completed a task or accomplished a goal (i.e. Yeah, I “killed” that test). Why would I want them to bring “kill” into their daily lexicon? Such a violent word. Such a misplaced word (in this context).

When it comes to eating, the question that I hone in on, “are you all done eating?” And if it’s the last ‘meal time’ of the day, “are you all done eating for today?” This has the added benefit of trying to make sure that they’re not going to emerge from their bedroom 10 minutes after you’ve put them to bed and ask for more food. Anyways, yes — “are you all done eating.” It might seem simple in that it’s still a binary question, but the inherent norm is expunged. No longer am I priming for one to feel like they’ve eaten “so” much food. Instead, the person can rely on their internal bodily signals to indicate to them whether they’re done eating “for now.”

I did say I wanted to “zoom out,” so here goes — worldwide obesity has tripled (!) since 1975. More people live in countries where people die as a result of being overweight than underweight. (Wait, what?!) Yeah, that’s right. About 40% of adults (18 and up) — globally — are overweight. Forty percent. FORTY PERCENT! How can we possibly be eating so much. [NOTE: I recognize that there’s a solid argument to be made here about what we’re eating vis-a-vis super-sizing our diets with sugar and corn, but let’s park that for now.]

Diet is absolutely important, but maybe even more important is our relationship to food. Are we eating to “get full” or are we eating to nourish ourselves? Are we eating until we’re done eating, until our body gives us those signals that tell us it’s time to stop eating, or are we trying to clean our plates and ensure nothing goes to waste?

What is “Artificial Intelligence,” Anyway?

14450262598_f16dddfdc3_z_dSometimes, I wish I could go back to 1955 and prevent John McCarthy from calling it “artificial intelligence.” It’s a term that, depending upon where you work, you can’t go 5 minutes without hearing once or twice — which is great. It’s great that people are looking to the ‘future.’ It’s great that society is pushing forward with growth and expansion and all that warm and fuzzy stuff. Unfortunately, AI doesn’t really do justice to what it’s describing.

AI isn’t really “artificial” nor is it really “intelligent.” In fact, you could even argue that AI is really really dumb (wait, what?!). Yeah, dumb. Caveat: I’m speaking about the kind of AI that exists in this moment. If scientists can crack artificial general intelligence (i.e. Terminator, Hal, etc.), then, well, then that’s a whole new ballgame. But right, AI, as it exists right now can be thought of as a sort of ‘idiot savant.’ It can do the tasks that we tell it to do and do them extremely well.

Did you catch that? Let me say it again. It can do the tasks that we tell it to do and do the me extremely well. And that right there is the hitch. I can’t leave an AI at your doorstep an expect it to make you dinner. I need to give it some direction (NOTE: this is assuming that there isn’t some AGI out there that hasn’t be released). Maybe I give it a command like “make dinner” or “wash the dishes” and then it follows the rules/algorithms for navigating the space inside your hour or apartment to get to the kitchen, find the fridge (or the sink), and continue forward with its work.

When you think of it that way, that’s not really “intelligent,” is it? Nor is that really “artificial,” is it? And it’s certainly not artificial intelligence. Instead, it’s more like task automation. Granted, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that (any AI expert reading this is probably thinking I’ve lost my marbles), but that’s another thing that’s frustrating about nebulous terms like AI — they mean something very specific to the people that work in that field and to everyone else, it’s jargon. The problem with a term like AI is that the entertainment industry has given us plenty of images of what a fictitious AI might be able to do and so having a reasonable conversation with someone not versed in the particulars on the topic of AI can be daunting.

Circling back to the task automation bit — to set the minds of AI experts at ease — I know, it’s not just task automation. It’s task automation that’s informed by reams of data (even that might get me into trouble with some folks who want to be more specific). That’s what makes it seem like there’s some kind of ‘magic’ at play. So, if the AI at your front door had reams of data about how you load your dishwasher or about how cities of people load their dishwasher or if it knew all the recipes that you might select from, how often you select and on what days, etc. Data. Data is the fuel that pushes the ‘task automation’ forward.


My point in discuss some of the finer points of AI today was not necessarily to get into the weeds of its definition, but more to illustrate that there are terms out there that have a very specific meaning to some folks, but when widely discussed by non-experts, could mean something very different. This reminds me of something I wrote a few years back about “the Economy.” It can mean something very different depending upon to whom you’re talking. For better or worse, AI seems to be one of those phrases and I’m sure it’s not the only one. I’m sure there are others out there. Can you think of any terms in your field that you’ve heard discussed in the popular press that seem to, rightly or wrongly, oversimplify its meaning?

Where Kindness Reigns

be-kind-1549737174ey4A few nights ago, the fifth episode of the seventh season of The Amazing Race Canada aired. If you’re not familiar with “The Amazing Race,” the idea is that teams (usually pairs) ‘race’ around cities and/or countries, while undertaking a series of tasks/activities. Every so often, some teams will be eliminated for being the last team to complete an activity (technically, arrive to a particular destination).

On the episode in question, oh wait, **SPOILERS AHEAD**

OK. On the episode in question, there were seven teams remaining. One of the tasks required the teams to dig on a beach for clams (Deep Bay, BC, for those keeping track). Each team had to find close to 100 clams in total (some of specific species). Teams’ clams were checked by a marine biologist. The task looked super-arduous, as the clams were simply sitting on top of the wet beach. No, instead, teams had to use their hands (or shovels) to dig into the sand.

Sometimes, the tasks assigned by the show can be quick (teams can be in and out in under 30 minutes). This task, however, seemed to take a long time, especially for those teams that elected to complete the tasks. Oh yeah — one more important process point. If a team decides they don’t want to “do” a task, they can take a 2-hour time penalty and skip the task. There’s certainly a risk/reward because if it takes the teams who complete the task less than 2 hours, then, effectively, having taken the penalty will significantly increase the penalized team’s chances of finishing last (and possibly being eliminated). Conversely, if even one team takes longer than 2 hours to complete the task, then the penalized team will have been ‘rewarded’ (in a sense) for electing the penalty.

Back to the beach.

So, some teams have arrived and are digging the beach. When one team, in particular arrives, they spend a nominal amount of time and then elect to take the penalty. This is a team that has already done this in other parts of the race. As soon as they make this choice, it’s clear that some of the other teams aren’t pleased. There appear to be some group norms around the Race and how a team should behave (i.e. completing tasks, not skipping through with 2-hour penalties in tow).

Fast-forward a little bit and there are two teams remaining at the beach who are left looking for a particular kind of clam that has proved elusive. All the teams that have left have either completed the task (I believe just one) or taken a penalty (the other four). The two teams still there are physically and emotionally spent. They’ve been there for over four hours completing a task where they’ve watched compatriots (mostly) elect to skip. They’ve only seen one team complete the task and both are pretty sure that there’s a good chance that one of them will be eliminated (for coming last).

Instead of what you might expect — walling off from your opponent and trying to beat them — these two teams decide to work together! They begin to look for the missing clams — together! Eventually, one of the teams strikes proverbial gold — the missing clam. They get it checked and are free to move onto the next task. Except…

They don’t. They stay. The team declares that they want to stay and help the other team finish the task. That it’s the right thing to do.

The stakes here aren’t low, either. The winners of the Race collect a hefty sum ($500k combined), an around-the-world-trip, and a new SUV. Can you imagine imagine making the “kind” choice, under the circumstances of emotional and physical exhaustion, and a substantial reward? I think many of us hope we would.

The second team eventually presents a clam that’s cleared and then both teams head off to the next task together. On the way, one of the teams — the team that was ‘helped’ — figures out the solution to the next challenge. Upon arriving, the ‘helped’ team aids the ‘helping’ team (from the previous task) and then both teams are able to move onto the last step of this part of the Race. How wonderful that the kindness from only moments ago was immediately rewarded.

The two teams arrive at the last step and finish “tied” for second place. Remarkable.

Can you imagine working in an environment where your colleagues, instead of working their tail-feathers off to finish their work and get the heck out of the door, checked in on how you were doing to see if you might need some help to finish your work and then you both could leave an hour early (rather than s/he getting to leave an hour and forty-five minutes early?

Can you imagine living in a world where kindness was the norm? Nay, the expectation? A world where everyone held doors for each other. A world where everyone was willing to give up their seat on the bus. A world where everyone smiled at each other, no matter the colour on the skin of the person looking back at them. A world where the expectation was that people were always looking for ways to help you. A world where kindness reigns.