Cognitive disfluency: What does it mean for your organisation?

In our work helping business teams to become more engaged and active with learning, time and again the concept of cognitive disfluency comes up. The idea that we process information differently depending on how much effort it requires is a fascinating one, so we thought we’d take a look at it in more depth here.

What is cognitive disfluency?

Cognitive disfluency is a term that was first coined by the psychologist Adam Alter, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

What it essentially describes is the idea that people process information differently, and that some of it is easy (fluency) and some of it requires effort (disfluency). An example of how this works was shown in an experiment that presented a printed question in two different typefaces – one hard to read and one easy – and asked people to spot the mistake. The proportion of people that noticed the error in the hard-to-read font was higher than the easy-to-read one. Alter suggests that a harder-to-read font makes us put more mental effort into reading, and we are therefore more likely to retain the information.

On a wider scale, fluent processing allows us to take in key information quickly but not necessarily to retain it or even understand it in a meaningful way. The whole experience becomes meaningless, less engaging and unsatisfying. Conversely, we process disfluent information more carefully and deeply, and this naturally results in us understanding it better. This is why the idea of cognitive disfluency has been suggested as a great way to assist learning.

Why is cognitive disfluency important in business?

Think of all the data and information that is presented before us – or our teams – within the workplace. Most organisations now offer their people key decision data in an easy (fluent) way, whether through dashboards, reports or search engines. While these tools can be invaluable, they can also make the data meaningless and hard to retain because they allow people to get to the specific number, target, forecast or performance data whenever they want to. This often means we don’t have to think about, generalise or extract the data.

So why is that a problem? Well, if people don’t have that data with them when making key decisions, or if they don’t have an intuitive understanding of the information and what it means, they will be unable to incorporate it in their decision-making. They will also be unable to learn from it. Data creates knowledge, and knowledge creates understanding – but when there is too much fluency in the information, it reduces this second step.

So should we make information more disfluent?

A lot of the data that we use day to day needs to be fluent.  We need to be able to access and use it quickly, so it should be easy to digest.  However, information that is easily consumed is also easily forgotten.

In almost everything we do there are a few key measures that tell us how we are doing against our goals and targets.  Data such as production data, sales information or financial projections need to move beyond abstract numbers and become more intuitive, becoming much more central in our awareness, moving from organisation knowledge to personal understanding. It is this data that needs to be deeply understood so that it can underpin the decisions we make.

How should organisations present their people with important details and data to ensure it is meaningfully understood and retained?

It’s a good idea to look at the fluency of key data or information within your organisation. If it’s being presented to people too easily, make it more disfluent so they have to think about it. You can do this by:

  • Asking for reports that require some small amounts of manual work to create, such as looking stuff up
  • Ask people to interpret data, not just produce it
  • Change layouts so people have to search a little, or read more carefully, to find things

But beware

A word of caution, though: Disfluency should be used sparingly. We’re not suggesting that you should make your people work hard for every piece of information they need. After all, not all data needs to be retained or fully understood.

In addition, too much disfluency can be draining. It uses up more energy, increases complexity and heightens stress levels. Instead of continuous disfluency, there should be brief moments of it when appropriate for processing essential data and information.

How should we bring the (sales) number to life?

Bringing the number to life is vital, whether you’re working in sales, managing a project, leading a team or running a production line.

If you understand and internalise the number, it allows you to monitor your progress and your tracking, intuitively know where you are and what you need to do, inform your decisions, understand how you need to react in real time, and see the bigger picture.

Otherwise, it’s just meaningless data to you.

Here, Paul and Rob discuss why many people are looking at the numbers but not really thinking about what they mean. They discuss the importance of bringing the number to life, and how we can do it.

What’s stopping us from bringing our number to life?

  • There is too much information at our fingertips.
  • Think of the wealth of reports, dashboards, BI systems and other technology that we can extract data from
  • It’s too easy.
  • We can easily look up the number we need at a particular point in time, and therefore we don’t need to retain the information in our head
  • The desire to measure everything.
  • You simply can’t retain every single piece of information put before you – which leads you back to relying on dashboards or systems

So, how do we bring the number to life?

  • Keep it simple.
  • If you have a wealth of data in front of you, focus on maybe the three or four core measures that really tell you something. Break down the number to give you something tangible about what you need to achieve each week/month
  • Engage with the data.
  • Too many people just input numbers into a system or sales platform without recognising the importance of thinking what those numbers mean. The idea of ‘cognitive disfluence’ is key here – the fact that we retain information and learn more if we actually interact with what we’re trying to learn
  • Start with the goal.
  • Instead of looking at the data and feeling that we have to do something with it, look instead at what you’re trying to achieve. What numbers do you need to pull out and understand to reach your goal?
  • Leaders. If you’re a leader, help your people to work with the data and think what the number really means. Give them the raw information they need and ask them to compile a report about some of the core data. You could break it down and ask different people to look at particular bits of the data. Ask them: Help me understand what’s in your figures and what does that tell you? Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Why has this bit changed? What does that mean?

Why do some sales people only think about the sale?

In our work, we usually tell people that having focus is a good thing. But when it comes to sales, just being focused on the sale and nothing else is not so good. Sales is part of getting your service to your customer, but you can’t just be focused on that – you’ve got to have a bigger purpose as an organisation.

In this podcast, Richard and Graham discuss why some salespeople only think about the sale – and how such tunnel vision can impact on your customers and your colleagues.

Sales people are, of course, very targeted and often very driven by what they need to achieve. But having such a singular focus can mean you forget about the other important things that sit around the sale.

If all you’re concerned about is getting that sale – hitting your targets, getting the number – then you disregard the other parts of the sales process that are really important. A company that’s all about sales creates an aggressive culture, with salespeople who are highly motivated and focused just on getting money from the customer. They’re not bothered about the end product that the customer gets, or the quality of service. And colleagues in other departments, particularly customer-facing staff, can often feel like a spare part, tasked with delivering impossible promises made by the salespeople just to win the sale, or sorting out complaints from dissatisfied customers who have been promised one thing and received another

Of course, if your job is in sales, you need to be concerned with ‘the number’. But you also need to consider the customer experience, your product, the health and wellbeing of your colleagues, and your organisation’s culture and ethical boundaries. Ask yourself: If I make the sale in this way, what does it mean for the customer and for us as a business, and how might it impact on the other departments?

Considering the culture of your organisation is particularly important if you’re the person setting the targets. Be mindful that the targets you set will drive a certain kind of behaviour so make sure that the sales process you’re encouraging reflects the culture of your organisation.

How can you talk yourself into the sale?

Assumptions, beliefs and past experiences are going to shape how we think about the sales process and the customer. Added to that, we also have to deal with pressure from targets and our managers.This will all condition how you behave during the sales process.

In our latest podcast, Ricky and Rob first discuss the reasons why we typically talk ourselves OUT of the sale, before looking at ways of talking ourselves INTO it.

Reasons we might use to talk ourselves out of the sale include making assumptions that our competitors are better than we are or that the customer doesn’t want what we are selling. We’ll second-guess how the customer’s going to react and what they’re going to say. We’ll ask ourselves: Why do they want what I’m selling, and why do they want it from me? Am I good enough? Is my product or service good enough?

So, how can you turn that around and to talk yourself INTO a sale?

Firstly, focus on all the great things you do, the great experiences you’ve had in the past, and the wins. Play over the narrative that was in your mind when you did well in that call, sales meeting or sales follow-up.

Get other people involved, if possible. Reflect on a sales meeting with a colleague or sales manager, look at the successful elements that you can draw upon and learn from. For the less successful parts, think what you might do differently next time.

Be self-aware. You will only improve if you can reflect and learn from what you do. Nurture a growth mindset in yourself. Ask: What can I learn from this?

Finally, during that next sale, don’t get caught up in the moment and in the pressure of having to make the sale, or the need to deliver targets or win a new customer. We might wonder if our product or service is good enough, or worry that we don’t understand the product fully. As sales people, we’ll focus our attention on the product’s weaknesses, which we may have to defend, but spend hardly any time on why the product is great. We need to think from the customer’s perspective, not our own, and see the world the other way round – after all, they are buying it for what it can do, and not what it can’t.

What you actually want is to get the right outcome for the customer rather than selling for selling’s sake. Just focus on building a great relationship, understanding your customer and what they need, and then positioning your product for them.

Improving workplace productivity, step 3: The cost of interference

If I told you that you were only performing at 60% of you, would you want to do something about it?

Once you got past the emotional reaction of feeling criticised (“Who is this guy?”, “Who is he to challenge me?”), it is likely you will feel the need to justify yourself. You’ll probably point out how hard you and your team are working and highlight your performance versus your targets and KPIs.

But this is not about targets and KPIs, this is about potential.

It is not my intent to criticise; I am instead challenging the way you see the world. I see it in every client we work with, and it sits at the heart of our Thinking Focus belief statement:

We believe that people, teams and business units underperform, not because they want to, not because they mean to, but because they can’t get out of their own way!

Every day you and your people face challenges and constraints, either self-imposed, real or perceived. Your people face systems and processes designed with the best intent yet which fail to empower them to deliver greatness, forcing compliance and restricting innovation and creativity, all in the name of consistency. Well, guess what: the only consistency is your people consistently underperforming and not reaching their potential!

In over a decade of working with clients across the world, I and my colleagues at Thinking Focus have noticed the startling reality that, when asked, people in all businesses state that ‘interference’ (the stuff that gets in our way) amounts to an average 40%. Yes, 40%! Which means that, if this is true, people are performing at an average of just 60%!

While I accept that this observation is hardly scientific, the consistency in what more than 200 clients have reported to us over all these years is uncanny. Moreover, a CIPD survey suggested the exact same number, give or take 1%. It would seem that our anecdotal findings are actually supported by an external reference point!

So we know there is a problem, now let’s look at what can you do about it.

Here are three things you can do to get started, and they won’t cost you a penny or a huge amount of time:

1. Quantify the size of your problem or opportunity

The key here is not to get to focused on the number, but instead to look for the opportunity. Dig beneath the surface. One obvious thing to do, which is rarely done, is to ask your people what it is that gets in the way of them doing their best work. So ask them:

  • What ‘interference’ do they have to deal with every day? Get them to externalise it but don’t justify, defend or seek to fix it at this point. Your goal is to understand the issues
  • Can you quantify this interference as a percentage? Ask them how much it affects their ability to perform at 100% of their potential
  • Use this as a rudimentary guide, to size your problem/opportunity

So, for example, if they suggest that the ‘interference’ is at 35%, this means that they are performing at 65% of their potential. Ask them what impact a 1%, 2% or 10% shift would have on their performance. Is it worth fixing? If yes, go to step 2.

2. Review the ‘interference’ list

Invite your people to review the list of ‘interference’ and ask them to focus on just three right now; three that could add the greatest value with least effort. In essence, identify the ‘low hanging fruit’ which will eliminate, improve or mitigate the impact of ‘interference’. Then invite volunteers to pitch up and take on the challenge to fix one.

3. Let them go!

Now, support them, provide time and resources, and let them go unlock some potential for you. This is important as you are empowering them to own the problem and fix it. It also means that any long term solution will be owned by them and will likely lead to wider adoption of their solution than any imposed by management.

There are many benefits from adopting this approach, including:

  • There is a cathartic release from sharing ‘interference’
  • Your people feel listened to
  • They feel included in the choice of priorities
  • Your people feel empowered to improve their world
  • Ownership will increase as they go fix it
  • Business performance improves

I am not sure I can see a reason not to, can you?

Improving workplace productivity, step 2: How interference affects productivity

In our last blog Improving workplace productivity, step 1: Recognising interference we looked at the different constraints within the workplace that stop individuals and teams being as productive as they can be.

We talked about how this interference can be either organisational or self-imposed, and discussed the importance of recognising interference as the first step to improving productivity.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at how important it is not just to identify these barriers, but to understand just how interference affects productivity.

Regardless of whether the constraints to productivity are organisational or self-imposed, all forms of interference have the same effect. Here are just some examples of how interference affects productivity:

  • It slows down our rate of work, which causes frustration
  • It causes us to repeat work tasks and processes, leading to inefficiency and wasted effort
  • It creates mistakes, meaning that valuable resources need to be used to rectify the mistakes
  • It causes us to avoid doing things, which means that potential deadlines can be missed and work is not completed on time
  • It creates stress, which can ultimately result in absenteeism
  • It causes a feeling of isolation and anxiety about doing the right thing, which means that we don’t achieve our best result
  • It can lead to poor decision-making, lack of clarity and ambiguity, all of which means that we don’t actually complete the work required to the standard that was asked of us
  • It causes tensions and protective behaviour by individuals within teams, leading to disagreements or arguments, and people avoiding responsibility and not taking ownership
  • It creates the need for more supervision or management of tasks and people, which means that the amount of management time and resource increases
  • It can become a talking point among individuals and teams, rapidly turning into moaning, fault finding and finger pointing – during which time less work is actually being done
  • It can create a perception of unfairness when a person or team doesn’t seem to ‘suffer from’ the same interferences as another person or team, which in turn creates gossip, rumour and a culture of blame

Thinking Focus works with organisations to identify and remove barriers to productivity, helping teams and business units achieve their potential. Read more here about our approach to unlocking productivity.

Improving workplace productivity, step 1: Recognising interference

When your people are not being as productive as they could be, it can be frustrating and sometimes puzzling, both for you and for them. The potential is there but the performance is falling short – and you have no idea why.

At Thinking Focus, we sometimes find it helpful to refer to the things that stop us achieving our potential as interference. In the book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ the author Timothy Gallwey proposed that performance (Pe) is equal to potential (Po) minus interference (I), or Pe = Po – I. We use this equation to help individuals and teams to get an idea of just how much interference is getting in the way. As potential is always 100%, if you think you’re only performing at 70% of this, then interference levels equate to 30%.

We believe that removing interference enables people to think and work differently, gives them purpose and helps them enjoy their job. All of which leads to higher productivity, smooth transitions during times of change, and sustainable results.

The first step to removing interference is to recognise it. So, what exactly is it? In the work place, it can fall into one of two categories: organisational or self-imposed.

Organisational interference

This covers any constraints to productivity that come from the organisation itself, and which slow down and sometimes even stop work processes.

Examples of organisational interference are:

  • Outdated processes, that could be improved or replaced
  • Legacy IT systems that don’t connect or integrate with each other
  • Silo working – isolated or non-collaborative work teams
  • Assumed rules or ways of working
  • Inconsistent leadership and management
  • Internal politics, due to hierarchies or individual power-play
  • Unhelpful competition between departments

Self-imposed interference

This refers to internal constraints that an individual puts on themselves and which prevents them from being as productive as they could be. Each person has different elements of self-imposed interference, and some have more than others.

Examples of self-imposed interference are:

  • Attitude, belief and mindset
  • Assumptions about how we work or are expected to work
  • Waiting for permission to do things
  • Expecting to be told what to do and how to do it
  • Lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and self-doubt

Thinking Focus helps teams and business units become more productive by identifying and removing interference. Read more here about our approach to unlocking productivity.

Like this? Why not take a look at our next blog, Improving workplace productivity, step 2: Recognising how interference affects productivity, for more on this subject.

Five traits you will find in all the most productive organisations

If, like us, you are lucky enough to work with exceptional companies, you cannot help but look behind what makes them the success they are. And you discover that their success is not an accident but is rather down to obsessive execution underpinned with core disciplines.

From our research and observations, Thinking Focus has identified five traits you will find in all the most productive organisations. These guiding principles can be applied by any organisation to enable their people to be productive in the right way. They also form the basis of our 5Cs Results Model, which we use in our work with a range of forward-thinking organisations to help them accelerate business growth, embed change or transform culture.

  1. Purpose and Clarity

The most productive organisations we’ve worked with regularly reinforce purpose and clarity within all their people. A clear and compelling purpose – the ‘why’ we do what we do, aligned to what we do – is consistently shared and communicated, so everyone has a common clarity of vision. This increases effectiveness as people work to their greatest level of contribution in order to help achieve the big picture.

Take note, though, not to confuse being efficient with being effective. We have worked in, and with, organisations where people were highly efficient and executed their tasks promptly and to a high standard. The problem was, they were not working on the right things!

As a leader aiming to help your people be as productive as possible, challenge yourself: Is it efficiency or effectiveness you’re after? You are likely to have efficient people, but do they understand why they are doing what they are doing? If not, revisit your purpose and get them focused on doing those things that will achieve that purpose.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins shares the importance of getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, which sounds spot on to me. However, he goes on to say that those right people are the ones who buy into your purpose, not your plan. This means that if, as is often the case, the plan needs to change, those right people will remain committed to the vision and the higher purpose that drives everything you do.

  1. Collaboration

In our work, although we shouldn’t be, we are always surprised by how much internal politics, assumptions and egos get in the way of productivity. The cultural environment is set up to be adversarial, which is not conducive to delivering the strategy. So many senior leaders will argue that they achieve the outcome they wanted, but we often wonder at what cost to their teams. What underlying damage has been caused and what is hidden from view that challenges the definition of productivity? Is the focus on the short-term nature of business and the need to deliver results or is it on the long-term performance of the company?

If I refer back to Jim Collins, he shares ‘level 5 leadership’. Level 5 leaders build with the next generation in mind, they are ambitious and focus on the success of the company ahead of themselves. The level 5 leader is obsessed with sustained results and will do whatever it takes to get to great.

In our experience, companies whose leaders collaborate more effectively achieve more significant results, and we have seen those indicators of level 5 leadership where the focus is always on the higher purpose.

  1. Capability

When we talk about capability, most people think of training but it’s actually much more than that as Paul Matthews, author of Capability at Work, explains:

  1. Knowledge – do I (the worker) have the knowledge to do what is required?
  2. Skills – am I (the worker) able to apply myself to do what is required?
  3. Mindset – do I (the worker) believe I can do what is expected of me?
  4. Physiology – am I (the worker) able to do what is required physically?
  5. Environment – have we (the company) provided the right systems, processes, tools, management support and culture for our people to perform effectively?

In our experience, the organisations that develop more productive workforces and the ones who recognise that there is a need for a balanced assessment of capability. The inclusion of ‘environment’ in the list above is significant and its notable that the onus here is on the company. It is no surprise that the elements that make up the environment are key to engagement, and that the link between engagement and productivity is long since proven.

  1. Capacity

The topic of bandwidth is a perennial one. Most teams will argue they are at full capacity whereas most leaders believe there is scope to do more. The reality probably lies somewhere between the two!

However, the most important thing here is to be clear about what we have on the agenda and why. Does the list pass the purpose test, will doing ‘it’ enable us to achieve the higher purpose? If not, it should not be on the list at all.

Warren Buffet invests much time deciding what makes this list and what doesn’t make his list. There is no ‘We will have a go if we get the time’ list or ‘Let’s spend a bit of time on it’ list. It either makes the list, or it doesn’t; there’s no half way house. Leaders are paid to make big decisions, to choose what strategy we should back and why. Indecision leads to a straddled strategy which is trying to be all things to everyone. In our experience, companies who have followed the mantra of ‘If we could only do one thing?’ are more productive and effective.

  1. Commitment

Commitment is a set of tests or questions which should be asked on a regular basis. This provides a navigational check in the context of an organisation’s vision and strategy to see whether the current plan is going to hit the mark.

  1. Is our purpose clear, compelling, and understood by the business?
  2. Are we collaborating in the most effective way?
  3. Have we developed the capability of our people to achieve our goals?
  4. Are we choosing to focus our resources on the right things?
  5. Are we committed to this vision (are the right people on this bus)?

These questions all elicit a deliberate Yes/No answer, with those who adopt level 5 leadership using the ‘No’ answers as opportunities to fix it on their journey to greatness.

It is worth noting that level 5 leaders show humility and are more likely to be cautious in their evaluation, rather than deluded or over-confident.

Thinking Focus shortlisted in Learning Awards

Thinking Focus has been announced as a finalist in the Learning Awards 2019, a prestigious celebration of outstanding achievement in workplace learning and development.

The company, which was founded in 2016, was among hundreds of entries from companies across the world, and is vying for the title of Start-Up Learning Provider of the Year alongside five other organisations based both in the UK and abroad.

Ricky Muddimer, a director at Thinking Focus, said: “We’re delighted to be shortlisted in the Learning Awards and to be recognised for our achievements since setting up the company just over two years ago.

“The last couple of years has seen Thinking Focus win 49 new clients, work on assignments in 12 countries and across 21 sectors, and meet, work with and develop well over 2,000 interesting and inspiring people. We’ve also taken on our first employee, produced a book and created a gamified learning product called What Would You Do? which helps develop managers in a way that makes learning stick.

“But what gives us the biggest buzz of all is seeing how our work delivers impact, and hearing our clients report fantastic results.”

Run by the Learning Performance Institute, the Learning Awards are a leading event in the learning industry, and recognise outstanding examples of high standards, best practice, innovation and excellence in the corporate L&D sphere. Around 400 people will attend the glittering presentation evening at the Dorchester Hotel, London, in February next year.

Thinking Focus are people productivity specialists who work with organisations around the world to unlock productivity, implement change and deliver sustainable results. Using a flexible and practical tools-based approach, combined with their proven psychology-based methodology, they focus on developing growth mindsets to enable people to think and work differently, and to help them define a clear and shared vision.

Ricky added: “We’re so proud that our hard work, innovation and growth has been recognised in these prestigious awards, and would like to thank all those who have helped, inspired and supported us: We couldn’t have done it without you.”

How to make your team more productive: Start with your shadow

Productivity is one of the key issues encountered by organisations of all sizes, and it’s often one of the most misunderstood, especially by managers. Many leaders look at their teams and at the skills and experience within them, and are baffled that their productivity isn’t greater.

But what they’re failing to look at is closer to home: themselves.

As a manager, the first step towards making your team more productive is to lead by example. Your team’s productivity starts with you. This is why, when we work with an organisation on any productivity issue, more often than not we start with the leaders.

You may not be aware of it, but you are the main influence on your team. And we don’t mean in the sense of giving orders or targets. We’re talking about how your behaviour, attitude and work ethic is noticed and adopted by your people. There’s a saying that your staff leave at the end of the day with the same mood that you walked in with in the morning, and this is often true.

This concept of the unconscious influence of a manager is known as ‘The Shadow of the Leader’ which, as the name suggests, relates to the influence – for better or worse – of the leader on their team. People absorb their leader’s values, and tend to mirror their leader’s behaviour. On a wider level, a leader’s shadow may be cast so wide that it affects the culture of an entire organisation.

Your leadership shadow reflects everything you say and do. Whether you intend it or not, you cast your shadow over your team. Your people will, either consciously or subconsciously, take clues from you about their behaviour, values, motivation and work ethic. They will mirror what you do and say, and how you react to situations.

So, as a leader, ask yourself: Are you aware of the shadow you cast over your team? Is this shadow a positive or negative one? Are you displaying the behaviours that you would expect see from your people?