Soccer brain

June 27, 2012

Swedish researchers have discovered that elite soccer players achieve higher scores on certain tests of cognitive ability than their lower division colleagues, and both sets of players do better than the general public!

Over the moon

It seems it’s all about ‘executive functions’ and working memory. Specifically that successful players are able to constantly assess the situation, compare what’s going on with past experiences, create new possibilities and make quick decisions. In short it’s all about making fast decisions under extreme time pressure. Sounds great! Do the England team know about this?

Sick as a parrot

Of course, there may be a physical explanation. Sports psychologists have known for a while that cognitive abilities are correlated with aerobic capacity. So it may just be that footballers, and other athletes, do better simply because they’re fitter. Mind you, if all this is true, it’s a good argument for getting out there and doing a bit more exercise…

Read the article here.

10 reasons why face-to-face meetings are a good idea

January 3, 2012

As I try to manage a four-way video-conference on my Dongleberry I suddenly realise how much technology is getting in the way of genuine human interaction. So let’s just think about what can happen in a traditional face-to-face meeting that cannot occur if we all choose to sit in different rooms gazing at little cameras. Here’s a short list:

  • Authentic human contact. Whichever way you cut it, the only way to really connect with another person is when you meet them in the flesh.
  • Informal promises. This is the stuff that happens on the side, in the form of favours, promises and bits of negotiation. It’s all part of developing a relationship that’s both personal and informal, and best done when you are with another person.
  • Non-verbal understanding. Most technology is not up to the job of capturing all the subtleties of gestures, voice, facial expression and so on; let alone giving you the opportunity to study the expressions of all the other people present at a virtual meeting!
  • Real-time information. Don’t you just love it when it all freezes up, or is just a little bit out of synch…
  • Social identity. It’s much easier to know where you stand in a group (or an organisation) when you can interact properly with other people. Status is harder to understand if you try to construct it  from the fragments of a cyber conversation.
  • Discovering norms. No virtual conversation is ever going to help you appreciate the unwritten rules and norms that drive an organisation; or for that matter any strange or idiosyncratic aspects of its culture.
  • Bonding & commitment. You need to share something meaningful to bond – it really is all about being there in person.
  • Emotional support. The virtual world might be fine for transmitting information, but it’s not a good place for providing meaningful emotional support – and you might well need this from your colleagues if the going gets tough.
  • Honesty & trust. It’s very difficult to know if someone is being honest, or to trust them, without experiencing the full weight of their communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Tapping into the lighter side. Come on, it can all be a bit stiff and formal. In ‘real life’ humour is frequently needed to get things going, and this can be harder to use when you can’t easily check the reactions of others; and of course the very act of organising something like a tele or video-conference tends to give the proceedings a gravitas that’s not necessarily helpful.

None of this should be any surprise. Humans are social animals and we need to get information through all our senses in order to make proper sense of the world, even the digital world.

Photo credit: Daniel St Pierre/

Why don’t meetings work?

March 11, 2011

The place holder on the left-hand table says 'Reserved', that on the left says 'Extraverted'.Every time I attend a meeting I am struck by the fact that most of what goes on is an utter waste of time. What is it about the situation that just seems to bring out the unproductive in us? Something I have to say which is aided and abetted by the curse of the PowerPoint presentation. A method of boring people that is surely without rival. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture and a thousand words, that’s something else entirely.

The reason that most meetings flounder can also be attributed to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality (that’s C.Northcote Parkinson of ‘Parkinson’s Law’ fame). Put simply this draws the distinction between the amount of time that’s spent discussing complex and difficult issues, such as business strategy, as opposed to simple and ultimately unimportant things like the location or colour of a bike shed. Hence the alternative name for the law, that of ‘bike-shedding’.  


We all feel comfortable talking about the bike shed (or the colour scheme to use on the website, the type of water cooler to have etc) because we think we understand what’s going on, and this limits are chances of appearing stupid. But when it comes to strategy there’s far more scope for seeming to be ignorant, if not a complete noodle. Thus the result is one hour discussing the ‘bike shed’, and ten confused and nervous minutes contemplating the strategic direction of the business. There’s also something else going on…

So to add to the Law of Triviality, and Parkinson’s other laws, the famous first law: ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’, and the less well-known second law: ‘expenditure rises to meet income’; I would like to add my law of meetings.

Parkinson’s Law of Meetings

Having studied meetings over the course of many years I can report that the ‘law of meetings’ states that there are only three types of people who attend:

  • Type A: This person does all the talking but knows none of the answers.
  • Type B: This person does none of the talking but does know the answers.
  • Type C: This person doesn’t know why they’re at the meeting.

These types map neatly onto three second-order personality factors: Type A is Extraverted (a ‘do-think-do’ sort of person); Type B is Neurotic (a ‘think-think-maybe do’ sort of person); and Type C is clearly Psychotic (detached, and angry and resentful about having their time wasted).

And this is why so little is achieved, because A+B+C≠Decision.

Oops, must go, I’ve got a teleconference in a few minutes…

Silo thinking: always a bad thing?

January 12, 2011

Silo thinking, silo working, silo vision, silo mentality… I expect if you’re a consultant you’ve said rude things about silos, or the apparent lack of communication, cooperation and understanding between the various bits of organisations – those units, departments and fiefdoms that seem to do what they like, when they like. And I bet that you’ve banged on, given the opportunity, about the joined up benefits of ‘systems’ thinking, and nodded sagely when people have talked of the Fifth Discipline. Because let’s face it, the ‘silo’ word only seems to have negative connotations. But is this right? I’m changing my mind because I think silos often represent the USP of an organisation. That’s not to say that they’re always healthy, or indeed constructive, but you take them apart at your peril. And one guy I think has something useful to say on the subject is Venkatesh Rao (Venkat). Try this piece on his Ribbonfarm blog:

Photo credit: Dan/

Some of my best friends are monkeys!

December 17, 2010

In monkey-land social contact is maintained with other members of a group through social grooming. Which is a bit like going to the hairdresser, but instead of one person checking your hair for anything interesting (or possibly moving), a whole load of people give it the once over – social groups of this sort forming little cliques within wider monkey, or actually to be more accurate, primate society. Now for the interesting bit: the number of group members an individual primate can track seems to have an upper limit; which in turn appears to be related to the volume of the brain’s neocortex.

Primates, brains, neocortex? You can probably guess what’s coming next. A clever British anthropologist called Robin Dunbar has popped the data for 38 primate genera into a statistics programme and come up with a figure for us humans – that’s the total number of people with which we can maintain stable social relationships. And the answer is a mean group size of 148*, or as a rule-of-thumb, 150. This has now passed into folklore, sort of, being regularly referred to as the Dunbar Number. Fantastic! Fancy having a number named after you. But back to the point:

What does this tell us? Putting aside that other anthropologists have produced competing numbers, for example there’s the Bernard-Killworth at 290; it can help us to understand why groups may or may not work. Think about the size of groups in businesses or military units. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an Army company contains up to 200 soldiers; and that the Swedish tax people have taken it to heart and set the maximum number of people in an office at 150; or indeed that it was picked up by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, and forms the core of his argument on social dynamics. So maybe, just maybe, it gives us a clue, whatever the ‘magic’ number, as to why very large year groups in schools don’t seem to work; or for that matter large divisions within very large corporations; or large groups of humans doing all sorts of things.

And what of social networking? Dunbar himself is researching Facebook, and possibly his number is a defence for those who cannot claim to have 500 friends, or 1000, or 10000, or whatever’s the ‘going rate’. Something that younger, and some of the not so young Facebook users feel pressured to have. But then Facebook is like collecting stamps, people seem to feel a compulsion to try to acquire the full set!

*If you’re interested in the stats, at the 95% confidence level, the range is from 100 to 230.

Malcolm Gladwell (2000). The Tipping Point – How Little Things Make a Big Difference. Abacus

Photo credit: Michael Elliott/


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