“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well.It may need fertiliser or more water or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”Thich Nhat Hanh
In 1898, Edward Thorndike introduced a psychology principle called the law of effect. The law of effect states that when behaviour is followed by pleasant consequences, it is likely to be repeated. Conversely, when behaviour followed by unpleasant consequences, it is likely to be stopped.
This basic law used consequences to strengthen or weaken behaviour and became the basis of behaviourism. Behaviourists see animal behaviour as conditioned and design experiments to study how environment affects behaviour.
Behaviorism dates back to Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs in the late 19th century. During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that dogs salivated when the technician who was feeding them appeared. Pavlov became interested in the dynamic of stimulus-response and introduced various stimuli to make the dogs salivate. By introducing a new stimulus like a bell, Pavlov concluded that he could condition the dogs to associate a reward with an unrelated stimulus.
Perhaps one of the best-known behaviourists was the Harvard professor, B. F. Skinner. Skinner conducted experiments using rewards and punishments to influence behavior. Skinner built on the work of Pavlov and Thorndike to develop an associative learning process called operant conditioning. Skinner developed an operant conditioning chamber (known as the Skinner box) to study animal behaviour. The Skinner box permits experimenters to study behaviour conditioning by training a subject animal such as a Rat, to perform certain actions (like pressing a lever) in response to specific stimuli.
When the subject correctly performs the behaviour, the chamber mechanism delivers a reward. When the subject incorrectly performs the behaviour, the chamber mechanism delivers a punishment or no reward.
Humans are animals. We react to stimuli all the time, consciously and subconsciously. Let’s take curiosity, for example. Preschool kids ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day. Shamefully by middle school, they all but stop asking questions. In our world of abundant data and information, asking the right question is the valuable skill, answers are everywhere. However, because society (parents, teachers, managers) rewards kids for having the answer, they (ahem, we) learn (through stimulus) that this is the “correct” behaviour.
There is another dynamic here that is important for creativity and innovation within organisations.
While Skinner and the behaviourists focused on experimental control over animals, the field of ethology is more interested in natural and spontaneous behaviour. Ethologists observe and study innate behaviour patterns in specific species without influencing them. One of the guiding principles in ethology is to observe the subject species in their natural environment without interaction.
The difference between behaviorism and ethology is one of human-controlled versus natural behaviour. Behaviourists sought to dictate behavior by placing animals in barren environments in which they could do little else than what the experimenter wanted. If they didn’t, their behaviour was classified as misbehaviour.
And to the main point of this Thursday Thought, inspired by my fascinating conversation with renowned ethologist and prolific author Frans De Waal.
I dare to say that most organisations are Skinner boxes. Management “behave” like behaviorists. They coax and prod employees with rewards and punishments. Some are tangible, some are psychological. In doing so, employees often feel they are being judged.
Rewarding or punishing employees for their individual contributions can backfire and make employees more risk-averse. If it affects their salary, status or bonus (reward), they are liable to hold back. We see it in organisations where leaders instruct people to innovate more. When this happens, people support the least risky incremental changes within the organisation. This is rarely innovation, it is rarely even incremental change; it is more often than not just business as usual. This is the domain of sheep-dip innovation, or worse: lipstick on a pig.
Penalising people or departments for making mistakes, either consciously or unconsciously, creates a culture where the employees become defensive. When we are defensive, our mental states change and we can not possibly be creative. We use all our cognitive capacity to cover our backs and ensure we don’t get blamed or labelled as good or bad.
Wu Wei Innovation
“One cannot speak of leaders who cause organisations to achieve superlative performance, for no one can cause it to happen. Leaders can only recognise and modify conditions that prevent it; perceive and articulate a sense of community, a vision of the future, a body of principle to which people are passionately committed, then encourage and enable them to discover and bring forth the extraordinary capabilities that lie trapped in everyone, struggling to get out.” — Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA (7 part series on the Innovation Show)
Wu wei is a concept literally meaning “inaction” or “effortless action”. Wu wei is a state of unconflicting personal harmony, free-flowing spontaneity and savoir faire. It is more a mindset or state of mind than a process. It is an important concept for creativity and innovation. We cannot force things, but we can develop the capabilities and create the environment for them to emerge.
One of the most frustrating directives in any business is “We have to be more Innovative”. Organisations expect their people to come up with novel concepts and implement those directives that change nothing about their organisational environment. Think for a moment of a farmer, a farmer does not make crops grow. A farmer creates optimum conditions for crops to thrive, preparing the soil, adding nutrients, watering and safeguarding.
Corporate Innovation is no different. In the “corporate farm”, ideas and capabilities are the seeds and the culture of the organisation is the soil. Even if you have the best seeds in the world, when placed toxic soil, the crop fails. The soil allows innovation to arise from the spontaneity of conditions: relationships, interactions, and conversations.
Innovation is not just about behaviourism; it needs ethology. They are like order and chaos. Too much order and you break the spirit of creativity. Too much chaos and you get nothing done.
THANKS FOR READING
If you want a fascinating hour from a brilliant mind, have a listen to the anecdotes and thoughts from Frans De Waal and the focus of episode 233 of The Innovation Show: “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are”
What separates your mind from the mind of an animal?
Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future – all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the pre-eminent species on Earth.
But in recent decades, claims of human superiority have been eroded by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools, or how elephants can classify humans by age, gender, and language.
Take Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University who demonstrates his species’ exceptional photographic memory.
Based on research on a range of animals, including crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and, of course, chimpanzees and bonobos, our guest today explores the scope and depth of animal intelligence, revealing how we have grossly underestimated non-human brains.
He overturns the view of animals as stimulus-response beings and opens our eyes to their complex and intricate minds. With astonishing stories of animal cognition, his work challenges everything you thought you knew about animal – and human – intelligence.
Have a listen: