Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dirty professor tricks reveal dirty student tricks

In my "Change Management" course last night, my professor played a trick on the students. We'd been asked to prepare a case study in advance, and, during class, he put us into groups and told us to analyze the case anew using the six "hats" of De Bono.

The first thing I thought when he asked us do this analysis was, "Uh oh. This wasn't in the reading. Was this in the reading? What's a De Bono?"

My worries were assuaged when he handed out a sheet of paper describing the six hats. I ended up the "white" hat (who uses cold factual information), and my group also included a black (pessimist), two reds (emotional information), and another white (there are also yellow [optimist], green [creative], and blue [mediator] hats). It seemed easy enough: play the role of the white hat, while my peers did something else.

But it didn't go well at all. I had a lot of trouble dissociating from my regular, "multicoloured" thinking (where I structure opinions and decisions based on a variety of "hats") and our group didn't get very far into the analysis. We were supposed to answer two questions that the professor had put up on the board, but we didn't really get there; we spent too much time arguing over the kind of information that each roleplayer was allowed to use. The very rules of the game became the subject of our analysis.

And, as it turned out, no one else could answer the questions, either - except that that didn't stop people from trying to. When the professor went around the room asking each group for their answers, everyone managed to spit something out. It was exactly the kind of conceptual, theoretical, utterly imprecise gobbledygook that earned me, in my undergraduate degree, the following comment from a TA on one of my philosophy papers: "Stop the linguistic acrobatics." In other words, no one really answered the questions "What can you say about the feelings of the actors in this case?" or "What communications plan would you use?" They just rehashed the concepts of the professor's most recent PowerPoint slides to try to create a semblance of an answer - even when the professor called them out on it.

I, however, had to speak up and say that I was completely confused. It had been a horrible exercise, and I actually felt kind of crappy about it. Why didn't I get it? I'm a pretty smart guy. I am, at least, not a Neanderthal. But when I mentioned my confusion, the professor kind of smiled and started asking other people how they felt - felt, not thought - about the exercise.

That's when he revealed that, quite rightly, no one had answered the questions, because he'd deliberately engineered a situation in which a sudden change - the introduction of De Bono's six hats, a concept that hadn't been introduced in the course - made it hard to grapple with a familiar situation (the case everyone had already spent time preparing).

I found it all pretty funny at first. And then I realized something horrible. Every group had given some kind of half-witted explanation when asked to by the professor. One woman had even vigorously defended her gobbledygook when the professor told her she hadn't answered the question. In short, everyone had attempted to "BS" the professor.

This isn't really all that unusual - people BS each other all the time - but it was a horrifying, face-to-face, socially engineered example of the lengths people will go to in order to make it seem like they understand. Everyone in my MBA program is highly intelligent, very professional, and exceedingly competent; and some of the smartest of them had refused to admit defeat, spitting out concepts and theories as though they were answering a practical problem, instead of providing summaries of the professor's notes.

But I've learned a good lesson here. It's never worth it to pretend you know something, because someone else probably knows - very well - that you're BSing them. Better to admit you don't know and try to learn so that you can move on to solving the problem, than going red in the face when you reflect on your actions later. I suppose that's part of the purpose of "Change Management."

And, on a side note, I am definitely not a white hat - for better or for worse.


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