Violets are blue

When I pressed the Publish button on Roses are red, it capstoned a year of semantics for me which spilled over into this year.

In addition to my annual list of conferences in Australia for digital educators, I applied my cognitive surplus to another nine posts that dive deeper into the murky waters of meaning.

Purple petals scattered on the pages of an open book.

Bunch of pansies.

I’m keen to hear your views among mine, so feel free to add a comment to each of the conversations.

If you already have, I salute you!

The $100 Hypothetical

As my home state emerges from lockdown, I reflect over the many months of confusion during the pandemic.

My fellow citizens were confounded by brain benders such as whether to wear a mask inside a ride-share vehicle; what qualifies as an “essential” item; and when one may travel beyond 5km from home.

No confusion over the Dine & Discover voucher scheme, however, whereby residents apply for $100 worth of credit to fund eligible recreation activities. As a populace, we nailed that one.

It is – by definition – an exemplar of the $100 Hypothetical.

Two Australian $50 notes on a table.

The $100 Hypothetical is best explained by way of contrast.

In the context of corporate learning & development, consider the employee who complains of being overwhelmed by the number of search results returned by the online course library, yet happily uses Google which returns billions of results.

Who never posts messages to the corporate ESN, but avidly posts to Facebook; who never records a knowledge sharing video, yet uploads selfies to TikTok or Instagram with abandon; who refuses to use a software program until they’ve been formally trained in it, but jumps headfirst into a new app, phone or video game without ever crinkling the user manual.

The $100 Hypothetical holds that the same employee would readily find a relevant course in the online library …if they received $100 for doing so.

Similarly, they’d post plenty of messages to the corporate ESN, record loads of knowledge sharing videos, and find out how to do various tasks with the software …if each time they received a couple of pineapples.

The alternative

The $100 Hypothetical makes the point that whenever people don’t do something, it’s often not because they can’t, but because they won’t.

Which begs the question: Why not?

Well I’m not aware of anyone attending a course prior to using the likes of Google, Facebook, TikTok or Insta, so a lack of training evidently isn’t always a barrier to action. There must be other reasons; perhaps shyness, fear, laziness, apathy, pride, or myriad other human foibles.

Yet while it’s tempting to decry the poor attitudes of our colleagues, it’s important to recognise the common denominator: value.

They use Google because it connects them to the information they need. They post to Facebook because it enriches their relationship with friends and family. They upload selfies to TikTok or Insta because it’s fun or it boosts their ego. They figure out apps, phones and video games on the fly because they want to experience them immediately.

But they don’t perceive the value in pursuing similar activities at work.

If the theory of the $100 Hypothetical maintains the introduction of a financial reward would tip the balance in favour of action, the practice must be to supply an alternative source of value in the absence of direct cash.

In other words, what would motivate them to do it if they didn’t receive $100 for doing so?

The apex of innovation

There’s a maxim among pub pool players that the consumption of beer will improve your game, until you reach a tipping point whereby the alcohol flooding your bloodstream diminishes your mastery of the cue.

Funnily enough, it’s not just an urban myth. While The Watsonia Bugle cheekily reports an empirically generated (but alas, fictional) bell curve, the effect of ethanol-induced relaxation and confidence on the players of time-rich sports has some actual science underpinning it.

A white pool ball in the foreground with a racked group of coloured balls in the background.

I recognise a similar pattern in the field of corporate innovation. Not with lager (lol!) but with another variable: responsibility.

In a nutshell, I feel that anyone who’s expected to innovate needs to own a portfolio in which to do it. Armed with both the opportunity and the authority to make design decisions inside a ringfence, new ideas can be tried and tested quickly and efficiently without the myriad barriers that arise when you don’t have that power.

However, just like a pool player who’s overimbibed, someone who has too much responsibility thrust upon them will inevitably feel their pioneering spirit fade away. Preoccupied with the busyness of tasks and the pressure of deliverables, the would-be innovator has neither the appetite nor the headspace for trying anything new. His or her focus is firmly on survival.

The implication for business is clear. If you want to shift innovation from aspiration to action, give your people enough responsibility to get their hands dirty and achieve something real, but not so much that they lose sight of the end game.

The apex of innovation lies in the balance.

Gold vibes only

Australia’s performance in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was impressive, even for a nation that considers barely scraping into the top 10 a national cause for concern.

What was surprising this time around was the proportion of gold medals to total medals – a whopping 37% – which of course makes all the difference in the final tally.

Don’t get me wrong, I consider any medal a tremendous victory (exemplified by the Boomers’ historic bronze) but there’s no doubt the one most prized by athletes and citizens alike is gilded.

Golden beads

Australia’s upward trajectory was observed by Kieran Pender in Back to square one: how Australia engineered remarkable golden Games.

In the article, Pender boils our success down to investing in the right people around the athletes, backed up by systemic reform and attention to detail. In Tokyo, he writes, the Aussie support team “doubled down on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s”.

And I think he’s right. A culture of excellence breeds excellence. In contrast, a culture of laziness and unaccountability breeds apathy and mediocrity.

It’s why a football team that pays an obscene amount money for a star player won’t win the cup if the back office is mismanaged. One man doth not a team make, despite what the press perpetuates and the fans believe.

The parallel with the corporate sector is clear. Recruiting good people in the right roles and developing their capabilities is critical, but locked-out technology, backwards policy and arcane processes will only hold them back. In such cases, the “support services” are anything but.

The whole system needs to be firing on all cylinders so that the talent within can do what it does best.

Time pilot

There was an aspect I omitted from my previous post, Space invaders, in which I covered the spacing effect as a means of maximising long-term retention.

Zsolt Olah picked it: interleaving and – ironically! – I judged it a bridge too far to include in the same post and so decided to split it out across a second one.

You’ll see why…

Aerobatic jets with coloured smoke trails.

Interleaving

Before defining interleaving, I feel it’s helpful to review the opposite: blocked presentation or blocking. This approach is equivalent to massed presentation whereby the content is consumed successively:

A pink block followed immediately by a blue block followed immediately by a green block.

An alternative approach is to split each block into leaves and vary their presentation. This approach is known as interleaved presentation or varied presentation or mixed presentation:

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, then another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf, then another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf.

The illustration above maintains the topical sequence, in contrast to random interleaved presentation whereby the sequence is shuffled:

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, then another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf, then another green leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf.

Spaced interleaving

Just as the spacing effect can be employed to produce spaced block presentation:

A pink block flowing over time to a blue block flowing over time to a green block.

…so too can it be employed to produce spaced interleaved presentation (grouped):

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, flowing over time to another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf, flowing over time to another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf.

…or spaced random interleaved presentation (grouped):

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, flowing over time to another blue leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf followed immediately by another green leaf, flowing over time to another green leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf.

I use the qualifier “grouped” because, while that’s the traditional way of illustrating interleaving – I suspect due to the formal paradigm of education by which you fill up the periods assigned to you – I see no reason why each leaf couldn’t be separated over time; hence spaced interleaved presentation (separated):

A pink leaf flowing over time to a blue leaf flowing over time to a green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf.

…and spaced random interleaved presentation (separated):

A pink leaf flowing over time to a blue leaf flowing over time to a green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf.

As you can see, it gets complicated real quick, and that’s before employing reinforcement or the testing effect!

Ron Burgundy from Anchorman contemplating with a beer.

Dynamic interleaving

When I look at the various permutations of spacing and interleaving, I wonder if an optimal timing or sequencing regime exists. Full disclosure: I’ve done zero research to find out; if you have, I’d love to play my lazy web card and ask you to share your findings via a comment below.

I also wonder about the efficacy of a bespoke regime that sequences the leaves according to a dynamic pattern – test latest > test previous > present new – leading to a final summative test:

A pink leaf flowing over time to a blue leaf flowing over time to a green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf.

I call this regime spaced dynamic interleaved retrieval (quite a mouthful!) or dynamic interleaving for short. Again, if you’re aware of anything out there that’s similar, please let me know.

A chart featuring Interleaving, within which is Spaced Interleaving, within which is Dynamic Interleaving.