The Five Ages of Improvement

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Improvement is not easy. If it were this blog would not attract any vistors.  The data says that the hit rate is increasing. So what questions are visitors asking?

What makes improvement so difficult?

In a word – disappointment.

Or rather the cumulative effect of repeated disappointments.

Over time we become emotionally damaged by disappointment. Our youthful mountain of optimism is slowly eroded and washed away by the stormy reality that life throws at us.

Is this emotional erosion inevitable? I believe not. Some seem to avoid it with innate ability – the rest of us have to learn how. To do that we need to understand how the emotional erosion happens and with that insight we can design an anti-disappointment defense for ourselves.

I see it as a time-dependent process with five phases. The divisions are somewhat artificial because it is a continuous process; the phases overlap and we do not all progress at the same rate. Each phase lasts about 10-15 years it seems.

The First Age – Tender Idealism


The natural child-like behaviour that we are born with is curious, playful, happy, and optimistic.  We arrive with no knowledge of the real world.  Our starting expectation is high because all we have experienced is the safe, warm, fuzzy redness of the womb. Birth is our first big disappointment! Ouch! It is cold out here and suddenly we have to do lots more for ourselves such as breathing, keeping warm, eating, weeing, and pooing. Waaaaaah!

Some claim that we spend our whole lives trying in vain to regain that wonderful, warm womb-like feeling of security and comfort.

But after our birthday surprise we activate our innate curiosity and we learn quickly as we explore the real world. We do not forget though –  we dream about how the world could be more womb-like. We are natural idealists. We all want to recreate a reliable comfort-zone. And anything that gets in our way needs to be removed! The old ideas and the old farts who cling on to them need to go! The problems and solutions are obvious; crystal clear; black-or-white; day-or-night; all-or-nothing; either-or. We start as Tender Idealists.

And we learn quickly that reality resists us.

The Second Age  – Tearful Optimism


As our experience grows the perfectly sharp edges of our idealism become smoothed off: eroded by the emotional impacts of numerous small disappointments. We remain optimists but our expectations are lowered and our frustrations are elevated. We are told by the Older-and-Wiser that when we fall off our bikes or horses we should brush ourselves down, get back on and try again. “No Pain No Gain” they preach. But it really hurts when we fall off – we graze our knees and we bruise our egos. We cry tears of frustration, pain and fear. But we strive to retain our optimism. We try again, and again, and again. And we are young so we have energy and stamina. We are not too damaged – not yet. We are Tearful Optimists.

The Third Age – Tired Realism

Tired_RealistBut reality is relentless. The battering by the sunshine and storms of life continue – apparently unaffected by our strenuous efforts to create calm.  And we keep slipping as the complexity mud gets thicker, deeper and stickier. We become more, and more tired. We try less and we sit on the fence more. It is less difficult, less tiring, less self-disappointing. We develop a taste for spectator sports. We adopt a team. We cheer when they win and we chide when they lose. Reality has eroded our optimism to the point where it has become so fragile that we dare not pit it against new challenges. We fear the seemingly inevitable failure and the consequent disappointment. Just one more tumble could break us completely. We have become Tired Realists.

The Fourth Age – Turgid Skepticism

Turgid_SkepticNow the rules of the life-game change. We must now protect the last precious vestiges of our hope and we must defend our life-dream from despair. So we build barriers that block the new Idealists and the new Optimists from blindly generating more disappointments for themselves – and for us.  We do not want to lose all hope. We exercise our intellect and our experience and we become experts in the “Yes … but” game.  We dispell new ideas and we say that they are not new and they are not worth trying. We say “Yes, but we tried that and it did not work“. We create a red-taped morass of bureaucracy to slow them down and to tire them out. And we can do that because by now we have gravitated to Positions of Authority. We write the Rules. And our rules all start with the word “No”.

The Tired Realists sit on the fence to watch the New Optimists battle with us Old Skeptics. Just as they had done when they still had the energy. It becomes their favourite spectator sport. A few optimists navigate the bureaucracy swamp and have their innovations implemented. Some even succeed and shine for a while. All fade and fail eventually. The emotional erosion continues relentlessly.

The skeptics are well-intentioned though – they want to prevent avoidable disappointment – but their strategy is non-specific. It blocks all innovation – both the worthwhile and the worthless. And their preferred tool is the simple question “Where is the evidence?” No evidence means “game over” but having evidence is no guarantor of success. Evidence means rich opportunities for nit-picking. The more academic skeptics discard what cannot be proved statistically beyond all reasonable doubt and unintentionally create an unwinnable game of Catch-22.  And over time their examination of the evidence becomes less and less rigorous. They become increasingly Turgid Skeptics.

The Fifth Age – Toxic Cynicism

Toxic_CynicThe final age starts when the skeptic suffers dream failure and enters the Land of the Hopeless. Here any idealism, optimism and realism are discounted by default and without respect. Their Pavlovian reflex is now fully established – every one and every thing is discounted without conscious thought. This is the Creed of the Cynics. The continuous discounting acts as an oily emotional toxin. It is called cynicide – and it poisons the whole organisation. It greases the slippery slope from Realist through Skeptic to Cynic – who may be a minority but the damage they create is disproportionately large. The Toxic Cynics create the waves that trigger the storms that drive the whole disappointment process.

And Toxic Cynics are indiscriminate. A Tender Idealiss can have their fragile and nascent curiosity and optimism destroyed by just one poisonous barb fired accurately but unwittingly by a habitually cynical parent figure.

stick_figure_drawing_three_check_marks_150_wht_5283So what does an experienced Improvement Scientist do to avoid the decline to Cynicism? What strategies do they employ to deflect and dissipate the storms and to defend themselves from their emotionally erosive action?

First they learn of the weathering process and the damage it does and they actively remove themselves from the most toxic parts of their organisations. Why be exposed to cynicide for no good reason? They avoid the cynics,  their congregations and their conversations. They avoid the emotional hooks-and-lines that cynics cast and use to draw others into the Drama Triangle – the negative emotional maelstrom from which the unwitting victims may never escape.

Second they learn to channel their own disappointment into improvement. They learn that after they have failed to meet their own expectation they must step back, reflect, understand what happened, formulate a new design, and then try again. Not just to blindly repeat the same action in the hope that just determination and repetition is sufficient. It is not. They also learn to do the same after a success – they reflect and understand what delivered the delight and how to make that happen more often.

Third they learn to engage the skeptics in a constructive dialog. Skeptics are useful – their sharp questions can help to improve an innovation as much as to destroy one. And they learn how to disarm the cynics. They learn how to neutralise the cynicide poison – by exposing it to the antidote – Respectful Challenge of the Cynical Behaviour.

leaderEffective leaders are de facto improvement scientists. Effective leaders carve an alternative groove for the Idealists, Optimists and Realists – the path to Capability, Credibility, and Sagacity. Effective leaders nurture the Idealists because they are the  future Optimists. Effective leaders support the Optimists because they are the future leaders. Effective leaders coax the Realists out of passive observation and into active participation. Effective leaders respect the Skeptics for their skills and restrict their bureaucracy.  Effective leaders block cynicide production by offering the Cynics a simple binary choice: healthy skepticism or The Door.

The Five Ages represent learned roles not inherited attributes. We can all choose our behaviour. We can all choose to play any of the five roles at any time. We are not Saints or Sinners. We are all fallible; we are all on the same life path and we all have the same choices:

Do we choose the path of continual improvement or do we choose the path of constant disappointment?

A wise decision is required.

And for the Optimists, Realists and Skeptics out there – hard evidence that Improvement Science works in practice – even when the participants are highly skeptical – the six week update on the real example described in The Writing On The Wall – Part I