Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Primacy of Learning
-- A Concept for Cubicle Dwellers and Managers

This post is dedicated to Jaime Escalante. Probably the best teacher who ever lived. He understood this concept probably better than anyone.

In my family there are a lot of teachers, so this concept has long been familiar to me.

The best way I know to explain it is by example, so here goes.

My cousin Lisa, when she was twelve years old tried lobster for the very first time. Unfortunately, she got a rancid lobster that made her ill. Twenty-plus years later she still gets violently sick when she gets the slightest whiff of lobster.

My wife also ate a rancid lobster and got sick. In her case, though, that was probably her 50th lobster. Since then, she has continued to have another 50 lobsters.

You might think that this idea is nothing more than the old cliche:
  • you never get a second chance to make a first impression
But its actually that and much more. A whole lot of brain-wiring occurs when you are first introduced to a concept. Undoing, or unlearning, that initial incorrect conception is a very difficult thing for a person to do.

Now that you've got the concept -- lets see how it might apply in cubicle land. You are a developer, lets say, who has noticed some really bad behaviors and consequences in another teams application. You start to put together a proposal for your supervisor on how it may be fixed. On the day you get to pitch your proposal you start your presentation with a description of the problem. Managers in the room are probably hearing about the issues you are raising for the first time. Before you can even get to a discussion of the solution you are being challenged by these managers who seem to be implying that you don't have all your facts straight. Somehow you manage to proceed and finish your proposal, but you feel fairly certain it won't be listened to.

A week goes by and it becomes clear your proposal is not going to happen. In fact, it is going to be completely ignored.

Months, perhaps years later, you learn that a co-worker got wind of your proposal and put their own special 'spin' on it to key decision makers in the room -- essentially front loading them with negative ideas.

And that's really what gossip and spin are; using the primacy of learning to ensure persons, problems, and ideas are pre-judged by various people.

The primacy of learning is why politicians do attack ads; usually the first time voters ever hear of a politician is in an attack ad by their opponent. It is used, though perhaps not 'intentionally' in many other places as well.

So how do you counter such schenanigans! Well, having a name for the problem and calling it by its name when you see it helps.

Naturally, its best to anticipate it -- and get your conception out first, if possible.

Failing that, you've got a lot of work to do.

Any comments or suggestions about that last situation (your idea was already pre-spun) -- would be greatly appreciated.


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