Gather your facts first

I’m reading a fantastic book by Jim Robbins called The Wonder of Birds. In it (on pages 124-5) he relates a story that is a lesson on the importance of gathering your facts and thinking through the implications of your actions.

In China in 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered that sparrows (as well as flies, mosquitoes and rates) be exterminated. Everyone was expected to do their share of the killing. and they did.

The scientists had estimated that each sparrow ate nearly two kilos of grain a year. Every million sparrows killed would free up enough grain to feed sixty thousand people.

The Great Sparrow Campaign began, with many bells and whistles and banging of pots and pans. Millions of sparrows across the country were killed in just a few months. The people celebrated.

But wait. When scientists dissected the bodies of some of the poor, dead birds, they found that 3/4 of the sparrow diet was not grain, but insects. The near extinction of sparrows in China not only upset the ecological balance of the country but allowed the population of locusts and other insects the sparrows would have kept at bay to flourish. The Great Chinese Famine that resulted killed 30 million people.

The moral of this sad tale is clear, isn’t it?

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How to avoid brain sabotage

Most of the time, your brain goes all out to help you. Sometimes, though, for the best of reasons, it sabotages you instead. This happens particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues or information – and what leader-manager doesn’t deal with complex issues and information?!  Here are six ways your brain can sabotage you.

  1. Seeing what you want to see. The brain naturally seeks evidence that confirms and supports your point of view or preferred course of action. It also avoids information that contradicts what you already ‘know’ or believe to be so. This affects where you go to collect information (which Dr Google continues to offer up when for later searches), how you interpret it, and who you listen to. It causes you to put too much weight on information that supports your thinking and to overly discount information that challenges it.What to do about it? Don’t make a decision and then figure out how to justify it. Don’t undermine the real facts with your own expectations and biases. Don’t accept confirming evidence without question. Be aware of your opinion and admit your inclination to think a certain way. Consciously open your mind to other viewpoints. Find someone to play devil’s advocate and argue against you.
  2. Anchoring. This means giving too much weight to what you see or hear first and last, whether it’s information, evidence, opinions, estimates or ideas.What to do about it? Be cautious about your first and last impressions and information. Make an effort to give fair weight to what you see and learn in between and don’t automatically stick with whatever idea occurs to you first.
  3. Sticking with the status quo. The conventional wisdom of ‘Leave well enough alone’ and ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ warns us not to do anything radical or different. It often seems easier to stick with things as they are. Doing nothing is a lot easier than making an effort to do something differently. And the less action you take, the less open you are to criticism. Inertia is temptingly safe.What to do about it? Maintaining the status quo might be a good choice, but don’t do it just because it’s safe and easy. Ask yourself: ‘What do I want to achieve? Does the current situation do this well enough for me or could an alternative be better?’ A great question is: ‘Would I select the status quo if it were just another alternative?’
  4. Estimating and forecasting. This is a double whammy. The first whammy is with everyday estimates. Take the example of judging distance. For this, your brain uses a mental shortcut that equates clarity with closeness. This means that the more clearly an object appears, the closer you think it is. That’s generally fine – until haze or fog tricks you into thinking things are further away than they are. That can be dangerous: studies show that people drive faster in fog because the reduced clarity and contrast make people think they’re driving slower than they really are.The second whammy is estimating and forecasting in situations you don’t often encounter. When you estimate the same sorts of things a lot – distance, time, volume, weight – you become pretty good at it because you have a lot of feedback on how well you guess. But when you’re faced with something unusual, you haven’t had a chance to develop and fine-tune your estimating skills in that area, making the task a lot more difficult. As a result, you’re likely to become either over-confident or over-cautious, or to rely too much on past events or dramatic events that have left a strong impression – none of which leads to accuracy.There isn’t much you can do about those automatic mental shortcuts except be disciplined. Realise they exist, think about the assumptions you’re making to make sure you’re not going off at a tangent, try not to be guided by impressions, and when you can, use accurate facts and figures. Then cross your fingers, know your guesstimate is a long shot, and be prepared to be wrong and change course when it fails.
  5. Not cutting your losses. It’s hard to turn your back on the time, effort and money you’ve put into something. You see it as a waste, and who doesn’t hate waste!The world’s richest man, Warren Buffet, said that the best thing to do when you’re in a hole is to stop digging and get out. Good advice. Consider the costs of not cutting your losses and moving on and think about what you have to gain by moving on.
  6. Pattern recognition. When you’re faced with a new situation, you automatically pull together information from up to 30 parts of your brain. This usually works well but it can also mislead you, particularly when you’re dealing with situations that seem to be familiar but actually turn out to be unusual. You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t. History doesn’t always repeat itself, especially today, when change is coming fast and furious. This means that what worked fine last year may not work again this year because conditions, the economy, technology and people have probably all changed and those changes influence what does and doesn’t work.What to do about it? Rather than blindly following past experience over a cliff, think about whether your memories and experience could be misleading you. Think about what might be different about this situation to other seemingly similar situations. When you decide to apply the solution or action that worked last time, be prepared to cut your losses as soon as you can see it isn’t working.

Your brain is usually your friend, but it can be your foe when you let it! Forewarned is forearmed.

THE LITTLE VOICE INSIDE

Have you ever noticed how life keeps giving you little ‘reminders’ until you’ve learned the lesson?

The other day, I was polishing my toenails and managed to spill nail polish on my carpet. And what colour was it? Bright red of course. And was the bottle full bottle or nearly empty? Naturally, it was full, full, full because it was brand new. So in a flash, the carpet soaked up an impressive amount. Ah yes.

And just before it happened, a little voice inside my head said ‘Careful, Kris, you could spill that. Better put your feet and the bottle of polish on a magazine or put the polish on the table.’ But did I? No, Instead, I told my little voice that I’d be careful and it would be okay. And the little voice replied to the effect, ‘Oh, dear, when are you going to learn to listen to me?’ I then proceeded to knock the full bottle of bright red nail polish over.

We’ve all got little voices inside our heads and the more we listen to them, the more accurate they become and the better off we are. Sometimes, of course, that little voice is just a sudden ‘knowing’ or a feeling, or it might be a thought or an idea that just pops into your head. Or it might speak to you in a dream. But however it arrives, your inner voice is usually worth listening to because it has access to information that you know but don’t know you know. (If you know what I mean.)

So how do you go about first of all hearing, and then listening to, that little voice? You can’t even begin to hear it if you’re always on the go, never stopping, never resting. You need stillness, both physically and, equally important, mentally, which means turning off your internal chatter so the real message can come through.

Archimedes inner voice spoke to him while he was vegging out in the bath, wondering how to determine the volume of an object with an irregular shape. The answer suddenly came to him, to which he replied ‘Eureka!’. He was so excited that he ran through town having forgotten to put his clothes on. Newton’s inner voice came as an apple landing on his head as he dozed under an apple tree, explaining that gravity works the same way on little objects like apples as it does on big objects, like planets.

So give your inner voice a chance by taking a little mental and physical rest. Your voice inside may whisper at first, but the more you tune into it, the clearer it becomes. Just remember to put your clothes on.

Creating solutions

If you’re a manager, I bet you have a lot of problems hanging around, waiting for a solution. I won my bet, didn’t I! Here’s what to do.

Think about what you want to happen instead of the problem, or what you want to replace the problem with. Then you’re not thinking about how to remove or avoid the problem, which is destructive and negative; you’re thinking about how to replace the problem with something you want. That’s creative and positive.

One way to do this is to sit back, relax, and think about what you want to happen. Once you have a clear picture of that, you can begin thinking about the best way to bring it about. This is much more rewarding and inspiring than trying to get rid of a problem.

Let me give you an example. Say you have a new boss and you’re a bit concerned that she might be a bit of a new broom that wants to sweep clean, as they say. You can focus on what might go wrong, how to avoid it and how you can protect your position, but that’s a mistake. Here’s what you want to think about: What do I want my new boss to be thinking about me as our first meeting comes to an end? That gives you a positive vision to work towards and makes you feel powerful, not fearful. And that in turn helps you ‘perform’ better at that first, very important, meeting.

Here’s another example. You have a staff member (or a teenager or a toddler at home) with a couple of annoying behaviours. What do you want them to do instead of those behaviours? There’s your positive vision. It’s a lot easier to get to work on that, isn’t it, than to try (and no doubt fail) to stop someone acting in an annoying way.

It isn’t just people problems this works with, of course. It’s any problem. Your photocopier keeps breaking down. Pain in the neck. What do you want? You want it to work as it should. Now then, what do you need to do to make that happen?

There you have it. Instead of sweeping problems to one side or ignoring them, get creative. Be clear on what you want to bring into being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two heads are better than one

Whether you’re making decisions, innovating, developing plans or solving problems, the more the merrier is the go. Up to a point of course; too many cooks spoil the broth. But enough of cliches.

There is no doubt that people working together, directing their efforts towards the same endpoint, almost always do better than one lonely brain. Particularly when they are an assorted group, with different backgrounds, experiences, skills sets and all the rest of it. We all know that.

Why is it, then, that we so seldom act on what we know? Well, we’re all under pressure and involving people does take more time. But let’s face it, when you get a better result, that bit of extra time is worth it. Plus, the people you’ve involved have a better understanding of the situation and therefore greater commitment to the decision, innovation, plan or solution. Plus, when it’s your team you’re involving, it’s good for their development, both as individuals and as a team. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We the team’, in which there is no ‘I’. That makes your life a lot easier in the long run, too.

Of course, you don’t want to involve people when it’s just to rubber-stamp a decision or plan you’ve already made. Or so you get to lead a meeting that takes up everyone’s time and merely fills the room with warm, moist air. When people don’t care about the decision or plan or won’t be involved in implementing it or when it doesn’t affect them, don’t waste their time. And naturally, when time is really tight, you possibly can’t afford to involve people.

But that leaves a lot of other times when you are well advised to bring in the troops. When you have good people on your team — that is when you’ve recruited well, trained and developed them well, motivated and engaged them well — they probably have the skills and experience to help.

People often want to be involved, too. When you’re lucky, it’s because they care about the team or the organisation or their customers. Maybe it’s for their own personal development. Maybe it’s because they know they can make a positive contribution. Maybe they’d rather sit in with a group than get on with their own job. When that latter reason is the case, leave that person out of the loop, because you want people who can add value to your decision, innovation, plan or solution.

You should almost always include people who are affected by your decision, plan, innovation or solution and people who you need to help you implement it willingly and enthusiastically. When you need people’s acceptance and support, invite them to the party, too.

So there we are. You know it and I know it. Two heads are better than one. Act on what you know.

 

 

Every solution has a problem

Most parents take the view that problems are good for children. Problems teach children how to deal with life, how to fix things up, how to become more resilient, self-sufficient and self-confident. Problems help children to see themselves as problem solvers, not hapless, helpless victims.

What happens when you’re faced with a problem? Do you rub your hands and say ‘Oh, wonderful! A chance to take charge and exercise my brain to figure out how to solve it!‘ I don’t know too many adults like that. Somehow, what we see as a growth opportunity for kids doesn’t translate into adulthood.

Instead of welcoming problems and thinking: ‘I’m confident I can fix this up‘, we ignore them, put them to one side to deal with later, or foist them onto someone else to fix up. We might take them home with us and let them spoil our leisure time and turn our sweet dreams sour, but that doesn’t fix them.

Every solution has a problem. One goes with the other, just like steak and chips. As M Scott Peck says in The Road Less Travelled:

Problems call forth our wisdom and our courage.

When we let them.

But  when we let them tie us up in knots, problems paralyse us. Our brains freeze, we can’t think our way clearly through them, and we become ‘stuck’ and frustrated.

This is not a good game plan. Much better is to face up to a problem, look it in the eye, and, knowing we have the smarts and the strength to solve it, get started looking for a solution.

Discussion questions

Think back through the last few problems you’ve solved and messes you’ve fixed up: what did they teach you? How did they help you grow and mature as a manger?

How to use models

Models are representations of the real world. They help you better understand the real world by breaking it into pieces, making them good when you need to assess a risk or make a decision. But as Kevin Madigan points out, in an article on Property Casualty 360, a National Underwiriter’s website, no model can cater for every contingency and some models are better than others at helping us assess information about a risk or decision. The main thing is not to use models unquestioningly, for two reasons:

  1. Models are based on underlying assumptions.
  2. Models work on probabilities.

That means you need to understand both the assumptions models make and how they calculate probabilities.

First, ask yourself what your model’s underlying assumptions are and how correct and relevant are they to your organisation or decision. What contingencies are built into and left out of the model? Are the missing pieces important and if so, how can you incorporate them into your decision-making or risk management?

Next, find out how the model calculates probabilities. There are two ways: ‘classical’ probabilities and ‘subjective’ probabilities. You can be reasonably confident in classical probabilities because they are based on observation and experimentation; for example, flipping a coin or testing a drug on a target group and a control group. (Why not call them objective probabilities? Good question; too logical maybe.)

But you can’t experiment or observe elements of decisions about unusual events or problems or of catastrophic risks. That’s when subjective probabilities are used. Either you or the model need to estimate probabilities, perhaps based on observations about the past, informed assumptions about the future, and your ‘best guess’. That’s a long way away from classical probabilities.

So use models to help you make decisions and calculate risks but use them all with care, a questioning mind, and common sense:

  • Don’t take any model at face value.
  • Don’t interpret any model, especially those using subjective probabilities, as factual.

The statistician George EO Box put it well:

‘All models are wrong but some are useful.’

P.S. When you’re working with models, here’s a phrase guaranteed to impress: Don’t get caught up in delusional exactitude. In other words, be wary of models that claim to have a high degree of precision.

Discussion questions

What models do you use in your work? How accurately do they break information into pieces and represent the real world? What are their underlying assumptions and how relevant are they to the situation you’re applying them to? What type of probabilities do they use? In what ways might the models you use be wrong?