by on Jul.20, 2014, under Leadership
Our team is down by 5 points, they are on the 40 yard line, 3 seconds left to play. Hike! Everyone scrambles for the endzone and the quarterback throws a high arching spiral that seems to hang in the air as the end of game whistle blows. It falls down into a mass of players, all jumping to try to bring the ball down in their hands. The pack consumes the ball into a sweaty heap and the referee slowly peels players off to find out whether it was caught. TOUCHDOWN! High fives and exhilaration and exciting story to recall for years to come.
We love dramatic endings in life just like we do in our stories. The hero overcomes incredible odds to slay the dragon and save the village. We see this modeled in sports but it also often happens at work. We find ourselves facing an insurmountable deadline and through the sacrifices of many, somehow we get it done. Just like a Hail Mary this requires as much luck as skill to carry out and just like a Hail Mary pass, there are far more misses than successes. Not being fond of stories with bad outcomes, we forget them. Who tells the story about the last-ditch that failed or the project deadline that was not met even though people sacrificed to try to make it happen? We don’t tell those stories. They’re depressing and so we forget them.
This can make us feel that a successful ending that required tremendous sacrifice and risk was a good thing rather than recognizing them as failures. Why did we let the game get to this point that such a high risk last-ditch effort was required? How did we not account for the risks earlier in this project to allow us to have to try to stop almost everything to get this project done? These aren’t the questions we ask because after all, we won. And yet, it’s important to recognize that finding ourselves in a situation where the only thing left is some crazy scheme is a failure regardless of its outcome.
Because we are wired to love heroic endings, we won’t naturally remember to focus on preventing the problems and reward those who do instead of simply focusing on the heroes that save the day. While we should never underestimate the ingenuity of humans in distress, we should recognize that we are better off if we avoid needing to exercise that ability.
Related Post: Remembering The Non-Event: How we corrupt our own conclusions
by on Jun.30, 2014, under Ambiguity
The end of the world as we know it. This is how the Y2k bug was billed. Famous computer scientists staked their reputation on the gravity of the problem. Mobilize we did, dusting off the old Cobol books and scouring our software for dates shortened to two digits instead of four. Companies spent billions of dollars repairing their code and making it robust. Most thought in spite of all the work, we were still doomed. But doomsday arrived, not with a bang, but barely a whimper. Turns out it was not the end of the world as we know it. After the fact, people argued that all of our preparations were why so little happened, but even in countries where Y2K spending was limited, little happened. How did we get ourselves into such a frenzy?
Even as the hype about the problem grew, it became somewhat obvious it was being blown out of proportion. It started with a description of the bug, that when the year switched from 99 to 00 it would create a discontinuity that would cause programs to behave unexpectedly. Almost all computers have a clock and could have software that could be susceptible to this discontinuity. Sometimes the error would cause the program to crash. Sometimes the crash would cause the program to not start-up again or create problems in saved data. Sometimes that would cause the system to stop functioning or to send bad data to other systems causing them to stop functioning. Couple this with the fact that there are embedded computers in our power plants, cell phone networks, even cars. How will we even be able to fix those. So we have the possibility of all computer devices ceasing to function or putting out bad data, hence, death and destruction the likes of which the world has hardly known.
But this cascade didn’t happen and it’s easy to see in retrospect why. A small probability of a small probability of a small probability is so close to zero that it doesn’t matter any more. Yet at each stage, our fear tells us to think, “Yeah, but what if it was that way, then…”. We cascade down until we start seeing this as many people worded it: The Y2K bug will cause many computers to crash and never come back online. This is the Y2K fallacy. It’s a mix of the narrative fallacy (that we believe stories more than facts) mixed with hasty generalizations (generalizing from the small to the large without properly taking into consideration how things change).
It’s easy for us to tell ourselves similar stories about the things we are most worried about or the things we are most hopeful for — focusing in on a small thing and telling ourselves the story of the cascade, believing each stage. When we find ourselves in this situation, step back and consider the likelihood of each stage rationally, try telling yourself the opposite story, and see the situation for what it is. We’re probably not going to die (at least in any way that we see coming) and we probably also won’t land all three of the big whales on our horizon and become multi-billionaires — unless we’re fixing bugs for someone else’s terror.
Back in the 1990′s, Yahoo concluded that they understood where the market was going — they needed a curated index with a good portal. So they built one. During that time, Yahoo was offered to buy Google for $1M but turned them down because it’s not about search, it’s about portals. No one predicted Google coming nor it’s impact – even the founders of Google didn’t know it would become as big as it did. Of course, once Google splashed on the scene it became easy for us to tell ourselves a story about why search was so important and why we should have seen this coming.
Nassim Taleb calls this the black swan problem. We think we’ve got it all figured out, something comes that we didn’t see and that brings earth shattering consequences. Then we tell ourselves a story about why we should have seen it coming bringing us right back to believing we’ve got it all figured out.
We love certainty. We want to know what’s coming next. Astrologists and fortune tellers have been making money on this primal desire for millenia. When we hear various prognostications, we latch on to the ones that confirm either our deepest fears or our greatest hopes. We disregard contrary data or uncertainty in the prediction. We don’t even consider whether the person making the prediction has a track record of accuracy. We ignore all the misses and latch on to the successes, creating the delusion that we know what’s going to happen next.
We do the same thing with our own predictions. We forget the errors, or excuse them because of some factor we hadn’t considered. We remember the ones we got right, reinforcing our desire to keep predicting and increasing our confidence in those predictions. All because we don’t want to live in a world where we don’t know what comes next.
Prognostications are cheap, telling us stories that we want to believe. We’d rather live with certainty in a probable lie than with the uncertainty that comes with not knowing. We should beware of those confident in their predictions of what’s coming next and be okay with not knowing, living with the uncertainty. In the end, we all live by faith and not by knowledge.
Photo Credit: Jason Samfield
There’s a probably apocryphal story of a man who wrote to a number of wealthy people telling him that if they paid him a dollar he would accurately predict the winner of an upcoming NFL game. If he was wrong, he would refund their money.
He got over a hundred takers and he sent half of them the prediction of the home team winning, the other half the guest team. He refunded the half that he got wrong and sent a follow-up letter to the half he got correct offering them a prediction of the next game for 5 dollars.
Again half got one prediction, the other half the other. Another set of refunds for the one, and another set of letters continuing to increase the price to the other half. After a few more rounds of this, he had two people left, both of whom had just had this guy predict correctly 6 games in a row. This time he offered to sell them the correct prediction for $100,000 with the same caveat that he would refund the money if he was wrong. Both took him up on it, but he got greedy and just ran away with the $200,000 instead of refunding half of it and so he was arrested on fraud.
Consider this from the perspective of those remaining two people, who felt they had found a modern-day fortune-teller, because they didn’t see all the wrong guesses only that he was always right. This is often called the survivorship bias – we only look at what remains standing to assess what is true and not recognizing all of those who died along the way.
This bias crops up everywhere. The investment company that for the last 10 years had better returns than the S&P 500, so they must be awesome neglecting the fact that there were thousands of other companies and so statistically one of them should have this record. The business book that looks at the most successful companies with 100,000 surveys neglecting all those who tried their sage wisdom and did not succeed. We commit this fallacy when we decide to start an enterprise pointing at the Mark Zuckerbergs or Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s as proof that billion dollar dreams can come true (ignoring the fact that hundreds of thousands who all had good ideas failed to deliver).
This is part of the WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) bias which does not allow us to consider all the events that we don’t know about or who are no longer around. When we find ourselves pointing at good examples, it’s important to try to consider whether there are any who might be dead who tried those same things. Not to depress ourselves, but simply as a reality check to the conclusions we are likely to make when all we see is the survivors.
We may think our conclusions are can’t miss. After all, up to the final prediction, our con-artist has gotten every single prediction correct. Presumably the people taking our fortune teller’s offer were using that information to make even larger bets on those games — trying to make some quick money. Yet even after so many successful predictions in a row, one of the parties still got the wrong prediction at the end. When we find ourselves in “can’t lose” situations because statistically we’ve never seen anything that would indicate otherwise, we should naturally wonder what we are missing, and seek out the data that has died.
Photo Credit: Tristan Martin
by on May.24, 2014, under Ambiguity
Sometime ago, the Colbert Report did an interview with a man who was protesting the creation of a particle accelerator. He argued this new accelerator was going to create a black hole that would destroy our entire planet. This shocking conclusion surprised most so the interviewer asked the man:
“What are the odds that this is going to happen?”
“Fifty Percent”, he replied.
“Fifty percent?! That seems high. How did you come up with that figure?”, the interviewer said.
“Well, either it’s going to happen, or it’s not going to happen, so it’s 50/50 either way.”
Laugh as we might at this example, our emotions take this exact view of statistics. For example, we see the odds of some horrific side effect of a medical procedure and we either dismiss it as not going to happen or we simulate what it will be like to get those effects, making us even more afraid, even to the point of feeling like it might be 50/50.
While statistics can be very useful in making good decisions in a world of uncertainty, it’s worth recognizing our own inability to deal emotionally with statistics. We don’t have an intuitive sense of 1 in 10, or even 1 in 3. Instead our brains break almost everything down into the it’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen.
If we want to dispel some of that fear, sometimes it’s useful to start thinking about more real world examples – 1 in 500 is about the same as someone guessing heads or tails correctly 9 times in a row. Doing this even once is an impressive feat and not very likely to occur, and neither will this side effect.
Without a doubt statistics can help us make better rational decisions, but as soon as we note our fears getting involved, it’s helpful to remember that our emotional brains don’t properly handle statistics. It’s not 50/50 that we’re going to die by black hole.
Photo Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
by on Apr.30, 2014, under Leadership
When will this be done?
I don’t know yet.
When will you know?
I don’t know that either.
Just guess how long it’s going to take.
Um, two weeks?
Ah, the magic estimate of two weeks. Just far enough out that maybe we could get it done by then, but not so far out, that anyone is concerned. Worst case, we can just slip another two weeks if we don’t make it this time.
There are some things where we can accurately estimate the amount of time they will take. How long will it take to do the dishes? How long will it take to get to the grocery store? How long until it’s 5pm? These tend to be non-creative endeavors that require no research or necessarily though to accomplish.
Creative work, whether it’s writing software or making art, thwart predictive schedules. Unless the task is simple with a known solution, we struggle to pin down exactly how long it’s going to take us. We might guess, but often find that our best guess is wildly inaccurate.
My project leader once asked me to do something and I thought, oh, that’s really hard. That will take me, um two weeks. “Two weeks?!” he replied. “Well, it’s really important so I guess we should just do it.”. On my way back to my desk after talking to him, I realized that actually there was an easy way to do it and was back telling him it was done 30 minutes later. This doesn’t mean all my projects were like that. Many projects follow the general rule of thumb for software schedules: Take the amount of time estimated, double it, and round-up to the next unit of time — 2 hours becomes 4 days.
Inaccuracy in either regard leads to inefficiency for those depending on the deliverable. But we fight against living with the uncertainty of not knowing. And so we press to have a schedule for something that relieves the uncertainty without actually providing us any additional amount of predictability. The best approach in situations like this is to recognize that there is some unknown-unknowns and try to break the project into next steps and then schedule those.
The next time someone estimates two weeks raise an eyebrow, but also question whether creating such a schedule is really in the best interest of everyone involved. We’re not just making widgets anymore.
A few weeks ago, I went down into our basement when no one else was home. It was dark and I had this thought come to mind suddenly: “What if someone was living down here and I didn’t even know it?” Images of someone coming out of the darkness filled my mind and I felt stricken with fear. The rational part of my brain said, “This is totally and completely ridiculous. No one is living in your basement waiting to jump out at you”. But it was hard not to hurry up and get back to the safety of the main floor.
This doesn’t happen often to me, less and less it seems. But I suspect that it happens to all of us from time to time. An irrational thought gives way to a creative imagination and the fear feeds on itself. It may not be monsters in our closets anymore, or something under our bed, but fear is a powerful motivator.
What’s strange to me is how helpless our rational mind can be in the face of fear. We can logically recognize something as ridiculous, but our fight-or-flight instincts kick in pretty hard. Sometimes trying to convince ourselves that it’s irrational only makes us even more afraid as we imagine more and more scenarios! We tell ourselves, well, it’s possible isn’t it?
Fear comes in many forms and while it’s not always irrational, I wonder how often we convince our rational brain that our choice is the prudent course, even though it’s just fear working its magic.
One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, pushes people to make art with everything they do in spite of the fears it invokes: fear of rejection, fear of failure, even fear of success. He suggests that we should learn to be comfortable when we are afraid. Instead of hopping out of bed to go make sure the front door is locked, chose not to. Become comfortable with the uncertainty. Fear can’t be talked down – like pain, it can really only be endured until it passes. And it will pass.
Fear subtly sways our actions and rarely for the better. Training ourselves not to act on it in the small things encourages us to be strong in the bigger things. Try living with it instead of acting on it next time you feel the fear.
Photo Credit: Dar’ya Sipyeykina
by on Mar.31, 2014, under Ambiguity
[This blog builds on the previous one regarding the terminal velocity of change in our own lives]
When I start working at a new company, there are many things that jump out as being great and a few things that jump out at as needing improvement. Typically, as I start to understand more of the culture, things I thought were wrong turn out to be just different but nevertheless effective. Other things though, I want to change.
Whenever we go into a new situation we have an outside perspective that can allow us to see things that those who have been a part of the organization can’t see because they’ve grown accustom to them. It’s tempting to try to mention all the various things we think need to be fixed forgetting that organizations just like people can’t change on a dime. Plus others may not even agree that a change is necessary.
Most of us can recognize our own limitations to change, but forget them when it comes to others; often because the change seems so obvious, but what might be obvious to us is not obvious to others. Moreover, just like us, organizations and those in them also have limits on how quickly they can make change: organizations also have a terminal velocity of change. Influencing change in others requires even more finesse than it does to change ourselves.
Just as with ourselves, we have to pick the right thing and then keep focusing on that — we can never fix everything. As much as we can, we shouldn’t depend only on others to make the change but try to figure out how to make the change ourselves. This is because others tend to be overwhelmed with the improvements they are already trying to make. It’s much easier to change something that we’ve identified ourselves than it is to get excited about a change someone else has identified. Finally, we should learn to read people’s situation. We shouldn’t keep giving people a hard time about something when they are totally stressed about a more pressing problem. Doing so just offends them and reduces not only the ability to work together toward a solution, but also risks losing the friendship. Instead during those times encourage what is going right and pitch in.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these challenges and difficulties. Nothing here is earth shattering, but these are the things I have to remind myself of because I can easily fall into being completely ineffective and even offensive. As I’ve come to understand more about how quickly change can be made, I remind myself of these principles to try and find the right path. We must seek improvement, but we can only do so with wisdom and grace.
[Photo Credit: Tom Magliery]
by on Mar.29, 2014, under Ambiguity
All of us have things we wish were different in our lives, so we start initiating action to change ourselves. We’d of course like the change to be instantaneous and we’d like to change all the things we wish were different at the same time, but alas we encounter limits in our ability to change.
Our own rate of change is like our air speed after jumping from a plane. Initially we accelerate toward our end point moving faster and faster. Eventually however, we reach terminal velocity: we are still moving quickly in the direction we intended, we just aren’t moving any faster. The resistance of the air is pushing back on us just as hard as the earth is pulling us toward itself.
Similarly, our ability to change has a terminal velocity. Often we start a change in our lives and just when things are moving in the right direction, the earth doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer nor do we feel like we are moving any faster. Instead of staying the course, we pull the rip cord and start drifting somewhere else. But it’s not only when we get bored that we end up floating in a different direction, it also happens when we get distracted.
Recently, I was trying to feed a newborn baby. The bottle was in her mouth but she wasn’t sucking, she was instead wriggling and moving her hands and feet all over the place. So many new sensations that she couldn’t actually do the most vital — eating. Everything was set to satisfy her hunger, but she was too distracted. We swaddled her arms and legs so they were held tight and almost right away she realized there was a bottle in her mouth and started eating.
We can be the same way and think we can change 100 things all at once, but just as we can’t change more quickly than our terminal velocity, similarly we can’t change many things at once. Sometimes in order to focus on changing the right thing, we need to free ourselves from the distractions, even good ones, that keep us from the most vital things.
Improvement only occurs with consistent effort applied over a long period of time.
Let’s not get frustrated when we wish it was happening faster but stay the course. Similarly, let’s not try to fix everything but fix and improve the most important things first. Just like free fall, we have a terminal velocity to how quickly we can change.
Photo Credit: Andy Ciordia
But won’t your manager be mad that you’re doing something that isn’t your job?
- A good friend after I told him about a project I was working on that would help the organization but was never explicitly requested.
What job description did you get hired into? – Two different people when I told them I accepted a job
What’s funny about these questions is not that I didn’t have an answer once they were asked, though both surprised me. It’s that it never crossed my mind to even ask them of myself.
Like when my friend sprained his ankle playing basketball and I asked him what happened, how he fell, how he landed. Really getting a feel for the nature of his injury. When I got home, I shared news of the sprain with my wife and her first question was: “Who was he playing basketball with?” – that never even crossed my mind.
We aren’t wired to asked the same questions others might ask, but our questions reveal a lot about our mindset. The questions my colleagues asked represent a common mentality in large corporations and illustrate a particular perspective of how we see our jobs.
There are two ways to define a set of laws: positive law and negative law. Positive law states all the things we are allowed to do, everything else is prohibited. Negative law forbids a set of actions and everything else is permitted. As a result, negative law provides more freedom of action because it allows far more things.
This same distinction carries over to how we see our job. A “positive” job description describes the entire extent of what we do. We don’t do anything else. A negative job description says we avoid tasks that we’re explicitly prohibited from doing, but otherwise we do whatever needs to be done to help everyone succeed (not just the things we were asked to do). We find new problems that maybe no one has seen and start working on solutions even though no one asked us to.
There is no doubt that it is much easier to be just a cog in the machine and do that, and only that, which has been explicitly demanded. In a world filled with ambiguity and challenges, where employees are found all over the world, being a cog is not enough to be valued. Those above us in the organization are inundated with decisions and problems. They won’t see the things that we see. We must look for the things that need to be done but that no one has asked us to do. One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, wrote a book called Linchpin that had this same message. We must be the one that others count on to get the job done even if it’s beyond what’s explicitly asked of us.
No job description is explicitly negative (do everything EXCEPT this), but many people see their job description as a positive one (do this and only this) even though they don’t need to. I don’t define myself by the job description I was given nor do I limit myself to helping in only those ways. Neither should you. We should look beyond just the work we’re supposed to do and figure out how we help make the whole organization work better together. It’s far more rewarding and far more freeing.