Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Science

Fact(ish)

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“ish” seems to be gaining in popularity. At least it appears that way to me when I occasionally hear my high schooler chatting with her friends. Cool, groovy, far-out, rad, are out and “ish” seems to be in, along with “literally”. Not that ish is new.  “ish” has, in the distant past of parental youth, meant “approximately”. “When would you like dinner?” “Seven-ish”, has been around for a long time. But “ish” is now being attached to all sorts of words to mean “sort of” or is even being used as a standalone word. “Did you get your homework done?” “Yes-ish”.  “How did today go at school?” “ish.” If I respond with “Do you literally mean ish?” I am the recipient of the rolling eyeball “you are so out of touch” look. “ish”, one is left wondering exactly what that means, though the basic gist is certainly there.

In science and organizational decision-making we try to be as “un-ish” as we possibly can be. We want to manage, make decisions, prove our point, develop our facts by relying on incontrovertible proof, on evidence that the course of action we select or the points we are trying to prove simply cannot be denied. Except that is not how humans often draw conclusions. In one study that a friend of mine did he tracked, among HR professionals, the proportion of their “best outcome” decisions vs. their “worst outcome” decisions and each contained a “leap-of-faith”. Meaning that even after all the facts were assembled, all the evidence in, a leap-of-faith was required to make a decision. Mostly because it is impossible to have complete knowledge, so in the absence of omniscience, a leap-of-faith is needed to get the job done, or you would forever be analyzing and never taking action.

In research, one study builds on another. A follow-up study may contradict the original, but over a period of time, slowly the preponderance of evidence builds, pointing the way to the best course of action, or uncovering a “truth” by which the world operates. This process can take time. Remember for decades cigarette makers denied that smoking cigarettes caused any health issues and they commissioned their own studies to prove that point. This last week CVS, a major drug store chain, announced that it would stop selling cigarettes and the only analysis to be found was whether the approximately 2 billion dollars in lost business would be made-up by a positive shift in CVS’s reputation. No one, at least in the news reports I saw, refuted the science anymore that cigarettes are bad for your health.

Making sense of the world though is quite different from understanding the world, and when people’s understanding is incomplete or based on a shaky foundation, their interpretations of what is going on can go astray. The Greeks for instance knew and it made perfect sense to them that when there was thunder and lightning that it was caused by Zeus, the king of their gods. Knowing what we now know, it may be difficult to understand how the ancient Greeks really felt about that. But it was not some cute little story that they used at bed time for the children, while the adults winked at each other. This is what they truly believed, that when it thundered Zeus was speaking. To them this interpretation of the world made sense, for it explained events as they experienced them, even though from our perspective they did not understand the way the world really worked. Today we talk about these Greek beliefs as mythology. One can’t help but wonder which of today’s beliefs will be thought of as mythology a thousand or so years from now.

Each human develops their own mythology of the way the world works and on April 22nd I am going to be conducting a complimentary webinar on “People at Work – Myths vs. Realities”. Feel free to register and join me for what is hopefully going to be an interesting-ish conversation.

Also on February 18th, Scott Brooks and I will be conducting a complimentary webinar on “Why Employee Engagement is not Strategic” and we both would love to see you there.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 9, 2014 at 11:50 am

Warning – Marketing Ahead

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I was sitting in the middle seat with 3 across on a long red-eye flight recently. My legs were cramped, my back was killing me, my seat only went back about 5 degrees and I could not even extend my elbows beyond the armrests since the seats on both sides of me were occupied. What are all those ads about all the comfort you are supposed to experience when you fly? I haven’t seen any comfort in quite some time. I was wondering how I was ever going to get any sleep on the flight and then I got my answer – I didn’t get any. Of course with the seats being so cramped you can’t open up a computer to do any work. So not being able to sleep and not being able to work I started looking at the magazines in the seat back pocket and I thought I would look for other dubious advertising. Since I could not bend at all I simply tore the interesting pages out of the magazines and stuffed them into my briefcase.

Here are some tidbits from the airlines in-flight magazine.  

  • An ad for Babel Yak™, “Learning a language is not only good for your career but it makes you look sexy too!”  Nowhere in the ad is there any explanation on how learning a language will make you look sexy or is the word even used again, only in the attention grabbing headline, so I guess we will have to let our imaginations run wild.
  • “Suntheanine®, the award-winning, patented dietary ingredient for stress.” “…clinically proven to reduce stress, improve the quality of sleep, diminish normal symptoms of PMS, heighten mental acuity, and reduce negative side effects of caffeine.”  Then in very small letters on the bottom of the ad, “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” My immediate thought was who gave them the unnamed award? Since it was not mentioned anywhere I assume they gave it to themselves. As for “clinically proven”, well let’s just say that I would believe the rigorous study with control group design when I see it. For an ingredient that is supposed to do all those things mentioned, to then state that is actually doesn’t treat, cure or prevent anything is a bit of a letdown. Well at least they are honest in the fine print.
  • The screaming headline for Dr. Charles Karrass’s negotiating seminar, “It’s like steroids for your career.” Given all the negative publicity surrounding the steroids scandals in baseball I think I would recommend to Dr. Karrass that he hire a new marketing firm, one not willing to connect his company, however tenuously, with illegal drug use. I have been flying regularly now for about 26 years and I swear it is the same photo of Dr. Karrass in the ads today as it was 26 years ago. I can’t believe that he hasn’t aged in all that time. For a while his son’s picture was also in the ads, but then it disappeared, I guess that did not work out. Maybe dad was so tough in how he wanted to run things that his son left the business. Too bad they couldn’t negotiate on the matter.  
  • “Cenegenics – GQ suggests it is the path to reversing the signs and symptoms of aging.” Well if a respected scientific journal like GQ says it…. In the ad they show a picture of Jeffrey Life, MD at age 67 and describe him as having a body of a 30 year old, except for his head which looks like a 70+ year old head. If this program works to reverse the signs and symptoms of aging how come it doesn’t work above the neck? Maybe Dr. Karrass is using the program and that is why he hasn’t aged in the last 26 years.
  • YogaToes, yes you may not have known it but your toes can do yoga. And if your toes do yoga it will “stretch, strengthen and straighten your toes”. I don’t know about you but my toes are long enough already.
  • You too can buy a $14,615 machine that allows you to exercise in 4 minutes per day. They actually have a statement in the ad that says, “The more we tell people about the ROM the less they believe it.” Ok, I don’t need to hear any more then. If you went and purchased this machine and used it exactly the proscribed 4 minutes a day for a year, 365 workouts, each of your workouts would only cost you $40.04 or $10.01 per minute for that year. What a bargain.

I looked and looked hoping to find the magic bullet that would solve the personal problems I encounter. You see, as I have aged I have found that the hairs in my ears as well as my eyebrows have been growing longer, at the same time that the hair on my head has been thinning out. Yes it sounds quite attractive, I know. What did you say? You don’t have any hair in your ears? You don’t know what you are missing. I searched and searched and searched but could not find any product in the magazine that would get rid of the hair growing out of my ears. No even one that would make a somewhat spurious claim.  Oh well, maybe on the next sleepless flight I will find my magic bullet.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 1, 2009 at 8:39 am

The Ascent of Science

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Bumble bees can’t fly; so goes one of the urban legends that continually seems to float around, popping up here and there when someone wants to make a point and never seemingly to die the death that it should. Recently one presidential candidate likened their campaign to that urban legend. He said, “Well, I compare my success to the Bumblebee. Scientists maintain that, based on its wing-size & the size of its body, it is aerodynamically impossible for the Bumblebee to fly. But the Bumblebee, being ignorant of the science, flies anyways …” Bumblebees of course can fly and science has no problem with their aerodynamics.  While I would question the viability of a presidential candidate who can’t get the basic science right, for do I really want someone who can’t get the basics right making decisions on stem cell research, nuclear issues or global warming, I am more concerned with a bigger picture and that is the critical need for science to become ascendant in our societies. Our societies, organizations and the individuals within them need to make better more informed decisions based on real knowledge, not urban legends, pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales. It is critical and rapidly becoming more important to our long-term well-being.

That quote from the presidential candidate illustrates an issue that is quite troubling and unfortunately fairly widely embraced. The notion that the Bumblebee flies anyway, in spite of the science is not only untrue, for while we as humans may be ignorant of the principles that allow the Bumblebee to fly, (which we are not) the fact the Bumblebee can fly is due to scientific principles and not in spite of them.

For a time in the USA as we reacted to Sputnik, the first rocket sent into space by the Soviets, science was ascendant. We were a society, however briefly, where science was front and center in our decision making. Children widely aspired to become scientists and engineers. More recently we have seemed to have lost our way with respect to science. My concern is that unless science once again becomes front and center in our decision making, becoming once again ascendant, including how our organizations operate we are running some very big risks. 

Here is an illustrative example. Pharmaceutical makers were once one of the most respected kinds of organizations that existed. They were trusted and when they put out a product is was pretty much a sure bet that it was a good product. In a report titled “Recapturing the Vision, Restoring trust in the Pharmaceutical Industry…”, PwC describes how that respect was lost and makes suggestions to the industry on how to recapture it.  

Take for instance Vioxx, the pain reliever and Merck. Merck for a very long time was one of the most respected companies in one of the most respected industries; it was also one of the most profitable. Science was king and that science was by and large the source of that respect. If Merck said it or put it on the market you could count on it.  Historically, the founder of Merck, George W. Merck, created the flowing vision for the company.

“’Our shared vision is to discover, develop and deliver innovative pharmaceutical products that meet a true need and make a real difference to people’s lives.’

 

‘We strive to put medicine before profit and to continue to seek better ways of improving health and meeting our responsibilities as both a research-led company and a caring employer.’

‘We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered that, the larger they have been.’”- George W Merck, 1950

But in the case of Vioxx and Merck’s subsequent reaction to it a picture somewhat different from George Merck’s original vision emerges. “For years, evidence mounted that Vioxx might increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes. For years, its maker, Merck, disputed such findings. In many ways, the short but highly profitable history of Vioxx may prove to be a story about the triumph of marketing over science.” (NY Times October 1, 2004)

“At a fraction of the price that analysts initially estimated it would pay, Merck, one of the largest American drug makers, hopes to put one of the most troubling episodes in its history behind it. The settlement, $4.85 billion, represents only about nine months of profit for Merck… Two years ago, some analysts estimated that Merck would have to pay as much as $25 billion to settle Vioxx claims.” “Besides Merck, the biggest winner in the case may be the plaintiffs’ lawyers. They will split nearly $2 billion in fees and expenses…” (NY Times November 10, 2007).

The episode has been characterized as the triumph of marketing over science within Merck. Extremely damaged by the episode are the stroke and heart attack victims, the Vioxx users (who on average will get $120,000 before the lawyers take 40%) and the reputation of a once respected organization. One medical expert estimated that only 5-10% of the people who took Vioxx should have been on Vioxx but due to the exceptional marketing of the product that demand greatly increased. While hindsight is a wonderful thing, one can’t help but wonder if this would have happened if science was ascendant at Merck.

R. Barker Bausell a biostatistician at the University of Maryland reviews in his book “Snake Oil Science” what is called complementary and alternative medicine, which as he puts it is the scientific term for “something you heard about from your hairdresser, who thinks she saw it on Oprah”, (Newsweek, December 10, 2007) and includes in his review acupuncture, homeopathy, healing magnets and assorted herbs and supplements. All of these “treatments” are extremely popular today and have no evidence of actually benefiting, other than through the power of suggestion, those who partake of them.  People who are in need reach out to any source of comfort and begin to practice wishful or magical thinking. But what concerns me the most about the popularity of these treatments is their growing acceptance into the mainstream, using urban legends, pseudoscience or take- it-on-faith rationales to justify their use. The continual rise of pseudoscience or take-it-on-faith rationales is contributing to a decline in the use of real science in not only our health products but in our everyday personal and organizational lives and we should all be greatly concerned about this.

Repeatedly humanity has been challenged by threats or perceived threats to our existence. Malthus in his 1798 essay predicted that our population growth as a species would outrun our food supply. He did not foresee advances in agriculture including new fertilizers, technology that mechanized farming and vastly improved strains of food crops. Huxley in his 1938 novel “Brave New World” envisions a humanity that must give up it’s essence in order to live in his version of utopia. He did not foresee the new frontiers of space or deep water exploration or the other new challenges that we would make for ourselves, the new frontiers we would choose to explore. Explosive population growth, pollution, shortage of clean drinking water, disease, energy shortages, climate change, deforestation, desertification, sustainable development, the elimination of biodiversity, poverty, hunger, abuse, displaced populations, war and terrorism, we have an extensive list of challenges facing us today and unforeseen even more complex and more difficult challenges will arise in the future.

Our lives and our societies are rapidly getting much more complex and much more interconnected; our organizations are following the same trajectory. Decisions made in one place, one organization or in one area of specialty have wider ranging ripple effects than ever before. The multiple interconnections mean that many of our decisions will cut across social structures, industries, borders, economies and individuals like never before.

Historically solutions to these challenges have been technological and scientific in nature. As our societies and structures become more complex as our challenges become more intricate we must forego the pseudoscience, the take-it-on-faith approach that is so popular now and we must one again make science ascendant.

While these ideas are vast and cover a broad range of topics it may be helpful to take it down to the more mundane concept of the employee life-cycle within an organization to help illustrate the point of a more scientific approach to organizational decision making. The employee life-cycle is the total career time that an employee spends within an organization. Roughly the cycle consists of recruitment, assessment and selection, on-boarding, early-career, mid-career and late-career retention and finally either through the employee’s choice, the organization’s choice or nature’s choice, exiting. In the vast majority of organizations today these activities exist as unconnected, disjointed activities and events, and some organizations use nothing more than the seat-of-your-pants decision making to navigate these waters.

As organizations strive to compete in this ever more complex world, a competitive advantage will be gained by inter-connecting these employee life-cycle events through a rigorous scientific research program aimed at maximizing the organization’s performance at each stage. This life-cycle research can be greatly enhanced by utilizing the vastly improved information systems available today in organizations, for now you can actually track the same individual through these various stages, creating feedback loops from later stages back to earlier stages that enables organizations to improve methods, policies and procedures at each life-cycle stage to enhance performance. Organizations that do this first and do it well will find themselves outperforming their competitive laggards. This scientific approach to the employee life-cycle while perhaps illustrative is merely the very tip of the iceberg in terms of how science can become ascendant in our organizations.

More broadly, taking a rigorous data or fact-based approach to individual decisions, organizational decisions, and societal decisions will help us to literally better weather the storms that are approaching. There will always be some who will be tempted by the quick and dirty, or take-it-on-faith approach sold by others, but the real long-term winners organizationally will be those that do the hard work. And as interconnected societies we have no choice, we need to do the hard work associated with fact-based decision making, founded on scientific principles, not pseudoscience, in order to help assure our long-term success and survival.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 30, 2009 at 2:41 pm

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