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Archive for January 2010

Heroic Organizations are People Too

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Fictionalized heroes cut across virtually all cultures and abound in movies and books, for the display of heroism is a tried and true mechanism for financial if not critical success and has the makings of a good story. The scene usually revolves around people in peril, with nowhere to turn, and then unexpectedly when all seems lost, a hero appears to save the day.  While there can be variation on some of the superficial characteristics of a hero, the mythology of the underlying traits are very much held constant with fearlessness, risk taking, bravery, compassion, personal strength and perseverance, fairness, being a good listener and  the willingness to sacrifice one’s own gain for others commonly seen. Not all of the characteristics have to be on display for a person to be classified as heroic.

In the real world we look for heroes as well. Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dali Lama, Mao Zedong, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Yitzhak Rabin, Che Guevara, and Franklin Roosevelt are examples of what some consider heroes. Of course the list I chose as examples includes some that are heroes to one group and villains to another. In some respects heroism vs. villainy is in the eye of the beholder.

Children dream about heroes, wanting to become one, and perhaps swooping down from on high to save the populace from a menacing figure. That swooping down from on high has obvious connotations and you rarely see a hero coming up from the underworld to save the day, unless as they do they cast off the archetypical characteristics of the underworld as they emerge into herodom.

Sometimes inanimate objects take on hero status as perhaps a representation of greater ideals.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty have become almost as famous as the statue itself, propelling the idea of what America was about, what we stood for into the status of heroic, and one representation of America as hero became the statue itself. I don’t know of a single American who is not emotionally moved, some to tears, upon seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. For me personally it is a thrill each and every time I catch sight of the lovely lady in the harbor. Foreign visitors often react similarly, for America as heroic is something that resonates far beyond our shores with many people yearning for that person, object or organization that can take care of our seemingly overwhelming problems and save the day. For many, America is the hero they are waiting for to swoop in. Humans characterized as heroic, or human inhabited organizations of course are not perfect, as they contain the same imperfections seen in all of us.

If we use the analogy that America is simply a large organization, we can see that at its best America indeed does fulfill the definition of heroic behavior. Not because America itself is heroic, but because the people that make up America choose to behave in a heroic fashion. Think of our roles in World Wars I and II, our reactions after natural disasters around the world, our willingness to serve as a safe haven for those who are persecuted, our science that has enabled the combating of diseases and starvation, greatly improving the lives of billions. And while America certainly has a history that contains elements of non-heroic behavior, think of slavery, the American Indians, Jim Crowe laws, the treatment of some immigrants, toleration of homelessness, unemployment and inaccessible medical care that allows people to die in anguish, our trend-line, if one can characterize it that way, has been moving overall in a positive direction.

If we examine corporations and CEOs against the standard of hero, it becomes easier to see why at this moment some individual ones, both CEOs and corporations, as well as whole industries are easily vilified. Remember the characteristics of a hero: fearlessness, risk taking, bravery, compassion, personal strength and perseverance, fairness, being a good listener and the willingness to sacrifice one’s own gain for others. The risk taking aspects of some organizations has certainly been discussed through this recession, but the other characteristics according to public perception would certainly be lacking in many of today’s public companies and CEOs. The notion in today’s corporations as typified by George Merck’s original vision for the company that bears his name is rarely seen.

“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 Merck  – 1950

Within some corporations you have a situation today where employees are being asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and at the same time you have CEO’s and others in senior management granting themselves large share options at historically low share prices and giving themselves large performance or retention raises and bonuses. Raises or bonuses that are often tied to achieving profitability, which at the moment is often achieved not by growth and expansion but by laying off employees. “Tough day at the office hon?” “Yeah, I laid off 25% of the workforce, I feel just terrible about it, but then I met my performance target so I got a $450,000 raise.” “Shall we go out to dinner?” Doesn’t exactly fit the definition of heroic, does it, and it is certainly a trust buster for the remaining employees.

While heroes are often looked up to and viewed as worthy of emulation, I would argue that an organization that promotes heroic behavior on the part of the employee as a mechanism for driving performance and/or customer satisfaction is doing itself great harm. Achieving organizational goals or performance for the customer based on heroism is not sustainable and causes the organization to rely on the exception, the “out of the norm” behavior in order to meet goals and achieve performance. True heroism is a rare commodity, it is the exception not the rule, and an organization that makes use of it in the ordinary course is building a house of cards with respect to its performance and ability to deliver. Organizations need to build robust performance and delivery mechanisms and systems that don’t rely on heroic behavior. Organizations themselves are an abstraction, and exist simply because a group of individuals with a shared vision and goals come together to accomplish what they alone singularly cannot. There is no such thing as a heroic organization, only individuals who choose to behave as such and in aggregate create heroism at scale.

Everyday real life heroes do exist around us and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. In Sakai, Japan there is a retired policeman, Yukio Shinge who spends his time at Tojimbo, where he and 77 volunteers have saved 222 people who in their desperation were going to throw themselves off the cliffs to their deaths (NY Times, December 18, 2009). A real life hero is a mother who works two or three jobs in order to make ends meet so that her children can have a place to live, or a father who works at whatever work he can find in order to put food on the table. A hero is a pilot who lands his crippled aircraft on the Hudson River saving hundreds, but then doesn’t revel in his heroism, choosing instead to speak out against what he sees as a flawed system. A hero is a CEO who reduces his/her own salary so that fewer people in their organization need to be laid off. A hero is someone who jumps down on the subway tracks and lies down on top of a stranger, protecting them from the passing subway car. A hero is someone who, even though they can’t afford it, is willing to give to those who have less, or those who are suffering from a disaster, natural or otherwise. A hero is someone who when they see a wrong or a person in need does something about it.

Virtually all of us at some point in our lives will have at least one opportunity to act in a heroic fashion, our 15 minutes of heroism, if you will. Whether you choose to grab those 15 minutes is up to you. You too can be a hero, if you so choose.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved. Visit OV:

People at Work, or is it Life?

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The notion that people join organizations and leave bosses tends to be an overly simplistic depiction of the complexities of why people join and leave organizations. After years and years of research and literally hundreds of articles and books published on the topic there is no mystery regarding what people around the world want out of a job experience or a career. And while you can spend your time searching and highlighting the minutia that indicates differences, perhaps driven by your research design, the bottom line is that people at work, humans, are more the same than we are different, and I don’t care if we are talking about generational differences, gender, ethnicity or perceived geographic differences. And while there are as many ways to state it as there are researchers to describe it, the fundamental underlying characteristics of what people want include:

  • A clear and compelling message or reason regarding what the organization is about, why it exists, what it stands for, what it hopes to accomplish and knowledge of how each individual person within it can support it in a meaningful fashion. In other words, give me a compelling reason for belonging; make it desirable for me to join up.
  • Performance enablement – providing individuals within the organization what’s needed to accomplish their tasks in a way which creates pride. Align those tasks to the compelling message. In other words, make me feel like what I do is important in the organization’s mission.  Additionally important to enablement is:
    • Working for a management team that is effective, trustworthy, ethical (warning: people’s definition of ethics is dependent on their role in the organization), makes individuals feel valued and accepted, and puts sensible business processes in place, positioning the organization well within its markets and industry, whatever those may be.
  • Create a sense of future – give me compelling reasons to stick around such as:
    • Fair and respectful treatment – the equity equation – you get out what you consider to be fair for what you put in, covering pay, benefits, recognition, rewards and advancement as well as being treated in a respectful and dignified fashion
    • The ability to stay current in your skills and to develop new skills.

These characteristics which can create a motivated workforce within organizations are nothing new and are not limited to private sector, or for-profit kinds of organizations, they apply to NGOs, not-for-profits, educational, governmental institutions, religious organizations, just about any kind of organization you can name, because they apply universally to what we as humans want, not just from the work experience but out of any organizational relationships in which we engage.

In some organizations members actually pay for the privilege of membership, but the equity equation – you get out of the organization, what you consider to be a fair return on your investment, is still an overriding factor. If I join a private golf course, I will pay for the privilege of playing golf on their links. The sense of enjoyment and satisfaction I get from that experience is what keeps the equity equation in balance during that transaction, and makes paying the organization for the privilege of joining rather than being paid by the organization a fair arrangement. And for instance, if I work at a store, selling goods, I would expect what I perceive to be fair compensation for my labors. If that store is a place where I volunteer my time because it happens to be a charity were the money raised helps the homeless, I may not get paid in monetary terms, but I may find myself just as pleased with the equity equations, just as rewarded, by my increased sense of personal contribution to helping solve the homelessness issue. The equity equations must stay in balance during the individual/organizational transaction regardless of the kind of organization.

There are those who in interpreting this finding transform it to pay is not a significant contributor to satisfaction at work. They are wrong. Pay is a very significant contributor until the equity equations are in balance. Once I achieve balance in the equity equations, a perceived fairness in the organizational transaction in which I am engaging, pay can drop in importance and other things can take on more importance. When the equity equations are not in balance, pay as a mechanism of achieving balance is indeed very important. And rather than the rote regurgitation of key driver lists of what causes what in employee attitudes, looking at an attitudinal characteristic along the continuum of its possible expression, rather than at a single discrete level would more properly illustrate its importance in driving employee attitudes and in achieving a proper organizational culture.

Sometimes extreme situations act as a magnifying glass, making it easier to illustrate what we know about people at work. One example occurred during and immediately following the World Trade Center disaster. One organization located near ground zero, was in the middle of an employee survey when the planes hit. They completed the survey afterwards and that created a situation with a pre-9/11 and post-9/11 comparison for workers at that location. Some workers were told to go home, for they had no place to work, not a single one though lost a day’s pay or benefits, but they were not involved in getting the organization back up and running. This group was sitting at home as events within the company unfolded feeling somewhat helpless. A second group was told, please come to this location and help get the company back up and running. The first group in the pre/post comparison showed a significant decline in attitudes, while the second group showed a marked increase over their pre-9/11 attitudes. In other words, being involved in and contributing to efforts that made the individual feel valued and important to the success of the organization gave the attitudes of that population a big boost.

What about the terrorist who drove those planes into the towers. Certainly those subhuman animals must be driven by different factors than you or I? Might they be driven by human needs as well? Consider this, “…researchers now agree that most terrorists are not pathological in any traditional sense…” (American Psychologist, November 2009). John Horgan, Ph.D., International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, found that those who are more open to recruitment as terrorists:

  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie, and a heightened sense of identity
  • Feed the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem
  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change
  • Identify with the perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral
  • Have family or friends sympathetic to the cause.

And in recent work done to “deprogram” terrorists, one fruitful avenue seems to be in getting the terrorist to recognize that the promises initially made upon joining up were false promises, such the glorious lifestyle, or to demonstrate that the leaders of the terrorist organizations actually held values differing from those they espoused in order to get them to join in the first place. In other words pointing out the violations to the expectations of what people were looking for when they first joined the organization.

One issue that comes up fairly often as a contributing factor of turnover in organizations is that newly hired workers come to the realization that the job that they are performing is not as advertised by the recruiters, or as promised by the hiring managers. A technique that has been found to reduce turnover is to give people a realistic job preview, truthfully telling people exactly what they are going to be doing, and truthfully telling people what it is like to work in the organization which they are considering joining. So, as it turns out, one method that is used to help deprogram terrorists is one that seems to naturally occur in some organizations as a driver of turnover, pointing out or coming to the realization that there is an incongruity between promises made at the beginning of the relationship to the actual facts on the ground. Getting terrorists to leave terror organizations shares some similarity to the reasons why employees may leave organizations on their own.

Maybe as we work and work and write and write to describe what people want out of work we should take a step back and first describe what is it exactly that people want out of life. And rather than separating work and life into an artificial duality of work-life and personal-life, our time would be better spent on life integration.

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

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Searching for a Gang in Nebraska

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I was in Las Vegas for a business meeting that finished on a Friday afternoon and needed to be in Lincoln, Nebraska for a Monday morning meeting.  Instead of heading all the way back to NY for an abbreviated weekend, I decided to spend the weekend in Lincoln. I was up early Sunday morning, and after reading a story in the New York Times about a reporter who went looking for gang members in Salisbury, North Carolina, and ended up getting arrested himself, I decided to head out and look for gang members in Nebraska.

I made myself a peanut butter sandwich to take with me for lunch, not being sure about the food that would be available to me in jail. I stopped at the front desk and told the clerk that I was researching information about gang activity in Nebraska and could she tell me where to find the nearest gang members I could talk to. She tilted her head at me and her jaw dropped a bit, clearly she was not going to spill the beans. These gangs must have had her so terrified that she wouldn’t talk to me about where to find them. I took off on my own in search of Nebraska’s gangs.

I wanted to learn more about the attributes of gang membership. Why do people join these organizations, what makes membership attractive, what do members get out of the organization and what do they put into it and importantly how can we get people out of gangs and into productive endeavors?

From my hotel, I turned right onto 70th Street and headed to the north side of town. Along the way I passed a VA medical center which looked like it had quite a crowd, perhaps a gang gathering place. Upon investigation the cars belonged to members of the medical staff, no gangs here. I then passed a large YMCA, which has a reputation as a gathering place, perhaps I could find gang members there, but as it was early Sunday morning its parking lots were empty. I continued on my way and then spotted two very large windmills, a logical meeting place on a rise as gang members would be able to spot trouble coming from a long way off. By the time I got there though the gangs had likely seen me coming and had melted away. I turned around, winding my way through town and headed south on Route 2, the Nebraska Highway, towards a town called Nebraska City, population 7,228, as it has been rumored to be troubled by gangs. About half way there I came across a burnt out pickup truck on the side of the road. Based on my experiences in the Bronx this definitely looked gang related, things were looking up.

Youth gangs and criminal gangs are an ongoing and terrible problem, not just in the USA but world-wide. We need to look carefully at the motivators of gang membership and do what we can to disrupt the cycle, the reasons that people, especially the young join gangs. A good number of gifted young adults have their potential lost to a life of entrapment in gang membership – a lifelong dead-end.  Interestingly, one of the attractors of gang membership is that the gang provides attributes and an environment that the person otherwise can not get. Some of the attributes are strikingly similar to what other kinds of organizations strive for. In other words people are once again similar and are looking for certain attributes in their lives and if they can’t get it from one source they will get it elsewhere, from where it is available. The National Gang Crime Research Center, in a massive study on gang behavior including data from North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, California, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa found these characteristics (an abbreviated and slightly edited list) of gangs and gang member in those areas:

  • Members were more likely to have close friends within the gang.
  • Over half utilize special codes (somewhat like acronyms).
  • Two thirds have written rules and procedures regarding behavior.
  • Four-fifths report leadership has long term tenure.
  • Half have taken action to create financial gain for their gang.
  • Half report regular weekly meetings in their gang.
  • A common reason they joined was to make money.
  • Another reason was to seek protection and security.
  • About half were recruited, and half applied to join the gang.
  • Many said they would quit given the right circumstances.
  • Most of the gangs have female members.
  • About half of the gangs have female members in a leadership capacity, but in a more supportive or middle-management role.
  • About two-thirds felt that the gang has kept its promises to them.
  • A third report they have never met the top leader.
  • A new twist on unrealistic expectations: Two-fifths felt they would someday be the top leader.
  • About half agreed that they feel protected and loved by their gang.
  • Most report wearing special articles of clothing or clothing of certain colors.

The list produces a somewhat eerie feeling, as it could be a list of any organization’s attributes and why people tend to join or leave them.

I got to Nebraska City and found a cabin on the side of the road dating back to the mid 1800’s. An historical placard indicated that it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, a place were slaves fleeing for their freedom found welcoming refuge. The sign next to it indicated that John Browne, the abolitionist, had been there about a half a dozen times.  It lifted my spirits as clearly this was a spot where people were used to secret signals and hidden gatherings. I was on my way to finding gang members.

I continued onward into Nebraska City and followed the signs to Lied Lodge and Convention Center and Arbor Farm, an organization devoted to planting trees. Upon parking and entering their building, I was struck by how beautiful it was. The building was graceful and well designed with soaring ceilings, massive stone fireplaces surrounded by massive tree-trunk sized supporting beams holding up wood beamed ceilings. Large leather overstuffed couches and chairs filled a reception area and a piano player was stroking the keys of a grand piano in the corner. I sank into one of the chairs to listen for a while to the soothing music. This was nice. I looked up and saw a sign draped high over the reception desk saying “sign up, become a member”. A gang of tree lovers, I could definitely get into this! I immediately went over to the desk and began to ask questions about the requirements to join this group. I then went for a walk through the trails munching on my peanut butter sandwich, as I had yet to see a police officer during my searching.

On my way back to Lincoln, I pulled into Eagle, Nebraska population 1,105. I passed a dirt track raceway where people gather to see races, I suspect gang members among them. In town I saw a older guy standing on the corner next to the post office, cane in hand. I flashed him the secret hand signal indicating that I wanted to talk to him about his gang. He gave me a blank stare. Boy the gangs here are tough, not willing to recognize the secret signal for having a conversation.

In general, people want to belong, they want to feel they are part of something and it is very compelling when that something makes them feel valued, makes them feel that are doing something special, it can make them feel proud. One reason that gangs have been so hard to break up is because many times gang members feel like they have no alternatives, they are driven into the gang by a sense of helplessness with their life as it existed. The gang, however awful, provides an alternative. The same parallels could be drawn for many terrorist organizations as well.

In Philadelphia the Chief of Police is calling for 10,000 men to help police patrol the city to reduce the crime wave that is drowning that city, presumably a portion gang related. However, while it is a start, it is generally recognized that putting people on the street will not solve the issue completely.  “Amid the weed-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings of North Philadelphia, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the six men who gathered to talk, drink and play cards say the young people who pull guns and deal drugs need jobs, recreation centers, after-school programs and, most of all, parents who care for them.” (New York Times, September 29, 2007).

On Monday morning, I headed to my business meeting. It was just a gang of us getting together to do some sales planning – of course I can’t tell you what we discussed, it was a confidential, secret meeting.

“Bloom where you are planted”

Anonymous sign at the edge of a corn field on Route 34

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 16, 2010 at 6:51 am


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Spring is once again struggling to exert its’ dominance over the winter months and signs of the coming thaw abound. A pair of hooded mergansers, 3 pairs of wood ducks, a few mallards and 1 pair of geese were spotted on the pond over the last few weeks, robins have been jumping up and down on the lawn conducting their traditional mating dance, and daffodils are doing their best to poke their leaves above the ground, all harbingers of the coming season.

In another annual right of spring, we traveled to Vermont over the weekend, about a 4 hour trek, for the annual Maple Syrup festival. We went sugaring, visiting 4 farms that produce maple syrup. At one farm there were maybe 50-75 new born baby lambs and some new born baby pigs in evidence. Sheep will often have one lamb born at a time a ratio of 1 offspring for each ewe or 1:1. But they may have up to three for a ratio of 3:1. Pigs of course are in a whole different category with large numbers born per sow. The new mother we saw had 9 piglets suckling, we think, for a ratio of 9:1. It was hard to get an exact count with all the little bodies pushed up against mom.

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, is part of a famous sequence of numbers made more famous by the book and movie “The Da Vinci Code”. Called the Fibonacci sequence, each number in the string is the sum of the previous two, a simple rule. The sequence along with other related mathematical sequences show up in places that some would consider unexpected. In nature as you look at objects as diverse as pine cones, leaf growth and galaxies this sequence or closely related sequences of numbers comes into play. The sequence of numbers represents the outcome when certain simple rules of nature are being followed. For the buds on a cone of a spruce tree the rule (chemically driven) seems to be to form a new bud that will turn into a needle, as distantly as possible from the last bud that formed on the cone. As this rule is followed a spiral pattern of new needles forms following the golden ratio or the Fibonacci sequence. From simple rules tremendous complexity can emerge.

Complex flight patterns and flocking behavior of birds was simulated by Craig Reynolds in a program called Boids. He showed that 3 rules can be used to describe the behaviors of flocks of birds. He called the rules, Separation, Alignment and Cohesion. The separation rule was to steer to avoid crowding local flock mates (don’t hit anyone). The alignment rule was to steer to the average heading of the local flock (go in the direction that most everyone else is) and the cohesion rule was to steer to the average position of the others in the local flock (don’t lose sight of your friends). Applying those three simple rules allowed Craig to create a simulation of complex bird flocking patterns.        

In the maple sugaring process tree sap is gathered from sugar maples, traditionally in galvanized steel buckets hanging from taps driven into the trees. In larger operations the sap is collected by a series of plastic tubes leading from the tree downhill to a collection point. The one farm we visited had tapped 7,000 trees, another 9,000. Sap starts to run when you have cold nights, in the 20s (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower and warmer days hitting 40 degrees or so. One 5th generation farmer told me that it looked like it was going to be a very good harvest this year. So far about 2/3rds of the way into the season he had already produced 2000 gallons of maple syrup, where most years in total he would produce between 1400 and 1600 gallons. (A gallon of freshly made maple syrup was selling for between $36 and $40 dollars at the farm).

In order to produce 2,000 gallons of syrup 80,000 gallons of maple sap must be boiled down, a ratio of 40:1. That is a lot of sap, a lot of raw product that is needed to produce 1 gallon of the especially fine Vermont maple syrup. It is as though you are concentrating the essence of the tree as you create maple syrup and in fact that is exactly what you do. The collected sap, fresh from the trees, sits inside a large tank, external to the sugar house. A pipe from that tank leads into an evaporator in the sugar house. (Prior to the sap going into the evaporator some water is removed using a reverse osmosis process.) In the evaporator there is a channel, a pathway through the evaporator that the sap follows. It enters in one end as a cold raw ingredient and as it travels to the other end it boils away the water leaving the maple syrup concentrate. Once the sap boils at 219 degrees (this temperature gets adjusted based on altitude), or 7 degrees above the boiling point of water you have maple syrup. And that syrup gets drained out of the evaporator, filtered, graded by color, and bottled. From a large amount of raw ingredients a gem of a final product emerges, if you follow a simple rule – the syrup is not ready unless it boils at 219 degrees. If it boils at a lower temperature it is not sufficiently concentrated. (If it boils at a higher temperature you are going to get maple candy not syrup).

New research on sudden insights, solutions to problems or paths forward to solving issues has recently been emerging. Some of the findings indicate that along with unique patterns of electrical activity in the brain prior to these moments of insight, there is a somewhat simple rule that if followed can lead to moments of inspiration.  That simple rule is to expand the number of possible solutions, to broaden one’s horizon, allowing new combinations of solutions to emerge for potential consideration. As new interconnections between possibilities are generated a potential solution, leading to a breakthrough or sudden insight can emerge, a so-called “Aha” moment. A 2004 research study documented that just prior to reporting a sudden insight subjects had a large amount of electrical activity in the right-brain region responsible for integrating pieces of information, however distant.

It is as though you are starting with a large amount of raw ingredients, potential solutions and running these ideas through an evaporator, your brain, and when an idea reaches the right temperature out pops your final product, a potentially novel solution that can hopefully be successfully implemented. The ratio of sap to syrup, of raw ingredients to final product, 40:1, might not be too far off from what you should aim for as you consider potential solutions to your more vexing problems.

Bay-of-Pigs thinking or Groupthink is when members of a group try to minimize potential conflict in the group and reach consensus without critically testing and analyzing alternative ideas. It is as though one idea floats to the top, possibly promulgated by a leader within the group and without group members feeling that alternatives can be raised, explored for possible implementation. The reasons this occurs are varied but some potential reasons why group members may avoid raising alternative is to avoid looking foolish, assuming that others know more than they do, to avoid conflict with other group members or to prevent isolationism from others within the group (a punishment for not falling into line). For those presenting ideas that become part of the Groupthink process it can be a matter of control over the group, a matter of power display.

Avoiding Groupthink and possibly finding moments of insight and novel solutions might be as easy as remembering a simple easy to following ratio. 40:1 – from simple rules sometimes tremendously great ideas can emerge.

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 12, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Models: Representations of Reality

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Don’t assume you are welcome
Cultivate local support
Respect local religious practices
Don’t abuse prisoners
Withdraw if your objectives are unattainable

    George Washington’s instructions to Benedict Arnold upon sending him on the Quebec Campaign – 1775

    If George Washington’s advice had been heeded in the 21st century perhaps we would be in a better position in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. George Washington was uncertain about what was likely to happen during the various campaigns of the revolutionary war, and so he developed a coping mechanism. He and his other generals made assumptions about what was likely to happen as they plotted out the various battles and campaigns that won America its freedom and he charted potential alternative strategies based upon the gathering of additional information as events unfolded. His decision making, based upon limited information, was enhanced by having models, heuristics or representations of reality that he could draw upon to chart his path. The above instructions to Benedict Arnold used heuristics, Washington’s models, to inform how he believed the war should be prosecuted in order to insure success.

    Reality is not a binary condition. You do not either know what the correct interpretation of events are – reality, or not. Your reality will be heavily influenced by your point of view for none of us has a lock on reality. Each of us, based on our background and experiences, observes, knows about, chooses to process, or is capable of processing only a portion of the totality that represents reality. What is real to us may not be real or perhaps salient to another person. Because of that two or more people can examine the same set of events and come to very different conclusions. Our decisions and behaviors are driven at least partly by our experiences and how we choose to apply those experiences in our interactions with others. Whether we are aware of it or not each of us builds models in our heads or heuristics based upon how we believe the world and our societies operate. Sometimes those heuristics are horribly incorrect, biased or bigoted, (from my point of view) but the human mind has a tendency never-the-less to build these heuristics to simplify and speed decision-making.

    The real usefulness of these interpretations of reality, our models or heuristics is not in describing current events; rather the real usefulness is when they can predict future events. For instance, a weather model can be used to describe the current weather where you live, and while that can make for interesting reading, what you really want to know is whether you need to take an umbrella or a coat with you as you leave the house in the morning, the predictive model informing you on what future weather conditions will be like on your way home.

    Models have been used to predict all sorts of events including famines, school success for students, financial market performance, the likelihood of war or peace, legislative outcomes, judicial renderings, consumer behavior, influenza outbreaks and other disease vectors. Models range in sophistication from a simple heuristic that someone unconsciously holds in their head to super-computer based massive number crunchers based on years of scientific investigation and research. And models range widely in how they are grounded or constructed from the imposition of superstitious belief and frankly voodoo-like conjecture as statements of “truth” regarding what causes what, and how to interpret events to scientifically grounded, evidence-based decision making. Those who construct voodoo-like models or models based on superstitious belief of course will couch their models as evidence-based and it can take a critical and knowing eye to find the flaws in the models that some charlatans pose.

    One voodoo-like example comes from Uganda, which at the moment is considering legislation that makes “aggravated” homosexual behavior punishable by the death penalty. The rationale used to justify this legislation, proposed by David Bahati, is that “It’s not an inborn orientation, it’s a behaviour learnt – and it can be unlearnt. That’s why we are encouraging churches and mosques to continue rehabilitating and counselling these people.” Homosexuality there is viewed by some as an attack on the traditional African family unit. The Ugandans are basing part of the rationale for this legislation on guidance from three American evangelicals, whose teachings about “curing” homosexuals have been widely discredited in the United States. (New York Times January 3rd, 2010). The “models” that have been used to justify the legislation are based on heuristics that if allowed to come to fruition will result in unjustifiable and needless deaths, a crime against humanity.

    Similarly a speech illustrative of these points came when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader of Iran was asked about the persecution of homosexuals under his administration in a speech he was giving at Columbia University. His response was that Iran did not have any homosexuals. The students simply laughed at him which was the only time in his talk at Columbia that he looked somewhat rattled. Is his heuristic that no homosexuals really exist in Iran, could he possibly be that naive? Or is it that you can’t admit to their existence in his version of the perfect Iran that he is creating? Or is he personally simply uncomfortable with the topic? Either way, the outcome behavior, the persecution of innocent people is abhorrent.

    Whenever I see someone, whether they be politicians, pundits, religious figures, anti-crime crusaders, CEO’s or other managers, railing against certain “sins” or behaviors, I am left wondering what heuristic or world view could these people possibly hold that would allow them to be such ardent spokespeople for how they feel the world should operate and everyone in it behave. They of course believe that they are right and others holding differing opinions are wrong, but underneath that layer, my own heuristics kick in, suggesting that we are seeing tremendously insecure, frightened people who don’t know how to rationally deal with their insecurity or fears. The homophobic behavior on the part of the Americans, Iranians and Ugandans may be based their own sexual insecurity for instance. How many times do we see “fallen” crusaders in the press who go down in flames for committing the very acts that they so loudly condemn?

    However flawed some models are, in my opinion, even the best of models are only subsets of all the variables that make up the real world. Freeman Dyson, one of the mathematical geniuses involved in the Manhattan Project took a lot of heat when in an interview on global warming in the NY Times he stated “They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.” His point was not that global warming was not happening, but rather exact predictions, based on models that are only representations of reality, rather than reality itself, can go only so far in modeling what is likely to happen.

    The truth, reality, can be worse than the model predicts or it may not be as severe. As scientists, we work constantly to improve our models to reduce the degree of error and to increase the confidence levels in our models. One key towards that goal is to base models on substantial quantities of data and not on small sample sizes, or biased or skewed population pools which would occur when a non-random sample is used for model development. During model development large random samples with control groups, following good experimental design procedures can help enormously, but in the real world that kind of rigor is not always seen.

    Is one to reject models and the concepts around modeling as hopelessly flawed? That is not going to happen, as we are hardwired as a species to use modeling in our decision making, and our science upon which our world so heavily depends is itself dependent on modeling in order to make predictions about future events, giving us insight into how our world functions. The answer is for people to be more aware of the strengths and limitations of models and to ask more critical questions when someone presents a model or heuristic as “the answer” or as predictive of how others or our environment will or should behave. In order to do that we may all have to get a little more knowledgeable about models and modeling.

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

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