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Enhancing Organizational Performance

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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