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Archive for July 2010

Frying it makes it OK

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“Frying it makes it ok.” Those were the words of an emotional commercial fisherman whose fishing grounds were in the Gulf of Mexico, as he was being interviewed by a reporter about how his fishing business had collapsed due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He was however still fishing to put food on the table for his family and when asked why he thought it was ok to feed the potentially tainted fish to his family but not sell it commercially, “Frying it makes it ok” was his response.

As I looked at the man being interviewed I could not help but see upon his face a look that told me he did not truly believe what he was saying, but he felt it necessary to mouth words that perhaps justified his actions of desperation, taken in order to feed his family. Upon further reflection I was left wondering if I had read too much into the man’s expression, or perhaps misread it. Maybe this was a case of the fisherman’s knowledge exceeding my own, certainly that would not be hard given what I know about fishing. Or perhaps what I saw on his face was wishful thinking, true belief, illusion born of desperation or simple ignorance. It got me wondering just what is it about the fish swimming in the gulf that made them unsafe to eat and what I found in searching was that there are chemicals in the crude oil called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which have been shown to cause cancer. They are ingested by the fish as they swim through the crude oil and end up in their flesh. So the risk is there, but it still left me wondering about the fisherman’s reaction. Perhaps the fisherman thought that the odds of anything happening to his family were low enough to justify the risk. Or perhaps having already suffered the loss of his business, he felt that the specter of disaster would now pass over his family, not striking twice, even if they ate the tainted food.

What are the odds? Odds are a funny thing, often given to misinterpretation and manipulation. I had some family visiting from a very small upstate NY town a few weeks ago and we did the obligatory New York City sightseeing. We started at Grand Central, took the #4 to Ground Zero, walked over to the Battery and glimpsed the Statue of Liberty, ate lunch in Little Italy and walked through China Town. On the walk through China Town, one of our visitors ducked inside a small bodega, which is a very small grocery-like store. He bought several lottery tickets with money his small-town neighbor had given him. The logic behind why she wanted him to purchase the tickets in NYC was that all the lottery winners seem to come from the big city and not the small town where she lived. The numbers of tickets sold in her small town versus the big city would of course be orders of magnitude different but that did not seem to enter into her calculation. She just figured there were more winners in NYC.

(For some the lottery is as addicting and financially debilitating as smoking or drinking and while we seem to value cutting those additions, we don’t seem to be doing much to cut the addiction to the lottery, rather quite the contrary. The lottery itself is nothing more than a regressive tax on many who can ill afford to pay it.)

People regularly miscalculate odds. Add to that how simple it is to make people feel “special” that somehow some magic is going to shine on them and you get some distorted behavior. A friend of mine ran me through this technique of how you can make someone feel really special while at the same time logic screams at them they should not.  Take a room full of people, 100 would do nicely, and tell them that one person in this room is a very special person, possibly the luckiest person on the planet and you can prove it. Split the room in two with roughly half the people on one side and half on the other. Assign one side of the room heads and the other tails. Now take out a coin and flip it. Have the side of the room which matches the outcome of the coin flip keep standing, the other side sits down. Split the room again and repeat the process until you have only one person standing. That person has survived repeated eliminations from the randomness of the coin flip and once they are the only one left standing they will feel that somehow providence was shining down on them. But the reality is that someone in that room had to survive the coin flip methodology, someone had to feel like the luckiest person, and yet knowing the outcome was inevitable they will still feel special, they can’t help it.

Possibly the only good thing to come out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be better knowledge and hopefully technology about how to deal with the next oil spill, for the odds are that it is not a matter of if, only when, until the next one. Situations where new actions need to be taken or new technologies developed to solve pressing problems can lead to advances from which benefits can be derived for more ordinary day-to-day problems. Many advances in medicine for instance have come out of the necessity generated by battlefield conditions during times of war and the oil spill in the gulf could easily be thought of as a battlefield. Patterns of behavior, why certain things are done (such as fishing for tainted food) or not done by humans can be exceedingly hard to predict, and harder still to modify, but there is something new on that front that is being worked upon.

There are groups of mathematicians and computer scientists who are using the tools of their trade, equations and algorithms, to predict the expected behavior patterns of terrorists. The techniques sift through vast quantities of assorted data, anything from cell phone calls, email and text messages to shopping receipts and airline manifests to develop the rules by which terrorists behave. The rules are probability driven, and once known, predictions, substantially better than using mere randomness can be made. These new techniques have already been used to uncover who is really making decisions in a terrorist organization, and another method or set of rules has been used to pinpoint hidden arms caches. Arms caches for instance need to be located in certain places to be successfully used. Too close to a target and they easy to find, too far away and the chances of getting caught while transporting them to the target increases. Knowing that terrorists want to strike at vulnerable or high value targets, it is possible to isolate probable locations and to extensively search those areas. So far this method has proven valuable to the army in locating stores of weapons. And importantly once predictions can be made regarding behavior, the next steps can be taken which is prevention or modification of those behaviors.

While these techniques are being developed for war-zone conditions, more widespread use will certainly be possible and that use will include employees at work as well as the customers of our organizations. We will be able to make better predictions regarding customer and employee behaviors and expected outcomes. And with better predictions, more knowledge of the rules that are employed to make decisions, more powerful behavior modifications will be possible as well. What might we want to employ these techniques upon? Better person-job fit, performance prediction and modification, customer preferences and buying intentions immediately spring to mind. But just as war-time advances can be misused if they fall into the wrong hands, these powerful techniques have the potential to be misused as well and will need to be surrounded by ethical guidelines to limit the amount of abuse that we are likely to see.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 27, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Contextual Decisions

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How things get presented is just as important as to what is being presented. People in marketing and sales have known that for a long time. Others of us have to be constantly reminded. I keep hoping that people will find my content interesting for the content’s sake and not because I have a gratuitous graphic or have surrounded the material with slick marketing. (I have nothing against graphics that add clarity). And while marketing and packaging can certainly make the product more attractive, sometimes the buyers find out that the only thing that was actually there was the marketing and packaging. But regardless, the context of how things get presented can drastically alter how they are perceived and decisions based on that perception. In all aspects of our lives how a situation is presented can dramatically impact choices made, pushing people in one direction or another, perhaps sometimes taking actions that they normally would not consider.

Many businesses are working to increase internal efficiencies and improving business processes as a survival technique during this recession. They the data I have collected suggests that they are tending to shy away from offering potentially lucrative new products and services in favor of increasing internal efficiencies and cost cutting. On the other hand, some may shy away from offering new products and services for good reason. For instance, new juxtapositions of unusual product pairings or unexpected service associations can be humorous, can give one pause, and sometimes can be alarming or even revolting.  But in the spirit of helping organizations squeeze a bit more cash out of their operations, I have come up with some business expansion opportunities that perhaps with a little bit of marketing and packaging may just take off.

First imagine you were driving around in a car, reading the signs appearing in the front of storefronts and other buildings.

  • You pass by a funeral home with a sign out front, “Now Serving Lunch and Dinner, Early Bird Special – No Reservations Required”. Umm…Yummy.
  • You then come across a nuclear power plant that has decided to go into healing baths business and has opened a water immersion spa on its grounds. Right next to the cooling towers. Appealing right? (If you look at this one historically there is an interesting story about “healthy” radioactive waters).
  • You spy in front of a road repair and paving company not a Russian, but a sign saying, “Now seeing dental patients, get your cavities filled, no waiting”. Yes I would imagine that there would be no waiting.
  • Your stomach turns at the banner fluttering over the toy manufacturing company, “Try out our new line of caskets”.
  • And your queasiness continues as you come across a deep water oil drilling company who has opened a fish wholesaler operation at the docks with the sign, “Cheap fish to the trade, come by and sample our deep fried fish and chips”.

Other signs make you stop and think about the larger picture. For instance, there is a sign that I always enjoy reading that is part of the artwork in a restaurant I frequent. The drawing is of an old city scene with various signs hanging in front of old stores. One sign on a lower level store front says “Lawyer 5¢ an Hour”. Above that sign is another, pointing to a second floor office and that sign says “Honest Lawyer 10¢ an Hour”. I think the assumption is that you get what you pay for.

It has been shown in the laboratory that how problems, issues or options are presented can dramatically alter the reactions that people have, how they perceive it and the choices they will make. For instance, Kahneman and Tversky developed the Asian disease problem to study how people make decisions. Say a choice had to be made between two different approaches to fight a life-threatening disease. One approach helps fewer people, but has a 100% cure rate, and the other helps a greater number of people, but has a significant mortality rate even among those helped.

When the choice has to be made between the two approaches and the choice is described in terms of how many people would be saved by each approach, the program that helps fewer people is preferred by decision-makers. When the decision is described in terms of how many lives would be lost decision-makers tend to choose the program that helps more people, even though a significant portion of those helped will die regardless. This is the case when the two approaches are matched in terms of how many people in total actually survive the illness, meaning the same number of people are either saved or die regardless of the approach. So attractiveness of these decisions is contextual, meaning how decisions get considered and made is dependent on the how the situation is presented.

Now suppose that we apply that principle to business decisions in organizations, say layoffs. Our example organization of 1500 people, 150 in management (10% of the workforce), 1350 non-management (90% of the workforce) is feeling pain, business is down, the recession is taking its toll. Customers are delaying or cancelling orders. Management is presented two options on how to cut staff that no longer has work to do.

Option one lays out a course of action which is to cut back 20% across all occupation levels. The resultant organization has 1200 employees, 120 managers (10% of the workforce) and 1080 non-mangers (90% of the workforce).

Option two is to cut the rank and file by 22% leaving management untouched. The resultant organization has 1200 employees, 150 in management (12.5% of the workforce) and 1050 in non-management (87.5% of the workforce).

In both options the same total number of people are employed and the same number will lose will lose their jobs. If someone wanted to potentially influence the course of action taken how might they go about it?  Research suggests that the options will seem more attractive when presented from the standpoint of how many people will remain employed, and less attractive if discussed in terms of the number of those to be laid off. If option one was discussed in terms of the number of jobs saved and option two discussed in terms of number of jobs lost you can make option one appear more attractive than option 2 and vice versa. Is it possible that business decisions are influenced by the context in which they are presented? Now this example casts a rather simplistic light on how a serious discussion like laying off workers should unfold, but the point is how the argument is made will affect the attractiveness of the approaches and options described. Knowing this and being aware of how arguments can influence you by the way they are presented can help you make better decisions.

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

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 16, 2010 at 10:48 am

Moosterious Sightings

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“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” – John Stuart Mill

Ok, I have to admit it, in the spirit of continuous improvement, I went looking for moose again, dragging my family along (but I don’t think they minded). This time, with the aid of Jerry the Moose Whisperer, I found one. My search for the elusive moose has provided the material for a number of blog pieces over the years as well as expeditions to various parts of the country and became the title of a book I wrote on organizational goal setting called “A Moose in the Distance”.

Each summer we take a vacation as soon as school lets out and before camp starts for my daughter. This year we drove up to Maine. We spent a day in Freeport, rummaging around its shops and the fabulous L.L. Bean store, and taking in a Saturday night concert on the green. Then we headed further north along the coast to Acadia National Park with its breathtaking seascapes and mountain vistas. On the way to Acadia, we took a rest stop in Georgetown, which sits on the very end of one of those Maine peninsulas, those fingers of land that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean. Sitting on the dock in Georgetown was the Five Island Lobster Company which gets its seafood, the day’s catch of Haddock and Lobsters, from the fishermen returning to the dock and cooks them up fresh for those who manage to find them. A very popular place as its reputation for quality sea food has people seeking them out in this out of the way location.

We clambered aboard a whale watching tour boat in Bar Harbor, traveling 10 miles or so out to sea, first visiting an island where Puffins breed and then in an area called the ballpark, we caught sight of a rare and endangered North Atlantic Right whale, with only 400-450 left, a Finback and a few Minke whales. All in all we had a whale of a time, even though maybe a quarter of the people on the ship ended up sea sick. Every crew member was walking about suitably attired in surgical gloves, carrying paper towels, disinfectant spray and barf bags.

Then we headed in-land and further north to Bingham, Maine and North Country Rivers, an outfitter, lodging and camping facility, where Jim, provides white water rafting, bicycling, ATVs, snowmobiling and moose safaris among his offerings. The cabin we stayed in was on the edge of a grass landing strip and I have to admit to being somewhat startled early one morning as a small plane took off right outside my window.

At the end of our first evening there, pretty far out in the middle of no-where, on a logging road cut through the dense forest, marshes and ponds, in a van being driven by a guide known as Jerry the Moose Whisperer, we caught sight of Matilda, a moose of noble character who graciously gave us about 3 minutes of her time before retreating into the denser forest. It felt like little more than an extended glimpse, but it fulfilled a goal I had set for myself a number of years earlier to see a moose in the wild. It was a great feeling to accomplish the long sought after sighting. We also did some hiking there to Moxie Falls, a waterfall deep in the woods and rode trail bikes down an old railroad bed, which North Country Rivers had helped convert for use by the general public.

And of course I couldn’t help myself, analyzing the behaviors of the organizations around me and the people who were part of those organizations, wondering what lessons I could incorporate from these experiences into my worldview. While some of the messages about what makes for interesting experiences and product differentiation are very clear, I came away with mixed feelings about the state of humans, our societies and what we are capable of. First let’s look at organizational experiences offered and how they stood out in a positive fashion.

L.L. Bean is well known for the quality of their products and their 100% satisfaction guarantee. But I have access to that through their catalog sales or website. The experience in their store in Freeport however stands out as a differentiator for me. First, the attitudes of the sales force is superb, they genuinely convey a feeling of wanting to help. Second, the selection is mind boggling. You needed a trail bike? Here are 150 different models to choose from. The store itself is open 24/7, and many make it an experience to go to the store at off hours which is quite a different experience than when it is packed during the day. Within the store you can sign up to take classes, or go on expeditions using their gear. They are a good neighbor, visibly supporting the local community and environmental causes that people care about. Can only large organizations operate in this fashion? Looking at some of the smaller organizations I encountered on this trip answers that question.

The Five Island Lobster Company is not a large organization and yet it too offers a very unique experience in its own way, residing in a small building, almost a shack on a dock, offering up some of the best tasting fish and lobster you will ever eat. Yes, the selection here is limited to what the fishermen bring back as the catch of the day, but the experience and quality is unsurpassed. What makes people drive 20 miles down a narrow peninsula to a small building on a dock to eat some fish, knowing that the only way back is to retrace your footsteps back up that 20 mile long road? A unique experience, supporting a fishing culture that is long on historical significance and today is carried out in a sustainable fashion, in an area that visually will simply take your breath away and most importantly, serving a very high quality product.

The uniqueness of experiences is perhaps best brought out by the whale watching and moose safari. Yes, you can cook your own fish, you can take a boat out on the ocean yourself (and perhaps return), you can drive your own car into the back woods of Maine, but the likelihood of having a successful experience, spotting the whale or seeing the elusive moose, becomes much greater when you engage in those activities with organizational specialists dedicated to creating experiences that you would have a hard time duplicating on your own.

When the experiences you have and the organizations that create them link their products to higher causes, such as preservation, research, job creation, education, or personal health and fitness, people are likely to feel even better about engaging in them. For instance, each whale expedition had on board researchers from Allied Whale, part of the College of the Atlantic who were collecting data on the whales for research purposes. The boat stopped at an island and took the time to talk by radio to a researcher who is spending the summer collecting data on Puffins and other birds during the summer breeding season, conveying a bevy of up to the moment facts and figures. The Moose Whisperer engages in a non-stop dialog, educating his passengers about growing up in rural Maine, environmental conditions and the wildlife to be found along the trail, not to mention some other odd characters who add local flavor, like the squatter on the paper company land who occasionally is spotted wandering about naked. While he played at being the simple country-bred man, it was very clear that there was a very articulate, skilled and thoughtful person under the exterior façade. And North Country Rivers itself is creating jobs in an area that would be hard pressed otherwise to create them.

High quality products, processes that deliver up experiences and services that are unique or hard to duplicate, supplied by experienced staff who obviously take pride in what they do and perhaps want to share some of what they know with you, letting you in on some mysterious or moosterious, but perhaps hard to acquire information. When taken all together they create an unbeatable combination.

Though I would say that I felt very positive about most of my experiences this trip, and would certainly recommend the trip to anyone, at the other end of my musings, I could not help but feel somewhat depressed by spotting floating garbage bags, plastic and other waste in what you would want to be pristine ocean waters. Historically the Right whale was so named by whalers, because to them it was the right whale to kill, of the right size and once killed because of its high blubber content, floated to the surface. And kill them they did, almost to the point of extinction. There were instruction cards on the boat from NOAA on how best to disentangle sea turtles from fishing nets, a man-made hazard that has threatened that graceful species.

And out in the middle of the Maine woods, on land which had been denuded by lumber companies, garbage such as bottles, cans, bits and pieces of machinery, plastic pails and in general debris left by logging operations was not hard to find. I know we need to exploit the resources of this planet in order to survive ourselves. I have no argument with those who hunt or fish and consume what they catch or kill, or make their living that way. I enjoy reading newspapers as much as anyone and have been known to dabble in woodworking. I have no desire to live in a cave with no heat or air conditioning, wearing crudely fabricated garments (hey wait a minute, that’s what my wife says I wear). But, ever since we have been exploiting the resources of this planet, why has our civilization done so in such a destructive a fashion? Why have we driven so many species such as the Right whale to the point of extinction? Why when we harvest lumber, even if we do so in a sustainable fashion, do we leave the garbage of our operations scattered behind us? Didn’t their parents teach them to clean up after themselves? Why can we not operate in a way that preserves the resources of this planet in such as fashion that future generations will need in order to be successful? I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, as there are many organizations out there doing the right thing and operating in a fashion that should be modeled by others. Yet, until they become the standard by which everyone operates, it is in our best interests as a society to make sure organizations operate in a fashion by which our planet and all the creatures with which we share it with can prosper.

During the Passover meal in Jewish households, there is a point in the meal at which a matzah is broken in half and one portion hidden for the children in the room to find later, it is called the Afikoman. The search for the Afikoman by the children is to help remind those present that “what seems lost can be recovered, and what seems broken repaired”. It is up to us to make those sentiments something more than a meal-time ritual.

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

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