Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Decision Making

The Problem with Experts

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Say you had a group of 100 people who put themselves forth as experts in estimating the number of gumballs in jars. Divide that group of 100 into 2 groups of 50, and asked each person within the two groups to estimate the number of gumballs in a jar. With one group of 50 treat their estimates individually, 50 individual estimates of how many gumballs are in the jar. With the second group take the 50 estimates and average them together, so you have only 1 estimate. All together you now have 51 estimates of the number of gumballs. Out of these 51 estimates, which will be closer to the actual number of gumballs, the 1 averaged estimate or one of the 50 individual estimates? The answer is that most often one of the 50 individual estimates will be closest and the average estimate will often consistently be the second, third or fourth best estimate. Close but no cigar.  So now we look at the person who made the best individual estimate and crown that person “the” expert in gumball estimation. If we now run this experiment over and over, what you would find is that you are crowning a different “expert” each and every time. So there is no real expert, only an element of chance that causes one of the 50 to be crowned as a gumball estimation expert in that round of the experiment.

Estimating the number of gumballs in a jar is a complex problem. If you approached it methodically you would have to estimate the total volume of the jar and the total volume of each gumball. You would have to take into consideration the way the gumballs are placed in the jar. Are they tightly packed to the brim? Or is there airspace in the jar because of how they are sitting? If they are slightly irregularly shaped that will change the number of gumballs that can fit vs. if they are perfectly round. Estimating these kinds of variables visually, with our eyes, is not something humans are particularly suited for. Now we are smart enough that we can devise means that can determine precisely the number of gumballs in the jar, but visual inspection with our eyes, often from a distance, is not the way to go. Yet because of our inherent biases as humans (e.g. 95% of us are certain they are in the top 50% of drivers, 25% of us are certain they are in the top 1% in terms of leadership skill, and of course at Lake Woebegone all the children are above average), there are those among us who are pretty sure they can estimate the number of gumballs in the jars using that visual inspection approach.

Now, back to our one-time gumball estimation expert. What we tend to do is take the winner of one of our estimation rounds and put that person on TV as a talking head and ask that person their view points on various gumball estimation problems. Will the economy go up or down? Will Iran agree to a negotiated nuclear settlement? Which stocks should I pick to make the most money next year or will the bond market lose or make money? What will happen to inflation? Does that recent scandal eliminate any chance of electoral victory? What is the underlying cause of social unrest? What causes a person join a protest or engage in civil disobedience? We will be greeted as liberators or as oppressors when we march into Baghdad?

The underlying problem with those who answer these kind of questions, is that they attempt to identify a single or a small handful of underlying causes, (and assign them weights) based on their expertise, to complex problems. They may be using various assessments or may often be using measurement instruments, (remember the visual inspection for gumballs) that are simply not up to the task. And because of human limitations, they get past these short-comings by using rules-of-thumb or heuristics to take a question, that has a multitude of complex issues and boil it down to a simple answer. Answers that are more likely to be wrong than right.

For instance, the number of variables of what causes a Baltimore to erupt are immense and they are related to each other in extremely complex ways. The variables that affect human behavior are intricate and defy simple explanation. It is beyond rocket science. That is not to say that we should not work to understand and remedy issues. But the errand to put simple labels on socially complex issues is a fool’s errand, can result in gross mischaracterization and is easily debunked by other “experts” those who can point to other simple labels that they develop.

Now there are true experts out there. I will be the first one to run to a doctor or emergency room if I break a leg or have a heart attack. I will use a civil engineer to design and a qualified construction company to build my new bridge. I listen to climatologists about what is happening to our planet and attempt action. I listen to food experts when, based on the scientific method, it is known that GMOs have no harmful effects (every piece of food you eat has already been genetically modified from its original state). And I will have my children vaccinated against all the harmful diseases that used to be the scourge of our society.

There are huge differences between those using the scientific method to determine cause and effect, to improve the lives of people everywhere on this planet and so-called “gumball experts”. But part of the reason we have some of the issues we face as a society is because we don’t always distinguish between the two.

© 2015 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 3, 2015 at 7:56 am

The Language of Business

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One hobby I have (which I have to admit I have not had much time to engage in recently) is browsing through New York book stores looking for books with old Jewish folk tales or stories of Jewish life from the “old country”. While these old folk tales may seem out of place or out of time in our modern world, I find that sometimes they have enduring kernels of wisdom. I occasionally take these old folk tales and translate them into modern organizational terms which I can use in my day-to-day work.

For instance, there is an old folktale that begins with two travelers, strangers, walking down a long dusty road.  As they walked, one of the strangers asked the other “What say you, shall I carry you or shall you carry me?” The second traveler ignored the statement for he was not about to carry the other.

Later on the traveler asked a second question as they passed a field of barley, “Has this barley been eaten or not?” Once again the second traveler ignored the first for it was obvious for all to see that the barley was still growing in the field.

Then they passed a funeral procession and the one stranger said to the other “What do you think, is the person in the coffin alive or dead?” The second traveler could no longer contain himself and asked the first why he was asking such ridiculous questions.

The first one said, “When I asked if I should carry you or if you should carry me, what I meant was shall I tell you a story or shall you tell me one to make this long journey easier for us.”

“When I asked about the barley, what I meant was has the growing barley already been sold to a buyer, for if it has already been sold, it is as though it is already eaten for the farmer and his family cannot eat it themselves.”

“And when I asked about the person in the coffin, being alive or dead, what I meant was, do you think the person had descendants, for if they had descendants who will carry on their legacy it is as though they are alive. But if they passed away with no one to remember them and carry on their work they are truly dead.”

Communications between two people, between groups of people, or between organizations who do not know each other well is often very difficult and can be subject to vast misunderstandings, even when they are speaking the same language. And with those misunderstandings sometimes comes suspicion and fear. It is as though the two groups who are communicating, whether they be black and white, Jew or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, police vs. those being policed, are actually having two completely different conversations with neither group able to translate what the other is saying or have an understanding of their actions.

Even when the communication is clear there can be issues of saliency, the importance given to the words used in the communication between the two parties which causes misunderstandings and what can be interpreted as behavioral anomalies.

One story, that is not quite a folk tale but illustrates the point regarding saliency, is about a method that Jews used to obtain passports to escape the horrors of WWII.  Some families, who could not get legitimate documents struggled to obtain fake passports in their attempts to flee. One such story takes place in Poland in the late 1930’s and describes how documents were forged by studying old passports from different countries. Their style and format were then copied, creating new fake passports for those trying to escape.

One day a man, who was part of the Jewish underground, set out to collect old passports through whatever method he could. He was extremely successful and by the end of the day he had collected a large number.

On the way back from his activities he was stopped by the Polish police, was asked for his papers, and then confronted when they discovered the large number of passports he was carrying.

He was sure that they would take him to the police station, torture and then kill him as they tried to learn about the activities of the underground organization collecting the passports.

The man thought about how troubled his family would be if they never saw him again without any explanation. But, it was near the end of the day and the police told the man to go home and then come to the station in the morning for questioning. The man was terrified. The police knew who he was and if he stayed home and did not show up the next day or if he tried to flee that night, they would simply go to his house and kill his family.

If he showed up the next day at the police station he was certain they would torture him to obtain information and then kill him anyway. He did not know what to do. After much deliberation and consultations with his family and Rabbi, he went to the police station the next morning and approached the policeman who had stopped him.

The policeman asked him what he wanted and appeared not to remember the previous day’s incident. The man indicated that he had been stopped and a packet of passports had been taken from him and he was here to collect it. The policeman handed the man the packet of passports and told him to be on his way.

Saliency is a psychological concept which deals with how central an event, object, fact or perception is to you or another person. The amount of saliency an event or communication has is a combination of emotional, motivational and cognitive factors.

To the man with the passports in the story, being stopped by the police was extremely central to his very existence, for it was quite literally life or death. To the policeman, the man was one of hundreds of people that he had stopped and questioned that day.

The man who was stopped and questioned described the incident as a miracle, that his life and those of his family were spared. And from his perspective it certainly was, but what was the underlying mechanism of human perception that allowed that miracle to occur? Saliency.  To the policeman the incident was not nearly as salient, not nearly as memorable as it was to the passport procurer.

I have to admit something to you. Not being all that concerned about fashion, I buy irregular jeans. I grew up wearing jeans (one pair to wear while the other pair was being washed) and even today I am most comfortable pulling on a pair. I like to wear jeans. But I don’t like what jeans cost these days. So I go to a manufacturer’s outlet mall near me and I buy irregular blue jeans.

As I pull each pair off the shelf and examine them I am usually hard pressed to determine why they are called irregular. I look for the obvious, for instance, does it have 3 legs? (Well I could always use a spare, in case I get a hole in one knee). And I usually just can’t find anything wrong with them.

When I wear them, at least at first, I wonder if what is not obvious to me, the irregularities, are likely very obvious to those around me. I am sure I can hear people pointing at me and laughing as I walk by. But maybe it is not the pair of jeans that brings on the laughter.

But the reality is no one is looking at my jeans, let alone looking for the defect in my irregulars. I just think they are, at least for a moment, because the issue is more salient to me, until I forget about it.

When a manager makes an off-hand comment to a worker about that worker’s performance or future, what may be perceived by the manager as a minor topic or issue, just above the threshold of consciousness, may be perceived quite differently by the employee.

To the employee that comment might be indicative of whether or not they have a future with the organization, central to their very existence, while the manager might not even remember the comment the next day.

How many cases of miscommunication in the workplace, in politics, in negotiations, or in our everyday lives, are derived from a comment that has very different levels of saliency to the various people who might be listening to it? Managers may use what they perceive as throw away lines, about “future opportunities” or “earnings potential” not really thinking about just how closely the employee is listening or just how salient those message might be to the listener.

And now another aspect of communication that can impact decision-making has been shown to be whether the language you are speaking is your native tongue (Costa, Your Morals Depend on Language, 2014).

A very common problem used to illustrate ethics as it relates to decision-making, is to ask a listener to imagine themselves on a bridge over-looking a trolley car track. There is a trolley car heading down the track that will shortly run into and kill five people, unless a heavy object is placed in its path. What can you do?

There is a very heavy man standing next to you. You are asked to consider pushing the heavy man onto the tracks to save the lives of five people. Sacrifice the one to save the five? Would you do it?  Not surprising to those of you whose native tongue is English, is that the vast majority of you would not push the heavy man in front of the trolley. That is reactionary thinking, or in the words of Daniel Kahneman, System 1 thinking.

But if the person you are asking is listening in English, and English is not their native tongue, you get a very different answer. Many would say that they would sacrifice the one to save the five. They need to apply some extra effort, which slows down their thinking and allows System 2 decision-making to kick in, which is not reactionary and allows people to consider more slowly, “is it worth sacrificing one to save five?”

Now take the scenario of having a group of managers in a global corporation sitting around making decisions about the operations of a company. The conversation is happening in English, but about half of the participants are not native English speakers. The two groups sitting around the table, the native vs. non-native English speakers may be coming to different conclusions, due to different decision-making systems that are kicking in as they consider organizational choices.

Language and the ability to use it properly is a critical aspect of good business performance. Yet as you dig into the use of language in business, whether it be definitional issues, saliency, or if you are speaking in your native tongue, the challenges of effective language use in today’s large, complex, global corporations are immense.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm


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A friend recently sent me a video which illustrates some new experiments going on in an area called experimental philosophy. Like the well-publicized experiments in behavioral economics, the vignettes bring us to the conclusion that humans are not always rational creatures and that we often think in a contradictory fashion. The video shows two vignettes of a business manager who doesn’t care about the environment, all he cares about is maximizing profit. In the first vignette he states that he doesn’t care about the environment and takes action that causes environmental harm, while maximizing profit. He is then blamed by viewers of the vignette for causing intentional environmental harm. In the second he states that he doesn’t care about the environment then takes action which improves the environment, while maximizing profit, for which he gets no credit. In viewing the vignettes, I found myself drawn into the same judgments as the other viewers, you just can’t help it. Because he is only driven by maximizing profit, when the businessman states he doesn’t care about the environment and then causes harm, your brain readily ascribes intentional fault. But when the businessman states that he doesn’t care about the environment, only profit, and then does environmental good, your brain refuses to ascribe any credit. In this case the environmental effect is viewed as unintentional. You get blamed when you knowingly and uncaringly cause harm, but you do not get credit when you knowingly (but uncaringly) do good. There was no intentionality to do good, hence no credit is ascribed, even though good was done.

The kind of contradiction that this points to is the kind of contradiction that all humans are capable of making. It is part of our shared genetic heritage and it is how all of our brains are wired. For instance, if you ask an abortion opponent about science, it is quite easy to create the following situation. Paint a picture about a scientific investigation that has unequivocal findings supporting the abortion opponent’s point of view and they will state that abortion supporters should change their point of view due to the scientific research.  But if a scientific investigation unequivocally proves the fallacy of their position the abortion opponent will reject the science. They will accept the science only when it supports their previously held notions. Conservatives who form a higher proportion of abortion opponents (and paradoxically death penalty supporters) are not the only ones who fall into this cognitive trap.

Those who support the notion that we are in the middle of major climate change, which human behavior is significantly impacting, will often point to the reams of scientific evidence supporting that fact. Opponents, who state that humans are not altering the environment, will find the one or two outlier studies and hold them up as somehow equivalent to the preponderance of evidence, the thousands of studies that state otherwise. People who support implementing environmental regulation, who are often more liberal, scoff at the unscientific notions held by their opponents, stating that science should take precedence.

Yet, those same liberals may hold onto the notion that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), should be kept out of our food chain because of the harm they might do, that somehow they are unhealthy. Bending to this pressure, just this week the maker of Cheerios has announced that no GMOs will be used in the manufacture of its product.

There is no scientific evidence that GMOs have any detrimental effect on human beings. Humans have made modifying their food sources, modifications that require genetic changes, into an ongoing art form which we have been practicing for tens of thousands of years. In fact you would be very hard pressed to find any food what-so-ever that you put into your mouth that has not been genetically modified from its original state by humans over time. That natural organic turkey you just ate bears no resemblance to its wild ancestors, neither do the tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, apples, bread made from wheat, or anything else you might have eaten along with it. GMOs have the potential to deliver critical vitamins to poverty stricken areas, to cure or prevent disease and to create drought and disease resistant crops that could help billions on this planet who cannot take food for granted. So how can some scoff at climate change opponents for ignoring science, when they themselves ignore the science surrounding GMOs? We humans are very good at rationalizing and dealing with our mental contradictions.

Is it possible to teach people to think more rationally? Not to fall victim to their mental traps? The answer appears to be yes. By first learning about these mental traps, by studying them and their underpinnings, then practicing decision-making the research says that thinking patterns and decision-making can be improved.  But, stubbornly held onto notions are not going away any time soon.

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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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

No Turn on Red

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Speed Limit 30 MPH, my daughter instructed me from her booster seat in the back as I maneuvered down the road at a speed slightly higher than that. I slowed the car down. Her sense of right and wrong, sometimes somewhat misplaced, is very strong. Once when I had to pick my wife up at the train station at about 9:00 pm or so, I pulled into a deserted parking lot and parked next to the stairs from which she would descend and proceeded to wait for the train and her to put in an appearance. My young daughter pointed to a blue sign in front of the car with a wheel chair on it and asked me what it meant. I told her that it meant that the space was reserved for handicapped people. She told me to move the car. I told her we were the only car in a lot that could hold several hundred cars, which had about a half-dozen other handicapped spots, all empty, and if someone pulled in looking for a handicapped spot I would move. My daughter, who was 6 or 7 at the time, gave me the eye. I moved the car. Now that she is a pre-teen instead of the “eye”, I get the “rolling eyes”, usually followed by an “oooh…dad.”

Signs, messages, warnings, suggestions, advance notices, advice, rules, regulations, commandments, moral codes, prohibitions, commentary, talking heads, pundits, product labels, warning labels, calories counts, advisories, report cards, performance appraisals, performance management systems, traffic tickets, parking tickets, parables, all of these things have something in common. While some document current behavior or aim to punish or reward current behavior, to inform or increase your safety and perhaps extend your life, all of these things also aim to influence our future behavior.

We are surrounded by scads of information and processes that are squarely aimed at influencing our future behavior. A speeding ticket for instance is not only punishment for going too fast (or at least faster than the rules say you should), but it is also trying to send the message that the behavior of speeding should not be repeated. The point system, whereby if too many violation points accumulate on your license leads to suspension of the license, simply reinforces the behavior change aspects of the process. Warning labels on some products are there to inform and attempt to influence – use this product at your own risk, as are performance appraisals which attempt (most rather poorly) to document current performance and to influence future performance – sort of like attaching a warning label to a person’s forehead. Warning: this person’s current performance is sub-par; please keep clear so as not to be unduly influenced yourself.  

What if all this information which bombards us and attempts to influence our behavior was to suddenly disappear? Would we be floundering in a sea of confusion, not knowing how to behave? Would civilization, as we know it, collapse? What if every stop sign, every speed limit sign, every prohibition, every code of conduct, every warning label on every product you purchased, every pundit who interprets events for us were to disappear. Would we be better off or worse off? Would we be walking around in a stupor wondering which actions we should be taking? Would we have no sense of direction, not being sure of what to eat or how to interact with others? Or are we more capable than the way we have developed as a society gives us credit for?

When someone moves from one country or culture to another, how much of the assimilation process, and the success or failure of that assimilation, is due to successfully understanding and knowing how to behave regarding all of the messages that bombard you in everyday life? What if I had no idea that the guy wearing the orange vest and standing in my lane waving the red flag was telling me to stop so that cars could make it safely through a construction zone? What if, based on my experiences, that particular set of symbolic indictors all pointed to a robbery or carjacking attempt was about to occur? Might I react differently? How about when one moves from one company or organization to another? The information flows are likely more subtle, but a portion of whether that new employee will be successful or not in the new organization with its own unique culture may depend on how successfully that person is at interpreting and heeding the information flows that impinge.

Fundamentally, searching out information to help you interpret and guide you through the events surrounding you is likely an in-born survival mechanism, fulfilling a need in humans to create order out of disorder. We automatically develop rules-of-thumb or heuristics to help us interpret events, situations and people. As our environments get more and more complex the need for information to successfully navigate that environment grows. Yet it was not too long ago that we got by with substantially less information flows than what we experience today. A farmer just 50 years ago, living in a rural area, making a living from the land did not have nearly the amount of information stimulus that we have today. But the farmer’s children might dream of moving to the big city where life would be more “interesting”. And those in the big city dream of a vacation, “getting away from it all”, and perhaps unarticulated in that notion of “all”, is away from the constant bombardment of information and its attempted influence on us which needs interpretation and digestion.       

I have spent a good deal of my career collecting information from employee or customer surveys and helping organizations interpret that information as a way of dealing with the environments in which they find themselves. I work to increase their performance and to help them and their employees thrive. For me, having information is a critical component of my success in working with clients, and in fact when I am asked questions about the usefulness of employee survey data to achieving business success, my response usually includes the notion of increasing the chances of success by managing with information rather than without. And while I may find the amount of information and processes that impinges on me daily at times to be intrusive, the lack of that information would likely leave me looking for sources of information to help me interpret the complex environment in which I find myself.

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


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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

Asking the Right Questions

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I can’t count the number of times, after I have gotten involved in something, or have purchased a product, when after a period of time I kick myself for not initially asking the right or enough questions that may have led to better decision-making on my part as to whether to get involved or buy the product. I like to think I am a trusting individual and that in general things tend to work out, but sometimes it seems that my trust can be misplaced.

For instance, I have been researching renting a house in the Adirondacks for the family’s summer vacation. I immediately found that the choices this year are plentiful for the time period in which we have an interest, and so rather than the typical settling for what is available, I am trying to find something that meets our criteria fairly closely. Rustic but comfortable log cabin on a non-motor lake, (St. Regis Wilderness Area is high on my list), private, but not too far out so we can go into town for a few dinners, with a dock and canoe, near hiking trails, a sandy beach would be nice. Oh yeah, and needs to accept a rambunctious almost one-year old Labrador retriever who is an exceptionally good chewer of things….all sorts of things, but has not figured out yet how to go up or down stairs. Our cat sits at the top of the stairs sometimes, seemingly very aware that the dog has not figured out the stairs yet, looking down on the dog as if daring it to give it a try. When the dog eventually figures it out I think we will have a very surprised cat. The cat and dog seem to slowly be building a relationship and the cat will go downstairs at night when the dog is sleeping in its crate and creep close as if in study or stalking prey.

Anyway, the houses I have been looking at all have great descriptions, giving one the sense of one Shangri-la after another (in fact one of the camps was named Shangri-la). I immediately get suspicious though of any descriptions that do not have accompanying pictures or with pictures that show the beautiful sunset over the lake, but do not include a picture of the house. I also do not like it when the actual street address is not given, but only a more general location – “near the tip of Upper Saranac Lake”, reads one vague description. With the actual street address, I can view the location on Google Earth and see if the nuanced phrase about being a “stone’s throw” from the water really means it is a half-mile hike to a shared dock. Asking the right questions in this case can mean the difference between an idyllic vacation and one that is mostly compromise.

I don’t think I am the only one who faces these challenges as there are numerous jokes that play off the of notion of not quite asking the right questions, or perhaps miscommunication or a sleight of hand on the part one providing information, until that moment of asking just the right question arrives. With so many jokes on the topic it has to be a rather widespread issue. Here is an old favorite. Jane arrives home quite late one night and says to her worried husband, “Sorry, I am late. I had to take the train as I had car trouble. I think water got into the carburetor.” Jane’s husband who usually took care of the car was unaware that Jane even knew where the carburetor was. He replied, “Jane, how can you be so sure that water got into the carburetor? Tell you what, let’s go check it out. Where did you leave the car?” Jane replied, “In the lake.”

Here is another that is a play off the notion of what you see is not necessarily what you get. One day, Mike was pulling out of a parking space and to his horror he hit the car parked in front of him. There was a group of people nearby on the sidewalk who witnessed the accident and they looked over waiting to see what he would do next. So Mike got out of his car, methodically inspected the damage to the cars, and then pulled out a sheet of paper on which he wrote a note that he left under the windshield of the car he had hit. The note said, “Hi, I just hit your car and there are some people here watching me. They think I am writing this note to leave you my name and phone number, but in fact I am not. Have a good day.” Appearances do not necessarily reflect reality.

In the world of business, unfortunately, caveat emptor is a phrase that can characterize some transactions. What you see, perhaps, is not what you are getting – unless you ask the right questions. This occurs not only in purchasing decisions but can apply generally across the board. For instance, hopefully, this recession is beginning to wind down and with it many are anticipating the return of job openings. Some people will be able to find employment again and others who have felt that it is time to move on from their current employer will be able to do so. Many employers have put into place rigorous screening systems to help them determine who would be the best fit for the openings that they will have. They want to select those that they feel will be most likely to succeed in the position. At the same time that they are trying to winnow the field that are also trying to convince candidate that company XYZ should be their choice. In the intricate dance that goes on in the selection of a candidate, how is a candidate to know of the employer is a good match for them? In a book called Rebound by Martha Finney, I was interviewed for a chapter that lays out a framework for job seekers to use in evaluating potential job offers. In many respects it comes down to asking the right questions – easier said than done sometimes, as we all can attest.

Day-to-day, in decision-making some of the managers that I have had the most respect for are the ones who can ask the right questions, not shying away from the tough ones and perhaps even questions that the creator of the information had not considered. One of the best I have ever run into was John Browne, the former CEO of BP. He was very good at asking questions. Not in your face challenging questions, not what are you trying to hide questions, but rather what can we learn about this information or decision together type questions. His questioning was tough enough that it made some uncomfortable, but I always found that it was a pleasure to have a discussion with him.

Here are questions that I ask myself when evaluating a choice and when trying to figure out what questions I should be asking.

  • What are the consequences of a poor decision? Will someone die or will I just have a mediocre meal?
  • What are the long-term implications of the decision, how locked in will I be to a particular course or is the decision reversible?
  • Does the decision have to be made now? Can additional information be collected that will be improve the decision? What are the costs of collecting that information?
  • Are there alternatives that have not been fully vetted?
  • What questions have been posed in collecting information to help in the decision? Specifically, are they aimed at:
    • The correct level of analysis – micro vs. macro
    • The correct time-frame
    • The correct variables – those that are reliable and valid to the decision at hand.
  • Has common sense and logic been applied to the full extent? Are there basic flaws in the information available or the way it is presented?
  • Is there a scientific basis that the decision can be made upon? Real science not pseudoscience.
  • Is there any fine print or vagueness being presented?
  • Is there a consensus among others?
  • What do you really want to do?

While many other questions can and should be considered for decisions, the bottom line when you are evaluating information prior to making a decision is that you should be asking yourself, “Are you asking the right questions?”

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

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm

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