Archive for July, 2010

It’s been about a week since the conclusion of the World Cup.  Congrats to Spain.  Espana es campeones del mundo as the result of a beautifully played tournament.  My family has close ties to Spain, so as the towers of tortilla, piles of paella and streams of sangria have finally subsided, I’m happy to have shared in the joy.  I’m also left with a strange emptiness as the incessant buzzing of the vuvuzela subsides and my tinnitus becomes audible again. But, I digress…

I want to talk about a few interesting aspects of decision making that struck me throughout the tournament, not all directly related to futbol.

First, the technology controversy.  Take a look at the video  montage to illustrate what had so many frazzled about the real time decision making of the refs.  There is probably no more pronounced case than with the first clip of the disallowed goal in the England v. Germany game, though many believe Karma may have been the culprit.

Here is what Fifa president Sepp Blatter said in the midst of the controversy

No matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else?

It’s an interesting perspective.  At first glance it seems to suggest that whomever the decision maker, at whatever vantage point, in whichever time frame is subject to the same uncertainties and asymmetries of information to assess the decision.  This is clearly not the case, just look at the video.  Then, I started thinking maybe Mr. Blatter had a point? Reviewers are indeed subject to their own set of biases and perception issues.  In some cases “going to the tape” can fail to resolve our doubts.  In the most ambiguous cases this seems to have only furthered speculation and spurred new interpretation of the events no matter how many efforts are made to unravel the confusion and quiet the controversy.

It’s important to recognize the different kinds of decisions, the snap decision, and those where we can take the luxury of process and deliberation.  Both are necessary, and there are arguments for both the snap and deliberation.  When time pressure constraints require us to make snap decisions, or when faced with a poorly described objective or poor information in deliberation, we are always prone to being misled by our judgment.  Many of you may know the selective attention test.  If you do I encourage you to watch it again and try again to achieve the objective.  If you haven’t seen this before watch and enjoy.  You have about a 50/50 chance of being very surprised.

We need to apply judgment and carefully interpret our perceptions to make good decisions.  So is it snap, or deliberate? I say YES.  I find myself uncomfortable with the Sucker’s Choice that these debates often set up.  It seems we’re often unwilling to wrestle with the more complex questions of how to combine such approaches, rather than choose between them.  There seems to clearly be a role for “thin slicing” information to be used in the process of deliberation to avoid analysis paralysis.

So, there is drama in decision making.  When it comes to futbol, many argue that this may fuel interest in the game.  It makes it more than a sport about the pure superiority of one team over another and enters in elements of chance, destiny, triumph over adversity, and the risks of being toppled by fate.  We seem to fight against this.  Maybe it hits too close to home.  So when fans of a sport say leave it alone, maybe they recognize something.  Maybe they recognize that our decisions are riddled with uncertainty and aren’t perfect, and very likely and simply cannot be.  We can only work to reach that threshold of certainty that lets us act, and we have to find the means to efficiently and effectively decide given the circumstances, and then have the courage and character to deal with the consequences.

The more we can come together and rely on each other to try to make sense of complex situations, recognizing technology as an extremely valuable ally (with imperfections) that we can partner with to better focus the picture or aggregate our judgment, we can often times improve our outcomes.

Luckily, if all else fails there is a fall back.  We can always submerge our options in an aquarium and drop in an Octopus to sort things out.

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This past week on The Hill’s Hillicon Valley technology blog, the founder of Fark.com Drew Curtis is quoted to have said

The ‘wisdom of the crowds’ is the most ridiculous statement I’ve heard in my life. Crowds are dumb

He goes on to say…

It takes people to move crowds in the right direction, crowds by themselves just stand around and mutter.
Everyone I’ve spoken to about this since reading this disagrees with him, so I guess he is right.  Well… that’s kind of what you would have to conclude if he is correct to some extent, isn’t it?
I think it’s interesting to look at the examples that were provided to justify this position, and without opening a political debate given their focus, it raises some interesting questions and a pretty compelling point regarding the nature of crowdsourcing.
In James Surowiecki’s hugely popular and compelling book “The Wisdom of Crowds” (see book club section of this blog), Surowiecki is very clear about, and qualifies, that not all crowds are wise.  They need certain characteristics to be present to make them such.  He outlines in significant detail in the book these characteristics, and they are:
  • The group must be Diverse in Opinion
  • The members of the group have to have Independence
  • They have to be Decentralized so that they can maintain their independence to exercise local knowledge
  • There has to be an Aggregating mechanism to converge the group’s opinion to a single point of view
I think there may be something missing from the formula which we’ll get to in a moment.  What struck me about these comments was that crowds engaged in many of the kinds of forums referred to in the post should possess the first three qualities almost by their nature as web forums.  The exception seems to come in the “Diverse in Opinion” aspect as like minded people tend to gravitate to certain online cultures and in some extreme cases the most frequent contributors to these message boards attempt to run off all but the most persistent non-conformists.  The homophily principle can play a part in limiting diversity in online communities.  Given the present state of technology, there does seem to be a gap in any true aggregating mechanism that can bring together a view of what a group may be saying.  Word Clouds may try to visualize it, and polls can provide some insight but can often be taken many times over.  I’m bothered by something more fundamental that may be missing in this discussion about these kinds of social network and their ability to be wise crowds, and it is…
  • A willingness and commitment, to try in earnest through the crowd interaction, to make a decision, solve a problem or achieve a goal through compromise for mutual benefit .

I think compromise may be an additional corollary to the four conditions of wise crowds when it comes to some aspects of social media.  Stubborn “my way or the highway” opposition needs to be reserved for very special and very rare cases, and can’t be the norm.  There needs to be some kind of appropriate motivation or incentive to participate in earnest, otherwise the divisive power driven arguments that are aimed at silencing people of differing opinions, will likely result in crowds that are quite irrational.  When the purpose of engaging in a discussion in a social media forum is to score points, intentionally obfuscate another’s position at any cost, be decidedly closed off to anything someone of another affiliation than your own offers, or just plain be mean, the crowd will be cynical and not engaged in trying to achieve a compromise, but rather squared off to win at any cost!   In these cases the inability to extract wisdom from a group might be attributed more to a victory of foolish individuals than a failure of wise crowds.  In most of the examples in “The Wisdom of Crowds”, participants either had a self interest in getting the right answer, or were working as part of a group against a well defined goal.  I’m not at all convinced this can’t be the result of emergent leadership within a group that builds this alignment and solicits input toward a goal.  Designing diversity into a conversation and being open and accepting of what it brings to the process of drawing out the wisdom in the crowd certainly fits the definition of leadership.  If however the suggestion is that there a few wise individuals,  smarter than the rest, that need to edit inputs and tell the “muttering” crowds what to do because they don’t know what’s good for them, then that’s another matter.  The semantics of the post are interesting and can be interpreted a few ways, my initial take was that the comments were a bit condescending.  Curious what others think.  Feel free to mutter, and I’ll try to limit editing.

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