Archive for the ‘Decision Making’ Category

In a recent post I mentioned the work of famed psychologist Jean Piaget.  His theories of cognitive development were revolutionary in the way we look at the maturing of our ability to think.  While his theories have been proven to be perhaps too rigid in their somewhat linear progression, they remain incredibly insightful.  In fact, that we may not “pass through” his phases as readily as he presumed has interesting implications, because when some of the characteristics of his earliest phases subtly persist later into life (and I believe they do in some areas) – they can really effect our choices.

What is not too often discussed about Piaget is that he was trained in natural history and philosophy prior to becoming a psychologist.  He studied molluscs.  Molluscs are that phylum of creatures that include a wide variety of tasty, colorfully shelled seafood, up to and including the most intelligent invertebrate the Octopus (which are very tastefully prepared on the north shores of Spain).  So, anyone insightful enough (Piaget) to study a creature intelligent enough (Paul the Octopus) to have recognized the beauty of play resulting in the recent World Cup dominance of Spanish soccer is ipso facto, brilliant in my book. But I digress.

Let’s take a look, albeit simplified to my level of thinking, at what Jean Piaget believed about our cognitive development from the time we are children until we’re adult, and then take a look at how some funny parallels might be drawn to adult behaviors that persist well into our professional careers.  Shall we?

First let’s quickly outline some key concepts, and provide a reference here to more depth on each of the topics should you need a reference below.

In brief, what Piaget believed is that children have what he called schemata, or cognitive formations that encapsulate our constantly changing ideas of the world.  These schemata in his view change by what he called adaptation, using the processes of assimilation and accommodation.  When new information is presented to the child through the senses, there is an effort to assimilate it into existing schemata, if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,…er, I mean accomodate by either creating new schemata or modify an existing schemata.  This process of fitting, modifying or creating gets balanced to reduce and attempt to minimize psychological tension through a process he termed equilibration.  There. Simple, right?  There’s more.

Piaget also believed there were four distinct phases of development. How he termed them as follows, along with an outline of some of the key characteristics of each.

Stage One: Piaget called this the Sensorimotor Stage which is believed to span from birth to approximately 2 years old.  It is characterized by a half a dozen sub stages.  More simply stated perhaps are the two primary ways the features of this stage present themselves in the child.  The first was called Object Permanence.  This can be simplified to the old saying, “Out of sight, Out of mind”.  In other words, learning to overcome the, if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist phenomena (like some have with memos or emails containing contradictory evidence than that we wish to see, and may explain some of the whistling past the graveyard type of behavior that accompanies “cooking the books” and such).  The second primary trait of this phase is Deferred Imitation.  This can be seen when a child scolds a stuffed animal, or drives a toy truck around the floor.  What this really means is that they can hold an idea in their minds beyond the immediate experience, so they can pretend (that the financial forecast is not as bad as it appears).

Stage Two:  Piaget termed this phase, the Pre-Operational Stage.  He believed that we progressed through the development of these tools from the ages of 2 – 7 years old.  This stage can probably be best simplified to our ability to deal with symbols, and the way we can form relationships between objects, language and our own actions.  This is what is going on when a child runs around flapping his arms like a bird, or running around with a Tupperware lid serving as a steering wheel.  The interesting characteristics in this stage are called Egocentrism and Conservation.  Let’s take Egocentrism first, we here this term a lot.  But what it really means in Piaget’s work is developing the cognitive skills and tools to overcome believing that your view of the world is everyone else’s (OK, this one’s just too easy… Do I even need to go into the variety of business, religious, political and other problems that this can and has caused) Piaget demonstrated this beautifully in what was termed the Three Mountain Problem.

Simply put, younger kids thought Piaget (or a doll, or anyone with another view) saw what they saw from their vantage point, and older kids knew there was a valid and alternative vantage point.  Watch it in action below.

The conservation phenomena observed how when comparing two equal volumes of liquid in two of the same sized containers, the act of changing the container of one of them from a geometry that was short and wide to one that was narrow and tall could change the perception of the volume or amount of liquid, despite that fact that the formerly observed same amount of liquid was transferred in plain sight.

The inability to reason that this must be the same amount of liquid is what Piaget termed Conservation (be careful the next time you buy your favorite product that the new and improved version is not lighter, in a larger package at a higher price!).  It has other interesting implications in terms of reasoning.  For instance there is a famous example in his experiments of asking a young child with an older brother, “Do you have a brother?”, the child will say, Yes.  When asked “Does your brother have a brother?”, he often says, No.  This is why 7 years old came to be known as the “age of reason”.  This ability to turn the problem around to different perspectives and see consistency in seeming different arrangements is key to development in this stage.  Two more, let’s look at stage 3.

Stage Three: This is the Concrete Operational Stage from ages 7-11 years old.  Things start getting interesting here as we progress through development of the previously outlined skills. Kids get much better with conservation and egocentrism (supposedly) as they move to this stage, but given that it is concrete, they struggle in the abstract.  For instance, if you ask them a logic question like block A is bigger than block B, block A is smaller than block C, which is the largest? They may struggle.  This has been proven to vary largely due to cultural influences which is a critique of Piaget’s aforementioned generalization or rigidity in his model.  But it does happen.  Given that the stage is again called concrete, if you give kids this age who are susceptible to the phenomena the actual physical blocks posed in the abstract question, they can readily solve the problem (Interesting aside, Managers deciding between project Alpha which is more valuable than project Beta, and project Alpha that is less valuable then project Gamma, when asked to choose have occasional been observed to jump tracks and select Project Delta as the most valuable, this is perhaps beyond the scope of Piaget’s work)

Stage Four: The Formal Operational Stage takes place from ages 11 onward.  From here on out, we gain and can continue to develop the ability to think abstractly and solve problems logically without the aid of physical objects using only the various cognitive tools that we developed some physical understanding of earlier in the progression.  This is the supposed jumping off point where we can conceptualize beyond what is to what might be, allowing us to better understand ethics, politics, religion and the like (including futures markets and financial speculation, …perhaps the use of physical aids, like the actual money, of the previous stage would be helpful here).  The key experiment often referred to here is the Pendulum Task, where different lengths of string, different weights, and different dropping points are assessed to determine the influence on the speed of the pendulum swing.  Children above age twelve or so can systematically experiment toward and understanding of the influences, prior to this age, haphazard experimentation and wrong conclusions are fairly consistently drawn (… the pendulum swing seems to be inferring a Tiger Woods golf swing, and enough rope to hang yourself joke in here somewhere, but I’m not quite seeing it)

SOoooo…. what’s all this have to do with decision making anyway? I’d argue almost everything!  Here is a list of considerations from this work that jumped out at me about some of these theories on the development of our thinking, and how it is central to our simplest and most important and complex choices.  A little creative license and perspective on Piaget’s definition of “adult thinking” (or lack thereof sometimes) and its impact on decision making leads me to the following six points :

  • Putting the realities of the situations we face into an “out of sight, out of mind” category, doesn’t make them go away.  The issues are in fact still there and must be dealt with directly.
  • Just imitating someone who is in the right while blaming others, after having colluded or been complicit in bad decisions or outright wrong doing oneself, doesn’t make one right.
  • There are perspectives other than one’s own “vantage point” that are both valid, and relevant – it is difficult to argue that “my way or the highway” constitutes adult thinking.
  • We need to be insightful in our comparisons, and on the watch out not to be fooled by similar things presented differently, and vice versa, very different things trying to be made similar.
  • The skills of critical thinking and inference have to be exercised and honed in the information age.  We do not always have the luxury of what we see, is what we get, abstract reasoning is vital regarding what is being presented in our media, and various forms of communications.
  • Analytical thinking, systematic process and diligence has to be reinvigorated versus quick trigger decision making. Slowing down to speed up real progress is likely starting to yield better results than uninformed sense of urgency under the guise of being “results oriented”.
That’s my take, I hope you enjoyed or find this a beneficial side road on the nature of our thinking and decision making.  These are easy things to take for granted regarding the way we formulate our ideas, the way we perceive our worlds and how that impacts our complex choices.  Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Until next time.

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Many people are familiar with the basic principles of the well known book The Wisdom of Crowds.  The principles have been outlined here in previous posts and the book is one I highly recommend from our book club list.  For anyone unfamiliar with this work, the basic argument of the book is that a group that is diverse in opinion, independent and thus not swayed by each others views, decentralized to allow the use of any specialization and local knowledge, that can have their individual opinions aggregated to an average solution, can make a better choice or estimate than any of the individuals within the group can.

An easy to understand example of this was demonstrated by finance professor Jack Treynor in his class, where he decided to put the classic contest of guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar to the test.  He showed that with a jar containing 850 jelly beans, that the average of the guesses of a group adhering to the conditions above estimated that there were 871 jelly beans in the jar.  Only one person in the group made a better individual guess than the estimate of the group.  It is ok that a particular individual outperforms the group.  What is interesting is that if you do the test ten times with a different number of jelly beans in the jar, the same person will not consistently outperform the group with the exception of the outlier genius.  So across multiple chances it is a very safe bet (the odds would be significantly in your favor) that the group outperforms any single individual in the group.  How do these individuals make their guesses? Have you thought about this?  Do they pick a low number because they are conservative and cautious not to overestimate?  Go for a big number because they are risky and overconfident? Reasonably confident in some rational calculation regarding the spatial relationship between the jar and the beans?  All of these kinds of guesses are likely, and to some degree governed by an emotional make up of the person making the guess – though I believe the emotional influences behind the strategy often go unnoticed.  We just think we’re making our best guess.  But what forms our best guess?

So, these individual orientations are interesting and the resulting group dynamics when they come in conflict are fascinating.  I recently had the pleasure to read the piece below written by Dr. Thomas Saaty, the architect and developer of the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) for collaborative decision making.  His methodology, the AHP, has become the most published form of decision analysis in the some 30 plus years since being introduced and has been applied to everything from the choosing the best place to live, to life and death decisions in palliative care.  This recent writing from Dr. Saaty provides a very interesting insight on the nature of our judgments, and how our preferences are formed and contribute to those better answers from a group.

Language is a descriptive approach of the world of experience and does not bring out the intensity of how we feel about things. It lacks the precision needed to represent those intensities and synthesize them in an effort to understand the diversity of feelings we have in response to the happenings around us. An important consequence of this limitation, language alone cannot be used to combine individual judgments into a representative group judgment about what happens in the world. It becomes necessary to have experts who use their own individual judgments to tell us what they think is the real answer. What if they are not as knowledgeable as we think they should be?

At the risk of repetition, people have feelings with varying intensities and how strong these feelings are is very important to them. But language can deal with feelings with imprecise words that can only be roughly interpreted and rarely convey the implications of these feelings using deductive logic that relies on words to draw its conclusions. We need a way to capture the strengths of feelings of individuals and of groups of people and synthesize them accurately so we know better what the overall feeling is about different things they deal with which come together to shape their outlook. Once we learn to capture our feelings numerically in an accurate way, we no longer need to argue vehemently about how well we communicate our thinking and feeling. Sharing ideas is the most important approach to a valid outcome that corresponds to coping with reality to bring about what is in our best interest as individuals and groups seeking to fulfill our needs. Making comparisons is instinctive and fundamental in discovering what we think and how we feel about a complex issue. Not only humans are able to compare but living things like animals and plants also do.

Of course some people have more experience with certain matters and need to be accorded greater influence for their judgments than those who may not have the practice and understanding. Dealing with intricate and elaborate issues this way is a new approach to complex problems involving great misunderstanding and conflict. Such an approach requires that we identify and structure all the important factors bearing on a problem. To do that we need to work creatively together to brainstorm and organize the structure of the complexity we face. All proposed factors and objectives must be included. Their importance will emerge from the process of comparisons and prioritization. Implementing such an approach itself needs a structure and priorities to discover the best agreed upon way to bring about the desired changes.

It is interesting that our ability to make decisions is so influenced by our feelings, and yet we often make little or no allowance for their consideration and articulation within the framework of a decision.  In fact, we often argue against the expression of emotion within our decisions, striving for the unrealistic Spock like emotionless logic and objectivity.  Yet, this takes no account of how we really decide things.  What Dr. Saaty highlights in his writing is how important it is for us to make the provision for comparing key factors in decisions and letting the strength of our preferences (i.e., our feeling about the factors and choices) become part of the measurement system of what we value.  His method, the AHP, is a highly evolved approach for articulating the mental model of a decision and quantifying this strength of preference  within the decision framework through a process comparative judgment.  This all got me thinking about the nature of what we bring to the table when asked to participate in the process of making a choice or determining rank, or priorities.  It seems that without accounting for this unique nature of our preferences and how they are expressed within a decision, we can’t really make good choices, and may be in fact denying our very own experience a role in the process.  The complexity of the process that formulates our reaction to stimulus that ultimately dictates our choices is complex and difficult to grasp, as it is hard to observe ourselves and how our patterns of perception are shaped.  I was doodling a little model of how this might occur that came out looking something like this (click to enlarge)…

I started reading and researching a bit more about these ideas to try to find similar concepts, and was intrigued by the work of psychologist Jean Piaget on Cognitive Development.  He provides a description of how we move through stages to explore and interpret our environment and create meaning.  This is an interesting field of study and relates closely to how we make decisions and the potential nature of biases.  We’ll explore this more in the next post.

In the meantime, important points to consider when making decisions, especially in groups (preferably collaboratively versus adversarially)

  • The aggregate averaged guess of the group is usually better than the guess any one member in the group
  • Don’t deny feelings a role in the process, they are the inextricably linked and embedded in the essence of experience
  • Use a process to enable the measurement of the feelings to express how they interact with the descriptive language framing a decision
More next time on the nature of our preferences and cognitive development

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In working with many organizations on a wide range of complex decisions, I never fail to be amazed at the reaction to this question; “What is the goal of this decision?, what are we trying to decide?” Almost invariably, the question seems as though it triggers a line of thinking that has not been explored before. The question is usually met initially with a bit of silence, then a moment of anxious glances exchanged around the room, and lastly a free wheeling groping for the answer. In defense of those who seem to be the hot seat on the receiving end of this question, it is an easy although risky thing to overlook.

So how does something so central to decision making (what it is that is actually trying to be decided) get overlooked? Is it that so many casual decisions are made each day that we’ve come to believe it’s easy, and take this step for granted in our more complex deliberations? We shouldn’t assume that all decisions are created equal. Think about the tremendous levels of data collection and the amount of time spent by teams and individuals occupied with trying to inform these decisions.  Given all this activity it seems something must be well enough defined to drive the action, so there may be something more at play. I’ve begun to believe that perhaps the objective isn’t so much being overlooked, but that people often immediately switch in to a mode of mind reading and trying to manage the group agreement without giving the group and opportunity to disagree in order to resolve their conflicts productively and find their points of agreement.  As such, they are reluctant to say too much for fear of saying something that deviates from what may still be the unknown group norm or consensus. The idea is beautifully set out by Jerry B. Harvery in his article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.

Here is the short version of the paradox, you can read the more detailed discussion at the link above.

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

What is so compelling to me about the Abilene paradox is that the entire chain of events can be undone by the simplest expression of transparency or personal preference by anyone involved (including the father in law making the suggestion to go to Abilene) that they are content where they are, doing what they are doing.

This of course all points to, and highlights, several well know challenges in group decision making related to pluralistic ignorance, group think, and pseudo-consensus. When psychologist Irving Janis coined the term Groupthink in 1972, he identified eight symptoms of groupthink. Of the eight, these two seem to be most at play in the Abilene paradox.

  • Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  • Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

These express themselves in a very distinct way in what is called pluralistic ignorance. The research on pluralistic ignorance is very interesting. When college students were asked about the high levels of alcohol consumption on campus it was found that most did not want to partake at such extreme levels but were all acting as if they did out of fear of rejection from other like minded people also feigning a desire to partake. But it seems no one can break the ice in these situations. There is actually a silent majority awaiting a leader to coalesce and provide an opportunity to express their true feelings and act in accordance with their preferences. Watch Dan Ariely present the topic below, it’s truly interesting and relevant.

So taking all this into consideration, what if we could break through?

Let’s imagine the conversation on that porch in Texas goes a little differently;

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” “Are you kidding, it’s a miserable day to do that drive, and I’m pretty content here enjoying the company” The husband, despite havinghaving had reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step learns his preferences are right in line with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.”“Yeah, you know, I don’t need to go anywhere, life doesn’t get much better than this right here.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.” “I hate Abilene, he suggests this silly idea every time someone comes by, always worried that no one is content just setting here having a good time.”  THE END

Easy peasy. Ah, the simplicity of the transparent and explicit expression of real preferences. All it takes is one courageous person to break the dam and start the rush toward real consensus. Here are three things to consider to interrupt these groupthink processes in a collaborative decision;

  1. Assign a facilitator: This is someone who has the role of challenging the group and asking the hard questions. It is best that the facilitator have a limited, or better no, stake in the decision outcome. They can read body language and draw out asymmetrical information and try to find those silent majorities if they exist.
  2. Bring in outside experts: These outsiders to the group can be brought in and asked for expert opinion and can be given the role of devil’s advocate by the facilitator. These experts can be positioned on the fringe of the group making them more inclined to disrupt the group norm and draw out differences. These can be carefully chosen rogue or maverick type experts who are empowered to express their ideas.  The facilitator needs to support these experts and capitalize on the productive conflict they may generate.
  3. Use a decision process: Use a methodology like the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) to anonymously source preferences and aggregate the group point of view. Allowing each individual to state their preference independently and then discussing this as a group can provide a mechanism for finding the points of disagreement that can ultimately become the conflicts that are resolved to create true consensus and agreement.

Please offer your thoughts and insights about these issues, have you experienced any of these kinds of phenomena and how have you or your organization tried to resolve them?

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In this second part of this discussion we will talk about how applying a structured decision process can help to temper, if not overcome some of the biases we pointed out in the previous post.

Let’s start with a brief description of a structured approach to decision making.  For this example we will consider the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) developed by Dr. Thomas Saaty.  This approach has been made accessible by Decision Lens, Inc., who has developed a software solution that enables application of this process to organizations to collaboratively make complex multi-criteria, multi-stakeholder decision where these organizations are faced with many possible courses of action that can be taken.

The Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) is a theory of measurement that uses the principles of comparative judgment, first to make comparisons of decision criteria with respect to some property and then derives scales of priority measurement from these judgments.  In doing this the AHP can be used to derive measurements for anything and the meaning depends on the judgments. This allows creation of a measurement system with regard to the criteria to derive the scales and establish a prioritization framework.

The application of AHP follows a structured, while sometimes iterative, format.  Before we look at our example, let’s briefly review the essential aspects of the AHP process.

  1. Develop a hierarchy or tree of criteria- in clusters from high level categories at the top level to more specific sub-criteria, down to ratings and measures that will be used to differentiate the strategic value of options.
  2. Comparison of criteria to each other using a pairwise approach to establish their relative priorities for use in assessing options
  3. Rating the options against quantitative or qualitative scales that are derived to describe each criterion, and measure how well options reflect the priorities expressed within them.
  4. Optimize the allocation of resources among the options by way of cost/benefit analysis and performing sensitivity analysis to determine the robustness and drivers of decision outcomes.

So how can this impact many of the biases laid out in our previous discussion?  Let’s see.

We will look at an example of how some of the anchoring introduced by our fictional Committee Chair is impacted by item 1) and 2) above.  Similarly these techniques can help with many of the other issues highlighted in the way the group interacts in our example.

Committee Chair:  So we have a decision to make.  Which of these two product options are we going to pursue?  This is a critical strategic decision for us, and key to our ability to hit next year’s numbers.

Ideally the group of stakeholders to the decision would take a collaborative approach to defining a decision goal, and establishing the criteria that best enable achieving the goal. The weights of these criteria can then be derived before going down the narrow path being presented by the committee chair.  In this case, the group would be asked what the key factors that shape their decision are.  They may ultimately conclude that the criteria of “next year’s numbers” is the primary consideration for their decision, but without first defining the goal of the decision and articulating the issues that should shape the framework for making the decisions they can fall subject to this anchoring.  Among the important criteria may be the short term financial impact, but perhaps also the long term impact.  The question is which is more important and by how much?  By surfacing these counterbalancing criteria, and having the group weigh in on which should be the larger consideration in the decision, some anchoring from a single influential member can be buffered.  The group in our conversation goes on to talk about a variety of topics in a somewhat random, circular  and unstructured way; what the customers prefer, how easy it is to manufacture, and the overall technical feasibility of the product, etc.  Considering these other criteria can even further balance the thinking of the group and create a more holistic view of the decision.  Once a determination is made by the group of stakeholders to the decision as to which of these criteria is most important, the options can then be put to the test for how well they meet these criteria and the objectives imbedded within them.

If we look at the nature of the conversation, the key stakeholders are speaking of a decision structure that might look something like the following:

This all becomes very interesting in the process of making the comparative judgments.  It becomes virtually impossible for the group to get into single criteria based arguments when posed with a decision structure like this.  By virtue of the comparison exercise you can’t say something doesn’t matter, you can only say how much more or less it matters than something else.  There are often cases like the following where an outlier may need to defend their position in an attempt to influence a group, or have to concede that the rest of the group has a different point of view.  The question is, is this outlier Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” or Jim Carey in “Yes Man”.  In some cases information comes to light in these discussions that either substantiates or negates the position of the person who opposes the group, but one way or another, this kind of conversation moves the group to greater understanding and alignment by making all of these preferences and biases more explicit and transparent.  Making this quantifiable using AHP, may look something like this when engaging on the question, “with regard to this decision, which of the following pair is more important, and by how much?”

Provided the decision makers have the ability to stay independent in their assessments and not play “follow the leader” (which can be accomplished by anonymously sourcing these judgments), we can see that despite the very strong preference of the Committee Chair to have the financial focused considerations trump other factors that the opinions and preferences of the entire group give it only a slightly larger consideration on average than the Customer Preference for instance.  The arguments of others may run along the lines of “if we give the customer a preferred product, they’ll buy it, and we’ll meet our financial objectives.  Anyway, our financial forecasts tend to be less reliable than our customer research”.  Often the person with the extreme judgment will consider the positions of their colleagues and scale back the strength of their preference. In other cases, they may hold their ground, but have to accept that theirs is not the popular opinion.  In any case, voices are heard and fair process is at work.  This approach assures that at least participants have to hear perspectives that may interrupt biases.

Let’s look at the next level down in the decision.  When talking about financial impact, which is more important the short term or the long term?

Here again, we can see that the diversity of opinion in the group allows for some greater consideration of the short term, but the more extreme preference of a single stakeholder (which may be completely justified given their incentives, or political pressures) is again dampened by those who feel the long term should be given a more equal consideration, or even preferential consideration.  Collectively the group leans Short Term, but can create a framework that brings a considerably more balanced perspective to the decision.

Using a similar approach the decision makers, or other subject matter experts that they appoint, can be tasked with evaluating how well each option meets each of these criteria for selection.  The same principles of bringing multiple perspectives together and having a structured conversation about outliers can be used to temper the effect of biases and have a counterbalancing effect on more extreme positions while allowing for all of these perspectives to be considered.

This ultimately has the effect of creating a tangible view of the mental model that a group may be bringing to a decision.  These differences in perspective and strengths of preferences can remain invisible in discussion except for the way they are expressed in disagreement, power driven arguments, and advocacy based discussion.

The basic principles as outlined by James Surowiecki in “The Wisdom of Crowds” can be made real using such an approach.  The use of AHP as a decision framework allows for;

  • Independence:  Each member can independently provide their priorities
  • Diversity of Opinion: The AHP actually promotes the expression of diverse opinion
  • Local Knowledge – Stakeholders from different subject matter expertise are able to evaluate the information through their own lens of local knowledge.
  • Aggregation – The mathematical underpinnings of AHP create a unique aggregating mechanism where the decision makers derive the measurement system and establish priorities in a process of transforming implicit considerations into an explicit value model for their decision.

One possible approach to limiting the influence of biases may be to tackle them head on by bringing them to light with a degree of structure and process rather than allowing them to run wild in an unstructured, circular, power driven, advocacy based debate.

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I hope you like the title of this post. It tees things up pretty well for what follows in this first of a two part series on cognitive biases.  The title demonstrates a Bias Blind Spot, suggesting the “I’m not biased, but THEY are”, and the famous “I knew it all along” type of thinking that accompanies the Hindsight Bias.  I had an opportunity to speak on behalf of Decision Lens at the recent Cambridge Health Institute conference on Portfolio Management last month, and one of the parts of my talk that stimulated the most interest and conversation, was the portion on cognitive biases and how structured decision making may help overcome them.  So, having had these conversations during and after the conference and given some thought to them in the context of portfolio decisions and project or product choices, I thought I would share a typical project selection type discussion that I have found myself in over the years and then break it down to look at what might be going on to help illustrate a few points.  Next post we’ll talk about possible remedies of structured and collaborative decision making and their potential to positively influence the process.  Enjoy.

Setting: A product or project Steering Committee meeting in a large company delivering  about 60% of its strategic planning goals from new product development (like many companies).

Committee Chair:  So we have a decision to make.  Which of these two product options are we going to pursue?  This is a critical strategic decision for us, and key to our ability to hit next year’s numbers.

VP R&D (Joe):  I think there’s not much to decide really, clearly WonderWidget is the superior option.  Acme consulting’s report said as much, and Maria, didn’t your team’s study find it to be preferred?

Director Market Research (Maria ): Well, I’m not sure how much value I put in Acme’s assessment, but yes, we did on the whole find WonderWidget the better choice. However, some groups preferred GreatGadget.  In fact, look at these numbers.  When I broke them out by age group against our target, an iron clad case can be made for GreatGadget.

VP R&D (Joe): OK, but c’mon. We’ve tried the GreatGadget approach before, and it has failed outright.  As I recall, the WonderWidget prototype shown to those groups didn’t even include our latest greatest improvements, isn’t that true Maria?

Director Market Research (Maria): Well, um…, I think…

VP R&D (Joe): I’m also not sure how we recruited those participants in the study, but they certainly didn’t seem representative of the typical savvy of most of our users, wouldn’t you agree Maria?

Director Market Research (Maria): I have some concerns about a couple of aspects of the study design, that may have contributed to what you observed.

VP Operations (Andre): Joe, there has to be considerable value in GreatGadget, it is right in our wheelhouse, it’s basically repurposing known technology!

VP R&D (Joe): I wouldn’t say that… Are you saying that because of the common interface?

VP Operations (Andre): We would have to be able to have GreatGadget commercially ready in a fraction of the time and cost!, 6 months max, and very little incremental investment based on our existing capabilities.

Director Market Research (Maria): We’ve had some quality complaints from product produced on that platform, though I do think it has some merit…

VP R&D (Joe): It may be faster and cheaper Andre, but Maria’s right, no one wants it.  We knew when we launched it that it may take a long time to work out the bugs.

VP Operations (Andre): Maria, those are minor problems, we can overcome those from my shop.  I’m 99% sure of it.

Director Market Research (Maria):  I didn’t say…

Committee Chair:  OK, I’ve been listening very objectively.  We have a track record of not always being very good at these decisions.  While we’ve been in a bit of a drought; we’re due for a win.  It sounds to me like we are reaching a general consensus that we should pursue GreatGadget.  So, how do we move forward?


Now, let’s replay this conversation and take a little deeper look into what’s going on…

If you need to reference the biases discussed below, you can follow this link or those embedded in the discussion.


Committee Chair:  So we have a decision to make.  Which of these two product options are we going to pursue?  This is a critical strategic decision for us, and key to our ability to hit next year’s numbers.

Comment >> Our committee chair leads out of the gate to trigger the Framing Effect, immediately limiting the options to two. Then throws in a dash of Focusing Effect, and Hyperbolic Discounting to drive the group to viewing the decision through the filter of next year’s number.

VP R&D (Joe):  I think there’s not much to decide really, clearly WonderWidget is the superior option.  Acme consulting’s report said as much, and Maria, didn’t your team’s study find it to be preferred?

Comment >> Joe responds with what could be Positive Outcome, Wishful Thinking and Optimism bias inferring a foregone conclusion about the route to successful decision. He then evokes the Interloper Effect about the objectivity of the consultants with no substantiation, and pursues the Confirmation Bias as he seeks corroboration for his position from Maria.

Director Market Research (Maria ): Well, I’m not sure how much value I put in Acme’s assessment, but yes, we did on the whole find WonderWidget the better choice. However, some groups preferred GreatGadget.  In fact, look at these numbers.  When I broke them out by age group against our target, an iron clad case can be made for GreatGadget.

Comment >> Maria counters Joe’s Interloper Effect with a dose of Ingroup Bias rewarding her group for their superior research efforts, she then seems to have an episode of the Framing Effect as she begins to parse the data in ways to support an argument that runs contrary to Joe’s position.

VP R&D (Joe): OK, but c’mon. We’ve tried the GreatGadget approach before, and it has failed outright.  As I recall, the WonderWidget prototype shown to those groups didn’t even include our latest greatest improvements, isn’t that true Maria?

Comment >> Whoa!  Maria hits Joe right in his Semmelweis Reflex as he responds to reject the new evidence that contradicts his position, he reels and strikes back with a combination of the Subjective Validation, The Primacy Effect, and Negativity Bias as he doesn’t substantiate the outright failure, gives the initial failure more emphasis than the current research, and gives more weight to the negative aspects of the previous effort, than any positives.  He then slips in an uppercut that tags Maria right in the Suggestibility Bias.

Director Market Research (Maria): Well, um…, I think…

Comment >> Maria is now suffering from some combination of False Memory, and Cryptomnesia as she fights her confusion to sort facts from suggestions and is likely moving down the path to some form of Information Bias to try to shore up the data to make the case when the data is either unavailable or irrelevant to the influence driven argument.

VP R&D (Joe): I’m also not sure how we recruited those participants in the study, but they certainly didn’t seem representative of the typical savvy of most of our users, wouldn’t you agree Maria?

Comment >> Joe doubles down on triggering Maria’s Suggestibility Bias with his Fundamental Attribution Error about the participants in the study.

Director Market Research (Maria): I have some concerns about a couple of aspects of the study design, that may have contributed to what you observed.

Comment >> Maria hints at the fact that she may be concerned about a variety biases, like the Hawthorne Effect, Herd Instinct, Expectation Bias, or  Selection Biases to which studies may be prone.

VP Operations (Andre): Joe, there has to be considerable value in GreatGadget, it is right in our wheelhouse, it’s basically repurposing known technology!

Comment>> Andre is new to the party, and comes with a BYOB (Bring Your Own Bias) of Status Quo, and the Mere Exposure Effect.

VP R&D (Joe): I wouldn’t say that… Are you saying that because of the common interface?

VP Operations (Andre): We would have to be able to have GreatGadget commercially ready in a fraction of the time and cost!, 6 months max, and very little incremental investment based on our existing capabilities.

Comment>> Andre goes on to fall victim to the Planning Fallacy, by likely underestimating the time and cost required to undertake this similar but entirely new effort.  He is likely in the throes of the Overconfidence Bias.

Director Market Research (Maria): We’ve had some quality complaints from product produced on that platform, though I do think it has some merit…

VP R&D (Joe): It may be faster and cheaper Andre, but Maria’s right, no one wants it.  We knew when we launched it that it may take a long time to work out the bugs.

Comment>> Joe makes a huge leap, and by way of the Authority Bias he attributes expertise to Maria and exaggerates her position through a bit of Egocentric Bias, and the Availability Cascade bias (a.k.a; if you say it enough it is true).  Then he pulls out the Hindsight Bias!

VP Operations (Andre): Maria, those are minor problems, we can overcome those from my shop.  I’m 99% sure of it.

Comment>> ???… Overconfidence Bias run amuck.

Director Market Research (Maria):  I didn’t say…

Comment>> Sorry Maria, looks like this train is leaving the station…

Committee Chair:  OK, I’ve been listening very objectively.  We have a track record of not always being very good at these decisions. While we’ve been in a bit of a drought; we’re due for a win.  It sounds to me like we are reaching a general consensus that we should pursue GreatGadget.  So, how do we move forward?

Comment>> Lastly, this is a mix of Bias Blindspot (believing you are not biased), Outcome Bias (judging the result rather than the quality of the decision at the time, i.e. knowing what you knew then), and the Gambler’s Fallacy that biases one to think that a series of losses must be leading to a win, while the odds in the meantime remain exactly the same… all with a False Consensus Effect cherry on top.


Sound familiar?  In my next post I’ll talk about how to use a structured approach to decision making to help neutralize some of these effects and increase the chances that the group makes the best decision possible with the information available.

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I  don’t typically like discussions on a topic that start with an etymology lesson or definitions, but as I started thinking about the collaborative aspect of collaborative decision making, I really found myself having to give some consideration to the meaning of the word because it wasn’t immediately apparent to me exactly what everyone’s talking about, other than the basic idea of working together, when the word gets thrown around.  So I’m making an exception despite my misgivings and exploring the definition.  Turns out the word is pretty interesting and nuanced.  When we talk about working together within an organization, collaboration includes the ideas of being jointly accredited or rewarded and recognized.  When it is between different organizations the nuance includes usually, though not necessarily, willing cooperation, and also the idea of partnering outside your ordinary circle of connections.  This first dictionary definition represents the positive connotation I believe is intended by the typical use of the word in most organizations and business environments today.

  • To work together with others to achieve a common goal. (emphasis added)
As in; Let’s collaborate on this article, and get it completed faster.

Note it doesn’t say how to work together.  Interestingly though, this second definition seems to describe something like the atmosphere around the experience of many people I talk to in my work at Decision Lens.

  • To cooperate treasonably as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country.
As in; If you collaborate with the enemy, you will be executed.

The word actually comes from the French, collaborateur (Very saboteur like), which comes from the Latin Collaboratus, past participle of Collaborare which means “work with”.  Look at this discussion on Wikipedia

    Since the Second World War the term “Collaboration” acquired a very negative meaning as referring to persons and groups which help a foreign occupier of their country—due to actual use by people in European countries who worked with and for the Nazi German occupiers. Linguistically, “collaboration” implies more or less equal partners who work together—which is obviously not the case when one party is an army of occupation and the other are people of the occupied country living under the power of this army.

    In order to make a distinction, the more specific term Collaborationism is often used for this phenomenon of collaboration with an occupying army. However, there is no water-tight distinction; “Collaboration” and “Collaborator”, as well as “Collaborationism” and “Collaborationist”, are often used in this pejorative sense—and even more so, the equivalent terms in French and other languages spoken in countries which experienced direct Nazi occupation.

In fact the French word collabo (collaborator) was often coupled with the adjective sale (dirty) and considered a supreme insult.

OK, it’s all starting to make sense to me now.  This feels a bit more like the nature of what’s going on in the political and social dynamics of many organizations with regard to decision making.  Given this context it appears we may actually be getting what we are asking for…

So this got me thinking about that “water tight distinction” mentioned above for this idealized and desired positive form of collaboration, which is what prompted me to come up with the new spelling –  “Collaberration” in the title.  Because in my experience it is rare, and simply not the norm.

We often hear talk, in lofty terms, about working together to achieve a common goal in ways that conjour images of a Koombaya singing Utopian organization where productivity effortlessly expands.  If we’re honest we would have to admit that when this happens it is an aberration. But it does happen on occasion.  Conversely in the worst cases, while often well intended at the outset, hidden motives, personal agendas and reluctant compromises that are kept from the light of day, can create passive aggressive behaviors that can result in coalitions of the unwilling feigning cooperation while actively resisting progress. There’s nothing like a dose of this dysfunction to significantly undermine decisions and stifle real progress against goals.  If you believe that words have power (which I do)  it’s interesting that we’re using a word (collaboration) that is loaded with baggage and inferences to the very kind of behavior I think many are hoping to weed out by evoking it.  Which makes me think perhaps collaboration isn’t always necessarily the objective.  It may be a desire for alignment, cooperation, or maybe even more so, outright submission.  I know I have been in some environments where unconditional surrender seemed to be what was being asked for under the guise of collaboration.

The Corporate Executive Board released a new research report that stated the following;

…even small efforts to improve collaboration through technology can improve bottom-line performance by 0.3 to 1.0 percent of total enterprise costs

No wonder we hear calls for Collaberration.  In “Organizing Genius – the Secrets to Creative Collaboration”, Warren Bennis talks about what he called “Great Groups”, and the dynamics by which they tend to operate.  Often times they are short lived, and members of these groups lose themselves in their work in pursuit of the goal.  These rare, but high impact, environments seems to be a collision of talent and purpose that blows away expectation and any imagined result.  Disney Animations, Xerox PARC, Apple’s MacIntosh project, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, The Manhattan Project, etc.  are some of these cultures he explored.  Interestingly, they are hard environments to maintain, and sometimes they fall apart not long after a monumental achievements leaving their members longing for another chance to work in such an environment, and often saddled with a sort of postpartum  malaise.   Three of the most compelling insights he had about these creatively collaberrative environments were

  • Great Groups think they are on a mission from God
  • Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic
  • Great work is its own reward

So why is it so difficult for us to get people to work together and make decisions to advance their objectives?  I’ve noticed that my various standing alerts and feeds for Decision Making and Collaboration, tend to bring forward stories from Sports & Politics for the former, and the Arts and Academia for the latter, almost every single day.  These human endeavors seem to in some way help define the concepts in our minds, or at least have the most demonstrable examples where the language fits.  I’ve touched on decision making in sports in past posts, and so thought I would look to the arts for a bit more inspiration and insight into collaberration.  I found the video below, and thought it a wonderful example of a group of artists/athletes working together to do something no one of them could do alone.  Now, while we don’t know their back story, or the personal intrigue or their group dynamics there are some thoughts it provoked that I’d like to summarize in tandem with what we’ve read above.

Fascinating. Beautiful individual contributions and simply amazing teamwork.

So if it is collaberration we want, with all of the messiness that comes with it, here are 5 key considerations that can contribute to enabling the kind of creative, and productive environments where it can take place.  These ideas are interdependent, and self reinforcing of each other.

  • Vision & Purpose: In the case of our video, no one member of the troupe can achieve the vision. A single person can propose the concept of a group shadow puppet (perhaps to a reaction of some laughter initially), but teamwork is needed to realize it. There has to be a compelling and inspiring purpose to get people to reach beyond the limits of self, a purpose that stems from a vision that aligns their self interests and individual contributions to mutual benefit and achievement of the group objective.
  • Transparency & Tolerance: For our artists, there is nowhere to hide as they contribute to the silhouette on the screen, their contribution to the whole and the ability of that contribution to advance the objective has to be open and visible. There MUST be a desire and tolerance for Transparency in collaberration, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable. Transparency enables members to respectfully dissent, express and resolve differences in opinion and build alignment (i.e., agreeing to disagree and move forward in a unified direction) This allows investment in the purpose, to achieve commitment and allow members to operate above board.
  • Creative Conflict: We can be sure that there is argument amongst our artists and directors about the optimal configuration of appendages to create wings, wheels and triggers.  Conflict is inevitable, and necessary.  We should assume we will be challenged by the ideas and perspectives of others whatever the position we, or they, hold in the group. Disagreement and contradiction are a source for creative solutions.  Compelling Purpose and the tolerance for Transparency can help sustain the group through the conflict.
  • Incentives & Alignment: If our artists are given the incentive to stand out from the group, they will likely undermine the cohesiveness that creates the composite effect of their work.   Individual incentives can not undermine the group purpose, and need to be crafted in a way that aligns rewards and/or recognition with unique individual contributions that are clearly enablers to the group’s goals (i.e., those kinds of contributions the group would agree “we couldn’t have done it without them”).  Transparency and purpose increase, and conflict decreases, the better this is done.
  • Execution & Results: If our artists believe in the vision, are given the incentive to advance the group objective in a way that is enabling of productive conflict and promotes transparency, they can create a stunning collaberrative result.  The end goal is to “work together” to produce something extraordinary; an outcome or product.  The execution and coordination necessary to achieve that desired result are most likely a byproduct of the points above, whether deliberate or circumstantial, and execution would be difficult as a goal in and of itself.

Breaking through the barriers of competing interests, beliefs, perspectives and motivations is a challenge that is not easily solved.  Please join in the conversation and seize the opportunity to collaberrate to better understand how we might achieve more positive and breakthrough experiences in the process of decision making within groups.  It would be great to hear about the experiences of others in achieving collaberration.

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Frequently in my work at Decision Lens, I am asked the following question in number of different ways by prospective clients and customers, so I’ll paraphrase it generally;

How can I measure the value of using your decision making methodology and how much will it improve my decision making?’

This is an absolutely loaded, or at a minimum a complex, question.    Have you thought about this question?  My immediate reaction, emotionally at least, triggers an internal dialog that goes something like this…

“Argh-Ughhh (or other guttural utterances) Are you freakin’ kidding me?!, how in the world do I answer this question!?? I mean c’mon, we’ve all seen Back to the Future or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, right? Who do I look like Doc Brown? Oh wait, where’s my Flux Capacitor? let me get the DeLorean and I’ll tell you… or we can wait a few months and we’ll get Sherman and Peabody, and hop in the Wayback machine and do a post morten.  I mean, what are we talking about??, are you worried about Godwin’s Law of Time Travel in the present moment? Do you want me to tell you if you’re Eckles stepping on a butterfly in Bradbury’s, “A Sound of Thunder“?  I mean, really!  Alternate futures and contradictory pasts!? You want me to solve that riddle!!?? Never mind the 19 social, 8 memory, 42 decision making and 35 probability biases that slightly complicate your question!!!…OK, breathe, snap out of it, SNAP OUT OF IT!

This all takes place in a fraction of a second or so upon hearing the question (each time), and then I calmly do the prudent thing, Jujitsu! Respond with a question!  “How do you measure your decision making today?” to which the typical response is – “Well, we don’t really…”

Resume internal dialog – “%@#*!”

At this point I usually need to excuse myself for a moment for a quick catharsis, that looks not at all unlike this…

All kidding aside, it’s a challenging question.  Let me illustrate why by way of an example.  Take the example of a company working to implement a collaborative, process based, decision making methodology back in 2005.  The members of the Board want to make better strategic decisions about which product development efforts to allocate funding to in their business planning process.  The agreed measure of portfolio value is based on a third year in market revenue projection for the proposed products.  The company has approximately a 12-18 month expected project cycle time to get new products to market.  That means the potential value created by those decisions in 2005 should be coming to fruition, oh, just about now! (Summer 2005 + 18 months development and launch + 3 year market penetration = ~2010).  So this is why I struggle with the question of how to show the “value” for improved decision making after a 3-6 month process change effort.   Not only that, but as time elapses post-decision, we usually find ourselves and our world in a very different place than the one we imagined.  Sometimes most (nearly all) of the members of that board will have moved on to other professional opportunities. The economy has been interesting, I hope they made good choices.  Neither of these things were remote considerations in the 2005 decision process.

This can’t help but remind me of the wisdom of the old story about the civil war farmer and his son.

One day while working the field, their only horse got spooked and ran off over the hill. The son said, what bad luck, what do we do now? to which his father replied “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”.  A few days later their horse came back over the hill with another three horses!  They greeted him and his friends and the son said, “What good luck dad, now we have all the horses we need” to which his father replied, “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”.  While breaking some of the new wild horses, the tables were turned and the son was thrown and broke his leg.  While complaining, “Dad, what bad luck, and now more burden on you!’  To which he replied, “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”  The war broke out, and all the able body were called.   The severity of his broken leg left the son compromised and unable to serve.  The father was one of few farmers with help, and horses and he prospered – His son said, “What good luck we had dad”. The father wisely reflected “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”…

Believe me, I understand the angst in our decision making, and experience it all the time myself.  Sometimes those snap decisions that shape the moment have a shorter feedback loop, but many of our decisions have this “good decision, bad decision, too soon to tell” element to them.  How about the family that was planning to move into their dream house in two days, only to have it consumed in fire while they wait.  How many scenarios can you think of where decisions could have been made that would have swung their occupancy date 48 hours sooner only to have them present when the fire broke out?  How about the numerous stories of people making decisions to cancel a flight to find that they somehow avoided an ill fated journey?  Nothing makes the message of our parable above clear more than the story of the woman who missed a tragic flight, only to be killed in a car crash a day later.  Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.

If you think about this stuff too much, it could make you mental.  So what was that question again?

Oh yeah, here is what I think.  Not I, nor anyone else can tell you if you are making better decisions, that’s too loaded a question and may be overrated anyway.  What we can do is ask ourselves what makes us uncomfortable about the run up to making decisions and how can we mitigate some of those factors.

Here are my three equilateral measures, uncomfortably soft as they may be.  Common sense (not all that common) as they may appear, I believe them very relevant.  Without getting all Peace, Love and Understanding on you, my inseparably linked triumvirate of good decision making are

  • Understanding, Trust and Commitment.
  1. Do I believe I/we have grown in our understanding of the issues?, and are they structured and/or organized in a way that helps me understand my priorities and values in this context?  Has the amount of asymmetric information been reduced?  If the answer is “no” (watch out), and if the process approach you are considering moves you closer to “yes”, then it is immensely valuable.
  2. Do I believe the decision process is transparent enough and provides a means of incentivizing those advising and consulting or providing options to be open, candid and forthcoming about the stakes and their motivations?  If the answer is “no” (it’s a problem) anything you can do that moves you along the continuum toward “yes” is hugely valuable.
  3. Do I believe the process of getting to the decision has engendered commitment from those impacted by or essential to following the decided course of action? Have we disarmed the pocket veto and passive aggressive behavior because voices were heard and the issues were drawn out and confronted head on?  If the answer is “no” (Danger), anything in a proposed process that moves you toward answering “yes” is immeasurably valuable.

I suggest using a survey technique posing questions related to these measures to establish a baseline of shared understanding, reciprocal trust and levels of commitment.  Take a risk on a process that you believe can move the needle toward more positive measures against this baseline.  If you do, you have made a very big difference in the process of getting to that jumping off point where we are all unfortunately required to let events unfold – good decision, bad decision, it’s too soon to tell.  It’s worth the risk, and it may turn out better than you think – especially given that hindsight bias is so insidious.  Please share any thought you might have on measuring good decision making, it’s a fascinating topic.

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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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Being a strategist, I have a fascination with chess, or at least the ideas of chess. It conjures images of fierce competition, intellectual rigor, intense strategic thinking and steely eyed focus.  It can also be surprisingly dramatic and controversial, with colorful characters.  I really want to be able to play well.  I can beat my six year old son fairly handily, his brain is not yet fully developed, so this should give you some insight into my skill level. I have several iPhone apps that are fun and instructive and provide a useful distraction and brain exercise to combat the monotony of tarmacs and airports.  I like to see me and my iPhone as my personal rendition of the legendary competition between undisputed World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue Chess computer, except in my melodrama the opponents both have less capacity and the skill gap is greater and skewed to the machine. My level of pure frustration with chess is very much on par with what my friends who play golf describe as their emotional relationship to that sport.  One good move or a flash of insight keeps me coming back to the chessboard like a good approach shot does them to the fairway.

Garry Kasparov is considered by many (especially in the post Fischer era) to be the greatest chess player in the world.  He wrote an interesting book called ”How Life Imitates Chess”, which in the end is very much a book about… decision making.

Some of my own progress as a chess novice has been stunted by analysis paralysis.  Determining options can be daunting, choosing which to pursue can be even more so.   After only three moves the number of possible positions on the board can be well over 60,000.  So how do we decide?  If this were a purely analytical process based on logic and analysis, it seems that when Garry Kasparov faced IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1996 and 1997 that the ability of the computer to win these matches should have been a foregone conclusion as it is when I compete against my iPhone.  Yet Kasparov won the 1996 match 4-2, he lost the 1997 rematch narrowly 2-1/2 – 3-1/2.  He offered to play a third match during an appearance on Larry King Live with a number of conditions, including a willingness to concede Deep Blue as world champion if it won the match.  IBM chose not to take him up on the offer despite the computer’s ability to calculate 200,000,000 positions on the board per second!

There are four basic chess values that Deep Blue must consider before deciding on a move. They are material, position, King safety and tempo.

Material is easy. The rule of thumb is that if a pawn is considered to be worth a value of 1, pieces (knights and bishops) are worth 3 each, a rook is worth 5, and the Queen 9. The King, of course, is beyond value, since his loss means the end of the game. This varies slightly in certain situations — retaining the Bishop pair in the end game generally increases their value beyond 6, for example – but the laws of material are fairly constant.

Position is more complex. In the old days, it was thought that control of the center was all that mattered. Nearly all grandmaster games before the 20th century began with Pawn to King 4 or Pawn to Queen 4. Control of the center is still important, but certain grandmasters in this century found some effective “hypermodern” openings that delay development of the center, with the idea that the opponent will overextend his position and leave himself vulnerable for attack.

The simplest way to understand position is by looking at your pieces and counting the number of safe squares that they can attack. The more squares they control, the stronger the position. Thus, a seemingly quiet pawn move can be very strong if it opens many new squares for a more powerful piece behind it.

The defensive aspect of position is the safety of the King. This is self-explanatory. A computer must assign a value to the safety of the King’s position in order to know how to make a purely defensive move.

Tempo is related to position but focuses on the race to develop control of the board. A player is said to “lose a tempo” if he dillydallies while the opponent is making more productive advances.

The programmers have defined how Deep Blue’s program evaluates these factors. The computer then searches through all the legal moves and chooses the one that yields the highest value.

I don’t know about you, but this process is beyond my computational capacity in any meaningful and constrained time frame.

So let’s think about this.  It’s been estimated that through a process of elimination and prioritization of high potential moves, that human chess masters consider approximately three dozen serious options or so before making a move versus two hundred million per second by Deep Blue.  Then, we apply a mix of analysis, judgment, preference, creativity, experience, intuition and a dash of guts to form a decision cocktail and make a choice (or sometimes take a gamble), often resulting in a very good outcomes.

So, How do Garry Kasparovs work?

So is this yet another tale of man versus machine, like the folklore of John Henry versus the steam hammer? Is it better to have nearly limitless computational capacity with limited experience and intuition, or vast experience and intuition and less computational capacity? It seems to me that a Deep Blue Kasparov would be invincible. Maybe man versus machine is the wrong question?

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