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Data vs. Experts: Nine Years On

Posted by Mark Bennett on December 1, 2012

3314564950_cdb15acfa5_oThe war between Big Data and Experts rages on, but is it really as much a fight to the death as people make it out to be? What does it mean for leaders who must choose which to consult when making important decisions?

The most recent battle in the war of course was the Great 2012 Presidential Election, where pundits, posing as “experts”, were soundly defeated and fled the field in the face of incredibly accurate predictions made by data analysts. The most often cited reason: pundits couldn’t look past their own biases to see what the data was indicating even if they had chosen to look at it, which many didn’t. And even if they did look at data, they tended to focus only on the data that fit their preconceptions.

“Actually, fifty-one. I don’t know why I lied just then.”

Nine years ago, “Moneyball” told the story of another battle that took place in the data-rich sport of baseball. It showed again how experts, this time portrayed by major league scouts, were misled by their “conventional wisdom,” while scrappy Jonah Hill quants ran circles around them and picked up real talent at rock bottom prices to win division pennants.

So is the conclusion that experts are doomed to extinction, like some kind of modern dinosaurs, while nimble data analytics outwit them like little proto-mammals? Not so much.

What smart leaders are doing is learning how to combine the strengths of each to make better decisions and to make better predictions.

In his terrific “The Signal and the Noise,” Nate Silver points out that in the aftermath of Moneyball, where one would have assumed the payrolls of scouts to be slashed in MLB teams (at least in the Oakland A’s right? I mean, Brad Pitt tore them apart!) But no, in fact, the number of scouts have generally increased.

We can rebuild them; we have the technology. We can make them better than before.

Why? Because the scouts are able to be even more effective because of the advances made in analyzing data about players, fields, etc. They are working off of a more accurate model of what matters when measuring the potential of a player long before they are brought up from the minors. The amount of data being collected in baseball is mind-boggling. They are close to being able to record all the data from every game using cameras, sensors and what-not so that you could basically re-create and analyze every aspect of the game; every bounce the ball made, every slip of a player’s foot, etc. Big Data for the Big League.

But they know that’s still not enough to know the value each player could bring to a team. Remember, it’s not enough to pay a player for what they did – that’s rearview mirror thinking. You will likely overpay with that kind of thinking over the long term. What you want to be good at is predicting performance and underpaying today for big value down the road (you hope – if it was certain, everybody would be already doing it.)

Silver describes how it’s those hard-to-quantify attributes where scouts will likely put more focus. An example is a player’s “mental toolkit.” Baseball life is rife with slumps of varying degrees and some players can do much better than others to get through them. Sure, maybe one day they’ll stick a band around a rookie’s head and a computer will spit out either, “Loser” or “Hall of Famer”, but that’s a ways off.

“When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt him.”

So, what’s the advice on how to combine Data and Experts? It’s basically this: avoid having to trust your gut. Get some solid, objective data analysis (see my previous post) to set the foundation for your decision-making. But, since the data can’t tell you the whole story except in the most generalized, easy-to-be-replicated by your competition way, bring in your experts at that point to fill in the missing intangibles that help you make the right decision or come up with the most likely predictions for scenario planning.

In short, keep your experts from getting too misled by their biases and blind spots and then have them use their experience and imagination (yes, really) to come up with new ways to look at the problem. Data Analysis’s strength is in its rigorous and disciplined pursuit of objective truth; Expertise’s strength is in asking “what might happen if…”

Photo by GANDALF_GREY

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

It’s not important now as “nothing is at stake”!!!

Posted by Anadi Upadhyaya on December 1, 2012

nothing at stakeAttitude of focusing only on things which can save you from the trouble-in-hand and ignoring the rest often results in a bucket full of important activities to be addressed later. When you ignore things till your job or image or commitment or ego is at stake, you often end up creating a mess.

When everything is important nothing really is important. Important, very important, really important, showstopper or using any other prefix in your communication indicates that it’s important but if almost all your communications have these prefixes then it’s time to retrospect as something is fundamentally wrong.

Just saying that “Planning is important and I invest a lot of time in planning” doesn’t work till you really practice it. Make sure that you are not using planning time as a resting time or for anything else. If you are putting less important things on watch list for review, do review it regularly to pick up an activity which has potential to be important.

Be it solving the business bottlenecks, succession planning, preparation for approaching compensation or promotion cycle or anything related to business; being proactive rather than reactive will save your business from risk.

Many things have changed with technological innovations but few things have not. Planning and periodic review of your plan is one such thing that was important, is important and will remain important. Being proactive and looking things ahead of the time is a must have leadership quality to master. Faking that you have this quality may work on few occasions but will surely put you and your business at risk one day.

Posted in leadership, management | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Take Five

Posted by Mark Bennett on November 13, 2012

Take Five, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is one of those instantly recognizable songs, due in part to its unusual 5/4 time signature. That makes it sound unlike just about every other song you’ve heard. You appreciate its unique qualities, even if at first it might even make you feel funny. Just watch people try to keep time with this song (or any other song off the terrific “Time Out” album.)

Now, just because Brubeck was experimenting, it didn’t mean he threw out all the rules or principles of music. He was just saying, “What if we tried this? What does that do to the rest of what we know about music?” He was always exploring to keep learning.

So it is with talent in the enterprise and what we try to do here at TalentedApps when talking about talent. We try to make it interesting and worth your time to read our posts by introducing new ideas, either of our own devising, or that we’ve found in our search for ways that companies and employees can both gain value from understanding how talent impacts business performance.

We’ve just hit the five year point and we appreciate the continued support of our readers, friends, colleagues, and families. We look forward to the upcoming years working together on our mission to inform and discuss issues around Talent Management in an entertaining and engaging way.

Album cover courtesy of Wikipedia.

Posted in anniversary | Leave a Comment »

Can we ever be objective?

Posted by Mark Bennett on November 6, 2012

CICERO:

Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time;
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.
Come Caesar to the Capitol tomorrow?

- from Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III by William Shakespeare

During this presidential campaign, we’ve been treated to many interpretations of the data provided by a multitude of polls. It’s been Big Data meets Big Auguries.

What can we learn from the ongoing debate about whether poll and their analyses are biased or not and therefore whether they are accurate predictors of events? How can this debate benefit not just how we govern ourselves, but also how we run our organizations?

The point isn’t that polls and their analyses aren’t biased – they are. So are customer or employee surveys. So is the interpretation of sales data. What matters is what are you doing about it. How are you finding out how to correct for the inevitable bias so as to mitigate its distortive effects? How do you pursue objectivity, rather than just dig into your position as the truth or just give up and say objective truth doesn’t exist?

It wasn’t that I didn’t know enough; I just knew too much

Like any other observations, what we construe from polls is influenced by what we already know (or don’t know) and what we believe. To hammer the point home, we see only what we choose to see, consciously or not. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing there; it’s just noise and what you see is an illusion.

Does having more knowledge of the subject help? Knowing more doesn’t necessarily solve the problem – it matters more what it is you do know and that’s hard to know, you know? If that extra knowledge simply aligns with and confirms your prior knowledge and/or beliefs, it just reinforces a possibly misplaced confidence and takes your further from the objective findings.

So, like any other science, we have to understand this problem going in and have a process to gradually reveal what is really going on; i.e. the purpose of the things themselves.

Think twice; that’s my only advice

A good way to do that is to always poke holes in your thinking and the data you gathered. How might your thinking be based on false assumptions? How might the gathered data be misrepresentative? You have to test your assumptions and your data gathering methods continuously.

Thinking twice helps you get out of the cognitive trap our brains are wired for – to go with the first story that fits the facts. Jumping to conclusions is a species survival trait that served us well when we didn’t have time to mull over whether our clan should go out and hunt a mastodon.

Today’s world is infinitely more complex than arranging a hunt for food. So rethink and rethink again as much as you can before making the call. And if you have to make the call before you have sufficiently tested your data and thinking, then look for ways to structure your actions so they both move you torward your goal as well as gather more data and test your thinking. “Continuous Beta” is an example of this.

Bless your soul; to think that you’re in control

Finally, why are you relying on just your view or the “inside view” of your group to question your assumptions and data? As much as you’d like to think you can control you own biases, you and your team’s vested interests, sunk costs, etc. will always influence your objectivity in subtle and not so subtle ways.

As uncomfortable as it can make you or your team, get the “outside view” from other people and teams who will give you unfiltered feedback on your assumptions and evidence. The idea is about improving your pursuit of objectivity.

Get their thinking as well. They may not know as much as you do about the data, or have your level of experience and expertise in ways to interpret it. But they may know things that you don’t that could help you see things in a new, less biased way.

——————————————————————————————————————–

Whatever your political leanings, it’s worth it to check out “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t” by Nate Silver.

Photo by Crouchy69

Posted in analytics, Big Data, predictions, survey, thinking | 2 Comments »

How pivotal are NFL refs?

Posted by Mark Bennett on September 27, 2012

Whatever your opinion on American football, player salaries, team revenues, and referee competence, the NFL referee story over the last few weeks provides some interesting insight into pivotal talent that would otherwise be easy to overlook.

Last week, I listened to someone on the radio comment on the NFL response when asked why they couldn’t come up with what amounts to an extra 100K per team to close the deal with the refs. The NFL response was, “People don’t watch games for the refs,” to which the commentator said something to the effect of, “Right, and it’s the ref’s job not to be seen.”

Exactly. Much of their role is to not be a distraction.

That reminded me of the now classic scenario described by Boudreau, et al in “Beyond HR” regarding the street sweeper role at Disney theme parks.

Customer experience and revenue

Imagine if you went to Disneyland with your family and your child stepped into gum/ice cream/unidentifiable or came up to you with a food wrapper stuck to their shoe. It would take away from the magic and delight of your visit.

Or say you needed to find the restrooms fast and there wasn’t anyone around to ask.

Or you wanted to take a picture of your kids with Mickey but Mickey was surrounded by people asking for directions.

Or that rare occasion when your child is hot, tired, and cranky and you are at your wit’s end.

You’d probably still come back, but maybe not as often.

Over the weekend and Monday night especially, the balance to many viewers of enjoying a game was tilted away from the contest between two teams by the distraction of questionable calls and delays caused by that extra time it took for refs to decide penalties and follow the right procedure.

Now, fans would probably still watch or go to games, but maybe not as often.

When you multiply even that small percentage change by the incredibly large numbers of theme park visitors and viewers/attendees, it’s a significant chunk of revenue. And once a slide starts to happen, companies get nervous about it accelerating.

To put it into numbers, not spending $100K was making a team’s multi-million dollar payroll less effective at generating revenue.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone

As recounted in “Beyond HR”, the role of street sweeper is invested with a lot more training than you’d think, especially in the art of being mostly in the background until needed and then when needed, delivering exceptional service.

Disney theme parks understood that while not glamorous, this role was “pivotal” – that by investing more into the role, you could still realize even more value from the role.

So they invested extra into making sure that street sweepers were well-trained in not only keeping the park very clean, but also knowing where important facilities were located as well as that delicate art of being aware of which visitors might be in need of assistance and knowing how to offer it.

So it was that the NFL found out about the value of well-trained and experienced referees. Their job is to observe the activity on the field and ensure that the rules are being followed, to take appropriate corrective actions when the rules are not followed, and to make those hard judgment calls under uncertainty.

But most of all, do all that in a way that keeps the game moving along and focused on the contest and the players, not on the referees. Don’t distract from fans enjoyment (or at least a reasonable fan’s enjoyment), because indeed, they came to see the contest and the players and not the refs.

In relatively short order, after fans’ vociferous disappointment with the games over the last week, punctuated by what some felt were “pivotal” calls that affected the outcome of heavily viewed games, the NFL came to an agreement with the refs.

Probably someone made the calculation that the supposed benefit of appearing to be hard negotiators with the refs in preparation for upcoming player negotiations was outweighed by disaffected viewers.

Perhaps also a lesson learned about how each role in an organization can be pivotal, even when and especially when it’s not in the spotlight.

Photo via RantRave

Posted in pivotal roles | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Management by “Fear”…

Posted by Anadi Upadhyaya on September 18, 2012

Managing workforce by playing with their fear factor is frequently used but rarely acknowledged management practice. Strong Belief in formal power, frequent use of forcing as a conflict resolution technique and use of penalty as a motivational factor give birth to a manipulative organization culture where practice of management by fear nurture and maintained.

Employee’s fear of failure, fear of not receiving reward or recognition, fear of losing job or similar; many managers identify it quickly and use it as a tool to rule over the people. Manager’s own insecurity and short sightedness fuels it further as they promote culture of uncertainty and ambiguity to make sure that fear-factor not only exist in the system but also prosper.

When you work in a team, it’s natural that you will discover fears or shortcomings of your teammates, how you utilize this information, depends on your value system. Either you can exploit it by maximizing their fear factor for your benefit or you can help them to conquer fear. Either you can empower your team so that they can fight back or you can assure that they gradually lose their self-esteem and become more vulnerable.

Management by fear is a perfect recipe for business failure and a proof of broken employee engagement. It’s a responsibility of every leader to ensure that an organization treats its people with dignity, trust and respect.

 

If you are a victim of such a culture and it’s going beyond your tolerance limit, you may need to take help from your HR department. You may also count on a feedback mechanism which can help you to get your voice heard and answered.

Posted in engagement, fear, management | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Let the Kudos In

Posted by Mark Bennett on August 15, 2012

We get told a lot about how to give thanks; how important it is to be thankful and show it. What about how to best receive thanks? How you handle kudos can have far reaching and long lasting positive impact on yourself.

It was nothing

Often, when someone publicly or privately gives us kudos, we may either discount it in our minds or we pay the briefest attention to it before moving on to the next worry or crisis.

We acknowledge the kudos of course, in order to be gracious and polite (and perhaps to increase the chance of more kudos in the future.)

But our brains are tuned to sense danger; this has been a survival trait for our species. So we tend to be attuned to the negative in our lives in order to avoid pain and trouble, and this trait bleeds over into either a manifested negative self-image or distracted thinking, both of which can discount received kudos.

Ah yes, I remember it well

You may ask, what about that boost to confidence a kudos can give? It’s a start, but if left as simply a boost, it can end up as a fleeting experience. The next bad event, crisis, or stressful situation can easily wash away the momentary good feeling the kudos gave.

Once you move past the acknowledgement and the initial good feelings the kudos evokes, is there a better way to receive kudos for your own benefit and long term well-being?

One way that might help is to take some time to think about the kudos and the context it was given and use that to really reflect on what you did, the circumstances that were present, and the challenges you faced. Recreate the story behind the kudos in your mind and relive the memory with as much of the key details as you can.

You’re doing this for multiple reasons. The first is that it helps to makes the memory of your accomplishment or characteristic become more easily recalled. Our memories work a lot through associations, so the more you can associate to the event, the easier you will remember it.

Secondly, strengthening the association with the challenge you faced will make it more likely you will at least have a more positive outlook if you face even only a somewhat similar challenge in the future. You might not even consciously remember the kudos itself, but even a subconscious memory that you did something positive that others recognized could very well provide that extra energy you need to face the challenge.

Total recall

There are different techniques available for strengthening your memory when you receive a kudos. Many appear to build on the kind of model that Daniel Kahneman talked about in the TED video that Meg posted about a couple of years ago. That is, we can think of ourselves as having an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.”

The “experiencing self” is in the moment. What you experience is fleeting; the next experience takes the place of the last one and so on. It is your “remembering self” that remembers and is in charge when you make decisions, usually in anticipation of an “expected memory.” (Yes, you can remember it for less than wholesale.)

But your “remembering self” is not a perfect recorder of experiences and you do have some control in how it is shaped. You can intentionally focus on what experiences you will try to have as well as how you will associate the experiences you do have (whether you tried to have them or not) to other memories.

In short, your mind can shape your memories to some extent. In turn, this shaping of your memories shapes your mind, in ways you might like to see it change. This can set you up for future success.

So, think of receiving a kudos as an experience. You can choose to just let the system “remember” it for you (i.e. just file the kudos away in a folder and pull it out when review time comes) or you could use that opportunity to shape your “remembering self” in ways that will benefit you in the future.

Photo by jspad

*There’s been a great deal of research recently in neuroscience about how our memories form and the relationship between the mind and the brain. An interesting book that connects findings in neuroscience (footnoted) to Zen practices is Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. The reviews have been positive and you might find it a helpful resource as well.

Posted in kudos, thinking | 2 Comments »

It isn’t what you want that matters. Is it what they want?

Posted by Sri Subramanian (@whosissri) on August 14, 2012

A strange thought crossed my mind, as I read Patty Azzarello’s blog today.

Unlike what she says, it not what you measure that matters. [It does, but there is something else, which is important.]

What matters is, whether people in your eco-system – your sales people, your partners, your customer service, you engineers working on your product or on product fixes, people who make your web page, people who create your whole product get it?

BMW measures satisfaction. However, no one in the eco-system that Patty encountered – the service guy, his manager, the sales guy,  the person taking the survey – got what good customer service meant, or why they should practice it. By contrast, everyone at Zappos seems to get it.

It is not enough if you tell what you want people to do. Do you emphasize it? Do you value it? Do you notice and thank people when you see it? Do you make people feel good about it? Do you live it? If not, they probably don’t get it. And consequently, they don’t do it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

“Causes no harm to others”

Posted by Mark Bennett on August 11, 2012

Is it okay to do something that technically breaks the law, but causes no harm to others? Where is the line between what society forbids or restricts and what the individual wants to do anyway? What about doing something legal, and while it isn’t causing harm to others right now, still carries that risk?

Felix Salmon wrote an interesting, ethics-based counter to Randy Cohen’s opinion piece on bicyclists who run red lights. I’ll let you read each and draw your own conclusions about whether one or the other is on solid ethical grounds (you may or may not find it ironic that Cohen was formerly the Ethicist writer for the New York Times and has a book coming out called, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.”)

That’s stupid and I’m smart

To me, there was another aspect that is relevant to all of us as well, both as individuals as well as organizations. It relates to people’s chronic underestimation of risk and overestimation of their ability. Cohen touches on it, but I think he falls into a common trap about risk in doing so (seemingly to rationalize his own behavior – a common cognitive error.)

It’s this: “It’s okay what I/we do as long as I/we cause no harm to others.” It’s the philosophical “free-pass” to rationalize breaking rules without having to feel guilty about it. In fact, you can even feel more ethically-intelligent about it!

But there’s more to it. The companion quote is: “And I/we cause no harm to others because I/we are more careful/better than others.” This is a cognitive bias of the first order.

We’ve seen it in environmental disasters and the way the most recent financial crisis has unfolded. We see it in the way some businesses and individuals in those businesses continue to behave even after the consequences of their previous actions have been recognized, exposed, and reported on. In many cases, the rationale is either, “I/we broke no law” or “Even if we did violate a regulation, our actions caused no direct harm to others.”

It’s okay, I’m being very careful

The problem is that laws to stop at red lights aren’t there because we think that people intentionally drive into intersections if they knew they would crash into someone. It’s because even as careful as you think you are, misteaks happen.

It’s to a certain extent about risk. Risk is the bad thing that might happen. It doesn’t mean it will happen. A person could go their entire (natural) life running red lights “when it was safe” and never have an accident. A company could cut corners on pipeline inspections for decades and never have an oil spill. Another could get extremely leveraged on risky loans and never have to ask for a bailout (hey, it could happen!) The list goes on. Things where nothing bad happens even though a law or regulation is broken (or not.)

Checklists serve a similar purpose in reducing risk. Surgeons don’t intend to leave instruments in patients. Pilots don’t purposely ignore instrument readings. It’s easy to think that checklists are an unnecessary burden for you (but maybe not the other guy.) But as all humans are susceptible to errors in thinking and perception, even the most careful of us can think we took out all the retractors, checked all the dials, and examined all lanes heading into the intersection.

There is a whole spectrum here. For instance, we’ve seen that in the financial industry, companies take great effort to find loopholes in existing regulations, invent new financial products that aren’t regulated yet, or redefine existing products so that regulations don’t apply. When it comes down to it, is that really any different than ignoring a law? Is it okay since “everyone else is doing it?”

This wasn’t supposed to happen

Even when you point out the dire consequences *if* something was to go wrong, it’s very easy for people to come up with a back of the envelope calculation about why the % probability of something bad happening times the consequence is far, far lower than what “that other careless guy” or “that other greedy/reckless company” is doing.

So it’s okay. It’s not causing harm to others. Until it does.

Photo by CarbonNYC

Posted in cognitive bias, culture, risk, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Brown nosers at work

Posted by Anadi Upadhyaya on August 10, 2012

King tales inspire so much to some people that they start behaving like a king and aspire to create their own kingdom at work. Behaving like kings, make them fall in the power trap. They enjoy formal power and want to hear only good things about them and their decisions. In order to safely survive and thrive in this culture, employees take help from a well-known and well-practiced technique called brown-nosing.

It would be incorrect to say that brown nosers are non-performers as you can spot some of the great performers too on this duty. Brown-nosing provides equal opportunity to everyone as its open for both performers and non-performers. Are you able to spot brown-nosing at you workplace? You can find people in below positions:

  • Prime movers, leaders who are knowingly promoting brown-nosing.
  • Experts, active participants and subject matter experts in this area. Role models for few others.
  • Victims, People who missed several boats at work because they did not opt for brown-nosing.
  • Change-agents, fighters who want to fix this culture and help people to get rid of this highly spreadable unhealthy syndrome.
  • Observers, who are observing this behavior without any participation.

You can best decide where you fit in. You may also want to change your position considering brown-nosing does work and helps people to get the desired outcome. But, in case you are trying to make your workplace free from brown nosers, you are really on a novel but a tough mission.

As this issue is related to human nature and does exist and practiced beyond the workplace, fix is not easy. You need to help your leaders, who are promoting this behavior, to get rid of this bad habit. At the same time, you need to empower your workforce so that they can choose not to be a brown-noser without any fear of penalty or failure.

Don’t turn a blind eye on this, who knows if you are going be the next victim of this disease.

Posted in learning, management | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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