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Archive for the ‘thinking’ Category

Can we ever be objective?

Posted by Mark Bennett on November 6, 2012


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 »

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 »

Leadership and Thinking – What’s the Catch?

Posted by Mark Bennett on March 3, 2012

It would be nice to know that the two go together, right? And they usually do, but…

The catch is that thinking tends to occur in two forms: “Fast,” or System 1, and “Slow,” or System 2. “Fast” thinking is what we are talking about when we have a “gut feeling” about something or someone or when we are going with our “intuition.” “Slow” thinking is what we are talking about when we “work things out” or “think things through.”

Quick example: When I ask you to answer 2 times 2, your answer comes from System 1. If I ask you to answer 17 times 24, you have to think it through – that’s System 2 doing its thing.

You’re thinking, you’re thinking again

How does this fit with leadership? Leaders can fall into the trap of relying on one type of thinking exclusively. This might come from wanting to have a “leadership style” and a desire for consistency in shaping that style makes a leader feel they need to always be seen as either quick or deliberate in their thinking. It might also be as simple as they’ve had more favorable outcomes with one or the other (or at least that’s how they remember it.)

CBS This Morning had a 5 minute interview with Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (which I recommended here). The interview happened to bring up the subject of how George W. Bush and Barack Obama are pretty good examples of the two different Systems. Bush was known for, and prides himself on, being a quick decision maker who often “went with his gut” (System 1.) Obama is known for being more deliberate, for looking at both sides of the argument, etc. (System 2.)

What was interesting and important to note was Kahneman’s comments that one type of thinking is not always superior to the other – they both have their respective advantages and disadvantages. When asked when is it better to use one vs. the other, he nicely summed it up this way:

  1. If it’s a routine situation and the stakes aren’t too high, it’s usually fine to go with System 1 (i.e. save your energy/time for when you really need it.)
  2. If the stakes are high or the situation is unusual, you are usually better off taking the time to think things through (i.e. turn to System 2.)

Now, you look at that and you could say, “I could have told you that – I must be as smart as a Nobel Prize winner!”

Under pressure

But that’s where the pressures of leadership come in. Kahneman also made the observation that the pubic is often looking for “decisive leaders” and that often equates to being “quick on your feet”, ready to handle the next crisis at a moment’s notice in this world that seems to be moving and changing faster and faster, with danger lurking around every corner.

So the stakes are high, right? Both for the people of a country, and the whole planet for that matter. And with the way presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs are unceremoniously tossed out if things don’t go well, their personal stakes are quite high as well, correct?

Now, how often are circumstances (in our ever-changing world, that keeps moving faster and faster, with new threats around every corner) routine?

Let’s see. Stakes are high and the situation is very rarely routine. That points to System 2. But everybody wants a leader that acts like System 1. Got it.

For you leaders out there, the takeaway is this: sometimes the pressure you feel to “go fast” is a sign to “slow down,” while other times you simply do not have that luxury. Your mission is to get good at knowing when it’s the right time to make that call and when it’s not. Just remember that each type of thinking is valuable and make use of both when you can. Don’t get stuck in a pattern of using just one or the other.

Photo by toddeemel

Posted in leadership, thinking | 6 Comments »