Saturday, November 24, 2012

Getting Exercise Jumping To Conclusions

Quick!  Read the series of letters and numbers shown below.  Don't waste any time.  Can you read them?  (The images are on the left side of the page below the first image)

Hopefully you found that to be pretty easy.  (And, if I were better with HTML I would have figured out how to put those two images in the line of text above.  But, no matter.  I am sure you were able to do the exercise.)

I expect that you were able to read " A B C", and "1 2 1 3 1 4".  It might have been more difficult to read the series of numbers than the series of letters just because the letters were in the usual order.

But, did you notice that these two series are ambiguous?  I set you up by telling you that you had a series of letters and numbers.  Therefore, you knew what to expect.  When you saw the first series, your brain read it as ABC without any problem.  And when you encountered the second series, your brain read it as 121314, again with little or no trouble.

The ambiguity comes from the way the "B" and the "13" are written.  It could easily be read as "13" or "B".  But, you knew what to expect, so you saw what you expected to see.

If the exercise worked for you, you just experienced jumping to a conclusions, a process that happens to you many times every hour of every day.  In some cases these tiny jumps help make life easy.  They help you drive your car, use your computer, and interact with others.  In other cases, they interfere with communication, cause accidents, or make you say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Try this little exercise:
  • 2 X 2 =
  • 10 X 100 =
  • 127.39 X 4377.72 =
For most of you, the first two were easy.  No thought is required.  2 X 2 = 4.  And, 10 X 100 = 1000.  But, the last one takes a bit more work.

What you just experienced is an example of the two ways your brain works; what Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel winning economist, calls System 1 and System 2 thinking.  (I recommend Kahneman's, book Thinking, Fast And Slow to anyone interested in understanding more about why our intuition often fails us, and how to identify when we (or others) are using our intuition (System 1) or deeper cognitive (System 2) thinking.)

Right about now, you might be asking yourself "What does this have to do with running my organization better, or being a more effective leader?"

Fair question.

Regardless of industry (business or government), managers and leaders are as likely to jump to conclusions, see what they expect to see, and use intuition to solve problems as anyone else.  Years of experience can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to making the right moves in changing markets, or new political environments.

When the person in charge sees what he or she expects to see instead of what is really there, the organization is in for a rough time.  These lapses in cognition can spell the end for commercial businesses, or can cause government organizations or leaders to be out of touch with the people they exist to serve.

Do we really understand our customers, patrons, or communities?  Even if we have done surveys or polling, have we deluded ourselves into interpreting the data in a way to fits our mental model of reality?

The recent presidential election provides a perfect example of imperfect data gathering, poor interpretation of the collected data, and how armies of statisticians can see what they expected to see in the polling results.  The outcome, at least for the losing party, was not what they anticipated, to say the least.

Within your company or your community jumping to conclusions and seeing what you expect to see can be just as devastating when the conclusion is wrong.

Good managers and leaders have learned to seek out others, look for the people who have a different point of view, find those willing to say that the "emperor has no clothes", and use both System 1 and System 2 thinking in making important decisions about the direction of the organization.

This is not an abdication of authority or responsibility.  On the contrary!  Good managers and leaders are aware that they may have blind spots, and expect to have the help of others to identify and correct any shortcomings in understanding.  Once the blind spots have been checked, and the conclusions have been tested, it is time to jump.  This doesn't have to be a long, drawn out process.  Stay nimble.  Keep your advisers close.  Include others.  Listen.  Then decide.

May all your conclusions be the right ones!  

Thinking. Fast And Slow is truly a fascinating book for anyone interested in how the brain works, intuition, conclusions, how we make choices, and more.  Here -,_Fast_and_Slow - is the Wikipedia summary of Kahneman's work.

I also recommend the earlier blog post on Perception for more on how we observe and make decisions.

Also, my thanks go to Jim Boylan for his work with organizations on perception, and ambiguity.