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Travis

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Decision Theater

And what does the devil’s advocate have to say?

In major corporate decisions, a devil’s advocate can serve an invaluable function. The advocate can help stress test an idea and point out cognitive biases that others might miss. The big idea is put on trial. Executives who proposed the idea serve as defense attorneys. The devil’s advocate is essentially the prosecutor. She looks for weaknesses in the other side’s case and serves up an alternative narrative. She also helps the team protect against the down side. The advocate helps us make the decision right — using a balanced process that tends to dampen major biases.

All too often, however, the process devolves into “decision theater”. We’re just playing roles that don’t improve the decision process but do make us feel better about it. Here’s how I’ve seen it play out in various software companies:

  • Only a small number of people play the devil’s advocate (DA) role. They do it voluntarily and they get little or no support in terms of resources or even encouragement. Each time we had a meeting about a big decision, the same people  spoke up to say, “Well … let me be a devil’s advocate here …” I admired these people but I also wondered, Why do so few people step forward in this role? How could the company promote this role as a regular part of the decision process?
  • In these meetings, the devil’s advocate’s objections were always “handled”. In other words, the leader of the meeting (often the CEO) would thank the devil’s advocate for the input and then give a breezy statement that effectively dismissed the input.  We all felt better because we had “considered” the other side. But had we really?
  • Prior to the meeting, the devil’s advocate had very few resources to develop a coherent position. The DA didn’t have any staff to gather information or budget to hire consultants, etc. The DA’s position might be very thoughtful .. but it wasn’t well developed with evidence to back it up. It could easily be dismissed.
  • This is what I call “decision theater.” We believe we’re contributing to a good decision process, but we’re really just acting out roles.

I certainly respect people who play the devil’s advocate role. To make this more than theater however, the organization needs to change the process. How? Well, let’s look at the history of the devil’s advocate.

The Catholic church originated the role of the devil’s advocate in 1587. The advocate plays a key role in the process of canonization — determining whether a person should be declared a saint. The process includes a trial, with one side arguing that the person does indeed deserve sainthood. The other side — led by the devil’s advocate — argues the opposite. The devil’s advocate aims to poke holes in the other side’s argument, For instance, the advocate might claim that the miracles attributed to the person were actually frauds.

From my perspective, the most important element was that the church gave the advocate resources and respect to fulfill the role effectively. The devil’s advocate had resources — time, money, staff — to call on. This differs greatly from devil’s advocates in today’s corporate world, who may speak up but are not institutionally supported. A corporation that wants to debias its decision processes should do what the Catholic church did — institutionalize the role and provide enough support to make it serious.

Talking To Toddlers

Don’t talk down to me!

My friends who have kids sometimes ask if the lessons I teach in my Persuasion classes also apply to little tykes. Can we apply classic rules of rhetoric to convince kids to do (or not do) things? Can we apply Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric to five-year-olds? Truth be told, I haven’t studied it in detail. But, as a father, and now grandfather, I do have some thoughts. I might even claim to have good ethos (in the Ciceronian sense). Here are some thoughts:

  • Nobody likes to be talked down to — as a speaker or writer, you should never imply that you are smarter than your audience. If you want to degrade an opponent’s ethos, tell the audience that the opponent thinks he’s better than they are. (This technique is known as attributed belittlement). The same concept applies to kids — only it’s more literal. You’re taller than they are. Get down to their level. Speak to them face to face. They don’t like to be talked down to.
  • Pathos trumps logos — we know that adults make decisions more based on emotion than on logic. Doubly true for kids. Start by recognizing, and validating, their emotions.
  • Concession-and-shift — the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. If a kid is throwing a tantrum, start by conceding that she’s right. I call it the “ain’t it awful” maneuver. First you get down to their level and say something like, “I just hate it when my ice cream falls in the sand box and I don’t get to eat it. Ain’t it awful?” You may need to repeat it several times. Pretty soon, they’ll realize that you’re agreeing with them. Then (and only then) you can start talking about next steps.
  • Decorum is the art of meeting expectations – what does your kid expect from you? If you don’t fulfill these expectations, you create cognitive dissonance. Your kid’s not sure he can trust what you’re saying. You can talk about anything but, first, you have to act like your kid expects you to act. You can change your kid’s expectations, but it takes time. Don’t try it in the middle of a meltdown.
  • Social proof is incredibly important — how do you get a kid to eat broccoli? Not by logic. Not by lying — “You’ll grow up big and strong”. Put him with other kids who like broccoli. When another kid says, “Can I have your broccoli?”, your kid will say, “No, that’s mine!” By the way, as an adult, your value as social proof to a kid is approximately zero.
  • Speak to their commonplaces — a commonplace is simply a shared belief. Conservative commonplaces tend to revolve around liberty. Liberal commonplaces tend to revolve around justice. Kids’ commonplaces tend to revolve around … well, you know your kid. What does she believe? Speak to that, not to what you believe. As Will Rogers said, “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes. Not with what you like.”

Should We Think For Ourselves?

Thinking is hard.

I’ve just read two articles (here and here) that point out that fake news is a problem of readership rather than of technology. Astute readers who are armed with reasonably good thinking skills should be able to spot (or at least suspect) fake news items. So why don’t we? Perhaps we no longer wish to think for ourselves. Indeed, perhaps we never did.

When we say, “Thinking is hard”, we’re referring to conscious, logical thinking. We draw a problem into our conscious minds and consider its meaning, subtleties, and ramifications. In today’s neuro-vocabulary, we call this System 2 thinking.  It’s hard work.

But we do much of our thinking below the level of consciousness in what is now known as System 1. Systems 1 is so easy, we don’t even realize that it’s going on. It’s fast and efficient and uses far fewer calories than System 2. System 1 is often right but, when it’s wrong, it’s wrong in predictable ways. System 1 is akin to making an agreement with a friend – it’s informal and easy. System 2 is more like concluding a formal contract that is vetted by a roomful of lawyers. 

It’s easy to fool System 1. In fact, it happens all the time. Many of the jokes we tell are funny because they prey on the unconscious assumptions of System 1. If we examined the structure of the joke in System 2, we might well spot the assumption or double meaning well before the punch line. It wouldn’t be funny.

Fake news is like a joke – it depends on System 1 to work effectively. If we call the news into our conscious minds – aka System 2 – we’re much more likely to spot the flaw. We’re most likely to spot the flaw if System 2 is well prepared. So, what is a well-prepared System 2? In my opinion, it’s aware of: 

How are schools doing at turning out good thinkers who can spot fake news? Based on my sample of students: not so well. Over the last decade, I’ve taught approximately 500 students in my critical thinking classes. All of them have at least a bachelor’s degree. Almost all of them have said things like: “Gosh, I’ve never thought of this before.” We teach people how to play soccer, or chess, or piano. Perhaps we should also teach them how to think.

Scanning The Future From Singapore

Seriously cool dude.

Can you use a slide rule? The ability to use one effectively could become an important status symbol in the future.

That’s just one idea that I plucked (with a little extrapolation) from Foresight, the biennial scan-the-horizon publication from Singapore’ s Center for Strategic Futures (CSF). Singapore, of course., is a very small country buffeted by giants. CSF describes the country as a “price-taker” – it must accept prices set by other market players.

So how will Singapore survive? That’s the basic question that CSF aims to answer in a series of symposia, structured thought processes, debates, stories, suggestions, conferences, nudges, and “sandboxes”. The idea is to keep ideas about the future top of mind among Singaporean leaders. As CSF says, “Nobody can predict the future, but we can be less surprised by it.”

Since 2012, CSF has published a Foresight document every other year. (Click here for the complete collection). The 2019 edition was published on July 1 and makes for fascinating reading.

CSF uses a structured process based on scenario planning to scan the horizon and create ideas about the future. (For some background on scenario planning, click here, here, and here).  CSF calls its approach Scenario Planning Plus, which “retains Scenario Planning as its core, but taps on a broader suite of tools more suitable for the analysis of weak signals, and thinking about black swans and wild cards.” Scenario Planning Plus has six key purposes:

  • Defining focus – is the problem simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or disorderly? (See the Cynefin Problem Framework Definition).
  • Environmental Scanning – identify critical emerging issues.
  • Sense making – “… piece together a comprehensive and comprehensible picture of an issue.” CSF develops Driving Force Cards to stimulate creative discussions about these issues. (Click here for the current set).
  • Develop possible futures – tell stories about what we do, think, and worry about in the future.
  • Design strategies – given the various possibilities, how can we best respond to the future?
  • Monitor – keep track of indicators, forward signals, and strategies to understand what’s happening and why. (Reading all of CSF’s Foresight documents gives a sense of how our perceptions have changed in just ten short years).

I encourage you to read through the Foresight document and to print out the Driving Force Cards to use in your planning sessions. They’ll stimulate your thinking in both practical and unexpected ways. To give you a sense of what the Foresight document contains, here are some ideas that I found especially interesting:

  • Time banking – a marketplace where we exchange time instead of money. Such a marketplace might help us use our time more wisely.
  • Heatstroke vaccinations – what if we can’t stop global warming? Maybe we could enhance humans to live in a warmer world. A vaccine against heatstroke would be a good start.
  • Cobots – will robots replace humans in most production processes? Or will a combination of humans and robots – cobots – be a better solution?

And why might using a slide rule become a status symbol? When everything goes digital, being able to use analog devices could become a mark of distinction. We already see audiophiles abandoning digital recordings and returning to analog wax discs. Why not slide rules, too?

Finally! A Way To Measure Corporate Culture.

What do they really think?

I tell my management students that executives should focus on one task above all others: developing a positive, supportive corporate culture. When a company has a positive culture, all things are possible. When a company has a negative culture, very few positive outcomes occur.

The problem, of course, is how to assess a culture. How does one know if a culture is positive or negative? It’s perhaps the most important question an executive (or job applicant) can ask. But the answer is murky at best. Further, how can one tell if a culture is getting better or worse? Is the company living up to its professed values? How does one know?

A new company called CultureX may help us solve the problem. Formed in conjunction with MIT’s Sloan School of Management, CultureX uses the millions of employee reviews on Glassdoor to analyze corporate cultures. Along the way, CultureX identifies the most frequent values companies profess, the norms used to promote those values, and how employees view company performance in fulfilling the values.

CultureX uses a range of textual analysis tools to analyze free-form employee comments in Glassdoor reviews. The result is a composite view of what it’s like to work in an organization – from employees’ perspective. As you might expect, employee reviews often highlight what the company actually values as opposed to what it professes to value.

CultureX initially applied its methodology to analyze 1.2 million Glassdoor reviews for some 500 companies. The average Culture 500 company has over 2,000 employee reviews. The analysis identified some 60 “… distinct values that companies listed in their corporate values statements.” From the 60, CultureX researchers winnowed the list down to the Big Nine that were cited most frequently. These are: agility, collaboration, customer, diversity, execution, innovation, integrity, performance, and respect.

CultureX researchers then built an interactive tool which “… provides users a snapshot of how frequently and positively employees … speak about each of the Big Nine values.” Users can see how employees discuss each of the Big Nine – even those that a company doesn’t include in its own values statements.

CultureX uses Amazon as an example of how the tool might be used. Amazon’s employee reviews, for instance, spoke frequently and positively about two specific values: innovation and customer centricity. (Innovation was about two standard deviations above the mean; customer centricity was about one standard deviation above). On the other hand, employees were “much less enthusiastic” about the company’s respect for employees – about 1.5 standard deviations below the mean.

How might one use these data? An Amazon executive might be concerned that employees don’t feel respected. The executive might develop programs to improve the company’s performance. (I’m sure that consultants from CultureX would have some suggestions). The executive could then use changes over time in the “respect” value to monitor progress (or lack of it). Similarly, an executive might compare her own company to any number of other companies – in the same industry or in others – to identify competitive gaps and/or advantages.

But the data are not reserved solely for executives. Want to work for a company that is truly innovative? The CultureX data can help you identify which companies are walking the walk and not just talking the talk. Potential employees can identify companies that match their value set. Companies can identify potential employees whose values match the company’s. With better information, both sides stand to benefit.

CultureX’s work should help us focus more attention on the role of corporate culture in business success. The data set could become a useful platform for investors, executives, employees, and job applicants. So … how’s your company doing?

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