Tag: Organizations

The Tyranny of Email — 10 Tips to Save You

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my habits recently and how they affect me. One thing I’ve placed an increasingly watchful eye on is email.

Email seems pervasive in our lives. We check email on the bus, we check it in the bath. We check it first thing in the morning. We even check it midconversation, with the belief that no one will notice.

John Freeman argues in The Tyranny of Email that the average office worker “sends and receives two hundred emails a day.”

Email makes us reactive, as we race to keep up with the never-ending onslaught.

In the past, only a few professions—doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers—required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now, almost all of us live this way. Everything must be attended to—and if it isn’t, chances are another email will appear in a few hours asking if indeed the first message was received at all.

Working At The Speed of Email

Working at the speed of email is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train—and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The email inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest—there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels–via email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message–and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand emails still sitting in our inbox.

Part of us likes all of the attention email gives us. It has been shown that email is addictive in many of the same ways slot machines are addictive — variable reinforcement.

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, explains:

“This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there’s something wonderful —an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip—and I get a reward.”

There are chemical reasons this happens that go well beyond our love of gossip. If we’re doing something that pays out randomly, our brain releases dopamine when we get something good and our body learns that we need to keep going if we want a reward.


“Ironically,” Freeman writes, “tools meant to connect us are enabling us to spend even more time apart.” The consequences are disastrous.

Spending our days communicating through this medium, which by virtue of its sheer volume forces us to talk in short bursts, we are slowly eroding our ability to explain — in a careful, complex way — why it is so wrong for us and to complain, resist, or redesign our workdays so that they are manageable.

Life On The Email Treadmill

“If the medium is the message, what does that say about new survey results that found nearly 60% of respondents check their email when they’re answering the call of nature.” — Michelle Masterson

When you arrive at work and there are twenty emails in your inbox, the weight of that queue is clear: everyone is waiting for you.

So you clear and clear and clear, only to learn that the faster you reply, the faster the replies come boomeranging back to you—thanks, follow-ups, additional requests, and that one-line sinker, “How are you doing these days?” It shouldn’t be such a burden to be asked your state of mind. In the workplace, however, where the sheer volume of correspondence can feel as if it has been designed on the high to enforce a kind of task-oriented tunnel vision, such a question is either a trapdoor or an escape hatch.

At the workplace it used to be hard to share things without a lot of friction. Now sharing is frictionless and free. CC’ing and forwarding to keep people “in the loop” has become a mixed blessing. Now everything is collaborative and if people are left off emails they literally feel left out.

Working in a Climate of Interruption

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. — Herb Simon

We live in a culture in which doing everything all at once is admired and encouraged—have our spreadsheet open while we check email, chin on the phone into our shoulder, and accept notes from a passing office messenger. Our desk is Grand Central and we are the conductor, and it feels good. Why? If we’re this busy, clearly we’re needed; we have a purpose. We are essential. The Internet and email have certainly created a “desire to be in the know, to not be left out, that ends up taking up a lot of our time”—at the expense of getting things done, said Mark Ellwood, the president of Pace Productivity, which studies how employees spend their time.

Of course we can’t multitask the way technology leads us to believe we can. “Multitasking,” Walter Kirn wrote in an essay called “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” messes with the brain in several ways:”

At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction— but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

“In other words,” writes Freeman in The Tyranny of Email, “a work climate that revolves around multitasking, and constant interruptions has narrowed our cognitive window down to a care, basic facility: rote, mechanical tasks.”

We like to think we are in control of our environment, that we act upon it and shape it to our needs. It works both ways, though; changes we make to the world can have unseen ramifications that impact our ability to live in it.

Attention means being present. Being present helps mindfullness.

Thanks to an environment of constant stimulation the biggest challenge these days is maintaining focus.

“Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy,” wrote Nicolas Carr in an essay entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr wrote an excellent book on the subject, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. If you don’t have the time, or attention span, to read the book, you can watch the video.


Reading and other meditative tasks are best performed in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “state-of-flow,” in which “our focus narrows, the world seems to drop away, and we become less conscious of ourselves and more deeply immersed in ideas and language and complex thoughts,” Freeman writes.

Communication tools, however, seem to be working against this state.

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes:

In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. In the past, educated persons used journals and personal correspondence to put their experiences into words, which allowed them to reflect on what had happened during the day. The prodigiously detailed letters so many Victorians wrote are an example of how people created patterns of order out of the mainly random events impinging on their consciousness. The kind of material we write in diaries and letters does not exist before it is written down.

It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place

In The Tyranny of Email, Freeman sums up the multitasking argument:

Multitasking may not be perfect, but it can push the brain to add new capacity; the problem, however, remains that the small gains in capacity are continuously, rapidly, outstripped by the speeding up and growing volume of incoming demand on our attention.

Why is it so Hard to Read These Days?

In his essay on Google Carr writes:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Some of this is due to changes in the medium itself. Newspaper articles are shorter and catchier. Text has become bigger. We’re becoming a powerpoint culture. We need bullet points, short sentences, and fancy graphics. We skim rather than read. Online readers are “selfish, lazy, and ruthless,” said Jakob Nielson, a usability engineer. If we don’t get what we want, as soon as we want it, we move to the next site.

But all of this has a cost.

What We Are Losing

“What we are losing in this country, and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

“If the research on multitasking is any guide,” Freeman writes in the Tyranny of Email, “and if several centuries of liberal arts education have proven anything, the ability to think clearly and critically and develop an argument comes from reading in a focused manner.”

These skills are important because they enable employees to step back from an atmosphere of frenzy and make sense in a busy, nearly chaotic environment. If all companies want, though, is worker bees who will simply type till they drop and badger one another into a state of overload, a new generation of inveterate multitaskaholics might be just what they get. If that’s the case, workplace productivity isn’t the only thing that will suffer.

Freeman concludes his book by offering several tips you can do to take back control of your life and the mental space email is consuming.

1. Don’t Send.

The most important thing you can do to improve the state of your inbox, free up your attention span, and break free of the tyranny of email is not to send an email. As most people now know, email only creates more email, so by stepping away from the messaging treadmill, even if for a moment every day, you instantly dial down the speed of the email messagopolis.

2.Don’t Check it First Thing in The Morning Or Late at Night

… Not checking your email first thing will also reinforce a boundary between your work and your private life, which is essential if you want to be fully present in either place. If you check your email before getting to work, you will probably begin to worry about work matters before you actually get there. Checking your e-mail first thing at home doesn’t give you a jump on the workday; it just extends it. Sending email before and after office hours has a compounded effect, since it creates an environment in which workers are tacitly expected to check their email at the same time and squeeze more work out of their tired bodies.

3. Check it Twice a Day

… Checking your email twice a day will … allow you to set the agenda for your day, which is essential if you want to stay on task and get things done in a climate of constant communication.

4. Keep a Written To-do List and Incorporate email into It.

5. Give Good Email

6. Read the Entire Incoming email before Replying

This seems like a pretty basic rule, but a great deal of email is generated by people replying without having properly read initial messages.

7. Do Not Debate Complex or Sensitive Matters by email

8. If You Have to Work as a Group by email, Meet Your Correspondents Face-to-Face

9. Set Up Your Desktop to Do Something Else besides email

As much as you can, take control over your office space by setting aside part of your desk for work that isn’t done on the computer. Imagine it as your thinking area, where you can read or take notes or doodle as you work out a problem.

10. Schedule Media-free Time.

Still Curious? Read The Single Most Important Change You Can Make In Your Working Habits next.

Samuel Arbesman, Interview No. 1

Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. His recent book, The Half-life of Facts, explores how much of what we think we know has an expiry date.

Samuel, who was happy to be the first in an ongoing series of interviews, talks about his book, science, knowledge, and society.

A friend of mine, Neil Cruickshank, helped come up with some of the questions.

* * *


Can you tell me a little bit about your background?


I began my training in evolutionary biology and I received a PhD in computational biology from Cornell University. However, even during graduate school I began to think about how to use the computational and mathematical models I had been learning about to help understand society. This transition continued when I did a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard under Nicholas Christakis, where I explored social networks, cooperation, and scientific discovery. About two years ago I moved to Kansas City to be a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where I study and write about a lot of different topics, ranging from the future of science to how cities grow and develop.


What was the motivation behind writing The Half-life of facts?


I’ve always been aware of the huge amount of information that we learn that becomes out-of-date rather quickly. But as I moved into the field of quantitative social science, and explored topics from network science to scientometrics, I realized that there is a deep order to how knowledge grows and changes over time, and even how it spreads from person to person. I wanted to tell this story in the hope that a reader will find it as fascinating as I do, but more importantly, would come away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the underlying regularities behind all of the knowledge change we see on a daily basis.


… When I read about cognitive biases and also the research that suggests for some areas of expertise – such as medical surgery – at a certain point of time the accumulation of experience does not equate to better performance results, I think about how we often defend our opinions and decisions on the basis of our experience, but in fact that experience may just be a reinforcement of error or bias.

In your book, you supply additional reason for me to doubt even those things I may be very sure of. How do you see the connection between the half-life of facts and what this means to the idea of wisdom and the respect we offer to an individual’s experience?


It’s certainly true that many of the bits of information we learn over the years become outdated and are overturned, and so we have to make sure that what we are working with is not obsolete. And on the basis of this, experience might be a hindrance. But I think a lifetime of experience and wisdom, rather than simply an accumulation of facts, can often leave someone better prepared for dealing with change. Because they’ve had to deal with so much change throughout their lives, people often have a better sense of the shape and impact of change. While it is certainly true that someone with more experience might also be less likely to change their ways, and adhere to outdated information, understanding the regularities behind change—even if only known in an intuitive qualitative sense due to experience—can provide a mechanism for adaptation.


When I read your book I often reflected on moments when I have been sure, and confident. And I also thought about how I have managed being in time of change. In psychology, one of the “big five” personality traits is Openness. Some of us seem to be much more comfortable with flux, or change, and readily able to respond to and even gain energy from change. Others seem to have a greater need for anchors and continuity with the past, and as the degree of change increases we focus more on and more on the things that remain unchanged, and change itself is fatiguing and depressing. Is there a fundamental disadvantage for those of us who are less open and more at ease with stability?


In a word, yes. People who cannot deal with change are going to be at a huge disadvantage in the world. These type of people might not have been disadvantaged in previous generations, where change proceeded rather more slowly, but as the many fundamental changes around us—in what we know and in what the world likes—continue to accumulate, we often have to deal with large numbers of these changes in a single lifetime. In the book, I chronicled the large number of computational information storage technologies (ranging from floppy disks to the Cloud) that I have used over the course of three decades, which is a far cry from the one or two that people of the Middle Ages might have used for storing information (books and scrolls). Those who can’t adapt will have a great deal of trouble in this world.


You quote John H Jackson: “It takes 50 years to get a wrong idea out of medicine, and 100 years a right one into medicine.” I’ve heard teachers say similar things about changes to curriculum. Do you have any thoughts on how education and educators, particularly in schools, should incorporate your ideas into teaching and curriculum design?


This is a really important question. I think that we need to move from an educational system that is focused on memorizing facts to one that is focused on how to learn. Of course you need a fundamental background and familiarity with certain information in order to have a basic understanding of the world, so I wouldn’t throw out memorization entirely. But so much of what we know is going to change and we need to have an educational system that recognizes this. In medicine, there is continuing medical education—constantly learning what is new in one’s field—and I think this kind of attitude needs to be universalized for knowledge in general. Specifically, students need to be taught how to continue to learn new facts, and embrace the changing knowledge around them. If that is the focus, rather than the facts themselves, education will be more durable, but will also create graduates that can continue to learn on their own and adapt the world around them


What about organizations… in a world of constant change how can understanding how facts change better prepare us for dealing with uncertainty?


Organizations often adapt slowly, just like many of us, sometimes even maintaining a mission after it has outlived its usefulness. A willingness to confront these changes must be deeply embedded within the leadership of the organization, which hopefully will be easier when people are educated to understand changing knowledge. Otherwise, the organization will slowly fail, hemorrhaging the more adaptable people—who are frustrated by the lack of change—along the way.


I was struck by your statement: “ONE of the most fundamental rules of hidden knowledge is the lesson learned from InnoCentive: a long tail of expertise— everyday people in large numbers—has a greater chance of solving a problem than do the experts.”

I imagine trying to promote this idea in an organization, such as an IT firm or a Government Department – where there is a strong culture of respect for expertise – and I think it would be an extremely hard sell. If I can be extreme, this idea argues that credentials or other normally recognized markers of individual status are maybe not worth as much, or perhaps overvalued. Do you have any comments on how the idea of “the long tail of expertise” can actually function in a domain where expertise is part of the status and hierarchy?


I think expertise is still important for many questions, especially ones that can be solved in a relatively straightforward manner. But as we move into an increasingly complicated and interdisciplinary world, the expertise we value with likely shift: we will move from valuing those who can solve problems, to those who know different ways to solve problems, or at least those who know how to ask the right questions of a large crowd. Using InnoCentive, or other way to crowdsource expertise is by no means trivial, and understanding the ways that they succeed, as well as the many ways that they can fail, is going to become more important.


How important of a role does diversity play in all of this? If we all goto the same training and schools, and we’re all taught to look at the problem the same way, to what extent would this impact the long tail?


Diversity is critical. We don’t want everyone to have the same background and information. At the same time, making sure that we have people who can bring together diverse backgrounds, translating from one field to another—even at the level of jargon—is also crucial, and something that we often neglect in our excitement of the power of intellectual diversity.


For the most part, I find the tone of your book to be very positive and optimistic – a message of affirmation of the value of trying to understand and learn. But I also note your observation in the Chapter “The Human Side of Facts,” where you describe how we seem to come to a point, often quite early in our lives, where we cease to learn. I observe this often, how we feel there is a sense of having learned and after that learning, life- professional life – is really just the application of learned knowledge. I don’t see a great commitment to “lifelong learning” in North American society, certainly not between the ages of, say, forty and retirement. But professional people often have their greatest influence on the rest of society at this age. Do you have any thoughts on what your ideas imply about lifelong learning and personal development, particularly for those of us who are well-established in our professional careers?


As I mentioned earlier, I think we need to take a page from medicine and its devotion to continuing medical education. Of course, there is a clear incentive in this field, as lives are on the line. But If we can find ways to better incentivize continuing education for everyone, we’ll be a better society. Frankly, this is a hard thing to do. If we can teach students at an early age about the obsolescence of their knowledge, this task will be easier. But for now, it’s quite daunting.


Changing gears a bit… What authors have your learned the most from and why?


I’ve learned a great deal from the novelist Neal Stephenson. His books are generally a set of fascinating ideas wrapped around an engaging plot. The plots pull you along, and in the process I’ve learned about—and been forced to think deeply about—the Scientific Revolution, the invention of the modern monetary system, mathematical platonism, the relationship between Greek mythology and the history of technology, and much more. If you need your mind expanded, Stephenson will deliver.

I’ve also gained a lot from Steven Johnson, who has written many fascinating “idea books” (this term doesn’t quite satisfy me but it’s hard to think of a better description). His ability to weave together numerous concepts that often seem unrelated on the surface and then convey them in a coherent and exciting way is something that is incredibly rare and wonderful to experience.


Do you have daily writing ritual?


I unfortunately don’t have much in the way of rituals. Essentially, I set myself a low word count goal for the day (the amount varies based on how much writing I need to achieve). And then I exceed it. That way, I always overachieve and feel good about my writing for the day. And once I’ve gotten a whole lot of quantity, I then pare it down and do my best to turn it into quality.


Say I’ve anointed you as dictator. What five books would you make every adult read?


This certainly sounds like an intriguing dictatorship. Rather than focusing on my favorite books, I’ll try to limit this to five books that I think are important for thinking about science, knowledge, and society:

Little Science, Big Science by Derek J. de Solla Price — the foundation for a rigorous and quantitative approach for thinking about how science works.

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges — Interested in thinking about knowledge and infinity? The stories of Borges are essential reading.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter — from computer science to how the mind works, this book will change how you think about the world of information.

Nonzero by Robert Wright — a wonderful exploration of how the world has become more complicated and better over time, improving each of our lives

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan—Sagan’s examination of the complexity of the universe and his personal approach to religion as scientific awe

And an optional bonus book for my dictatorship:

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown — captures the excitement and process of science. It’s also a great story.

* * *

Understanding and Diagnosing Problems

We all know one, the Monday morning quarterback.

They walk into the meeting room primed and ready for action. Ready that is, to apply the knowledge they know now to decisions of the past. And too often we’re defenseless.

The outcome by now is likely apparent to everyone.

“When a decision goes awry,” writes Albert Bernstein in his book Dinosaur Brains, “we tend to focus on the people who made it, rather than on the decision itself. Our assumption, which is really unwarranted, is that good people make good decisions, and vice versa.”

The point is to focus on what was known at the time. And consider, in light of that, was it a reasonable decision?

Good decisions don’t always have a good outcome, just as bad decisions don’t always have bad outcomes. It’s scary but a lot of otherwise smart people are unable to distinguish the difference.

This image from our rethink conference on decision making helps us understand what’s going on.

Two by two decision matrix with good and bad processes

It’s easy to shine the spotlight on the outcome. It doesn’t involve a lot of thinking either and it certainly isn’t going to help you understand or diagnose problems.

It’s harder, yet profitable, to think back and evaluate the merits of a particular decision based on what was known at the time. Was it a good decision with a bad outcome?

But usually, the only information we have about how and why decisions were made is the self-serving memories of the people in the room. “We have very little vocabulary for talking about internal thought processes,” writes James March, “Decisions feel as if they jump fully grown from one’s head.”

This is where having a good decisionprocess comes in. Keeping a decision journals is also helpful.

Maybe executives in responsible positions should be required to keep logs, as sea captains do. After each decision, a manager would list his or her reasons for having made it and record how it turned out.

If you have a journal, you can pull it out and see, in light of the facts and assumptions at the time, whether the best decision possible was made and if there was, in fact, a mistake.

If there really was a mistake, you can look at your decision process and determine what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Don’t hide mistakes behind vagueness but, equally important, stay away from the blame/credit mentality because it undermines understanding. And understanding is the key to getting better.

One way to reinforce good decisions is to document the assumptions at the time the decision is made in a decision journal.

Read the ultimate guide to making smart decisions next.

Pluralistic Ignorance: You’re Not Alone

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

— George S. Patton

Imagine you’re in a meeting with a lot of important people. The boss comes in, takes a seat, and starts talking “strategic market knowledge” this and “leveraging competitive advantages” that.

It all sounds like gibberish to you. It doesn’t mean anything.

For a second you wonder if you’re in the right meeting. Surely someone else must feel as confused as you?

So you take a quick sanity check. You look around the room at your colleagues and … what??

They are paying attention and nodding their head in total agreement? How can this be?

They must know something you don’t know.

You quickly determine the best option is to keep your mouth shut and say nothing, hiding what you think is your own ignorance. But you’re not alone. Everyone is thinking the same thing.

Pluralistic Ignorance

The word for this is pluralistic ignorance, a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. The term was coined in 1932 by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Allport and describes the common group situation where we privately believe one thing, but feel everyone else in the group believes something else.

In the case above, pluralistic ignorance means that rather than interrupting the meeting to ask for a clarification, we’ll sit tight and nod like everyone else. It’s a real life version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the fairy tale where everyone pretends the king is wearing clothes until a child points out the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

When You Think Your Alone

If you scratch below the surface though, what’s really happening with pluralistic ignorance is that you’re not accurately accessing how others in your group are thinking. The happens most when you feel you have a view that isn’t shared by a large percentage of other people.

In this short video, Dan Ariely, explains and demonstrates pluralistic ignorance better than I can. Make sure you watch the whole thing, the kicker is at the end.

Basically we look toward others for cues about how to act when we really should take a page out of Richard Feynman’s book: What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Opinions and Organizational Theory

When I think about the world in which we live and the organizations in which we work, I can’t help but think that few people have the intellectual honesty, time, and discipline required to hold a view. Considered opinions are a lot of work, that’s why there are so few of them.

We have a bias for action and, equally important, a bias for the appearance of knowledge.

Think about it. When’s the last time you heard someone say I don’t know? If my experience was any indication, it seems the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more unlikely you are to say or hear those three words.

Too Busy to Think

No one wants to tell the boss they don’t know. The boss certainly doesn’t want to let on that they might know either. We have too much of our self-worth wrapped up in our profession and others opinions of us.

Because we don’t know, we talk in abstractions and fog. The appearance of knowledge becomes our currency.

Who has time to do the work required to hold an opinion? There is always an email to respond to, an urgent request from your boss, paper to move from one side of your desk to the other, etc. So we don’t do the work. But so few others do the work either.

Perhaps an example will help.

At 4:45 pm you receive a 4 page proposal in your inbox. The proposal is to be decided on the next day at a meeting with 12 people.

To reflect on the proposal seriously, you’d have to stay at work late. You’d need to turn off the email and all of your other tasks to read a document from start to finish. And, after-all, who has time to read four pages these days? (So we skim.)

If we really wanted to do the work necessary to hold an opinion we’d have to: read the document from start to finish; talk to anyone you can find about the proposal; listen to arguments from others for and against it; verify the facts; consider our assumptions; talk to someone who has been through something similar before; verify the framing of the problem is not too narrow or wide; make sure the solution solves the problem; etc.

So we don’t do the work. Yet we need an opinion for the meeting, or, perhaps more accurately, a sound bite. So we skim the document again looking for something we can support; something that signals we’ve thought about it, despite the fact we haven’t.

We spend the time we should be learning and understanding something running around trying to make it look like we know everything. We’re doing work alright: busywork.

We turn up at the meeting the next day to discuss the proposal but our only real goal is to find a brief pause in the conversation so we can insert our pre-scripted, fact-deficient, obfuscating generality into the conversation. We do, after-all, have to maintain appearances.

The proposal ultimately reaches consensus, but this was never really in doubt. If you flip this around for a second, it must be the easiest decision in the world. Think about it, here you have a room full of smart people all in agreement on the best way to proceed. How often does that happen? A true no-brainer is hardly worth a memo or even a meeting.

It’s easy to agree when no one is thinking.

And organizational incentives encourage this behavior.

If the group makes the right decision you can take take credit. And, if by chance things go wrong, you don’t get the blame. Group decisions, especially ones with consensus, allow for all of the participants to have the upside and few if any to have the downside.

When groups make decisions based on consensus, no one is really accountable if things go bad. Everyone can weasel out of responsibility (diffusion of responsibility).

When you’re talking to someone familiar with the situation you might say something like, ‘we were all wrong’ or ‘we all thought the same thing.’

When you’re talking to someone unfamiliar with the situation you’d offer something more clever like ‘I thought that decision was wrong but no one would listen to me,’ knowing full well they can’t prove you wrong.

And just like that, one-by-one, everyone in attendance at the meeting is absolved.

The alternative is uncomfortable.

Say, rather than jetting off to pick up the kids at 5 you stay and do the work required to have an opinion. While you get home around 11, exhausted, you are now comfortable with a well thought out opinion on the proposal. Maybe two things happen at this point. If you’ve done the work and you reached the same conclusion at the proposal, you feel like you just wasted 6 hours. If, however, you do the work and you reach a different conclusion, things get more interesting.

You show up at the meeting and mention that you thought about this and reached a different conclusion — In fact, you determine this proposal doesn’t solve the problem. It’s nothing more than lipstick.

So you speak up. And in the process, you risk being labelled as a dissenting troublemaker. Why, because no one else has done the work.

You might even offer some logical flow for everyone to follow along with your thinking. So you say something along the lines of: “I think a little differently on this. Here is how I see the problem and here are what I think are the governing variables. And here is how I weighed them. And here is how I’d address the main arguments I see against this. … What I’d miss?”

In short you’d expose your thinking and open yourself up. You’d be vulnerable to people who haven’t really done the work.

If you expect them to say OK, that sounds good, you’d be wrong. After all, if they’re so easy swayed by your rational thinking, it looks like they haven’t done the work.

Instead, they need to show they’ve already thought about your reasoning and arguments and formed a different opinion.

Rather than stick to facts, they might respond with hard to pin down jargon or corporate speak — facts will rarely surface in a rebuttal.

You’ll hear something like “that doesn’t account for the synergies” or “that doesn’t line up with the strategic plan (you haven’t seen).” Or maybe they point the finger at their boss who is not in the room: “That’s what I thought too but Doug, oh no, he wants it done this way.”

If you push too far you won’t be at the next meeting because everyone knows you’ll do the work and that means they know that by inviting you they’ll be forced to think about things a little more, to anticipate arguments, etc. In short, inviting you means more work for them. It’s nothing personal.

Richard Zeckhauser on Improving our Ability to Make Decisions

Richard Zeckhauser, aka Mr. Probability, was recently interviewed in Outlook Business.

Zeckhauser is a champion Bridge player and the Frank Ramsey professor of political economy at Harvard University.

When asked how companies can prevent overpaying for acquisition, Zeckhauser responded:

There is this tremendous optimism bias built into acquisitions. Synergies in my experience are frequently overstated. If I were looking at a large merger, I would hire a team in my corporation to present arguments to the board as to why we should not do it. The idea is to have a countervailing team to poke holes in the logic. Organisations have this tremendous tendency to get behind the boss and do what he thinks should be done, but you have to get away from that and motivate people to bring to the table something contrary to what is being said.

That bit of wisdom applies to more than just corporate acquisitions.

The problem is that people often blindly follow the boss and what s/he thinks should be done. The Hippo Problem. — The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion carries the day even if they are wrong. They are, after all, the authority figure.

Stanley Milgram demonstrated our obedience to authority through a series of experiments. Milgram summarized his most famous experiment in a 1974 article, The Perils of Obedience, writing:

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority

Zeckhauser was also asked how we can make better decisions?

One part of decision-making is about how to place your priorities. Let me tell you what I said to a group of investment professionals recently. They were making investments and were being introduced to five fund managers. I said, “You have $50 million to invest and you have five potential managers; that does not mean you have to give $10 million to each of these managers. If you really think that manager A is much better, you should probably give him 25 and the others much smaller amounts.” Then, you improve your odds.

Here’s another example out of what I see in everyday life. You get 50 e-mails during the day and you answer 30 of them. On the one that you answer the most, you take 3 minutes. In all the others, you take 45 seconds. You should take 25 minutes to answer the one that is important, but you don’t. Once that is pointed out to you, you will say that is really obvious. In other words, you should decide what is really important and make your choices accordingly.

The other thing is about distinguishing between various probabilities. I think of making decisions the way I play tennis. I have taken many tennis lessons and my trainer always tells me the same three or four things. Keep your eye on the ball, get into position, swing your racquet back and swing the ball. I pay him $75 to tell me “keep your eye on the ball” and he tells me the same thing over and over again because the natural tendency when you are playing tennis is to take your eye off the ball. The natural tendency when you are thinking about probabilistic situations is to marginalise probabilities — treat 1%, 5%, 10% and 15% probabilities all as low probabilities. I think it is worth your while before you take a decision to figure out whether it is going to be 1%, 5%, 10% or 20%. And when it is worthwhile and when it is not. But most people don’t bother to do that.

I am writing a paper today where we start off talking about President Obama’s assessment of the likelihood that Osama bin Laden was in the hideout where we found him to be. He had a variety of assessments and he eventually concluded well it was 50% likely that we were going to go get him. Now, there is nothing magical about 50%. It might be that it is perfectly worthwhile to go and raid that compound if the probability is only 30%. And maybe it is not worthwhile even if it is 70%. Think about that. But people feel that 50% is magical and they don’t like to do things where they don’t have 50% odds. I know that is not a good idea, so I am willing to make some bets where you say it is 20% likely to work but you get a big pay-off if it works, and only has a small cost if it does not. I will take that gamble. Most successful investments in new companies are where the odds are against you but, if you succeed, you will succeed in a big way.

To improve your ability to make better decisions and think probabilistically Zeckhauser recommends reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you’re looking for something less mainstream but equally insightful try Max Bazerman’s Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, which has been a favorite of mine for years.


Still curious? Zeckhauser is the author of a fascinating paper: Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable.