How to convince the inconvincible

So how does one go about convincing the inconvincible (actually a proper word as per Webster)? Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need to resort to heavy artillery. Just an interesting new tool in thinking I just learned from the book Decisive by Chip Heath (great book by the way).

The tool is this question: “What data might convince us of that?”

As in, “What if our least favourite option were actually the best one? What data might convince us of that?”

It’s actually a great way to convince the inconvincible.

Instead of two or more parties with differing agendas going head to head and each sticking to their guns, say in a company making a decision that would benefit one party and/or penalize  the other, both are asked “what has got to be true in order for the other side to be right?”

In this way, both are forced to have tangible “targets” (a KPI or a number of some sort) instead of a vague sense of right. Both will also have no choice but to put themselves In the other person’s shoes in order to think of these targets (“what has to be true on order for them to be right”?)

“If it takes a 12-month revenue losing streak before you are convinced there’s something wrong with the organisational structure (just three months away), then fine, I’m happy to wait till then to get your complete buy in, because I know we’re going to hit that streak and I don’t want this argument to drag any longer than it needs to.”

Whatever anyone feels about the decision, if that 12-month losing streak is hit, a decision will be made.

There’s just no more arguing if both parties agree on what has to be right (the KPIs; the right “targets”) because the data is the data, and if it overwhelmingly shows that one party is right (as agreed beforehand), then objectively that party is right.

Great Digital Marketing Resource

I’m not sure if I’d ever mentioned the Occam’s Razor blog by Avinash Kaushik, but even if I did it’s probably worth bringing it up again — I must say it’s one of the most useful digital analytics/marketing sites I’ve visited.

(I’d actually clean forgotten about it for some time, then while doing some research for a digital analytics project chanced upon it again, and realised what I’d been missing! Though focused mainly on the digital analytics realm, the analytics principles extend greatly and often into the non-digital world as well.)

Choosing the amateur path

I’m currently reading a nice little book called Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky that discusses at some length the difference between being a professional and being an amateur. And it seems that being labelled an amateur isn’t really so bad at all, and may in fact be a good thing.

One of the professional vs. amateur examples that Shirky returns to often in his book is about a charity started by a group of Josh Groban fans (or “Grobanites” as they call themselves), aptly called “Grobanites for Charity“. It started off pretty much by chance (enabled by the internet without which it wouldn’t have happened) by people who didn’t know much about starting charities — in other words, amateurs.

And looking at its website, you wouldn’t think otherwise.

Being an avid web-designer earlier on in my life, I’d always prided myself on creating professional-looking sites; the more it looked like something a big corporation would use, the happier I’d with the result.

So when I read about Grobanites for Charity and visited their website I was a little surprised — that though their website looked like it belonged in the early 90′s, it also had a very familial feel to it. It was down-to-earth, honest and relatable. This wasn’t some faceless corporation; it was Kay, and Melanie, and Pat, and Jackie.

In this sense, the amateur look-and-feel of the site actually seemed to work in their favour. Even I, a non-Josh Groban fan, felt compelled to do my bit by donating something or by helping out.

From the book:

Now, the design of a website may not seem to have much to do with fostering a sense of membership, but something designed by an amateur can actually create better conditions of membership than a professional design can.

Consider the kinds of kitchens you see in photographs in House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens, designed to a fare-three-well with a place for everything and everything in its place. My kitchen is not like that. (Perhaps yours isn’t either.) But if you were a guest at a dinner party, you likely wouldn’t dare set foot in a House Beautiful kitchen, because the design doesn’t exactly scream Come on in and help! My kitchen, on the other hand, does scream that — you wouldn’t feel much compunction about grabbing a knife and dicing some carrots if you felt like it.

Which makes me wonder about how the context of a “professional space” and “amateur space” might affect how people think about things.

I would imagine that it’d be similar to how money corrupts intentions?

The Trolley Problem and Being a Leader

In my previous post I wrote about the trolley problem (aka “the train dilemma”). Though an interesting problem in its own right and one which rightly deserved its own post, it wasn’t really just for the sake of interest that I wrote it.

As regular readers of my site would know (yes, all 60,000 of you, +/- a few), I sometimes write posts for the sake of providing background for a future post.

This was one of them; and that future post is this.

And it’s going to be about leadership.

The Trolley Problem

You may see the trolley problem as a philosophical and moral problem. One which makes you ponder the complexities of life a little; question your own values a little; and makes you ask yourself what would I do? a little.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with such tough morally ambiguous philosophical questions, I’m glad it’s not real. I wouldn’t want to make a decision either way.

A Thought Experiment

But imagine if you had to make a decision, and that real lives were at stake. And imagine that you were going to be judged on that decision by both people you know and those you don’t.

To make things a little easier for you, suppose  you get to pick an advisory committee.

You can pick as many people as you want, whoever you want, to be your advisers on this issue (the Dalai Lama; Presidents and Prime Ministers; Iron Man; God), but with one catch: you can’t tell the anyone who will be judging you who your advisers are. (And even if you tried to, they wouldn’t listen.)

This was the thought experiment I had when I read about “failures” in government — failures I thought were not so much failures as much as people making what they probably thought were good decisions, but with not-so-great outcomes.

Whether it was the introduction of Obamacare, the handling of the (as of now still) missing Malaysia Airlines MH 370 flight, or the Singapore government’s two-child policy in the 70′s, things that make sense from one perspective are make nonsense in another.

The Two-Child Policy in Singapore

Of those above, the one that hits closest to home is probably the two-child policy (I’m Singaporean after all), and is the one I’m most familiar with.

Singaporeans, it seems, aren’t reproducing enough to hit the replacement rate. This means the Singaporean population will drop over the years if not for the effect of positive net immigration.

A lot of governmental effort has gone into encouraging Singaporeans to have more babies (e.g. “baby bonus” schemes) and relaxing restrictions on foreigners (willkommen!), which many Singaporeans aren’t too happy about (e.g. overcrowding on public transport, “foreigners stealing our jobs”, bla bla bla bla).

Many naysayers of the two-child policy cite it as one of the root causes of the low fertility rates we’re having now (and by extension the immigration “problem”), and lament the government’s lack of foresight when they were implementing the policy in the 70′s.

The thing is, I’m not too sure.

Yes, it’s true that the policy might have exacerbated the problem of low fertility rates we’re facing. But it has also occurred to me that we might well be facing the same issue because Singapore might not have prospered as much as it had — fertility rates and economic development could well be negatively correlated. We Singaporeans might have sought greener pastures elsewhere and/or foreigners wouldn’t want to come here anyway.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I find it difficult to believe that any person in a leadership position would choose to make bad, unthinking decisions on purpose.

Outcomes and Decisions

One important distinction that I learnt in University (thank you Ms. Olaru) and that has shaped my thinking ever since is between outcomes and decisions. You should never confuse a bad outcome with a bad decision, and a good outcome with a good decision (just ask me crossing the street without looking and narrowly escaping certain death, looking all cool and unflustered).

If an outcome turns out to be disastrous, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a bad decision. And even if an outcome turns out to be great, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a good decision.

Good/Bad Outcome = [Good/Bad Decision] X [Good/Bad Luck]

On Being a Leader

The trolley problem to me pretty much embodies so much of what leadership is. Leaders have to make decisions on many issues steeped in ambiguity. Issues where there’s no right or wrong but only probably right or probably wrong.

When it comes to the trolley problem, the more I thought about it the more I realised that leaders would choose to do what caused the least harm overall, and not necessarily the least harm to themselves. And they take responsibility for what they’ve done.

If it means that pulling the switch would likely save a few more people then the switch will be pulled, even if it means explaining themselves to death in court or to the public.

Because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what leaders do.

Revisiting the train track dilemma or “trolley problem”

Part I: The Classic Train Track Dilemma, or: The Trolley Problem

Imagine that you’re at a train station “open house” of sorts. People are there to admire trains and see how they operate. No trains are scheduled to run that day, so people are scattered all over the place.

There are some people gathering at the station; some standing on the tracks; and some, like you, standing on the hills admiring the scenery.

Suddenly you spot a train hurtling toward and about to hit a group of about fifty people, all of whom are unaware of it. You shout out to them, but whatever sound you make is drowned out by the party atmosphere down there. You estimate that if nothing is done, at least 90% will be killed.

It just so happens that you’re standing near a switch that, if flipped, would throw the train on to another set of tracks and save these fifty people. However, you notice that on the other set of tracks there stands a group of five people. By flipping the switch, though you could save the fifty, you’d almost certainly kill these five.

What do you do?

PART II – The Train Track Dilemma, Revisited

Now, before you make a decision, let’s throw in another spanner into your already-jammed-up-moral works. Being a train enthusiast, you spot something, on the tracks leading to the fifty, that looks a lot like a device that serves to limit speeds of trains as they approach the station.

It appears to be engaged, meaning that there is a possibility that the train will slow down sufficiently enough such that those fifty could possibly get out of the way. But you don’t know that — it might just be some rubbish or party prop.

You estimate a 50% chance that it is a speed limiter that works, saving those fifty; and a 50% chance that it isn’t one, allowing the train to go on at full speed, killing those fifty.

What now? Do you flip the switch? If you do, you could well be sentencing the five to death for the sake of fifty who might not even be at risk.

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