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Thursday, January 25, 2020

If You Don’t Slow Down and Think Now, You’ll Curse Yourself Later

This posting on Newsvine struck a chord with me. I have written several times about the way that people—especially many managers and executives—ignore the extent to which sheer chance influences the success of businesses and organizations. It’s as if we cannot accept that our “control” over our future is strictly limited. As the article states:
Human beings are genetically predisposed to find patterns and to assume that events are linked in time by cause and effect, and it’s quite easy to see why. If you assume that a rustling in the bushes means that a tiger is about to pounce, then being wrong nine times out of ten is probably better than failing to make that connection once. This contributes to a natural human inclination to simplify memory by constructing a single linear narrative.

History is taught to schoolchildren as if events were the consequence of a series of decisions and actions by leaders and heroes. “Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.” When this cannot be done causes may be located in physical or emotional pressures. “The Pilgrims set sail for the New World to escape religious persecution in their homeland.”
In businesses, rising sales are typically attributed to the brilliance of management strategies. Falling sales are blamed on external competition, lack of effort by staff, or changes in fashion. No one ever says “I don’t know why.” The pundits who comment on the stockmarkets of the world are perhaps the worst of all at attributing events to clear, simple causes when the reality is almost certainly so complex that it defies any kind of explanation.

This process may seem to be harmless enough: a case of the media once again over-simplifying events to get a good headline and keep the word count low. You may blame it on the rooted belief in many circles that you cannot possibly under-estimate the public’s intelligence and attention-span (See? I’m producing instant explanations now!). But whatever “cause” you choose, the harm remains the same. When people seize on an explanation for events, that explanation conditions how they will respond.

If you assume a reason, then look for it, you will almost certainly find it.
When people force events into some pattern that seems to make sense, that sense always matches their assumptions, beliefs and prejudices. If you assume a reason, then look for it, you will almost certainly find it. This is made infinitely worse by the well-documented tendency in people to link things causally simply because the happen closely together in time. You give someone a pay increase and notice that person produces a series of sales. Bingo! Salary incentives increase results from sales people. But maybe the sales would have happened anyway—simply by chance.

It’s dangerous to have an explanation for everything—or even to assume one exists. It blocks your mind from considering alternatives. It makes you blind to data that doesn’t fit your supposed explanation. It lowers creativity and increases the tendency to rush into action without adequate thought.

Speed, stress, pressure, and short-termism all inflame this tendency. That’s why Hamburger Management is such a curse. When people grab for quick, simple, and, above all, quick answers, they lay themselves wide open to the mistakes collectively called attribution error: this process of assuming links and patterns where none exist.

Slow down. Think. Reflect on other options. Skepticism is more useful in this life than belief: the skepticism that looks for actual evidence, then tests it rigorously before placing any reliance on what it seems to say. Even then, you should always by open to discovering that what you thought that you knew turns out to be wrong.

The speed that Hamburger Management offers is an illusion—and a dangerous one at that.
Of course, this will slow things down. But not as much as making a series of mistakes and ill-considered actions that you will have to put right later. The speed that Hamburger Management offers is an illusion—and a dangerous one at that.



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