Imagination, data and leadership

I had an intriguing insight into the nature of imagination the other evening when I was watching David Eagleman’s BBC documentary The Brain which you can catch on iPlayer until 27 February 2016 if you have a UK IP address.

Eagleman told the strange story of Henry Molaison. Molaison suffered from debilitating epilepsy following a bicycle accident when he was nine years old. At age 27, Molaison underwent radical brain surgery that removed, all but completely, his hippocampi. The intervention stabilised the epilepsy but left Molaison’s memory severely impaired. Though he could recall his childhood, Molaison had no recall of events in the years leading up to his surgery and was unable to create new long-term memories. The case was important evidence for the theory that the hippocampus is critical to memory function. Molaison, having lost his, was profoundly compromised as to recall.

But Eagleman’s analysis went further and drew attention to a passage in a interview with Molaison later in his life.1 Though his presenting symptoms post-intervention were those of memory loss, Molaison also encountered difficulty in talking about what he would do the following day. Eagleman advances the theory that the hippocampus is critical, not only to memory, but to imagining the future. The systems that create memories are common to those that generate a model by which we can forecast, predict and envision novel outcomes.

I blogged about imagination back in November and how it was pivotal to core business activities from invention and creativity to risk management and root cause analysis. If Eagleman’s theory about the entanglement of memory and imagination is true then it might have profound implications for management. Perhaps our imagination will only function as well as our memory. That was, apparently, the case with Molaison. It could just be that an organisation’s ability to manage the future depends upon the same systems as those by which it critically captures the past.

That chimes with a theory of innovation put forward by W Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute.2 Arthur argues that purportedly novel inventions are no more than combinations of known facts. There are no great leaps of creativity, just the incremental variation of a menagerie of artifacts and established technologies. Ideas similar to Arthur’s have been advanced by Matt Ridley,3,4 and Steven Berlin Johnson.5 Only mastery of the present exposes the opportunities to innovate. They say.

Data

This all should be no surprise to anybody experienced in business improvement. Diligent and rigorous criticism of historical data is the catalyst of change and the foundation of realising a vivid future. This is a good moment to remind ourselves of the power of the process behaviour chart in capturing learning and creating an organisational memory.

GenericPBC

The process behaviour chart provides a cogent record of the history of operation of a business process, its surprises and disappointments, existential risks and epochs of systematic productivity. It records attempted business solutions, successful, failed, temporary and partial work-rounds. It segregates signal from noise. It suggests realistic bounds on prediction. It is the focus of inclusive discussion about what the data means. It is the live report of experimentation and investigation, root cause analysis and problem solving. It matches data with its historical context. It is the organisation’s memory of development of a business process, and the people who developed it. It is the basis for creating the future.

If you are not familiar with how process behaviour charts work in this context then have a look at Don Wheeler’s example of A Japanese Control Chart.6

Leadership

Tim Harford tries to take the matter further.7 On Harford’s account of invention, “trial and error” consistently outperform “expert leadership” through a Darwinian struggle of competing ideas. The successful innovations, Harford says, propagate by adoption and form an ecology of further random variation, out of which the best ideas emergently repeat the cycle or birth and death. Of course, Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, his “airport novel” avant la lettre, (also currently being dramatised by the BBC) to support exactly this theory of history. In Tolsoy’s intimate descriptions of the Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, combatants lose contact with their superiors, battlefields are obscured by smoke from the commanding generals, individuals act on impulse and in despite of field discipline. How, Tolstoy asked in terms, could anyone claim to be the organising intelligence of victory or the culpable author of defeat?

However, I think that a view of war at odds with Tolstoy’s is found in the career of General George Marshall.8 Marshall rose to the rank of General of the Army of the USA as an expert in military logistics rather than as a commander in the field. Reading a biography of Marshall presents an account of war as a contest of supply chains. The events of the theatre of operations may well be arbitrary and capricious. It was the delivery of superior personnel and materiel to the battlefield that would prove decisive. That does not occur without organisation and systematic leadership. I think.

Harford and the others argue that, even were the individual missing from history, the innovation would still have occurred. But even though it could have been anyone, it still had to be someone. And what that someone had to provide was leadership to bring the idea to market or into operation. We would still have motor cars without Henry Ford and tablet devices without Steve Jobs but there would have been two other names who had put themselves on the line to create something out of nothing.

In my view, the evolutionary model of innovation is interesting but stretches a metaphor too far. Innovation demands leadership. The history of barbed wire is instructive.9 In May 1873, at a county fair in Illinois, Henry B Rose displayed a comical device to prevent cattle beating down primitive fencing, a “wooden strip with metallic points”. The device hung round the cattle’s horns and any attempts to butt the fence drove the spikes into the beast’s head. It didn’t catch on but at the fair that day were Joseph Glidden, Isaac L Ellwood and Jacob Haish. The three went on, within a few months, each to invent barbed wire. The winning memes often come from failed innovation.

Leadership is critical, not only in scrutinising innovation but in organising the logistics that will bring it to market.10 More fundamentally, leadership is pivotal in creating the organisation in which diligent criticism of historical data is routine and where it acts as a catalyst for innovation.11

References

  1. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum_OLD/galleries/who_am_i/~/media/8A897264B5064BC7BE1D5476CFCE50C5.ashx, retrieved 29 January 2016, at p5
  2. Arthur, W B (2009) The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, The Free Press/ Penguin Books.
  3. Ridley, M (2010) The Rational Optimist, Fourth Estate
  4. — (2015) The Evolution of Everything, Fourth Estate
  5. Johnson, S B (2010) Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation, Penguin
  6. Wheeler, D J (1992) Understanding Statistical Process Control, SPC Press
  7. Harford, T (2011) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Abacus
  8. Cray, E (2000) General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman, Cooper Square Press
  9. Krell, A (2002) The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire, Reaktion Books
  10. Armytage, W H G (1976) A Social History of Engineering, 4th ed., Faber
  11. Nonaka, I & Takeuchi, H (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, Oxford University Press
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Trust in data – IV – trusting the team

Today (20 November 2013) I was reading an item in The Times (London) with the headline “We fiddle our crime numbers, admit police”. This is a fairly unedifying business.

The blame is once again laid at the door of government targets and performance related pay. I fear that this is akin to blaming police corruption on the largesse of criminals. If only organised crime would stop offering bribes, the police would not succumb to taking them in consideration of repudiating their office as constable, so the argument might run (pace Brian Joiner). Of course, the argument is nonsense. What we expect of police constables is honesty even, perhaps especially, when temptation presents itself. We expect the police to give truthful evidence in court, to deal with the public fairly and to conduct their investigations diligently and rationally. The public expects the police to behave in this way even in the face of manifest temptation to do otherwise. The public expects the same honest approach to reporting their performance. I think Robert Frank put it well in Passions within Reason.

The honest individual … is someone who values trustworthiness for its own sake. That he might receive a material payoff for such behaviour is beyond his concern. And it is precisely because he has this attitude that he can be trusted in situations where his behaviour cannot be monitored. Trustworthiness, provided it is recognizable, creates valuable opportunities that would not otherwise be available.

Matt Ridley put it starkly in his overview of evolutionary psychology, The Origins of Virtue. He wasn’t speaking of policing in particular.

The virtuous are virtuous for no other reason that it enables them to join forces with others who are virtuous, for mutual benefit.

What worried me most about the article was a remark from Peter Barron, a former detective chief superintendent in the Metropolitan Police. Should any individual challenge the distortion of data:

You are judged to be not a team player.

“Teamwork” can be a smokescreen for the most appalling bullying. In our current corporate cultures, to be branded as “not a team player” can be the most horrible slur, smearing the individual’s contribution to the overall mission. One can see how such an environment can allow a team’s behaviours and objectives to become misaligned from those of the parent organisation. That is a problem that can often be addressed by management with a proper system of goal deployment.

However, the problem is more severe when the team is in fact well aligned to what are distorted organisational goals. The remedies for this lie in the twin processes of governance and whistleblowing. Neither seem to be working very well in UK policing at the moment but that simply leaves an opportunity for process improvement. Work is underway. The English law of whistleblowing has been amended this year. If you aren’t familiar with it you can find it here.

Governance has to take scrutiny of data seriously. Reported performance needs to be compared with other sources of data. Reporting and recording processes need themselves to be assessed. Where there is no coherent picture questions need to be asked.

Trust in data – III – being honest about honesty

I found this presentation by Dan Ariely intriguing. I suspect that this is originally a TED talk with some patronising cartoons added. You can just listen.

When I started off in operational excellence learning about the Deming philosophy, my instructors always used to say These are honest men’s [sic] tools. From that point of view Airely’s presentation is pretty pessimistic. I don’t think I am entirely surprised when I recall Matt Ridley’s summary of evolutionary psychology from his book The Origins of Virtue.

Human beings have some instincts that foster the greater good and others that foster self-interest and anti-social behaviour. We must design a society that encourages the former and discourages the latter.

When wearing a change management hat it’s easy to be sanguine about designing a system or organisation that fosters virtue and the sort of diligent data collection that confronts present reality. However, it is useful to have a toolkit of tactics to build such a system. I think Ariely’s ideas are helpful here.

His idea of “reminders” is something that resonates with maintaining a continual focus on the Voice of the Customer/ Voice of the Business. Periodically exploring with data collectors the purpose of their data collection and the system wide consequences of fabrication is something that seems worthwhile in itself. However, the work Ariely refers to suggests that there might be reasons why such a “nudge” would be particularly effective in improving data trustworthiness.

His idea of “confessions” is a little trickier. I might reflect for a while then blog some more.

Trust in data – I

I was listening to the BBC’s election coverage on 2 May (2013) when Nick Robinson announced that UKIP supporters were five times more likely than other voters to believe that the MMR vaccine was dangerous.

I had a search on the web. The following graphic had appeared on Mike Smithson’s PoliticalBetting blog on 21 April 2013.

MMR plot

It’s not an attractive bar chart. The bars are different colours. There is a “mean” bar that tends to make the variation look less than it is and makes the UKIP bar (next to it) look more extreme. I was, however, intrigued so I had a look for the original data which had come from a YouGov survey of 1765 respondents. You can find the data here.

Here is a summary of the salient points of the data from the YouGov website in a table which I think is less distracting than the graphic.

Voting   intention Con. Lab. Lib. Dem. UKIP
No. Of   respondents 417 518 142 212
% % % %
MMR safe 99 85 84 72
MMR unsafe 1 3 12 28
Don’t know 0 12 3 0

My first question was: Where had Nick Robinson and Mike Smithson got their numbers from? It is possible that there was another survey I have not found. It is also possible that I am being thick. In any event, the YouGov data raises some interesting questions. This is an exploratory date analysis exercise. We are looking for interesting theories. I don’t think there is any doubt that there is a signal in this data. How do we interpret it? There does look to be some relationship between voting intention and attitude to public safety data.

Should anyone be tempted to sneer at people with political views other than their own, it is worth remembering that it is unlikely that anyone surveyed had scrutinised any of the published scientific research on the topic. All will have digested it, most probably at third hand, through the press, internet, or cooler moment. They may not have any clear idea of the provenance of the assurances as to the vaccination’s safety. They may not have clearly identified issues as to whether what they had absorbed was a purportedly independent scientific study or a governmental policy statement that sought to rely on the science. I suspect that most of my readers have given it no more thought.

The mental process behind the answers probably wouldn’t withstand much analysis. This would be part of Kahneman’s System 1 thinking. However, the question of how such heuristics become established is an interesting one. I suspect there is a factor here that can be labelled “trust in data”.

Trust in data is an issue we all encounter, in business and in life. How do we know when we can trust data?

A starting point for many in this debate is the often cited observation of Brian Joiner that, when presented with a numerical target, a manager has three options: Manage the system so as to achieve the target, distort the system so the target is achieved but at the cost of performance elsewhere (possibly not on the dashboard), or simply distort the data. This, no doubt true, observation is then cited in support of the general proposition that management by numerical target is at best ineffective and at worst counter productive. John Seddon is a particular advocate of the view that, whatever benefits may flow from management by target (and they are seldom championed with any great energy), they are outweighed by the inevitable corruption of the organisation’s data generation and reporting.

It is an unhappy view. One immediate objection is that the broader system cannot operate without targets. Unless the machine part’s diameter is between 49.99 and 50.01 mm it will not fit. Unless chlorine concentrations are below the safe limit, swimmers risk being poisoned. Unless demand for working capital is cut by 10% we will face the consequences of insolvency. Advocates of the target free world respond that those matters can be characterised as the legitimate voice of the customer/ business. It is only arbitrary targets that are corrosive.

I am not persuaded that the legitimate/ arbitrary distinction is a real one, nor how the distinction motivates two different kinds of behaviour. I will blog more about this later. Leadership’s urgent task is to ensure that all managers have the tools to measure present reality and work to improve it. Without knowing how much improvement is essential a manager cannot make rational decisions about the allocation of resources. In that context, when the correct management control is exercised, improving the system is easier than cheating. I shall blog about goal deployment and Hoshin Kanri on another occasion.

Trust in data is just a factor of trust in general. In his popular book on evolutionary psychology and economics, The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley observes the following.

Trust is as vital a form of social capital as money is a form of actual capital. … Trust, like money, can be lent (‘I trust you because I trust the person who told me he trusts you’), and can be risked, hoarded or squandered. It pays dividends in the currency of more trust.

Within an organisation, trust in data is something for everybody to work on building collaboratively under diligent leadership. As to the public sphere, trust in data is related to trust in politicians and that may be a bigger problem to solve. It is also a salutary warning as to what happens when there is a failure of trust in leadership.