Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some booknotes on Joshua Ramo Cooper's "The age of the unthinkable"

Joshua Ramo Cooper's The age of the unthinkable is a good read -- for the facts and the frameworks (which are basic management frameworks applied to politics and warfare); the policy recommendations don't follow from the facts or frameworks. (This doesn't mean they're wrong, just unsupported.) Happily there are few of them, while the entertaining and instructive examples are plentiful.

Part I, "the sandpile effect," builds on the example of sand piles to present the problems associated with managing complex systems with complex behaviors built out of with simple elements governed by simple laws. Interesting use of Per Bak's experiments as examples, instead of the usual decontextualized fractal pretty pictures. These experiments used a machine to drop filtered sand grain by grain into a pile, counting how many grains until the pile had a landslide; the number of grains varied wildly across different instances of the experiment, raising questions of predictability.

People who are good at adapting to the complex systems of the world are "virtuosos of the moment," originally a derisive term employed by August Fournier to describe Prince von Metternich. Much of the discussion that follows is essentially a political system version of The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen. Christensen's main point in one sentence: people invested in one technology fail to detect emerging technologies which will be their undoing, because at the outset the emergent technologies don't appear to be a threat when seen from the old technology's perspective.

One important (and general) remark regarding these complex systems: that attempts to build control systems that match the complexity of the complex system being controlled are typically futile. Simpler control systems that can be changed faster and whose effects are more clearly visible are better managers of complexity. Not really paradoxical, as the foundations of the controlled systems themselves are simple, and may be better controlled with local, targeted, simple interventions (my example: spray glue on each grain of sand coming out of Bak's machine; voilá, no more catastrophic landslide).

As with most popular books about complex systems, this one mentions: the importance of power laws as opposed to bell curves; internal politics of complex human systems; the lamppost effect (searching for your car keys near the lamppost because there's light there, although you dropped them in the dark alley); and catastrophic events that follow from all these commonalities. The examples are fun and because of the politics/warfare theme of the book, not the usual fare of complexification books.

We read Mikail Gorbachev's explanation for the collapse of the USSR. Gorby says that it was the Nomenklatura seeing an opportunity to steal the country, rather than the economic failure from attempting parity at military build-up with the USA, that precipitated the collapse. Alas, the book only presents his side of the argument. Maybe the potential kleptocracy was a contributing factor, but without more careful analysis, I'll take it with a grain of salt.

Among many other interesting stories, all somewhat trivial to a game theorist but fun to read nonetheless, we learn that pilots on anti-SAM missions (using HARM missiles that lock onto the guidance radar of the SAMs, destroying their launchers) would broadcast their mission calls over open radio, leading their iraqui targets to shut off their radars (and not defending their country) so as to avoid being blown up. The call signs were beer brands.

Part II, "deep security," takes the viewpoint that the world is a complex system where complex management doesn't work and suggests several solutions for global security, mostly as recommendations for politicians, military, and law enforcement entities. Many of these are standard "creativity management" fare applied to warfare and politics.

Mashups, the basic technique of putting together things hitherto kept separate (like this music video mashup of Guns 'n Roses and The Beatles), tells us of Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's great creative mind, known internally for his children clothes hangers. By doing what we marketers call a full-experience study of the customer behavior surrounding the need for which the product is targeted (hanging clothes), Miyamoto identified the major problem for the buyers (parents): children don't hang up clothes. By changing the activity from "clean up room" to "let's dress up these hangers," which he operationalized with animal-headed hangers, Miyamoto created a much better version of what might seem to others an undifferentiable product. This impressed the Nintendo people so much that they hired him to revamp their gaming business.

(This is standard modern marketing fare. Cooper goes on to describe the disruptive thinking behind other products, including the Wii. These are good examples that I'm going to use in class for sure, making the book well worth its price to me.)

Going back to war and politics, the book introduces two adversaries as examples of the same mental adaptation: the head of Israeli military intelligence and the head of information technology for Hezbolah. The secret of their success comes from what business strategists call "understanding the purpose and the fundamentals," as opposed to focussing too much on the metrics and the tools.

The book then takes a detour to make a parallel with venture capital investment; since his example and explanation is rife with selection bias there's little one could learn from it, other than the repetition of the basic "understand the purpose and fundamentals" of any given business prior to investing in it. And venture capital investing is still a gamble.

Cooper also makes quite a big deal out of Richard Nisbett image processing experiments, where american subjects pay close attention to the figure in the foreground and are blinded to change in the background while chinese subjects exhibit the reverse pattern.  (American born people of chinese ancestry show the same patterns as other americans.) The book's conclusion that this cultural pattern explains chinese resiliency is a leap of Malcolm Gladwellian proportions, and as reliable as those usually are (not at all).

Phil Tetlock's research on political judgment, a long term study of the predictions of people who forecast politics for a living, saves most of the second part of the book. Tetlock shows that people are a mix of types, the hedgehogs (who have one big idea) and the foxes (whose ideas change as they adapt to new information), and that the forecasters who are closer to the hedgehog type do worse in predictions than those forecasters who are closer to a hedgehog.

Resilience, the characteristic most desired by organizations who live in turbulent environments, is discussed in detail, with Hezbolah as the main example. Though he never summarizes it, Cooper does identify the two main characteristics of resilient organizations: they are flexible and they pay attention. (Most books on managing change take 400 pages to say these two words, Cooper takes about 60 pages, I took 7 words.)

Signaling, screening, and pooling in warfare make an appearance in chapter nine. If Cooper wanted to give a little more historical context he could have gone back to the Roman Empire, and to the power of civis romanus sum ("I'm a citizen of Rome," which meant, essentially, "you mess with me, you mess with the whole empire") and the warfare of Genghis Khan, who after razing villages sent back some people a few days later to make sure that any hidden survivors were exterminated. These examples make the same point as, only better than, his more contemporary stories.

Lifestyle marketing (without its technical name) makes an appearance in chapter 10, as a solution to a TB outbreak within the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Because of the tragic nature of the example, I can't really use it in class (no one wants downer examples in marketing classes: that's why we talk about food and cars and entertainment and tourism), but the dynamics of the evolution of a TB super-bug are a really good example of dissemination and adaptation of technologies in a product ecosystem.

Throughout the book there are many policy recommendations; since I find that non-sequitur is the most generous way I can characterize their connection with the underlying facts, I won't comment on them.

General evaluation: well worth reading; ignore policy recommendations; good examples. I heard the Audible version and checked out the library paper copy to re-read some parts. When the updated paperback edition comes out, I might get it as a electronic version (no flat surfaces left for books at home), hopefully for the Apple Tablet. It's really hard to browse an Audible book; but they make all those wasted hours shopping, exercising, and commuting much easier to pass.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Evolution of information design in my teaching

People change; books and seminars help.

No, not "empower yourself" books and seminars. Of those I cannot speak. Presentation and teaching books and seminars, that's what I'm talking about. It all starts with this picture (click to enlarge):

I made that picture one evening, as entertainment. I was cleaning up my hard drive and started perusing old teaching materials; noticed the different styles therein; and decided to play around with InDesign. After a while I ended up putting online something that I believe has useful content. It includes some references, which is what I'm writing about here.

Though I'm writing about the references, I cannot overemphasize the importance of the seminars. Tufte's books explain all the material (and the seminar's potential value is realized only after studying the books); but the seminar provides a clear example that it works. Some may read the books and go back to outline-like bullet point disaster slides because they don't trust the approach to work with a live audience. Tufte's seminar allays these fears.

The HBS seminar is more specific to teaching, but for those of us in the knowledge diffusion profession it's full of essential information. There are books on the case method and participant-centered learning, but they are not comparable to the seminar. I know, because I read the books before. And when the seminar started I was skeptical. Very skeptical. And when the seminar ended I reflected on what had happened - the instructor had made us, the audience learn all the material I had read about, without stating anything about it. Reading a book about the classroom skill would be like reading a book about complicated gymnastics.

But, even if one cannot attend these seminars, here are some references that help:

Edward Tufte's books and web site contain the foundations of good information design and presentation.

Made to stick, by the Heath brothers explains why some ideas stay with us while others are forgotten as soon as the presentation is over.

Brain rules, by John Medina, uses neuroscience to give life advice. There are many things in it that apply to teaching and learning; in addition, the skill with which Medina explains the technical material and the underlying science to a popular audience, without dumbing it down, is a teaching/presentation tool to learn (by his example).

Things that make us smart, by Donald Norman, a book about cognitive artifacts, i.e. objects that amplify brain powers. I also recommend his essay responding to Tufte, essentially agreeing with his principles but disagreeing with his position on projected materials.

Speak like Churchill, stand like Lincoln, by James Humes, should be mandatory reading for anyone who ever has to make a public speech. Of any kind. Humes is a speechwriter and public speaker by profession and his book gives out practical advice on both the writing and the delivery. I have read many books on public speaking and this one is in a class of its own.

The non-designer design book, by Robin Williams lets us in on the secrets behind what works visually and what doesn't. It really makes one appreciate the importance of what appears at first to be over-fussy unimportant details.

Tools for teaching, by Barbara Gross Davis covers every element of course design, class design, class management, and evaluation. It is rather focussed on institutional learning (like university courses), but many of the issues, techniques, and checklists are applicable in other instruction environments.

These references helped me (a lot), but they are just the fundamentals. To go beyond them, I recommend:

Donald Norman's other books, as illustrations of how cognitive limitations of people interact with the complexity of all artifacts.

Robin Williams design workshop, which goes beyond the non-designers design book. E.g.: once you understand the difference between legibility (Helvetica) and readability (Times), you can now understand why one is appropriate for chorus slides (H) and the other for long written handouts (T).

Universal principles of design, by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler is a quick reference for design issues. I also like to peruse it regularly to get some reminders of design principles. It's organized alphabetically and each principle has a page or two, with examples.

On writing well, by William Zinsser. This book changed the way I write. It may seem orthogonal to presentations and teaching, but consider how much writing is involved in class preparation and creation of supplemental materials.

Designing effective instruction, by Gary Morrison, Steven Ross, and Jerrold Kemp, complements Tools for teaching. While TfT has the underlying model of a class, this book tackles the issues of training and instruction from a professional service point of view. (In short: TfT is geared towards university classes, DEI is geared towards firm-specific Exec-Ed.)

As usual, information in this post is provided only with the guarantee that it worked for me. It may - probably will - work for others. I still stand by the opener of my post on presentations:

Most presentations are terrible, and that's by choice of the presenter.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A matter of perspective

I enjoy Dilbert, I really do. But sometimes it grates on me.

Yes, there are many stupid company policies. Yes, there are many bad bosses. Yes, some people speak in jargon-riddled empty statements. Yes, some consultants are not worth their weight in buckets of warm spit. But, and it's a big, hairy but, there are many cases where what appears to be stubbornness or resistance to change and new ideas is in fact good business; it just appears dysfunctional to those who don't have full information.

Consider two fictional companies, Gargle and Yee-Haa, who compete in multiple industries and across different countries. Bob, product manager for photography at Yee-Haa in Lagutrop, sees an opportunity to improve market share by taking aggressive action against Gargle. When Nina, Yee-Haa's Lagutrop division president, reviews Bob's idea, she agrees that it would work, but disallows it, justifying her decision as "corporate policy."

Bob, hiding his disappointment, goes on with his work, moves jobs a few times, and eventually writes a popular management book on change. He uses Nina as the exemplar bête noire of the new economy: someone who is so wrapped up in her little bureaucratic ways that she cannot tolerate even the great ideas proposed by her hard-working and much smarter subordinates. Such as Bob.

Of course, Bob doesn't know that Gargle and Yee-Haa have coexisted in a state of tacit equilibrium: understanding that a market share war would be costly to both, they limit their actions to minor skirmishes -- a coupon here, some added features there. If one of them makes an aggressive move, this tacit equilibrium breaks, and they both lose a lot of money.

Nina, with her strategic perspective, can see the implications of local Lagutropian actions on the global, multi-country multi-industry corporation. Bob, focussed on one industry and one country, cannot.

I would venture that the Bob-Nina example explains a lot of bad bosses.

When I first read Michael Lewis's "Liar's Poker," circa 1990, it reinforced my prejudices against the financial markets crowd (as opposed to the corporate finance people, who were value creators). As I learned more in the intervening years, and came to understand the value of both sides of finance, I reread the book and found it to be sophomoric. Here's someone writing "from the trenches," as it were, passing judgment on the entire hierarchy without any attempt at understanding the different motivations and perspectives of the others.

I still enjoy Dilbert, Michael Lewis's writing, and a host of other material along the "managers and business people are stupid" line, but I don't take them seriously. It would be like a sick person choosing the opinion of a first-year medical school dropout over that of various specialists and clinical tests. The market, imperfect as it is, tends to explain things better than the anecdotes of one person.

Especially from "the trenches." Strategy is rarely created there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How decision science helped me get fit

I'm in better shape, and I owe that to my training. No, not my fitness training; my decision science training.

Of course, if all I did was think about what, why, and how I want to get fit, I'd still be disgracefully out of shape. But the five decision science-fueled insights that follow helped me make a plan for getting in shape and motivated me to follow through with it.

Purpose.  Few things are more important, for any endeavor, than clarity of purpose. (That was the reason for the writing of Vision and Mission statements, back when these were useful business documents.) My engineer mind likes specific objectives and my MBA hindbrain wants guidelines, so I came up with both.

When looking for purpose, my first question is what do I want to achieve? A weight target? A body shape target? A physical prowess target? What, coupled with why, gave me a set of objectives and purposes. For example: what = do muscle-ups for reps; why = because that's what I did at 17 and I want to believe I'm still young.

Measurement.  Despite what some analytics apostles believe, key performance indicators did not originate with the web; Peter Drucker put detailed measurement thereof at the center of business in his 1953 book "The Practice of Management." As a previous post illustrates, naïf choice of indicators is rife with pitfalls. For fitness I use indicators like number of reps and weight on bench press, time to run 5 km.

At the gym I noticed an widespread lack of record-keeping. Perhaps other patrons have good memories and remember all their sets, reps, and weights, plus the time and calorie counts of the cardio machines. I prefer to carry a Rite-in-the-rain notebook. (Because if you're not sweating, you're not exercising hard enough.)

Trade-off.  Many fitness programs stall because making consistently good choices requires making trade-offs among different objectives, which most people are loath to do. So they make ever-changing choices based on temporarily salient indicators: Bob gets winded walking up a flight of stairs; Bob decides to go on a salads-only diet and run 10 miles every day; Bob diets for a week, runs 2 miles twice; Bob gives up, eats pizza, plays World Of Warcraft.

I invested some time thinking about the trade-offs I would be willing to make. I have several fitness objectives; but, more importantly, I have two lifestyle criteria: I can't be constantly hungry (since this is both associated with diet abandonment and with obsessing about food) and exercise must be like flossing: it takes up little time and has little interference with the rest of my life. I have had good results with HIT/SS in the past, so that's what I'm doing. Some activities require specific practice, which I do as well. For repetitive activities like running, Audible audiobooks help me make good use of the time.

Heterogeneity.  One foundation concept in marketing is segmentation, understanding and capitalizing on the differences among customers. Disaggregating data is therefore second-nature for marketers. So, when I read studies about calorie consumption and exercise, I always have a nagging question: how relevant can an average be to my case? This was particularly important when considering diet choices.

The only thing I'll say about diets is that I have one that worked well for me. Many years ago I lost over 80Lbs in 15 months without any exercise and with minor changes to lifestyle. In the 12 years since, a steady diet of Ben and Jerry's and large pizzas as snacks helped me recover those 80Lbs and gain a few supplemental ones. What worked for me was the Montignac diet. (A French food-centric low-carb diet.) That's what I'm doing, since I eat tasty food,  don't count calories, and never feel hungry.

Patience.  Having researched hyperbolic discounting, I feel vaccinated against short-termism. And that's probably the most important thing in fitness. Like many things in life, fitness training requires perseverance. The problem is that most people are willing to accept a small sacrifice for later gain; just not right now. So, a little cheating on the diet today is traded off against a promise of better behavior tomorrow; skipping a workout against extra effort next week. But the crux of hyperbolic discounting is that when tomorrow comes, the cheating and the skipping again win.

I discussed my thinking with a friend and she was astonished. Not at my fitness improvement, but at the fact that I used the same knowledge I teach, research, and consult on for lifestyle decisions. But, you see, that's what engineers usually do: they don't separate the work from the lifestyle because there's only one reality. And either you trust what you know about it or you have to live a double life.

There's nothing more practical that the right theory.