I recently read an interview between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant on why we shouldn’t value speed over power. I loved reading through this interview and I agree with much of Gladwell’s reasoning. Because of my work experience and writing about the importance of balancing hard and soft skill sets, the final question of the interview intrigued me most:
Adam Grant: You’ve written recently about how engineers think. We’re trying to make organizations more evidence based, more data-driven, and that’s what engineers do for a living. Is there anything we can learn from how engineers think as we think about making HR and the world of people more data-driven?
Malcolm Gladwell: I don’t know whether you want to make the world resemble engineering culture. I think you want to find better ways for these two very different cultures to speak to each other.
We absolutely need engineers to think like engineers, but we absolutely don’t want everyone to think that way. Nor do we want non-engineers to shut down the engineers—we want to have both at the table. I’m more worried about the hiring process becoming too dependent on analytics than I am about it not being dependent on analytics enough.
I wish there was a little more humility about what can and can’t be measured. I follow this most closely in sports. You can’t follow the analytics revolution in, say, basketball, and not be simultaneously thrilled at what we can know and deeply humbled about what we can’t know. There were two European players playing for the Denver Nuggets earlier this year. Neither were playing very well, and the consensus was that one or both of them was going to wash up.
Denver traded one of them. It is now the case that both are playing unbelievably well. If you can find any analytic that helped you predict that outcome, be my guest. It was an intangible. They weren’t happy together, and apart they’re fantastic. That just tells you that there’s an awful lot that we can’t easily understand about human performance.
This question was a bit tangent to the power over speed conversation. However, as we analyze and measure phenomena, we replicate the process and make conclusions about its behavior so we can then make similar decisions faster and with more “certainty”. We’re all so obsessed with quantifying and analyzing everything to find a pattern and a reason behind it so we can remove the possibility of uncertainty or imperfection. Why? Obviously, we can monetize a process that decides for someone and gives them more information than they’d have on their own. Also, for many, it feels good to “know” and to discover something “certain” I guess. But is that really “certain”? No matter how much you analyze and replicate, it doesn’t always work. Analytics can be powerful and it’s important to get as close as possible. We’d like to have directional information to help us out. However, there will always be unknowns and this declaration of “certainty” often leaves people dependent and confused. It’s also creating a population of very uninteresting people.
When we think about this in terms of human performance, we can validate that this uncertainty is true even at the subconscious, body level. When we try something new like a medicine that is recommended, the doctor may tell us it will do something specific for us like cure our flu. Why would they tell us that? They would tell us that because there was a scientific experiment and analysis done where hundreds of people took the medicine and the medicine cured their cold in a high percentage of cases. So, the company started selling the mixture as a cure for colds. This doesn’t mean it’s going to cure your cold. If you’re body reacts like that high percentage of people that tested it out, then it will. However, your body could be different. You may need a different medication or you may just need sleep. The smallest nuance about your body could cause a different reaction. You never know.
In terms of human performance at work, at the conscious level, we can see that this uncertainty is true as well. Let’s say someone is a “perfect” fit for an organization and works there for three years. They find out that someone with the same qualifications and interests – degree in the same major from the same university, the same interests, the same grades and qualifications – graduates and so they recommend they join the company. The company offers them the job but after six months they are not getting the work done and they aren’t enthusiastic about the company. What gives? When you address it with them, it turns out they agree it’s just not working out. What do you do? Do you never hire another graduate of that program? You have one excellent person that, by analytics, measurements, and labels seems exactly the same. You never know. It could be that something happened in their family at that time. It could be that they realized, based on personal past experience that they want to contribute something different to the world. Could you have predicted that?
Well, if we can’t make an exact model for complex, new phenomena (like human systems and performance) and therefore we can’t lean on the models and analytics alone to make decisions, then how do we proceed? Throw out the models and start from scratch? No. Don’t throw the models and analytical methods away. These are important, especially in our growing, global society. We should keep modeling, updating the models, and doing the best we can to reveal and share guidance with each other. Use the analytical, experimental information for directional guidance but don’t solely lean on it for the answer, don’t get an ego about how “right” it is, acknowledge that there will always be unknowns and anomalies, and acknowledge we need to be creative, patient, thinkers. In terms of human performance, this is obvious because each person is completely different from another. We aren’t all one collective data point and we don’t fit on one trend line. We’re billions of data points each with millions of attribute combinations that vary differently with time. Each person is not just completely different from each other person but each person is completely different from the person they were a few minutes ago. We want analytics and experiments for directional guidance. Our specific scenario could fit into a higher-level group answer. However, let’s admit to what it is – guidance – and admit we need to be slower, creative thinkers (or have slower, creative thinkers supporting us) to look at the specific situation in terms of what they know about this larger, complex system at this time. Creative thinkers zoom in to the specific details and zoom out to see the larger context and implications. This takes time. We try to make decisions so fast to get on to the next thing. Let’s get smarter and a bit more patient (as well as more interesting and creative) about decision-making. We need high-level, fast modeling as a starting point in our huge, growing world of possibilities complimented by creative thinkers.
We can go a bit further. In yoga philosophy, you read that action is better than inaction. Sometimes when we realize things are so uncertain, we freeze up and do nothing. We stay stagnant and stuck. I believe, as the yogis say, it’s better to do something than nothing. Doing nothing can be doing something if you feel, based on information and your intuition, that doing nothing is best to move toward your intention. However, usually something needs to be done if it feels that way. A decision needs to be made and an action needs to be taken. If your intention is to move as quickly as possible to provide answer, then an answer spit out from a model alone may be enough. Often, in our workplaces, we are rewarded and incentivized based on largest output in the least amount of time. Is our intention as humans, to just move as fast as possible and go through the motions? Models and technology can help with that. However, I think life can be a little deeper and a little more interesting maybe. We could do a little better. Gather all the information out there but then stop and listen to your intuition. Your intuition, I believe, accounts for all the details in that one in a trillion (considering person and time) experience. Your intuition can give you highly creative, customized insight based on your experience and environment at the particular moment in time. You can look outward for information and data at all that high-level, mass-market information. That can give your directional guidance and it’s a good place to start quickly. Maybe look there first. Then, focus inward. Really look at the specific situation. How could it be different than all the other examples in the general knowledge? Make it a little more interesting than looking for the answer that’s already been found or typing attributes into a model.
Scary as it may be and contrary to our modern societal logic, take it slower. Use the available information based on models and analytics for a benchmark and guidance. Flex your creativity muscle to develop your own analysis, based on your complex knowledge. Tap into your intuition and gut feeling. Acknowledge there is uncertainty. Take action. Observe.
It takes practice and patience but your answer may be a lot more meaningful, impactful, and you may discover something completely new and original. See what you find. Finally, make your decision and take action knowing you strengthened your hard and soft skill sets in doing your best. It’s all about learning. Watch the outcome and learn from it for next time but know that next time will be completely, ever so slightly different.
Thanks for reading.
Also, I’m passionate about this stuff. It’s true! For exercises for building hard and soft skills and even your intuitive sense, check out my new book, Awake Leadership: Here
The full Adam and Malcolm interview: Here