18 May 2009

The Improbable Makes Perfect Sense

The thing about systems that make them difficult to understand is that they obey rules which make sense, but the outcome can often make no sense whatsoever. By way of an example, I present this article.

Basically, a woman handed a man her baby to use as a Taser shield. Yeah.

Babies: It's about time they were useful for something.

I was going to try to build some sort of lesson around this example, but I think it pretty much stands on its own. If you think something would never happen because it wouldn't make any sense, then it will happen. . .and when it does it won't make any sense.

08 May 2009

Systems Discussions Required Specificity.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt wrote in Newsweek 11-18 May 2009: "Egg freezing, I believe, could be as revolutionary as the birth-control pill. And the timing for its takeoff couldn't be better. The age of first-time motherhood is rising. In the United States, the number of women becoming pregnant between the ages of 35 and 44 has nearly doubled since 1980. As education, advanced degrees and higher salaries become priorities, we are trading in our years of procreative power to gain economic power."

I tracked down the statistic the author references (thank you eppc.org for actually referencing the stat) in a press release from the National Center for Health Statistics. The press release states, "The birth rate for women aged 40-44 years has more than doubled since 1981." It also states that the birth rate for that age group in 2003 was 8.7 births per 1000 women. I had to dig through their archives to find the exact birth rate for 1981 (it was 4.0 for all women 40 and over).

The data does indicate a steady increase in the birth rate for women over 40. However, when the birth rate for all the other age categories are included in the plot, the tend is. . .underwhelming.

As you can see, the statistic is entirely accurate, but it is also completely out of context. Until the birth rate of the 40+ age category doubles from 8 to 16, and then again to 32, it will still be a relatively insignificant event. Mentioning that it doubled is like mentioning that America is using more wind power. Yeah, we are, but even "twice as much" still doesn't matter. In fact, the most significant increase seems to be in the 30-40 age range, not in the 40+ age range.

After looking at the data (in what is admittedly a quick and dirty fashion) it appears the author's main point seems to stand. Overall the birth rate seems to be decreasing and, at the same time, the birth rates for older women have been increasing. From a systems perspective, this is an interesting trend. What factors could be driving this change? Is it "education, advanced degrees and higher salaries" as the author states?

One of the things to keep in mind when looking at a system is the difference between correlation and causation. Just because two metrics change the same way at the same time does not mean one is affecting the other. For example, an increase in average global temperature coincided with a decrease in average global pirate attacks. That does not mean that pirates are allergic to heat, and it does not even mean they are both responding to a change in some third factor, it just means that they both changed.

I didn't write this to get into the debate. I only intended it as a small case study to illustrate a point. Statistics should be very carefully applied to systems. Statistical analysis is a great tool for reductionism, but it is less useful for analysis of holistic systems. This is due to the fact that statistics, by necessity, can only be used when things are reduced to specific metrics. It is tempting to analyze every subsystem and think that you understand the system, but to understand the system you have to analyze the system itself, not the subsystems. Doing this properly requires a lot of careful definitions of exactly what the system you are studying consists of, which are pretty boring, so that step usually gets skipped (or at least not mentioned).

When you want to talk about a system, but you skip the definition step, what you say probably doesn't matter. At the very least, it is open to a lot of misinterpretation. For example, in the case I cite here the author could have been more specific about what the stat(s) were actually describing, how they were obtained, etc.

Opportunity Recognition

I think that the key to recognizing opportunities is to do a lot of thinking beforehand.

When we observe a system we have a chance to learn what the underlying principles of that system are. The principles, of course, are much more important to understand than any particular manifestation of them. An actual event, or series of events, is just a manifestation of the underlying principles. If we imagine that the event is important, rather than the principles which dictated it, we will never be better than one step behind. The principles allow us to predict what will happen based on what is happening and what has happened; to project into the future.

We don't know where it will go, but we do know where it won't go.

Once we can predict what will happen with better than 50% accuracy it becomes a useful tool. What we do with that tool is stick it into our imagination, along with everything we know about the past and present, and churn the whole thing up for a while.

I can't take credit for this particular idea. But Blenderhead can.

If done properly, what will pop out are plausible predictions of future events. We can then test the plausibility of these predictions by waiting to see if they actually happen. When they happen as we predicted, we win a Nobel Prize. When things do not go the way we predicted, we reevaluate the ingredients in the mind-blender and then set it to frappe. Eventually we will get an accurate enough understanding of the principles, and the salient aspects of the past and present, that our predictions will be relatively reliable.

AFTER that, we are ready for opportunity recognition. The potential to recognize opportunities only emerges when we start to think about the way things could work out if a change was made at the correct time or place. It is the next step beyond simply predicting the way things will work out if everything continues as it has. First we have to predict what would be useful in a situation that doesn't exist yet, and then we have to file that prediction away.

Opportunity recognition finally occurs when we run across a situation that closely conforms to those predictions we made. If we thought previously that a certain thing would be possible if this, that and the-other-thing were present, and then we see something that offers this, that and the-other-thing, we can recognize it as a chance to make something better happen. However, it requires a lot of forethought. That is the key. Effort has to be put into figuring out what would be useful, but that first requires that we figure out what will happen, and to do that we first have to figure out the principles that control the situation.

03 May 2009

What Leadership and Management Really Are

Everyone has their own way of defining leadership. Here's mine.

I think that leadership, as a concept, should be compared to management. Management is performed whenever someone deals with complexity and leadership is performed whenever someone deals with change. They can be performed at the same time, and usually are in some proportion, but this distinction makes them easier to think about. They are not concepts which can be separated; they are two sides of the same coin.

Okay, so technically coins have three sides. I'm not changing the metaphor.

If we think of actions like they were all mixed up together and baked into a brownie, then we will have a very strange mental image. However, we will also have a useful image. The center, the majority, of the brownie is the same soft consistency. This majority would represent how most of the things we do are only in response to complexity. The edges of the brownie, which are harder and chewier, are the minority of actions which are in response to change. It's not such a metaphorical leap to imagine the inside of a brownie as all being the same and the edge of a brownie being the part that has to "deal" with the change from brownie to non-brownie, which is why it's a little bit different from the rest of the brownie raw materiel.

Pictured: The weirdest metaphor you've seen today.

The proportion of soft brownie to chewy brownie varies from situation to situation. Some jobs are characterized as "Leadership" jobs because one tends to either seek out or be confronted with more change than usual. This idea could be represented like so:

Pictured: The most delicious leadership lesson ever.

The reason this metaphor is useful is that it illustrates a principle of the relationship between management and leadership. They really cannot be found in isolation from each other. You can't bake a brownie that has no edges and you can't bake an edge that has no brownie. Additionally, the center and the edge of a brownie are made of the same stuff (actions in case the metaphor is still too vague). We tend to label a job as either management or leadership because of the relative proportion of edge to area. So, a marble would be an example of a "management" job because it maximizes management decisions and minimizes leadership decisions.

As little surface area as possible.

This could be compared to a radiator which maximizes surface area vs volume, just like a "leadership" job would maximize leadership decisions and minimize management decisions.

As much surface area as possible.

So, when people try to describe leadership as fundamentally different from anything else they are forgetting that leadership is just the edge of the brownie that ran interference between the brownie and the outside world. It is still the same stuff, it has only acquired a different consistency due to its being exposed to change. Management and leadership always exist together, but the proportion sometimes changes.

Management, then, is when someone is dealing with something that is well understood. We like to keep things the same for as long as possible because we need to be able to rely on something. That means that after a while the thing that has always been the same is so well understood that every problem has a documented solution. A person only needs access to this accumulated knowledge and they can maintain the status quo indefinitely. Leadership, however, is when someone is on the leading edge dealing with change. To maintain an area in which things do not change, someone has to be out on the edge figuring out how to deal with the inevitable new problems.

There is no documentation which allows someone to deal with a new situation because nothing can be documented until it has first been dealt with. So, leaders have to basically guess the future, which is why leadership is so hard to understand. People keep trying to approach leadership the same way they approach management, as a complexity problem instead of a change problem. Another way to think about it is that there is a fundamental difference between dealing with something you can see and something you can't.

Complicated, but at least you know what you're dealing with.

That could be anything. We should form a committee to discuss it.

The latter picture, of the shadow, is what leaders are expected to focus their attention on. They are supposed to learn how to interpret things with no context and no support. Is it any wonder people are so confused about what they're supposed to do? On the one hand leaders are supposed to inspire confidence. On the other hand their job is basically voodoo, and their success is largely dependent on luck, which does not inspire confidence.

This brings me to a key point, which is what leadership is not. Leadership is not management. A manager who delicately applies some creativity to deal with some workplace drama exercised leadership. A leader who carefully practiced his speech and incited the masses to follow him exercised management. The methods for inspiring people to do things is relatively well documented and is becoming more so every day. Therefore, inspiring people should be characterized by the preponderance of management inherent in the action. Leadership, on the other hand, is dealing with a situation without any supporting information. It is inherently impossible to define HOW to 'do' leadership, then, because every situation is different.