One of Dr. Deming’s core prescriptions was, “Decisions must be based on truth.” After reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I now appreciate how difficult it is to achieve what sounds pretty simple.
Nate Silver has gained fame for his remarkably accurate election forecasts, but what’s important to those of us in the field of organizational development is how he does it.
The foundation of Silver’s approach to forecasting is a disciplined search for the truth. This is simple in theory, but as he points out, most of our forecasts are biased by human failings of one kind or another. Silver demonstrates very clearly how our forecasts fall short in a wide variety of areas, from predicting the stock market to playing poker—all of which are subject to almost childlike human biases and instincts. His analyses of failed predictions in these fields clearly demonstrate how herd behavior, GroupThink and other phenomena that OD practitioners run into on a daily basis create detours on the path to truth.
In fact, Silver argues that our forecasting is getting worse in many areas. You may wonder how this is possible now that we have virtually unlimited access to information.
Guess what? According to Silver, that’s the whole problem:
The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.
This selective use of data (which violates both Deming’s prescription and DeBono’s rules concerning The White Hat) was on full display during the recent presidential campaign. What concerned me was not so much the b. s. generated by politicians on both sides but the reaction of friends and colleagues to the onslaught of nonsense. They aped the politicians, using disconnected facts to justify their positions. They took sides. As Silver points out, this is a human tendency dating back to the appearance of the printing press:
The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths. Paradoxically, the result of having so much more shared knowledge was increasing isolation along national and religious lines.
This is why we should not adopt an attitude of superiority towards our hopeless political leaders. We are all susceptible to selective processing of information and we all fall into the habit of doing it despite our awareness of the negative consequences. Everyone who has worked in a dysfunctional organization knows that a lot of the reason those organizations are dysfunctional lies in the inability to tell, accept and deal with the truth. In these organizations, the CEO is always right, poor performance is due to forces outside of the organization’s control, and no one takes responsibility for anything, using selective facts to blame the whole problem on someone else. Truth-picking is an accepted survival mechanism in the dysfunctional organization.
The failure to look the truth square in the eye is the foundation of what we call “organizational politics,” and as we witnessed in this year’s campaign, politics can make for a very unpleasant experience. This is why it is incumbent on the OD practitioner to realize that he or she is subject to the same biases as every other human being and that searching for and helping others discover the truth about an organizational situation requires both self-awareness and a great deal of self-discipline.
The truth is out there. It’s not going to be easy to find it, but making an iron-clad commitment to do so is the first step.