December 20, 2005
Throw The DiceIn my last post, I mused on the phenomenon of statistical gravity, a potentially very powerful force of attraction that causes successful things to be even more successful. Statistical gravity is a product of our suggestibility. We see a bar full of attractive people and we're more likely to go in because its apparant popularity persuades us that it must be better than the less popular bars, for example.
The problem is that popularity is not a good indicator of merit. Are the best leaders the most popular leaders? Are the best pop albums the most popular albums? Is the most widely used operating system the best operating system? In all cases, not necessarily.
Through our suggestibility, we often do ourselves a disservice and plump for the most popular choice without really weighing up the pros and cons of the other choices available. Largely we do this because we're becoming ever more lazy thinkers, and the easiest way to size up the options is to look and see what people like us are buying. Children reduce the risks by copying their parents, who arguably know more than they do - though that's not always the case. "Going with the flow" is a childlike state of mind where we take our lead from others rather than figuring out the choices for ourselves. I suspect we also have a need to be seen to be fitting in, and many choices are worn as badges that signify belonging to specific tribes. The clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the teams we support, the books we read, the political party we vote for; these have more to do with fitting in than they do with our actual tastes, values or beliefs.
The informal term that's sometimes applied is group-think. When people get together, even smart and educated people, there's a tendency for everyone to end up thinking like everyone else. Group-think has the effect of reducing the choices available to groups of people, and stifles creativity. We ignore perfectly sane and rational choices because of the potential social consequences of not towing the party line. Indeed, there are many examples of collective insanity that can arise through group-think.
Statistical gravity gives rise to organisational stupidity and, just as real gravity can bring complex and chaotic systems to a state of equilibrium (and subsequent death), so too can its statistical counterpart. As a consultant who tries to help organisations "go agile", I see it as part of my duty to try to counteract statistical gravity by introducing decision-making systems that don't rely on personal choice - and are therefore less susceptible to suggestion.
The first decision-making system is randomness. On a small scale, I've encouraged developers to flip a coin when presented with two options, the relative merits of which seem unclear. Throwing dice, spinning the bottle and sticking pins in lists whilst blindfolded are equally effective means of introducing variation and counteracting statistical gravity. In everyday life, you might want to consider closing your eyes, spinning around a few times (don't get dizzy, though), and then walking into whatever bar is nearest to the direction you're facing, regardless of how it looks. Or you might want to stick a pin in a list of the top 100 pop albums and buy whichever one the pin is nearest to. Or you might want to walk into a cinema and buy a ticket for whatever film is showing next. If we are prisoners of habit, then the key to unlock the doors to our cells is blind chance - the very same blind chance that got so many great successes started in the first place.
The second decision-making system is science. Presented with two options, the relative merits of which are unclear, we can define what we believe the merits of each choice will be. How will we know if option A really is better than option B? Formulate a theory and then put it to the test. What will the impact of one design decision be compared to another? Why will political party A make a better government than party B? Will the economy be better run? In what ways? Will the national debt be lower after 5 years? Will the trade deficit be lower? Will average household income after tax be up? Will the gap between rich and poor be narrowed? With the benefit of hindsight, we can often measure the consequences of our decisions and apply those lessons to future decisions. If party A forms a government and things get worse, don't vote for them again.
The ultimate decision-making process is a product of randomness and science. Throw the dice and then objectively measure the consequences. If it works, do it again. If it doesn't, lesson learned. Nature has been using this system extremely successfully for hundres of millions of years. It's called evolution. Random mutations tested by natural selection with the successful genes carried forward to the next generation. Evolution is a truly creative process, and statistical gravity is its natural enemy. Statistical gravity thwarts random mutation by artifically restricting the choices available. It also thwarts natural selection by making popularity the primary criteria for selection and continued success. When statistical gravity does its worst, we end up in an evolutionary dead end.
Posted 15 years, 9 months ago on December 20, 2005