The wrong sort of evidence

Many years ago, on my commute home from London to Wendover, we used to get get regularly delayed by “leaves on the line” or “the wrong sort of snow”. Those days are long behind me. The experiences left me with a determination to avoid commuting like the plague.

Right now however, we have plagues of sorts, but the thinking that drove me away from commuting remains.

Over the years, we have developed an obsession with evidence based decision making.

My local council will not entertain measures to calm traffic along rural ‘rat run” routes without evidence of enough accidents. I assume that somewhere in their policy there is a CQ (“Carnage Quotient”) level that must be exceeded. A quality of evidence based that conveniently ignores the probability of an accident that will at least ruin someone’s day – if not their life – is high, but we need evidence.

We have known about the probability of a pandemic for decades, but in the absence of precise evidence as to when and where, we sidelined it. I guess we have evidence now. That’s OK then.

We know, beyond reasonable doubt that climate change, demographics, technology, and our current forms of capitalism all have high probabilities of causing increasingly disruptive events.

The wait for deterministic evidence is a form of predatory delay (great phrase – thank you Raj Tharotheram). A delay designed to procrastinate whilst we finish strip mining the planet for the benefit of a very few. Waiting for the evidence that this is so is likely to be life changing for many, if not lethal.

it’s about time I think we took the hint, and redefined our idea of evidence to incorporate something altogether more integrated.

Probabilistic as well as deterministic, or as my Grandmother would say as I passed her the eggs, sheer bloody common sense.

If we wait for those whom predatory delay benefits to finish strip mining before we take action, or for the bureaucrats for whom likelihood means an estimate of ROI is more difficult, we will wait a very long wait.

Over the next months, as we deal with the fallout of this crisis, we have a choice as to whther we go back to the old, fragile normal, or a new, less precise, less traditionally evidence based, less assymetric normal.

As we recover, we can choose who to work for, what to buy, how to live. It doesn’t need to be instantly radical, it can be incrementally radical. People obsessed with infinite growth will start to get the hint. The strip miners who uproot everything in pursuit of a very small part of what they excavate, leaving the rest as forms of social slag heap will start to get the hint.

We can decide what form of evidence we will accept as cause for action.

Efficient vs. Effective

(c) Youtube

I’ve been interested for a while about the progress of AI in human transactions, and what challenges a human / AI emotional “supply chain” might face.

Thanks to a course I started, I now have some good examples. Back in the past, I was a keen photographer when it involved film and messy chemicals, light meters and understanding ISO. Along the way, I bought new cameras that gradually then suddenly did all the work. Great photographs, no effort.

I sort of missed the craft, so decided to go cold turkey manual. To refresh, I signed up for an online course offer, and the adventure began.

Sign up was easy, lots of confirmatory emails. So far so good.

First lesson – pretty basic, but well delivered. And then it began.

A torrent of texts and mails saying that my future was under threat unless I signed up for a full account. Covid meant upskilling was vital. Just sign here for this special offer. Ignored.

Next lesson – again, very good. Enjoyed it. Then, the “louder” emails and texts, now with bonus added upper letters and exclamation marks. Apparently I was nearly doomed.

Working from a base of a photography refresher?

And so it continued, good lessons, covering more complex areas and followed by ever more,shoutier emails. Little Robot brought his Dad along. Now moving from amusing to irritating intervention. Ever more digital hard sell, ever more irrelevant, as by now my ticket to hell had been clearly been booked.

To the crunch point. An unwarned debit to my account for premium membership. When I queried, I got a long (really long) automated response that said they were allowed to, so they did. I checked, and there it was in the smallest of the small print. They were right, just very unattractive. I no longer wanted anything to do with them. Liked the course. I disliked, increasingly intensely, the back office shouty robot.

So I cancelled. And the adventure continued. After a long process confirming I wanted to cancel, being cajoled at every step with my doomed future which would only be saved by the special offers they were making to retain me, I got to a screen saying I need to call a number to finally confirm.

Ok I thought, a human at last. Wrong.

A telephonic repetition of the cancellation web page. More predictions of doom (“we are sorry you have decided to abandon your goals”). More offers.

Then, at last, done.

I felt like I had escaped Alcatraz.

The lesson, and the paradox was clear. Good product offering overwhelmed and negated by a completely synthetic “relationship”.

For me, an object lesson and useful case study on how an obsession with systems and efficiency can kill an otherwise good idea.

AI is still a servant. Letting it loose on people unsupervised not such a great idea.


What happens when you break things you can’t measure?

As the dust begins to settle and we can start to see what’s been happening beneath the surface of the crisis, it becomes clear how much of our day to day business had become dependent on systems of some sort, and how fragile those systems are to disruption.

Beneath the more predictable issues with logistics companies, airlines, oil companies and anything that moves stuff and people about are far more subtle, but probably longer lasting challenges which money, not even the amounts that entitled corporations are demanding of somebody else’s money, will solve.

Our love of and near addiction to data leads us to focus on things we can measure, whilst beneath that the things that really matter, those areas that are harder to measure, have broken.

It may be hard to put them back together, and even where we do, the cracks will show.

And can’t see?

Apparently strong structures – from aircraft to bridges – fail unexpectedly. When we look for why, it’s the things beneath the surface – software bugs, metal fatigue, organisation culture that is wilfully blind because its focus is on the measurable – that are often found to be the root cause.

I suspect in this crisis, it will be relationships. As millions of people are put into the inherent uncertainty of furlough or more obvious uncertainty of redundancy, as probably more than a million SME businesses fail and more than a few corporates go the same way the whole mix of established work relationships evaporate. They are unlikely to recover, and cannot be glued back together the way they were.

The New Refugees

I spend a lot of my time talking to people in businesses- owners, managers employees, and individual corporate partners who are the edge of change, dealing with radical change or in areas of exploring new areas. The threads that hold them to the organisation are often weak. They are talented, often driven people with ideas and purpose of their own who sit a long way from the comfortable, often complacent centre. They are the ones experiencing what is happening, not reading about it after the event.

In the last few weeks, many of those threads have been further weakened, if not broken. If not furloughed, or made redundant the projects they have been working on have come to a screaming halt as business “goes to the mattresses”. When landlords and suppliers aren’t being paid, “non essential” projects and “soft spend” – training, marketing, research – stand no chance.

They are largely being left to fend for themselves, as the attention of business moves outwards to the markets and financiers, not inwards to their vital organs.The body corporate starts to fail, at first gradually, then before long, suddenly.

When I talk to these people, vital to the effective long term health of the organisation but “inefficient” in the short term, they sound like refugees. Disoriented and disillusioned, but far from helpless.

The Law of the Few

There are many models of what makes organisations vibrant, and all of them are remarkably consistent in showing an underlying “law of the few”

I’m familiar with the term, as many will be from Malcolm Gladwell’s work “Tipping Point”. He uses three archetypes:

  • The “maven” – those who know, who have mastery of their subject
  • The “connector” – those who sit at the vital nodes in communication networks. The people you want when you want to get an introduction to somebody you don’t have any credibility with, and want to talk to
  • The “salesperson” – the persuaders. The people who convince those you need to convince through their personal presence.

These people have two key characteristics:

  • They are scarce – in total, probably fewer than 10% of the workforce, and not identifiable by job role. They are more often than not the people who customers rely on to make things happen, and sit at the edge, not the centre of the organisation.
  • They are essentially independent and highly mobile. They work for the organisation because it suits them, not because they have to.

These are the people the 90% are dependent on when things get rough.

So what happens now?

The same thing that happens when you drop the phone. You lose connection.

The problem (if you’re an organisation) and the opportunity (if you’re one of the few) is that people are not phones you own that can be repaired.

They don’t break. They are always on.

They will use the skills that make them vital to the future to find a new home. They are like cats. You never own a cat, it just chooses to live with you whilst you feed it and care for it.

If you’re an organisation:

Of course cash is King, but if you don’t pay enough attention to your vital few, you may be left with a much depleted Kingdom in the not so distant future.

If you’re one the the vital few:

This is your time. Choose wisely. This period will not last very long.