When I worked airline security in the early 1990s, the senior executive who trained us would constantly repeat, “ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as half -pregnant! Either you are, or you are not!” In that context, he meant, of course, that either the person was suspicious or was not. If they weren’t, they were safe; if they were, then suspect them all the way. Mind you, we were a lot more effective than the current TSA, and treated our customers a lot better along the way. It might have to do with our hiring and training standards.
The lesson we learned was that you had to make a determination, and that determination was based on knowledge.
This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Review section had a brilliant article on how to use knowledge in pregnancy. Anyone who has been pregnant, married to someone pregnant (I have 4 kids of my own), or at any time with someone pregnant, knows about the restrictions on coffee and alcohol, on minimums or maximums of weight gain, sleep, etc. Anyone with any such experience also knows how many opinions there are, and how many of them are conflicting or in constant flux.
In the article, the pregnant economist actually asked questions in an attempt to gain knowledge:
- What are the actual risks of the various activities. For example, is 36 pounds of weight gain really more risky than the recommended 35 pounds? By 0.1% or 5% or 15%? Does one extra pound of weight beyond the recommended range carry the same risk as one missing pound of weight below the range?
- How much of the recommendations depends on correlation rather than causation? If women in a study who drink two glasses of wine per day show a 20% increase in developmental disorders, are those women all significantly underweight, such that the alcohol affects them more? Are they all sleep-deprived during pregnancy, or perhaps taking other drugs?
To the businessperson, the most important insight from the article is: you must ask the right questions.
There is an old saying, that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Any data can be made to confirm almost any result. It is not always conscious; sometimes people simply see what they expect to see in results, a tendency known as “confirmation bias.”
When I have worked with clients, often the most important service I have provided is to:
- Question, whether quietly or openly, the assumptions, without the baggage that leads to confirmation bias.
- Formulate the right questions to get to the underlying truth.
- Ask those questions in a way that gets people – employees, executives and customers, all current, former or potential – to open up in a way they might not to a longstanding CEO or salesperson.
This process has allowed me to figure out for a CEO why his sales engine was sputtering like a Lada going up Lombardi Street in San Francisco, for a VP Technology why his engineering and operations organization kept having failures in uptime and delivery despite brilliant engineers, and a service desk operator determine why his customer satisfaction was low, turnaround time high and costs through the roof.
The job of an executive is to lead their team. But their first job is to set the goals for the team and, at times, understand why they have not yet reached those goals. Often the executive is not in a position to do so himself or herself due to time, relationship or skills constraints. Sometimes the salesmanship skills that make the best leader do not make the best investigator. The smart executive knows it, and hires the right people to fill those roles.