“Science Gone Wrong”?

By Guy Higgins

I’ve just finished reading a book by Dr. Paul Offit, Pandora’s Lab (Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong). The seven stories (and they actually are well told stories) capture the histories of seven episodes involving science. Those episodes, in order, cover:

  • The centuries-long creation of the opioid epidemic
  • The decades-long creation of the trans fat health hazard
  • The two sides of the discovery of a way to make atmospheric nitrogen chemically useable
  • The lengthy history of how genetics begat eugenics (simplistically, the idea that “inferior” humans should not have children)
  • The decades-long rise and fall of surgical lobotomies
  • The forty-year creation of an epidemic that has killed millions of people
  • The continuing health risks created when genius colors outside the lines

Continue reading

A Booming Market for Fitness Trainers

By Guy Higgins

I completed a full workout this morning, and I feel like a spent round. I’m tired, and I can feel all the muscles I used. It was a hard and satisfying workout. I gained benefit from the entire workout even though I had to force myself to complete all the reps in all the sets. While I don’t work with a personal trainer, there are half a dozen or so trainers at my gym, and they always seem to be busy. Personal trainers aren’t cheap – they charge about as much as master plumbers. Why do people hire personal trainers when they can go to the library and check out a book on fitness that tells you everything that the trainer will tell you? Good question. Continue reading

MBAs, Margarine and Statistics

By Guy Higgins

Okay, so I’m wired differently than a lot of people, but I just finished reading three articles that I think tell pieces of a very important message.

As leaders, we need to understand the tools that we have available to us – to both use ourselves and to provide to our various teams to enable them to succeed. I think that those tools include: Continue reading


By Guy Higgins

I read a couple of different and interesting articles recently:

The titles for these two articles are likely to create a question in the minds of the Noble Reader, “What the heck do these have in common?” Continue reading

Artificial Intelligence Redux

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I wrote about artificial intelligence (AI) and highlighted some of the issues I believe exist with the application of artificial intelligence programming. I want to follow up on that with observations on another article I read this week, Do Algorithms Beat Us at Complex Decision Making?

The article described the achievements of AI-assisted programs. A major point that I noted last week was that artificial intelligence algorithms out-performed humans in areas where subjective judgment was critical (subjective meaning that quantitative assessments didnʻt play a role) – to a large degree because the AI algorithms were consistent and humans were very inconsistent (they asked radiologists to read medical images and slipped in repeats – the doctors diagnosed the repeated images differently about 80 percent of the time – thatʻs scary). Continue reading

Artificial Intelligence – What Could Possibly Go Wrong … Go Wrong … Go Wrong … ?

By Guy Higgins

There is a very old joke that goes, “Shortly after take off, the passengers of a cross-country flight hear a pleasant voice over the airplane intercom, ‘We’re pleased to announce that this flight is being conducted in a completely automated mode. There are no pilots in the cockpit. Our excellent systems will fly you in complete comfort and safety to our destination. We wish to assure you that we have invested extensively in this automated system, and it is completely safe. There is nothing that can go wrong … go wrong … go wrong …’” Continue reading

Compromise, Consensus or…

By Guy Higgins

The boss gets a call from one of his direct reports.  “Boss, Jill and I are at loggerheads with the folks in Finance.  We’ve been working with them on financing for new-product development and we haven’t made any progress, and it doesn’t seem like we’re going to make any progress.  We’d like to work through this with you.”

Now, you’re the boss.  Since Ghostbusters aren’t available, who ya gonna call?  What are you going to do? Continue reading

Decision Support

By Guy Higgins

This is a somewhat different post.  I’ve posted in the past about making decisions, but I just read a blog on the myths of predictive modeling, and I feel compelled to explore that topic some.

First, any kind of modeling (computer, architectural, or pencil and paper) is nothing more than a tool to support decision making.  The computer model cannot make the decision for the decision maker.  Neither can a pencil-and-paper or an elaborate architectural model.  They can simply help the decision maker gain additional or further insight into the factors surrounding the decision.

Today, Big Data (always in capital letters like it’s some kind of omniscient resource that provides “The Answer”) is the golden calf of number crunchers.  Executives are, in many situations, behaving as if the analysis of gazillions of bits of data would reveal the answers to their questions.  So let’s look at it. Continue reading

Pessimism is Important

I’ve posted about cognitive diversity before, and I’ve posted about temperamental diversity (extroverts and introverts).  I think that it is also important to include optimists and pessimists on a team.

No one ever has any trouble including optimists – they’re out there, bright and sunny, always seeing the bright side of things and explaining how “whatever” is going to come out right.

No one ever likes having a pessimist on the team because they are always looking at the down side and saying things like, “You know that the schedule you just proposed requires you to complete 15,000 hours of work next week, and you only have two people (while the optimist is saying, “No problem, we won’t take coffee breaks”). Continue reading

The Default Option

By Guy Higgins

I read an article on the behavior of Americans when shopping for health insurance.  The author of the article expresses surprise that most Americans spend fifteen minutes shopping for health insurance during open enrollment periods.  Those same Americans spend hours shopping for vacations, cars, televisions, etc.

There is an important lesson here for leaders – people, not just Americans, choose the default options the vast majority of the time.  When faced with a decision where there is a default option, most people simply accept the default option and move on.  That applies to choosing healthcare, to managing their IRA or 401K investments and to automobile insurance.

A default option exists when:

  • A decision has already been made – such as in the case of auto insurance.  You chose company A the last time you needed insurance, and it’s the default even when you change cars.  The same may be true of automaker – a Chevy person often remains a Chevy person (although perhaps not as much as was once true in the case of automakers).
  • When there is an explicit default option provided, as when choosing whether or not to invest in your company’s 401K.  Many companies provide a default option of participating (or of not participating).
  • When there is detailed, easy option, as in a pre-defined portfolio of investment choices vs. the opportunity to invest in a self-selected portfolio (which would take some thought and work).
  • When people can take a specific action to avail themselves of an offered benefit – as in the case where a company reimburses the full cost of a flu vaccination if they go get it themselves.  Here the default is to do nothing since taking advantage of the offer requires taking action.

Why do people overwhelmingly choose the default?  This is one that has been explored in depth by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (and others).  Kahneman explains the phenomenon in Prospect Theory (the theory of how people make decisions to pursue gain and avoid loss/risk).  Basically, humans have an innate tendency, when faced with a decision, to prefer not taking action as opposed to taking action.  We, intuitively, categorize the status quo (not taking action) as a known situation and therefore less risky than an unknown future that follows taking action.  When I was a student at the Navy Test Pilot School, we were told that most aircraft accident injuries and fatalities were due to the reluctance of pilots to eject.  Survivors told accident investigators that they felt more in control and at less risk when in the cockpit – even though the airplane had suffered a major failure – and did not want to eject.  That may reflect the same aversion to taking a different action – the default was to stay with the airplane rather than choose to eject.  So, accepting the default is a human tendency.

Are defaults bad?  I don’t think that they are necessarily good or bad, but it is important for us to understand that default options are powerful.

What I think this means for leaders is that when we are faced with a decision, we need to recognize whether or not there is a default available to us, and, if so, take care not to be biased by the existence of that default.  I think that it is also important to remember the power of default options when we are offering choices to others.

As a simple example, when offering a flu vaccination, a leader who wants to ensure that his work force is inoculated against the flu can inadvertently create different default options:

  • He can offer full reimbursement for the cost of the vaccination at an employee’s local clinic.  This is a generous offer, but the default (the easy thing to do) is actually to do nothing.
  • Or, he can bring in a medical team to give free flu vaccinations at an “all hands” meeting, or at the entry to the cafeteria, or following a fire drill as everyone re-enters the building.  In this case, employees can still refuse the vaccination, but the default (the easiest thing to do) is to get the shot.  No other action is required.

Considering the default option is just another of those things that we need to remember and use appropriately.  Are you doing the right thing for your company or just the easy thing?