Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

I Suppose: This Can Bring Our Thinking to Life

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Aristotle (clever Greek)
"Perhaps, I suppose."
Rufio (Californian Pop Punksters)

The idea of thinking by hypothesis can sound overbearing, theoretical and highfalutin.  But it’s a lot simpler and earthier than it appears.  If we do it well, it can make us clearer and more open minded thinkers, save us time, and help us communicate our thoughts succinctly and concretely.  It’s at the heart of rhetoric and the scientific method, and has been used by great thinkers since before our boy Aristotle.  In my own small experience, whenever I’ve trained its application, I’ve seen some beautiful transformations in people's thinking.  I hope you think it’s worthy of your attention.
When we have a hypothesis about something, all we are saying is: “This is what I suppose (about the matter).”  That’s all.  Nothing more intellectual or sophisticated than that.  It is our first venture at an answer, our starting point in getting to a solution that we're happy with.  We can apply it wherever we have a question or a problem or are ignorant, and where we care enough to want to get to an answer.  We could be supposing anything, “This person will be the best future leader for the company,” “ this how evolution works,” or,” this is the best way to reform errant fraudulent MPs.”
Our supposition, or hypothesis, is a working answer that we hold gently and challenge hard.  By giving ourselves a working answer, and making it as tangible as we can, we are giving ourselves something concrete to test with thinking and evidence: “Does it cover things completely? Is it consistent with observations? Does it make sense logically? Is it unequivocal with no vagueness or room for misunderstanding? Is it simple enough that it’s obvious when I explain it? Can I think of any exceptions that hole my beautiful hypothesis below the water line?”  As we challenge our working answer with evidence and clear thinking, we expect it to change, just like the detective’s naive first guess in an episode of CSI.  If we’re really hungry investigators or expansive thinkers, we're rarely happy until our first guess has been challenged and changed at least a couple of times.
As we go through this process, our hypothesis solidifies into a thesis; our supposition turns into our position on the matter.  In some cases, we might even get to the verifiable truth: “This is whodunit,” “This business will be profitable,” “I can get to the South Pole by January.”  In many situations, we’ll never know the truth and just have to run with our best thesis: “John will be the best Governor,” “This is the right incentive scheme,” “I should spend more time developing the next product rather than doing bespoke work the whole time.”
This approach, starting by stating what I suppose, has a host of advantages over just asking questions or musing distractedly.  It forces me to be clear and concrete about what I think, which by itself highlights gaps and weaknesses, and so makes my thinking better.  It turns my perspective into one of a humble investigator who welcomes challenge, as opposed to a blustering know-it-all or a vague wonderer.  It gives me a focus for my investigation efforts or philosophical musings, where I can direct my challenges and grow my perspective.  It enables me at any stage to know my current position on the matter, and how confident I am, being overt about where I’m ignorant or unsure.  And if I work with others, which everyone does, I can communicate my position at any time, so that people can understand, challenge and contribute.
Using a hypothesis also has plenty of drawbacks but these are typically because of using it badly.  First, people often get attached to their hypotheses and slip into trying to defend and prove them.  This is very easy to do and very common.  We’re all guilty of it, though it’s even easier to do if we don’t think by hypothesis, and so don't enjoy the self-challenging and welcoming of new insight that ensues.  Second, once we’ve formed our hypothesis, we can get stuck in the process of challenging and reviewing, moving slowly and deliberately from our current position, and which can restrict us from taking a fresh look at the world, from a radically different perspective.  This is why it’s always good to take a bit of time to explore and ponder before coming up with our first hypothesis, and to welcome the reality that there will always be other interesting and useful ways of looking at the world.  A third drawback is that we can end up with something very unwieldy as we challenge every angle and grow our investigation.  This is why we only roll out the full hypothesis testing approach when it really counts, such as working out why sales are tanking or whether we should open up in France.  The rest of the time we can still benefit from the open, “I suppose” mindset.  A fourth drawback is that there isn’t really a scientific or formulaic approach to coming up with a hypothesis in the first place.  They just come to us, like thoughts do, as a return on musing.  Einstein accepted this when he said, “The supreme task … is to arrive at those universal elementary laws ... There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.”  That's the daddy of science talking about intuition and musing.  I find that kind of heartening.
I’m as strong a fan and advocate of using hypotheses as I am about using the scientific method that guided Newton, and as I am about the principles of analytical rhetoric that guided Madison and Martin Luther King.  They go together because hypotheses are essential to analytical rhetoric, and to the scientific method that lies underneath it.  I use one in every piece of work with every client that I have.  I think I’ve got exalted company in Aristotle, Cicero, every mechanic or plumber who actually fixes your problem, every great fictional detective and, I suppose, some real ones too.


Gracious Investigation

“Happy is your grace that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so quiet and so sweet a style.”
Shakespeare, As You Like It
“Let us be just to him”
Dickens, Dombey & Son
A particular human quality enhances the otherwise emotionless rigour of analysis.   When this quality is present, we get to understand matters more completely, make better-informed decisions and increase our chances of getting agreement.  When it’s absent we get an incomplete perspective, weakly informed decisions, and maybe grudging agreement.  The best word I can muster for this quality is graciousness.
I promise I’m not going to preach, pontificate or pretend that I embody graciousness.  But I hope what I’m going to say is relevant to clear thinking and good decisions, and maybe even insightful.
First, here’s what I mean by graciousness: being generous to another person’s perspective if it sits uneasily with our current one.  I’m not talking about thoughtlessly accepting someone’s opinion or pacifying pretend agreement.  I am talking about allowing someone else’s position to challenge ours.
I’m not advocating graciousness as self-sacrificing altruism.  I truly believe that graciousness benefits the thinking of the person being gracious.  By giving a fair hearing to arguments against our initial suppositions we can grow beyond the constraints of our conscious and unconscious beliefs.  When doctors believed “bad humors” caused disease, they didn’t wash their hands after handling cadavers.  Sometimes, their next task would be delivering a baby.  They changed this fatal habit only when they allowed germ theory to usurp their old mindset.  This ultimately gracious acceptance of a challenging view made them better doctors.
The self-serving benefit isn’t entirely inside our own minds.  Graciousness can help us have more constructive debate.  If we graciously welcome other views, conversations become more of an open dance than a defensive fist fight.  Counterparts might even want to dance with us again, and not duck away from us like when were a stubborn, self-justifying, graceless smarty-pants.
I haven’t been able to find any scientific studies to back up my assertions about graciousness aiding understanding; but the process of science itself is a convincing example.  You know the approach: start with a thesis; challenge it with different perspective, an antithesis; then look at the evidence and logic for each; and finally come up with a new thesis, a synthesis, that’s better than the one you both started with.  Continue repeating the process for the betterment of humankind until the end of your particular golden age.
Try taking this approach without being gracious about the antithesis.  Oversimplifying the extremes of history, we seem to have a choice: gracious consideration of challenging views (golden age, renaissance, freedom of expression, democracy), or defensive dismissal of those challenges (dark age, reaction, broadcast dogma, dictatorship).
Graciousness also helps us better turn our analysis into action.  We become better company: more accepting and more acceptable.  We’re good to bear when proven right, and happy when proven wrong.  And when we make decisions, others will more likely embrace them.  
Anecdotal evidence is everywhere for how graciousness makes good company and acceptable leaders.  Think of the people whose personalities you most admire, whose company you would seek, and whose advice you would follow.  I’ll bet they’re gracious.  It’s not entirely for his insights that Mandela is invited so many dream dinner parties.
Everyday evidence about the consequences of lack of grace is also plain.  Look at the ranting graceless nitpicking comments below many online articles, and see how quickly the discussion deteriorates into defence, attack and ad hominem attacks.  I’ll bet you don’t respect the ranters, that you find it difficult to accept their good points.  I’d guess there’s about zero chance you’ll follow their advice.  Even the excellent Socrates, clinical but graceless, ended up with a choice of exile or hemlock.
That’s enough about not being defensive.  I also want to clarify that being gracious isn’t the same as defensiveness’s opposite: being a doormat.  Graciously accepting challenge gives us permission to graciously challenge others.  We can then occupy the firm ground of listening, considering and agreeing or disagreeing graciously, rather than the easy, low extremes of shutting up shop or murmuring martyrish acceptance.
Though I’m convinced it’s worthwhile, I find it a tough quality to adopt: emotionally harder than defensiveness, and mentally harder than pretending to agree.  I find it even harder the more heated the situation.  Maybe this required wherewithal is our biggest self-imposed barrier to enjoying graciousness’s merits.  I’ll let Hemingway make a final emotional appeal that works on me:
“By ‘guts’, I mean grace under pressure.”

There’s an 80% Chance That Your Analysis is Wrong, and You Know It

In an interview on the excellent Econtalk podcast, Nassim Taleb, the epistemologist and author of the best-selling books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, gave a statistic that blew me away.

The results of 80% of epidemiological studies cannot be replicated.

In other words, when a research scientist studies the reasons for the spread or inhibition of a disease, using all the research tools at his disposal, and is peer-reviewed sufficiently for his results to be published academically, then there is a four-out-of-five chance that predictions using that theory will be wrong, or useless because of changed circumstances.

Taleb gave some innocent, and some less than innocent, reasons for this poor performance.

On the innocent side of things, he raised a couple of human thinking biases that I’ve talked about before: narrative fallacy and hindsight bias. In normal language this combination says that we’re suckers for stories, and when we look at a set of facts in retrospect we force-fit a story to it and we assume that the story will hold in the future. Worryingly, as the amount of data and the processing power increase, then there is an increasing chance of finding accidental and random associations that we think are genuine explanations of what is going on. In a classic example of this, there’s a data-backed study that shows that smoking lowers the risk of breast cancer.

On the less-than-innocent side of things, we can of course use data to fool others and ourselves that our desired theory is true. Taleb is less kind, calling it the “deceptive use of data to give a theory an air of scientism that is not scientific”.

Even more worryingly, if peer-reviewed epidemiological studies are only 20% replicable, then I dread to think about the quality of the 99.99% of other, significantly inferior, analyses we use to make commercial, personal and other life decisions.

So what is Taleb’s solution if we aren’t to be doomed to be 80% likely to be wrong about anything we choose to analyse? He advocates “skeptical empiricism”; i.e. not just accepting the story, which can give false confidence about conclusions and their predictability, but understanding how much uncertainty comes with the conclusion and the reality of the breadth of possible outcomes.

At the risk of sounding pompous by disagreeing and building on Taleb’s thoughts, I’d say there are three things we can do about this if we stop kidding ourselves and admit the truth of our own biases and inadequacies. First, I think we know it when we’re actively seeking a pattern in a set of facts that suits our desired conclusion; or when any pattern we spot seems too fragile, over-complicated or hard to test. We just need to be honest about how biased we are. Second, we also need to be honest about how little we know, and how far wrong we can be, so that we can be ready for scenarios that are much higher or lower than our confidently predicted ranges. Third, we can design a test or pilot or experiment to find out how wrong or over-confident we were.

Would you rather persuade yourself and other people that you’re right, or would you rather know the truth?

Some related links:
Background on Taleb:
Script and MP3 of Econtalk’s interview with Taleb:

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