Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fighting The Bracketology Mindset

As that annual rite of spring, the NCAA Basketball Championships, unfolds with all its traditions - whether competitive,  obsessive or strategically absent - the one that trumps all is the completion of the tournament bracket.  The interest in the bracket may have had a nudge this year with Warren Buffett's offer of $1 Billion to anyone who successfully completed a perfect bracket - a task with odds of about 1 in 9 quintillion, which would be in striking distance if every man, woman and child completed a billion brackets each.

Easy.  Just predict the outcomes of 63 games when you only know the match-ups for the first 32 of those matches.  Unlike formats for fantasy leagues and other forms of sports gambling, the bracket is centred on a rigid format.  Each decision, binary in its essence, is founded on the consequences of the first round of choices rewarding you with the improved chances of being right or lucky in the subsequent rounds.  The very randomness of the outcomes (and perhaps the matching of the teams) discourages applying knowledge of the participants or a more thoughtful or informed strategy to pursuing a perfect bracket.

Perhaps the sheer randomness of the outcomes in the tournament - something that disfavours "experts" and encourages people to choose on the basis of loyalty, geography, colours and nicknames - is part of the appeal. Millions of participants simply "take a shot" at the perfect bracket.  The experts probably have a better chance of winning a pool and getting the most points in a pool, but the siren song of perfection is probably what lures the casual fan to participate (and saps interest in the tournament at the close of the first weekend.)

But why the binary assessment and the pursuit of perfection?  Is it fair in the instance where the underdog you chose has lost out by a buzzer-beating basket or the human intervention of an outrageous call by a referee that did not go to the technical arbiter of a video review?  Would you want the high stakes outcomes to depend on such factors?!

Completing a bracket is a game.  So why not have a game with high demands if it is going to have large rewards?

In business, however, the ideal would be to have the opportunity to do as much early prototyping as necessary to generate a solution that is comprehensive and integrates all of the factors and feedback that accumulate during those trials.  Admittedly, it might be a bit much to do 63 prototypes, but it would be ideal to adopt a process that allows regular tweaking upon each nugget of feedback rather than going through a long process and being forced to ignore or discard that feedback because it is too late.

The challenge lies in letting go of our arbitrary attachment to such rigid parameters outside of games.  In too many instances in the workplace we rely on choices between stark options and the pursuit of a rigid ideal rather than taking an approach to problem-solving and group thinking that engages the full range of possible solutions or innovations that may be available.  Those more rigid guidelines squelch the opportunity to weigh and work through ambiguities and paradoxes that may daunt us but at the same time are available for consideration and inspiration in the pursuit of innovation instead of mere problem-solving.  The narrowed problem-solving approaches are rendered binary by factors such as technical details or stubborn mindsets that guide, but ultimately limit the possible outcomes of a problem-solving process.

In many instances, a problem-solving response as rigid as the bracket is stillborn, acknowledged upon completion and roll-out to be an incomplete attempt to respond to circumstances rather than vibrant response with the potential to not only solve the problem but achieve more as well.  What a problem-solving response might have in symmetry or geometry, it often lacks in flexibility and receptivity to future change.  Processes that integrate opportunities to innovate and take a more holistic approach will generate responses that reflect the environment and conditions that the organization is dealing with.  The key is to include all of the variables and components of the opportunity that are at stake rather than regarding certain sacred cow parameters as fixed or the context that confine the solution.  That more comprehensive response, the pursuit of innovation will ultimately be the more satisfying response to a problem or an opportunity.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Consequences of Choosing "Out of Touch"

Two news items coming out of the Manning Networking Conference this week have provided a case study for the need of what Norbert Weiner called oppositional complementarity or Neil Postman reviewed to more succinctly as thermostatics.  The consistent issue with the Conservative Party of Canada throughout its history has been the fortress mentality that it has adopted in the face of opposition to its ideology or the consequences of its actions.  Whether it has been the knee-jerk prorogations in the face of looming non-confidence motions or the proposed legislation revising the mandate and powers of Elections Canada as the various scandals surrounding their tactics during the 2011 general election result in charges against members of the government who are a bit less disposable than interns or chiefs of staff, it is clear that the CPC as a whole seems to have little concept of the advantages of a functioning feedback loop.

Instead of responding with compromise, conciliation or a recognition of the reality that they, not to mention all Canadians, have to adapt to, the Prime Minister and the key figures in the front benches have continued to redouble their efforts to remake Canada as a country that we would scarcely recognize.

The feedback that they are getting lately, however, is indicating that this approach to governing is not resulting in the policy outcomes that they would aspire to achieve and it is making re-election seem less likely.  During the Manning Conference, Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan asserted the need for stronger federal policies on the environment as a key component of economic policy.  (I might dare to add that former Environment Minister Jim Prentice expressed a need for stronger environment policy, but mentioning the opinions of a "Red Tory" might actually give one cause to discredit the suggestion. As the Keystone Pipeline debate drags on and Conservatives are left to plead at this point for any response rather than the approval they once expected from the Obama administration, the opinion has been voiced that a stronger environment policy from the Canadian government would have made it easier for Obama to approve the pipeline.  The Conservatives have regarded environmental policy as an inconvenience and are encountering the irony that the absence of a policy is actually a greater impediment.

For all the efforts the government has made to mute, muzzle or ignore informed expert opinion on matters such as Chalk River, food safety and abundance of data that Statistics Canada was once able to glean from the long-form census, it has become clear that the Conservatives' desire to navigate their chosen course without any kind of map is starting to stand in the way of them getting to where they want to go.  Further to that they have sought to undermine institutions such as the CBC, Elections Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada in their efforts to further entrench their powers.

After ignoring the counterargument for as long as it has, the Conservatives are rendering themselves increasingly out of touch on the issues and less tolerable an option for the electorate as well.  At this point in the Conservatives' 8-year term in office, it seems more likely that it will strive to go for broke in the pursuit of its "mission" rather than tune into to the feedback that could moderate their approach and perhaps make them a more coherent and effective government.  A change of leadership to someone other than the most apparent dauphins (Jason Kenney, John Baird and James Moore) seems to be the only opportunity that party may have to shake off its blinders and its apparent anti-intellectualism.