Monday, 26 May 2008

The Story Database: How we really make decisions

Knowledge is comprised of stories. We watch television, go to movies, read books, and have conversations in which we exchange stories, because the mind is basically a database of stories. Stories have been exchanged since caveman days. Our mental apparatus is based on them. Numbers are much more recent idea. The mind is not set up for them, which is why mathematics is taught in school in every year.

Curiously, although we love to tell stories, it is rare that we learn from other peoples’ stories. Why do we tell stories if others will not remember them? The answer is that we like to hear ourselves talk, and actually, we learn a lot from hearing ourselves talk. So we (pretend to) listen to others to get them to listen to us. We are not consciously pretending, but we also are not really gaining much from what we hear.

One wonders why we don’t realize that no one really is listening to us. Except that in the end, it doesn’t matter if the listener is really listening or remembering what has been said. If people like talking, let them talk. If sometimes you can resonate to a story that someone else tells you and become in some way different because of this experience, well that’s nice to know. It gives us hope that not all of our stories will fall on deaf ears. But really gaining from someone else’s story is the exception, not the rule. This is because there are so many conditions required of the story we are hearing to make it memorable, e.g., it has to relate to something we know and care about, it has to be surprising in some way or change what we thought before in some way, etc.

Our knowledge base is composed of our own stories. It really doesn’t matter that much if others profit from hearing our stories. We profit from telling them because we solidify what we know. Each time we tell stories, we teach ourselves the point of the stories. The more stories we experience that share the same point, the more we can glean a larger lesson about the point itself, apart from the specific memories that illustrate it. In this way, when we tell stories, we create for ourselves lessons about our own views.

We profit from others’ stories when they are told “just in time” – at a moment when we are ready to compare them to the stories that define us, to perhaps become more sophisticated about what we know. When you deeply care about what is being said, you can ponder a story you have heard and make it your own. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen very much of the time.

In order to comprehend, learn from, and remember what you hear, you have to already think something about what you are being told, you have to care about it, and it has to cause you to revisit what you thought you knew, and modify your thought.

This tells us something about how we make decisions. In the popular imagination, people ponder all the variables, weigh the factors, analyze the numbers, and come to a conclusion. The reality is quite different.

In fact what we do, when faced with the need to make a decision is we try to think of what story we already know that matches the situation we are in. We recall the decisions made in that story and how they turned out, and then we decide on that basis. In other words, we tell ourselves a story and see if we already know that one and how it ended.

In business, we are supposed to comprehend and learn from the stories that are being told to us. In school people talk and no one listens, as is normative in everyday listening. But when we behave that way in business, people get upset, so business people learn to appear to be paying attention. They look at the numbers seriously and try to ask financial analysis questions. But those are never the real questions.

Children don’t learn when their parents tell them things. Why not? The reason is simple: they don’t hear what you are saying to them. They are thinking about their own stories. Business people are just better at faking it.

All humans behave this way. They are absorbed in, or trying to, construct their own stories. When they succeed at this they tell them to others to see if they sound right. This is why, when something important happens to us we must tell somebody. We need to comprehend it and we need to solidify that memory for later recall. So we talk.

People remember stories that are well told, and that are centered on ideas the listeners either know well or want to know well. Stories told in numbers are never well told, because people don’t think in numbers. People think about goals, plans, expectation failures, explanations, and goal conflicts. If you don’t talk in that language, you will not be understood. Movies makers know this. Most business people do not.

People remember experiences they have been a part of. And, a good story teller makes listeners become part of an experience. They make you feel that you are there. A good businessman learns to tell stories that will be heard. These stories must relate well to stories his listeners already know. The listener is simply constructing his own stories. He matches his new constructions to stories he already has and makes decisions. Numbers are a very small part of this process. Recognizing one’s own past successes and failures, stored as part of one’s own story database, is the key issue in the process of decision making in business. Everything else is window dressing.

Where does knowledge reside?

This is a funny question. When we ask it of people, the obvious answer is: in your head.

But what if we ask it of an enterprise? The obvious answer is still in the head, but in this case, we mean in the collective heads of the individuals who work in the enterprise.

This does indeed seem obvious. Except to many people it is not at all obvious. Who are these people?

1. Librarians
2. People who sell Knowledge Management systems
3. Regulators
4. International Standards organizations

These people believe that knowledge resides in documents. Librarians tend to like the book kind of document and KM system vendors tend to like electronic documents.
Regulators and Standards creators often don’t care about the form of the document they offer but they care that it be posted somewhere, available somewhere, or followed at certain times.

For this latter group, knowledge usually takes the form of coherent statements about what someone should do at a given time. For the first group, knowledge is a coherently stated set of ideas that can be digested by the recipient whenever they are interested in receiving them.

So one thing that stands out as a difference between the knowledge that resides in our heads and the knowledge that exists in written form is coherency. A second difference is the explicit understanding of what exactly is known.

Human knowledge, when it has not been written down, is difficult to get your arms around. What do you know about every day activities like going to the store or fixing something that breaks? We know how to do these things, but if we were to attempt to write down the explicit steps that we follow, we might have a hard time doing it. We might leave out some steps or make some assumptions about what is obvious. (For example, do we write down turn key in ignition to the right one eight turn or do we just say start car?) We know what to do, but there are many steps that are implicit and wired into our minds in such a way that we do them without thinking about them.

And then there are check lists.

Much of the knowledge of what to do in shipping exists in the form of checklists. To an insider, someone who has lived and breathed shipping, this seems entirely reasonable. To anyone who has flown on an airplane this seems entirely reasonable. You really don’t want to forget a step when starting the plane for example, so check lists seem like a pretty good idea. But like many good ideas, especially ones that have been around a long time, there are serious flaws that could easily be remedied.

First, let me say, that as an outsider to shipping, I can find no fault with many of the check lists that currently exist. Just like the check lists for starting a plane, many of them should be carefully followed for safe operations. The reason that there is no problem with the majority of them has to do with the kind of knowledge that a good check list embodies.

Good check lists, one that make sense to have around, embody detailed procedures that need to be done in a certain order that goes beyond natural logic.

What do I mean by natural logic?

Human beings are naturally logical. They do not have to study logic in a math class to understand, for example, that when they drop something they should try to both listen and see where it might have gone and then get their bodies lower to the ground to pick it up. They could follow a check list for this, but they don’t have to because they learn to do all this when they are very small. Similarly, when entering a room, they do not need to follow the check list that checks to see if door is open, then opens it and then closes it again. In fact, many people forget the “close it again” part. So, if that were critical for safety, perhaps a check list would be in order. Natural logic ensures that the door will be checked for being in an open state and then opened if it is found to be in a closed state. Here again, this is learned at very young age. But natural logic does not dictate closing the door again after you, which is why people forget and why a check list could matter under certain conditions.

Opposed to natural logic is man-made logic and legal logic. Man-made logic dictates that the door be closed again for reasons of safety or loss of heat or whatever man-made reason there might be. Legal logic dictates a fine if the door isn’t closed again (perhaps it is an emergency door or a door to a vault.) Legal logic says, in effect, you could do this your way and not ours but you’d be in big trouble with the authorities. Man-made logic says you could do this, but someone is likely to be annoyed with you (kind of like how leaving the seat up in a toilet in some marriages annoys the wife.) Natural logic simply doesn’t allow you to get through doors without opening them.

Now back to check lists. With these three logical tools in hand we can look at, for example, the man overboard checklist. I found that check list to be very funny when I was aboard a ship recently while the mariners on board didn’t see the humor at all.

Why did I find it funny?

The first step on the check list as I recall was to throw a lifebuoy with a light overboard to mark the spot. The second item on the check list was to make a Williamson turn as I recall. There were many other procedures on the check list. On the check list were all the procedures that came from man-made logic. What was not on the check list, were all the procedures that came from natural logic. These include making sure that there actually is a man overboard. Asking who is overboard and where he was last seen and sending someone to look for him just in case there was mistake are not on the check list. Natural logic forces us to do these things without being told to. The problem here is the interaction between natural logic and man-made logic. I expected to see “Look for Louie” as number one on the list. It actually wasn’t on the list that at all. Should this be done first, before the light throwing or second before the Williamson turn? The real answer is simultaneously. Some people have to turn the ship. Others can look for Louie. The check list covers the man-made logic and not the natural logic. This didn’t seem funny to the mariners because they have long ago stopped expecting natural logic to appear on the check lists. Check lists are just about man-made logic.

This would be all right if check lists were always ordered lists reflecting step-by-step procedures. In that case, you might forget a step and something would fail to work properly. In actual fact, many check lists are not ordered lists at all and this presents a big problem. Let me explain.

Natural logic has both a physical and a social component. You can’t go through a door that isn’t open because it can’t be done physically. You can’t fail to pay for your meal in a restaurant because it can’t be done socially. Both of these issues can be more easily understood using the idea of a script. A script is a mental construct that we all carry with us, to tell us that eating comes after ordering in a restaurant, or that fastening one’s seat belt comes after sitting down in an airplane. They are sets of procedures that we have learned from a very young age that guide our actions step-by-step in both the physical and the social world. We use scripts unconsciously, but we are well aware when they have been violated. We wear clothing because the getting dressed script is something we do, without conscious thought, every day. We notice it right away if someone violates that script.

Natural logic has two aspects, one physical and one social. But, in both cases, this kind of logic represents procedures to be followed in a step-by-step fashion. We learn each step in the context of the one that follows it. This is very basic to what it means to be human. We follow procedures we have learned and practiced all our lives quite naturally. And, we are very good at connecting the third step to the second, but horrible at remembering steps out of order. To realize that this is the case try to sing a song you know but start at the third line without silently singing about the first two. This is nearly impossible to do because we learn steps in terms of the steps that precede them.

Now back to check lists.

When check lists are procedural in nature, when every line naturally follows the line preceding it, they are much easier to learn and much easier to follow even if we never actually learn them, because we are set up to do that sort of thing when we use natural logic. Man-made logic that follows the rhythm of natural logic is relatively easy to follow and is often easy to learn.

Of course, in that case, the check list might not be needed at all, and if regulated, the regulation will seem quite annoying. Check lists, in principle, are to remind you of what you can easily forget. Check lists need to include only things that are really easy to forget and that have no logical temporal order. Otherwise, a check list will bee seen to be annoying.

Consider this one, for U.S. Military spouses:

Get automobile key (and spares)
__________ Get garage key (and spares), if applicable
__________ Have oil changed, new oil and air filter installed, and car lubricated; know the mileage reading when the oil should be changed next
__________ Make sure all fluid levels are up to normal (oil, transmission fluid, brake and steering fluid, water); know how to check and fill them yourself (if needed) and what gasoline to use
__________ Make sure all vital equipment is in good condition and working order (including brakes, tires, battery, belts, hoses, headlights/high and low beams, tail lights, brake lights, turn signals)
__________ Review your insurance policy to make sure it provides adequate coverage (liability, medical, uninsured motorist, damage to your car and others); know the renewal date, cost of renewal, who to contact to renew the policy (name, address, and telephone number)
__________ Investigate a road service policy (if desired) to provide assistance with flat tires, towing, stalled engine, being locked out of your car, and other emergencies; know what your policy covers, when it expires and has to be renewed, cost of renewal, who to contact to renew (name, address, and telephone number); know what to do if you don’t have this coverage and one of these events happens
__________ Look into the renewal of state and on-post vehicle registration (year, cost, where to go, what to do)
__________ Check your state driver’s license expiration date, cost to renew, where to go, what to do
__________ Check your annual state automotive safety check, if required (when it expires, cost to renew, where to go, and anything that may have to be repaired or replaced to pass this inspection)
__________ Take possession of automotive papers (car registration, safety inspection, tire warranties, battery guarantee, insurance policy and certificate of insurance, road service card); know where they are, what they mean, how to use them
__________ Learn where to go, who to see or call when you have problems with the automobile (routine maintenance, auto repair, tires, oil changes, and lubrication)
__________ Learn what alternative transportation is available (on post, car pools, taxis, city buses, friends

Spouse’s Checklist—Page 2

__________ Prepare a list of automotive “do’s and don’ts” and hints on car care

And this is just the automotive part.

What is wrong here? The good news is that this check list is meant to be a one time affair. Check lists that are about tasks that rarely occur are not unreasonable to have. Human memory naturally consolidates actions that occur in the same way time after time into unconscious scripts that can be mindlessly followed. We are very good at doing the same thing in the same way again and again. But when something is to be done for the first time. or in any case, not very often, there is no problem with having a little help. Unless of course, that help is really annoying, like this list.

Prepare a list of automotive “do’s and don’ts” and hints on car care

Really? Who exactly would do that?

So, here is what I will call the check list conundrum, which is this:

if you list every step someone should do and put it on a check list you will pretty well ensure that some of the steps will be skipped. Why is this the case? Here are some reasons. If a check list contains…they will stop relying on the check list

1. a step that is obvious
2. a step that is so annoying no one would do it
3. a step that is incomprehensible
4. a step that normal people never do
5. a step that flies in the face of common practice
6. a step that must be explained to novices but is natural for experts
7. steps that do not form a natural sequence
8. steps that are too low level
9. steps that are too high level
10. steps that are done almost never that have been made part of an everyday check list

Now let’s back to the issue of where knowledge resides. When we say that something is obvious we are saying that knowledge about that naturally resides in the head of a person and not in the enterprise. If you issue a memo about it , that memo will be ignored. People don’t like to be told about what is obvious to them.

Obvious knowledge can only reside in people’s heads.

But what if the consequences of failing to do what is obvious to do are potentially catastrophic? Checklists perform the function of reminding people of obvious knowledge when the failure to use that knowledge is potentially catastrophic. Knowing the difference between potentially catastrophic obvious knowledge and obvious knowledge horrific when forgotten is the difference between constructing checklists or posters or other warnings that are paid attention to constructing those that will be ignored.

If the knowledge is annoying where does it reside? Clearly, annoying knowledge about proper procedures that prudent people would always do, belongs to the enterprise. The question is, how to properly get annoying knowledge to people when they need it, or more accurately, when they will pay attention to it.

Annoying knowledge belongs to the enterprise.

The answer to this depends on just how annoying the knowledge is and exactly why it is annoying. Safety knowledge, for example, is annoying but important. But, it is not always important to everybody. For example, when cooking turn of the burner after use is knowledge that would be annoying to hear every time you used a burner, would be tuned out by someone seeing a poster about it, and would be really good to hear about when the burner was on for too long. This safety knowledge is both obvious and annoying, so it needs to be told but no one will listen. Another conundrum. It is this conundrum that both causes checklists to exist and simultaneously causes them to be ignored.

Incomprehensible knowledge, of course, belongs to the enterprise (since it could hardly be in anyone’s head.) What makes knowledge incomprehensible? This is an important question. Here is part of Bride’s checklist for flowers that is incomprehensible to me:

Bride's Bouquet - Boutonnieres

Pew Bows -Throw Away Bouquet
Centerpieces -
Bridesmaids Bouquets -
Aisle Runner
Centerpieces -
Alter Arrangements
Archway -

This list is probably not incomprehensible to most Bride’s. Obviously comprehensibility is a relative affair. But checklists, warnings, posters etc, are read by everyone. Those who fid them incomprehensible will ignore them What to do about this is a serious issue.

Incomprehensibility is a relative concept.

Assessing what is normal behavior and what is extraordinary behavior is a key issue in knowledge management. When we produce written documents, like this one, we are nearly always assuming a fictional reader who knows none of what we are about to say. However, if they really know nothing what we are writing is incomprehensible, so they had better know something about the issue. The writer’s job is to update their knowledge, or cause them to look at something in a new way – to change their mind about something or help them with something. That something, the writer assumes, is in their field of interest to learn more about. This is just as true of technical and scientific writing as it is of magazine article about Britney Spears’ latest exploits.

Thus, documents are, in principle, updates on knowledge, and thus need to address assumptions about the norm and push on. This is why the following item on the military moving checklist from the Us Army is simply nuts:

Get copies of the past five years’ state and federal income tax returns and everything needed for the next filing, including due dates and who to contact for assistance in preparing the returns

If I were married to someone who brought five years of tax returns with her on a trip of any kind I would file for divorce. This is not normal behavior. Writers have to assume normal behavior on the part of their readers or they will be ignored. This is the same for a Spring Cleaning checklist I found which included this as one of the steps:

Dust and clean the ceiling fan.
You may need to use a gentle cleanser like Murphy's Oil Soap. Take down any light fixtures and gently wash and dry them before replacing.

Right. I will be doing that after I get five years of tax returns.

My point is simply this. It is all well and good to suggest things for people to do – that can be a suggestion memo that one could read at one’s leisure. But if you want a checklist or other printed safety guide to be followed, it had better be written with the assumption that the reader is normal.