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Post by Rob Collie

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     JACK RYAN:  “…with them in the same place, the odds of coincidence are
dropping fast. Still, there’s no way I can be… absolutely certain.”

     ADMIRAL GREER:  “Excuse me, Jack.  Tell me one thing in life that IS
absolutely certain.  What I need to hear is your best guess, and I think
I’ve heard it.  Haven’t I?”

Belatedly Reviving a Thanksgiving Tradition

In past years I occasionally took Thanksgiving Week as an opportunity to write some more “thoughtful” things, such as The Cult of the Right Thing.

This year, I would like to share something more “on topic” than any of the previous ones, while still very much fitting the theme of thoughtful/reflective.

An Exchange in “Patriot Games” Captures It

The conversation pictured above, between Jack Ryan and Admiral Greer, was pretty much lost on me the first time I saw Patriot Games in 1992.  It’s a relatively “bland” exchange.  No emotion, no drama, no action.

But in subsequent viewings, that brief little clip etched itself in my brain.  It captures something CRUCIAL about being a human being, regardless of what you do for a living.  But for those of us in data-driven professions, I think it’s even MORE relevant.

WHY is it so crucial?  Well, let’s start with Left Brain and Right Brain…

Left and Right Brain:  A Powerful Alliance

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I put “Left Brain” and “Right Brain” in quotes, because I think that physical demarcation has been at least partially debunked in recent years.  But the explanatory power remains, because it DOES highlight the conceptual divide between two VERY different kinds of thinking.

Pause and reflect on the MANY things your brain does in a day.  You are very much “aware” of some things, like deciding on one insurance policy over another for instance, or writing a CALCULATE formula.

Other things happen BELOW the radar:  recognizing someone just by their voice, catching a glass as it slips off the table, finding a particular song to be catchy.  These are ALL functions of your brain, too!

And when you take stock, the VAST majority of your “thinking” happens below the radar!  You’re just not really a “participant” in most of the things your brain does.  I hope that doesn’t bother you, because it shouldn’t.  It’s really quite wonderful, actually:  if we think of our conscious thought as a CPU (which is 100% appropriate, given the way CPU’s operate), there’s this OTHER system, the “right brain,” performing billions of otherwise-impossible calculations every second, occasionally feeding certain information to the CPU (ex:  “hey, that’s Gilbert Gottfried’s voice!”)

Now, Flashback to Childhood!

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We Lack Advanced “Left Brain” Development in Childhood.

In the early years of life, we learn to do some pretty sophisticated things.  We learn to walk, talk, recognize people, and even begin to develop a sense of humor.  My 10 and 12 year old kids are as good at soccer, if not better, than I am at 40.

But oh do we SUCK at the left brain stuff as kids!  Try teaching calculus to the average three year old.  Algebra was torturous (even though I kinda liked it – more on this below).  Heck, even long division was terribly difficult when I was first learning it.

The left brain stuff does NOT come naturally.  I think we can view the entire American education system as a long (and often painful!) assembly line that slowly builds, layer upon layer, left brain skills.  It doesn’t end with school, of course:  learning how to model in Power Pivot is another example of SIGNIFICANT left brain activity.  And um, it’s super fun right?  Don’t answer that.

This Left/Right Brain thing is NOT the focus of this post however.  It’s just a necessary “setup” for something else, and I will start to turn that corner now.

The World “Becomes” Black and White – For a Moment, Anyway.

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Rob as a Teenager:  “I Love Neat and Tidy Answers, and the Feel of a #2 Pencil
’Bubbling Them In’ On a Multiple-Choice Test.  I Have Become Spock.”

To varying degrees, that journey from childhood to algebra has a side effect.  We start to expect the world to just “fit” into clean, black and white answers.  I remember that oh-so-satisfying feeling of an answer that you just KNEW was correct.  It just fit, like the click of a well-engineered mechanical pencil.  The Right Answer practically glowed.  I’d fill it in (on the exam or assignment), confidently move on to the next question, and wait for my tidy numerical reward (in the eventual graded score).

To Recap, the Right Answer existed, there was only One, and you Knew it when you found it.  THAT is what I mean by “black and white” – there was one way to be Right, you could practically SMELL the “rightness” when you found it, and everything else… was Just Wrong.  Heh heh.

Oh, those were the days!  Looking back, I chuckle at the naiveté.  The hubris.  It’s almost like, if I had listened closely in my teens, I could have heard a faint and foreboding “drum roll” in the background.  Something New and Terrible was coming…

…the Horribly Grey Real World (dun dun DUN!)

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Rob at Age 24:  Houston, We May Be Having a Nervous Breakdown

Coming out of college, at first, everything was going according to Plan.  I took a job at Microsoft as a Software Test Engineer in 1996, and wow, were those initial days exhilarating.  The software (Office 97, at the time) was either Working or Broken, and it was my job to find the Broken places!

Better yet, we could write detailed, logical Test Plans, and even OTHER software that helped us find bugs!  Then we had databases that helped us track all of the Broken things we had found.

It was Black and White Heaven, but the cracks were already showing.  Sometimes, it was a judgment call as to whether something was Broken or not.  I’d find a “bug,” like “there’s no ‘Select All’ button in the setup wizard,” and the Program Manager (the referee for what got fixed and what didn’t) would rule that was By Design – something that would not be fixed.  At this point, it was my Moral Duty to be positively Outraged.

But really, that “Outrage” was just Pain.  Two straight decades of successfully identifying the Right Answer had become a big part of my self-image.  To have others question my Right Answers was a big blow to the ego.

It got worse when I left my job in Test to take a job, that’s right, as a Program Manager (PM).  I was drawn to the Program Manager role because I wanted a bigger voice, I wanted to Create rather than just Critique.  That urge persists to this day, and it was absolutely the right decision for me to take the PM job.  Zero regrets.

But it threw me smack dab into the deep end of the “Grey” pool.  I was suddenly expected to make dozens of decisions per day – should the product do X or not?  What happens when the user does Y when they aren’t supposed to?

My “Spot the Right Answer” radar was borderline useless for this.  I’d strain my brain for hours on end, waiting for the Right Answer to emerge, glowing, of course, as always.  But it would never come.

Other times, SEVERAL answers emerged, and try as I might, I couldn’t narrow them down.  That whole “one right answer” belief kept me beating my head against the wall, looking for the things that would disqualify all but one.

Still other times, One Clearly Correct Answer WOULD emerge, but then I’d submit it to others to implement, only to have them expose it as a Bad Decision.  They would point out some real-world consequence of my “mathematical” decision that was clearly unacceptable.  And I was defeated.

All of this is clear in Hindsight only!  I never realized, at the time, that I was struggling with a Black/White –> Grey transition.

I Think This is a Reasonably Common “Growing Up” Crisis

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Raise Your Hand if My Story Sounds Familiar!

I now believe that many jobs (and especially leadership jobs) more closely resemble my PM job than my Test job.  The whole world is Grey.  Only a few exceptional roles, like my Test job, allow that Grade 1-12 illusion of Black/White to survive past college.

The Rude Grey Awakening also often coincides with the discovery that you aren’t as smart as you thought.  Turns out that you aren’t quite as special as you believed growing up.  That was certainly happening to me at Microsoft in my twenties.  (Read the Cult of the Right Thing for more on that).

I’d hit the Twin Walls of “Grey” and “I’m Not So Special After All.”  What happened next, you ask?

The Next Step in the Progression Can Define You

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Confused World View (Child) –> Black/White World View (Teen) –> Crisis of Grey (20’s)
(And No, You Can’t Live In Crisis Mode Forever – it Will Kill You)

I won’t lie.  My next several years were very unpleasant.  I wasn’t alone – many others were similarly struggling at Microsoft, and I guess I was doing pretty well relative to the average.  I survived, after all, while many others did not.  (Sometimes, sadly, this was literal – we lost a number of colleagues to suicide.)

Thing is, there were still FAR too rock stars running around.  There were some folks doing REALLY well in the same role (PM) that I’d taken on, and I would constantly measure myself against them, knowing that I wasn’t as good.  Ouch.  Ouch ouch ouch!  There was a six month stretch, in 1999, where I was nauseous, to the point of gagging, after EVERY meal.

But slowly, ever so slowly, a new reality was starting to emerge.  Every now and then I’d experience it.  A new set of rules, a new methodology for making decisions.  But it was fleeting.  I couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t make it a habit.

Turning Point:  David Gainer

This Guy Changed Everything

Around 2003, I ended up reporting to David Gainer, pictured above.  Pretty much the inflection point in my career, self-image, and heck, even just my ability to simply “steer” my own life.

Of course, working for him wasn’t a lot of fun at first, because what new habits I HAD learned at Microsoft, he rejected.  In short, I think MS had partly just taught me an advanced form of black/white thinking, and that STILL wasn’t truly working.

He taught me something different.  I know I’ve delayed the “punchline” for a long time now, so thanks for sticking with me thus far.  Here it comes…

…The World IS Grey, but DECISIONS are Black and White.

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Even in a Grey World, You Just Can’t Split the Difference on Decisions.

Gosh, it sounds so simple.  Maybe you’re not impressed.  But for me, it is profound.  It’s damn near everything.  Let me try another way of saying it…

Our job, our challenge, is to “mine” black/white decisions out of the Grey chaos of the world.  Do you take that job in another state or not?  You don’t get to “grey” that one, do you?  You can’t 75% take it and 25% not.  It’s 100, or 0.

One more try:  we have to take a Grey world and MAKE it black and white.  We shouldn’t try to “discover” the right answer.  The world isn’t going to offer one up (unlike school, which did!)

I know, many of you are STILL disappointed.  THIS is the punchline???  Hey, I get it.  It’s not like this, by itself, suddenly makes you more effective.

But for me, this removed a crucial OBSTACLE to being effective.  The reality of a Grey world was so disorienting that I spent years drifting – while never once realizing that was the root of my struggles.  This is all only clear in hindsight.

So, let’s call this a foundation, a solid rock on which you can stand in a sea of shifting quicksand.  I’d love to travel back in time to 1998 and tell this to Younger Rob Collie:  stop wishing for the return of the black/white clarity of school.  It’s never coming back, so get over it.  That stubborn desire (for it to come back) is preventing you from developing a new way forward.  Learn to MAKE it black and white.

And don’t forget – Jack Ryan himself, Analyst par excellence, struggled with this too.  Then, Darth Vader (aka James Earl Jones, aka Admiral Greer) had to straighten him out.  You will never be absolutely certain, but you have to make a decision anyway.

OK, so HOW Do We “Mine” Black/White Decisions Out of the Grey?

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Yeah, this would be a thoroughly useless article without answering that question, huh?

Hrm, well, tough.  It’s not gonna fit in this space.  And honestly, I’m not the best person to do it.  I think I want to go to the source.  Awhile back, I got clearance (from MS) to interview David himself, but never followed through.  I think this would be a great topic.  He will be uncomfortable with the idea of being “the authority,” of course, but hey, *I* am interested in his take on it.  In truth, this whole Grey vs. Black/White thing is MY view of what he taught me, rather than his.  So let me follow up on that, and maybe with a few others.  If I come up empty, fine, I will circle back and write up my own methods.

I’m also interested in YOUR take of course.  If you have a framework for mining the grey, please share in comments or drop me an email.

A Grab Bag of Parting Notes

#1 – The Black/White worldview isn’t an inevitable outcome of Left Brain Thinking, or even Left Brain Learning.  The Left Brain is Amazing!  Most of what we do with Power Pivot is left brain, after all (although the Right Brain plays an underrated role too).

I DO think, however, that it’s an inevitable outcome of the way schools test and grade students.  A large system like the American schools would struggle to implement critical thinking and decision making education.  How would we insure that schools were actually succeeding in their attempts to replicate real-world conditions, much less helping students learn to navigate them?  Nope, very hard to imagine.  We’re not going to magically summon an army of millions of David Gainers to serve as our teachers and administrators.  They do exist, but they are the exception.

In fact, we’re headed the OTHER direction, with even MORE standardized, black/white, One Right Answer testing.  We’re now using those results as a critical yardstick for schools and teachers as well.  I think that’s going to produce ever-more graduates with 1998 Rob Collie Disease.  (I tell my kids that what they are experiencing is Fast Food School.  Much like Fast Food simulates Real Food, Fast Food School simulates Real Learning.  At home, we try to supplement with Slow Cooked, Organic Food Learning).

#2 – While I Think I’m Not Alone, I Also Think Not Everyone Lived this Path.

  1. Maybe you avoided the trap of black/white thinking because you weren’t a fan of math and science classes in high school, and thus got a head start on mining the Grey?  (I firmly believe that my high school math/science “career” was borderline useless, career-wise.  I VERY often encounter FANTASTIC data analysts who were not fans of those classes.  The Data Gene doesn’t care whether you liked high school math or not).
  2. Maybe you went straight into a tech role like my Test role, never left it, and avoided any sort of crisis?
  3. Maybe you are just less stubborn than I was, and adapted faster?
  4. Or maybe you DID experience the crisis, and “fled” back into the safe zone of being Spock?  (I suspect this happens a lot actually, and that it’s the fuel for of a lot of the “nerd bullies” we see in certain tech communities like PASS, but I don’t expect people to realize or admit it.  And in fairness, that wasn’t an option for me at MS – it was either soldier forward, or leave.  So it’s not like I was “above” fleeing back into the safe zone.  I would have if I could.)

#3 – I Think the Right Brain Learns from the Left Brain, too.  It’s not all “Right brain informs Left” – it flows both ways.  For instance, when I learned to drive, it was a Long Division-Style Nightmare of epic proportions.  Total concentration.  A million variable to juggle.  No way could I have the radio on – too much noise, too much distraction.  Fast forward to today though, and it’s so habitual that I don’t even remember which stoplights were red vs. green on my most recent drive.  The right brain watches constantly, and “records” or “encodes” left brain-driven activity.  We would never LEARN to drive without the Left brain, but after awhile, we don’t need it to CONTINUE driving.  Over time, even some DAX becomes unconscious too.

#4 – Imagine, for a moment, a world that appreciated Right Brain talent as an equal with Left.  Maybe other cultures do, actually, and it’s just my own personal experience in school that it validated Left while diminishing Right.  In the past few years I’ve come to value Right Brain stuff on even footing with Left, which is a sentence that Teenage Rob would never have expected to utter in a million years.

#5 – that whole saying “In the Zone” that you hear in sports?  Yup, that’s when the Right Brain has taken over and Left has gone quiet.  My handful of high performing sports moments (seriously, they are few) were all sequences that I did NOT personally experience as they happened.  I had to look back on them, and “remember” them from a distance.  Check out this article on golf for instance, or [link removed due to 404] this device that is marketed to athletes and meditation practitioners alike.

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 31 Comments
  1. Funny. I had a related conversation with a relatively new lead, just last week. He commented “a new learning for me had been, when a lead doesn’t know… They just make it up”. He didn’t mean this in a negative or uninformed way… he meant it as “at the end of the day, a decision HAS to be made”. Aka, the gray must become black and white.

    1. Weird how much we can struggle with something that is inherently so obvious, isn’t it?

      I’m positive that there are people reading this post and thinking “how can Rob burn so many words on saying something so mundane?”

  2. We are currently categorising bathroom tiles based on colour, so that we can track trends in tile fashion. We are literally making decisions on how dark does grey need to be before it is categorised as black. And when does white become off-white?

    The dream is collapsing.

  3. Hi Rob, to be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed this article and I liked the punchline “The World IS Grey, but DECISIONS are Black and White.” I also traveled a path similar to yours thinking that the world is black and white and one day, a wise man who is actually my client at KPMG (a Harvard B-school alumni who followed a similar career trajectory as mine) sat me down and told me that the world is not black and white and you have to learn to work with gray and also with people who do not think in black and white like me. It was quite a revelation for me then and over time, I have learnt to digest it. So, your article is a wonderful memory jog for me as I can relate to many of your experiences of being right and doing right and getting a series of disappointment in later jobs where I had to manage people and a budget.

    Thank you Rob – I am gonna keep singing the punchline for a while “The world is grey but decisions are black and white”. It is a very subtle distinction and I am sure many people will dismiss your post. But the ones who have gone through a similar journey as yours will appreciate the wisdom. I am gonna share this with some of my close friends.

    1. Siraj, it is absolutely clear, from your comment, that you COMPLETELY understand where I am coming from. It’s an interesting “club” to belong to, isn’t it?

  4. Thanks, Rob.

    I, too, enjoyed the article and its distinctions. It applies not only in the PowerPivot world, but also in my discrete-even computer simulation modeling world. In both, the “process” of developing a model is typically a migration through black-and-white (inputs and known processes) to gray (understanding), and back to black-and-white (decision-making).

    Once again, you and your company have proven to be a guiding-light with your hi(gh-e)nd (in)sight (you may call it “hindsight” if you like). One of the best decisions that I ever made when venturing into PowerPivot was to follow powerpivotpro.com. Not only do we get sound, career-expanding examples, but also this level of reflective, thought-provoking perspective. I look forward to your follow-ups to this topic.

    Keep up the great work! It makes a world of difference.

    1. Chris, that’s really interesting – the discrete modeling stuff. Even there, it’s not black and white.

      Thanks for the kind words in that second paragraph. I always wonder, when I write one of these “off topic” posts, whether it will “land,” or whether ultimately I am just entertaining myself.

  5. A couple of random thoughts: I work with data and maths every day. I consider myself good at it. I hated maths in high school – I was placed in the remedial class at age 14 because I was so bad at it. I really have no idea what happened. Possibly because the emphasis was on memorization rather than on solving problems.

    For decisions, I found this Ted talk really illuminating: http://www.ted.com/talks/ruth_chang_how_to_make_hard_choices?language=en

    The essence being: a hard decision is hard because the two options are very different, so can’t be easily compared. Maybe it’s a job close to home making a boat load of money vs. a job on the other side of the country that’s exactly what you’ve always wanted to do. There’s no metric that conclusively says one decision is the best.

    To solve this conundrum, it boils down to there is no bad decision. The entire world and your future happiness does not depend on this single decision. Indeed, you’re likely choosing between two good options which is a good place to be in. Make a decision. Take an educated guess. Go with your gut. If it turns out badly, make more decisions.

    (I’m not sure if my last paragraph was in the Ted talk or if that’s my interpretation…sorry!)

    1. Hi Leonard, did you see my parting thought on how I see very little correlation between high school math class affinity and success in Excel / Power Pivot?

      I think curiosity, and a desire to engage with real problems, are the crucial ingredients. And being a high school math whiz doesn’t remotely assure that, nor does NOT being one rule it out.

      I would have pegged YOU as a high school math whiz however, so I *love* that you shared this. Paints an even richer picture for me.

      1. Yes I did! Your “borderline useless high-school math/science” comment rang very true for me. As you say, curiosity and a desire to engage with real problems are the magic ingredients.

        1. excellent! have we found something core that binds us together?

          Probably as Rob said, prosaic, but maybe when Nietzsche talked about philosophizing with hammer he was on to something. You need to run around hitting things until something has ‘the ring of truth’.

          Curiosity and desire to engage with real problems.

          Seems like a pretty good start.

  6. Your comments on Fast Food Schools reminded me of one of the best things I’ve ever watched on the internet. It’s a white board animation by Sir Ken Robinson on divergent thinking and changing education.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

    I’ve been telling my almost 9 year old, who has been struggling with fitting within the mold, that the truth is that you don’t need to know the right answer BUT, you do need to know how the rules work to get the right answer.

    1. Yeah that’s one of my all time favorites as well, but I hadn’t connected the dots between that vid and this post. I should have, for sure.

      1. Left Brain; “Add more caffeine to Right Brain”

        Right Brain —Left Brain—ugh how do we even write right brain?

        🙂

  7. Great post Rob. In my opinion, it’s these kinds of posts that make this blog so valuable, just like the intro to your first DAX book, in my opinion, was the most valuable part of the book.

    I second your observation about the educational background of data analysts. Some of the best data analysts I have seen majored in something like theater or history in college, not math/science, and they are better equipped to live in a gray world.

    What’s up with all the “grey” usage by the way? Did you become a British citizen?

    1. I think every time I go to use the word, I alternate between Gray and Grey. I never knew that one was US and one Brit.

      Now I *do* know that, but I am *positive* that I will forget which is which before the next time I need the word 🙂

  8. Good post. I’ve had the same conversion (albeit with different terms) with coworkers around here for years. I agree that it is one of the problems with school. School takes 12 – 16 years teaching kids there is a definite, bright light answer to every problem. The academic requirement for this is obvious as schools need objective measures to grade a persons’ work relative to peers. I have seen people that were great book-smart, in-class students struggle in the real world (for lack of a better term) because they can’t figure out “the answer”. They initially don’t realize it is not usually about right or wrong, but rather choices and consequences (opportunity costs among them). They get mired in various possible answers and don’t make a decision. In business we call this “analysis paralysis”. Often times, only when Monday morning quarterbacking time rolls around do you find out if you were more right than wrong.
    I often have been accused of thinking in only black and white and not seeing the gray. Like you stated, I believe that while i see gray questions, you are required to give a black and white answer. If you don’t you get gray (aka wishy-washy) results. You can’t drive down the middle of the road and not expect an accident at some point. Having gotten run over more than once i know what that feels like.

  9. I cannot express how much I like this post – I will be chewing on it for days! Think I’ll even post it for my non-geek friends over on Facebook; everyone has to “analyze data” in some way, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. And I’m sure I’m not the only one in my circle who will love the clear and clever articulation of “Oh Crap, Being an Adult Right Answers Are Clear”.

    I wonder how much this Black/White/Grey struggle contributes to “report-as-export-agent” design? It physically pains me (especially as an SSRS admin) to see a “report” with 26 columns and 10,000 rows. It’s like encountering a wall of random noises, I wince every time. Yet how do we combat the Fear of the Undiscovered Outlier In Here Somewhere That Will Change Everything and I Can Only Find It If I Have Every Option Before Me? Perhaps by teaching people how to parse gray into black and white, and that they really are better served by reports that pre-process some of that for them?

    Love @Leonard’s summary of the Ted talk above, too. In times of hard decisions, I’ve often hoped that the Real Grownups would show up to tell me the right answer. But it’s true – sometimes there’s more than one right answer.

  10. Very good article!
    Many times when struggling to make a decision, I recall what typically happens (or supposed to) in a court case. Lawyers try to paint their grey as black or white and then the judge makes the decision what is black or white. So when I’m responsible to make the decision, I just have to buckle down and look at the grey and be the judge.

    btw – I reference and recommend this site often as I evangelize Power Pivot and Power Query to one Calif State Government department at a time. 🙂 As one posted above, I was also introduced to power pivot via powerpivotpro.com. Keep up the great articles.

  11. This reminds me of a speed reading technique mentioned in this video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7iU-ozrQm8

    One of the techniques is to use your finger to skim the words. It helps your eye to stay oriented and stay focused. The interesting thing is that using your left hand (instead of your right hand) actually improves retention. The left side of your body is connected to the right side of your brain so using your left hand actually engages the right side of the brain when reading.

    I think this is also related to why the visualization of data is so important for retention because it’s involving the right side of the brain.

  12. I mean, I’ve never really thought of this in terms of left vs. right brain, but I see how it’s useful here. I just think there is a preference especially among type-A personalities (again, though, I’m not even sure type-A and B are really scientific, but they are useful here) to really systematize everything. And it’s these personalities that often land the leadership positions for a variety of reasons. The problem for me is that I just don’t think this way. And there is a stereotype from folks who view our profession from the outside that we’re all obsessed with systematization.

    Just as an example, my former supervisor was unhappy with my progress writing a business article. He had scolded, “if you can’t outline exactly what you want to write about right now in five seconds, then you shouldn’t be writing anything.” (At this point, I had already written a quarter of the article… without an outline.) The thing is, that sort of thinking was probably true of what he knows about his own personality. But I don’t outline before I write, unless there’s a contractual requirement to do so (as was the case for my publisher in getting my book approved). And even when I do outline, it takes all of five seconds of writing to completely obliterate the outline. That’s not to say I don’t see a value in outline even for myself, but I refuse to believe I must follow a system to succeed–or else. For brevity, my boss feels that outlining is creating something discrete from a world of noise. But I’m comfortable working directly within that world.

    My number one fear is over systematization.

    We see examples of this of systematization in the entrepreneurial world. i.e. You must make XXXX amount of dollars to be successful! Specialize or die! Don’t do this on your blog without at least 1000 subscribers! Again, some of this isn’t wrongheaded advice, but blindly applied it makes no sense. What’s important is why this advice might be useful, and to learn form the fundamental underlying problem it attempts to address. And that problem lives in the grey.

    We see this in the world of big data. Everyone wants something that helps them with their “big data,” but they end up acquiring more technologies instead of addressing the underlying problem. Just as an over fit curve mistakenly predicts outcomes based on an equation instead of the underlying model, so too businesses begin solving their technology problems with more technology rather than looking into underlying problems happening at operational levels.

    I think we’re all somewhat scared of that grey area, and even more scared of making a black and white decision whose results are profound and tangible. So we cling to systematic philosophies (agile, lean, six sigma, you name it), because when something has a prescribed methodology behind it (or, in the case of technology, a lot of money behind it), it feels like we’re making informed decisions from it. In the case of the housing crises, many analysts and banks attempted to find consolation in the fact that they were all wrong together (as if there were any reconciliation for the rest of us!).

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there is point at which some decisions must be 0 and 1 or else you’ll never move on. And I think, for some people, that type of decision making conforms to how they think (which may be the case for David). But with all due respect to this way of viewing decisions, there’s a danger on the other side of it. Because in the case of the housing crises, models weren’t second guessed for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons was that they represented a rigorous and discrete result from a grey world. Models in general are given preference because their thought to create black-and-white results from a grey world. But often models are wrong. And we shouldn’t give decisions the privilege of being absolute.

    Then again, perhaps from a leadership standpoint, making a decision and having confidence in it, is something you and your organization needs. For instance, we all know the negative effects of analysis paralysis. But it’s only useful to the extent you realize you made the decision out of necessity, and that your choice is inherently imperfect because it came from an imperfect world. If you know that going in, then it’s not a big deal when you’re wrong–you can change and adapt. But not recognizing this fact is what gives us false confidence. And that false confidence leads to things like the housing crises; or, perhaps more innocuously, my supervisor thinking that his way was the one and only way to get something done.

  13. Rob, I feel your pain…
    The last mile post almost got me but here it is. In 1981 I was making my college choice and the computer appealed to my left brain tendencies, I explored my thinking with my Grandfather (his obituary was on the cover of the WSJ a year later) and he advised me to STUDY business instead. He may have underestimated the PC but his reasoning was sound, LEARN to make decisions.

    Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
    Curly: This.
    Mitch: Your finger?
    Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
    Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
    Curly: [smiles] That’s what *you* have to find out.

    It is the number.

    Do I buy or sell at that number. Build a good model and if you are right 7 out of 10 times you will have tremendous success. If your visualization is always good you will head up the decision support team. Making the black or white choice in the gray is the art.

  14. For a long time (years) I pondered over the black/white/grey question, “Does grey exist only when black and white cannot be determined, or are black and white extreme forms of grey?” Then I had a realization.
    Black doesn’t actually exist. There is no dark, only the absence of light. Therefore, what is grey but partial light. Ahhh, but that leads to another series of questions.
    When we say there’s a varying amount of light, from what perspective are we looking? In space, even the sun doesn’t exist, if you’re looking away from it. What level of granularity are we speaking of? Looking at the sun from Earth it appears as a blazing ball of light. But, what if the universe were void except for the sun and we were 100 billion light years away. We wouldn’t see anything.
    To summarize, grey is a varying amount of white based upon what we want to look at and how closely, which are choices up to us.

  15. Thanks Rob! You made my day by this post!

    I’m currently your regular reader also. =)

    Answer to my email message please when you’ll have time.

  16. Wow!!! This was fun reading, because it describes so much of my personal ‘development’!

    On your question: “If you have a framework for mining the grey, please share in comments or drop me an email.” …

    I like the SCAN framework by Tom Graves (Tertradian). I think it serves very well for ‘mining the grey’. SCAN stands for “Simple, Complicated, Ambiguous, Not-known”. in this framework he describes characteristics and types of problems for these four domains, how to adress them and with what competencies.

    He explainse it here:
    http://weblog.tetradian.com/2013/06/07/a-simpler-scan/

    Using SCAN ‘as a decision board’:
    http://weblog.tetradian.com/2013/06/15/scan-as-decision-dartboard/

    More on sense-making and decision-making:
    http://weblog.tetradian.com/2013/10/07/scan-some-recent-notes/

    Anyway, hope you find it usefull.

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