CategoryThinking/Analysis

Multitasking is a Myth

This post introduces a recent essay on the dangers of multitasking and the importance of deliberately choosing priorities and focusing attention

The world seems determined to manipulate our attention and encourage us to click, buy, like, forward or watch. These actions do more to spark emotions than to create value, meaning or a sense of accomplishment. How can we better flex our mental muscles?

Attempts to multitask degrade our mental performance and reduce personal productivity. Previous research describes the impacts as equal to a 10-point decline in IQ or about the same as pulling an all-nighter. In short, multitasking reduces our intelligence, energy and ability to get things done well.

Click here to read the essay.

Average is the Enemy

This post introduces a recent essay on the danger of using averages for making decisions or evaluating performance

Mathematically, the average tells us the arithmetic mean; it gives a sense for where the middle lies within a group or between extremes. But averages, like stereotypes, are incomplete and dangerous as a basis for decision making. Rather, when making decisions or evaluating performance, embrace your natural curiosity and dig in. 

Move past the false shortcuts offered by averages.  Embrace variability. 

Forest management expert Dr. Barry Shiver once told me that the motto of intensive forestry is, “identify variability…then exploit it!” We add value by investing in the best soils and highest performing trees on one end, and through dealing quickly with mortality and disease at the other end. When it comes to managing or buying an asset, we want to understand both the forest and the trees.  

Click here to read the essay.

Managers Manage Well, Even During Pandemics

In my roles as a business advisor and as a team leader, I have the opportunity to continually discuss and test ideas on managing and making decisions, especially in turbulent times. The intensity and urgency of these conversations increased with the arrival in 2020 of COVID-19 and another economic recession. Here I summarize observations shared more fully in a recent Forisk blog post.

Good managers manage well, even during a pandemic

A few times over the past several months I’ve gotten up in the morning, looked in the mirror and thought, “how do I help today (given that I don’t know what’s going to happen)?” I hear the same from clients. At the end of the day, good managers and colleagues do what they say they’re going to do and communicate in advance if complications arise. Just as they would during normal times. Along the way, they share information and updates which helps others support the problem solving and decision making. 

Leaders have more freedom to decide up front when less information exists

While counterintuitive, less information offers more flexibility. The onset of the COVID pandemic and the responses by corporate executives highlighted where decisions made in the “fog of war” actually helped or hurt. We have known from the first weeks what data we needed. Regardless the success or failure of getting this data, the forest industry, for example, demonstrated discipline. Conversations with managers and executives centered on (1) supporting employees and reinforcing safety; (2) “right-sizing” production to support and keep clients and customers; and (3) managing cash. The thinking was clear and focused on dealing with the current situation given limited information. 

Effective teams share common values

Leaders require a core set of beliefs and values against which to test ideas and make decisions, especially during uncertain times. Consider the context. With no data and little clarity about the future, how does one choose a course of action? With common values, clearly communicated over time with a team, decisions have, at a minimum, a source of validity and rigor.  

Thinking Through Risk and Uncertainty: Contemplating the Coronavirus

“Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us. The fact is some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable…Simple processes help us sort the mess and prioritize.”

from “Managing Risk by Screening Out Trouble”

The coronavirus presents two specific risks to most of us. One, we transmit the virus to someone vulnerable (older, ill, or immunocompromised). Two, we or someone we love gets sick or injured in some other way and can’t access the health care system because it’s overwhelmed. These risks highlight the interconnected nature of the situation. Our individual choices affect others.

Given the risks, how do we contemplate a path forward?

We know what we don’t know.

This is a numbers game. And the numbers will get worse before they get better. In forestry, for example, trees planted years ago give us the forests we have today. Waves of trees can grow in massive booms. Foresters call this “a wall of wood” or “the pig in the python”.

With the coronavirus, the spreading that occurred silently weeks ago gives us the infections we have today. We don’t know the infection rate, which makes it difficult to know the pervasiveness, speed and, ultimately, decline of the coronavirus. What tells us we can return to normal? When we have smog alerts or forest fires or car crashes or hurricanes or food poisoning, we have metrics and indicators that signal “all clear!” Why? Because we have data.

We don’t know what’s knowable.

It does not matter if this situation is better or worse than people think, thought or said; it just is. And currently, we don’t know what “is” is. We can’t yet touch the bottom of the pool because we don’t know how deep the water is. We need data, and data requires testing. Each and every failure to deliver, offer, conduct, collect and communicate the results of a test reflects a small crime and failing in this battle.

Anything short of complete, ruthless transparency obscures our ability to know what is knowable, develop plans and support each other. From here, we can chart a path for our teams and help people make decisions for their local situations.

We know what to do.

In forestry, we have systematic approaches that apply generally to situations requiring clarity for making decisions. First, work to understand the local situation, as it varies by region and market. Second, question the data to understand its quality (e.g. seek trustworthy sources such as Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). And third, make (phone) calls to know what’s knowable and confirm that people have what they need to follow the simple practices we know work well.

With a clear sense of where we are and how things work, it’s easier to organize our teams and get moving. This gives purpose to our work and confidence in the process with an eye towards the future.

For those interested in a further discussion of strategic thinking (and how the coronavirus affects the forest industry), click here to read a five-page white paper.

Managing Risk by Screening Out Trouble

My work as a researcher in forestry sometimes highlights ideas relevant to developing plans or managing risk in other industries. For example, it helps to have a simple screening and ranking process. Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us. 

The fact is some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things depend on others. We have “nice to have” and “need to have.” There are “necessary” conditions and “sufficient” conditions. Simple processes help us sort the mess and prioritize.

At Forisk, my research team applies simple screens each quarter to the wood bioenergy sector to sift out speculative projects. Typically, our analysis suggests one-third of these projects will fail. We’ve fielded disgruntled calls over the years on this, but back-testing has found that our screening, applied consistently and systematically for over a decade now, has been helpful. 

Our screen poses two answerable and generalizable questions. First, does the project rely on a proven technology? In other words, does this thing work? Second, has this project secured at least two of the necessary resources or agreements such as financing; air quality permits; engineering contracts; or supply agreements? In other words, is this thing moving forward and on schedule?

While we can always ask other questions, this approach has proved useful in systematically distinguishing probable from speculative projects, investments, and technologies. Simple screens don’t tell us everything, but they do tell us something that focuses the mind and reorders follow-up questions.

We all apply screens in our lives. Does he tell the truth? Does this house have three bathrooms? Does this car have a big enough trunk for my flux capacitor? The key is to apply these screens consistently, systematically and then revise based on back-testing performance over time. That’s how we learn and improve.

For those interested in a further discussion of screening risk or the wood bioenergy sector, click here to read a seven-page white paper.