The Guesswork of Science

I’ve been arguing for a while now that businesses should be more scientific in their decision making —   less dependent on intuition, experience, credentials, and charisma when making important calls and figuring out what to do, and more reliant on evidence, analysis, and logic. Some people hear this as an argument against people in general, and a recommendation that organizations get humans out of the loop wherever possible and make decisions by pressing a button and doing whatever the computer tells them to.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Science is a deeply human enterprise, even if it’s sometimes carried out by folk who lack advanced social skills. The scientific method is a process for coming up with ideas, then evaluating and refining them over time. Advances in equipment, from the microscope to the cyclotron to the computer, are a great help in the work of evaluation and refinement, but they’re pretty hopeless at coming up with ideas. That’s what the people — the scientists —  are for, and that job is not going away.

So an argument for more scientific organizations is not an argument for less human ones. It’s simply a recommendation that we test our ideas and hypotheses about what’s going on and what will work, rather than just assuming that we’re right because we’re smart, or experienced, or the guru or the boss.

To support this argument, I’ve been looking around for great writing on what the scientific method is and the role of people within it, and it’s been surprisingly hard (if you’ve come across any such writing, please let us know about it). I should have just started by searching for “Feynman scientific method,” since very few people have been as articulate about science as Richard Feynman, the Nobel-prize winning American physicist who’s held in awe by many of his colleagues (and by anyone who aspires to live a rich life).

In a 1964 lecture to Cornell students, Feynman nails it when talking about how physicists uncover a new law of nature. He says

First we guess it. Don’t laugh, that’s really true.

Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what —  if this law that we guessed is right, we see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results to nature. Or we say, compare to experiment or experience [by which he means 'observation,' not personal experience]. Compare it directly with observation to see if it works.If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.

In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are if you made the guess, or what his name is…  If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

It sounds so simple, but we know how hard it is do to. We all love our guesses, have faith in them, and desperately want them to be right. It’s tempting to skip altogether the step of testing them, or to construct the test so that it’s most likely to confirm our hypothesis rather than overturn it. The scientific method is, in large part, the work of overcoming our egos and biases and subjecting our ideas to stern, fair tests. The data, algorithms, and computing horsepower available to the modern enterprise are a huge help with this, which is why I say that the time is now for more scientific organizations.

Gary Loveman, who brought the scientific method to the gaming industry and is now the CEO of Harrah’s, wrote the forward to the great book Competing on Analytics by Tom Davenport and Jeanne Harris. Loveman, too, nails it. He talks about how hard it is an organization to be scientific about the boss’s ideas, yet how important it is.

The owners of any company, especially mine, deserve the very best ideas to be put into practice. While I hope Harrah’s Entertainment shareholders have some faith in me, they are far better served to have confidence in the capability of my team to gather and test the best ideas available within and outside Harrah’s Entertainment and use only those that lead to sustained superior performance and growth… It is not my job to have all the answers, but it is my job to ask lots of penetrating, disturbing, and occasionally almost offensive questions as part of the analytic process that leads to insight and refinement.

My journey is complicated by the fact that all organizations seek to please the leader, so there is constant pressure to give my otherwise lame and ill-considered views far more gravitas than they deserve… Hence, it is critical to create and constantly cultivate an environment that views ideas as separable from people, insists on the use of rigorous evidence to distinguish among ideas, and includes a healthy dose of people both sufficiently dedicated and skillful to do the heavy lifting.

How many enterprises are well on their way to achieving this vision? What have you observed? Is your organization trying to become more scientific? If so, how’s it going? Leave a comment, please, and let us know what your experiences have been.

22nd Sep 10. Posted in Uncategorized.

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