What should we do when the experts change their minds?

Last week, KJR talked about NIST changing (or is it “updating”?) its recommendation regarding its longstanding advice to change passwords frequently.

The question of the hour is, does NIST changing its recommendation make it a more trustworthy source of expertise, or less?

The two obvious and most popular answers boil down to:

More worthwhile: I’d rather take advice from someone who’s constantly learning more about their field, than from someone who learned something once and decided that’s all they need to know.

Less worthwhile: Why should I rely on advice that’s constantly changing? I’d rather rely on positions that don’t change with the time of day, phase of the moon, and the sun’s position in the zodiac.

Before continuing down this path on the information security front, let’s explore a better-known subject of ongoing controversy — the role of dietary fat in personal health.

There’s been a lot written on all sides of this question, so much so that it’s easy to figure that with no medical consensus, what the hell, I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger!

Me, I take a different position: I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger! Isn’t that what pills are for?

No, say the skeptics. There’s published research showing that statins don’t provide much medical benefit and, for that matter, that saturated fats aren’t at all toxic.

As my pre-statin LDLs were way out of whack, I have a personal stake in this, and so here are my personal guidelines for making sense of personal health, information security, or pretty much any other highly technical subject:

Ignore the divisive. Divisive language is easy to spot. Phrases like “The x crowd,” with x = a position you disagree with (“The first amendment crowd,” or, adding 1, “The second amendment crowd” are easy examples.

This sort of ridicule might be fun (strike that — it is fun) but it isn’t illuminating. Quite the opposite, it’s one of the many ways of dividing the world into us and them, and defining the “right answer” as the one “we” endorse.

Fools vs the informed vs experts. Fools believe what’s convenient. The informed read widely. Experts read original sources.

Fools … perhaps a better designation would be “the easily fooled” … have made confirmation bias a lifestyle choice. Faced with two opposing points of view they’ll accept without question the one they find agreeable while nitpicking the opposing perspective to death.

Those of us who try to remain informed read widely. We choose sources without obvious and extreme biases; that go beyond quoting experts to explaining the evidence and logic they cite; and that provide links or citations to the original sources they drew on.

Especially, we deliberately counter our own confirmation biases by looking skeptically at any material that tells us what we want to believe.

Experts? They don’t form opinions from secondary sources. They read and evaluate the original works to understand their quality and reliability in detail.

There’s always an expert. Want to believe the earth is flat? There’s an “expert” out there with impressive credentials who will attest to it. Likewise the proposition that cigarettes are good for you, and, for that matter, that Wisconsin has jurisdiction over the moon on the grounds that the moon is made of cheese.

Just because someone is able to cite a lone expert is no reason to accept nonsense … see “confirmation bias,” above.

Preliminary studies are interesting, not definitive. For research purposes, statistical significance at the .05 level is sufficient for publication. But statistically, one in every 20 results significant at that level is due to random chance.

Desire to learn vs fondness for squirrels. Ignoring new ideas and information is a sign of ossification, not expertise. But being distracted by every squirrel — changing metaphors, jumping on every new bandwagon because it’s new and exciting — isn’t all that smart either. Automatic rejection and bandwagoning have a lot in common, especially when the rejection or bandwagon appeals to your … yes, you know what’s coming … confirmation bias.

Ignoring changing conditions. No matter what opinion you hold and what policies you advocate, they’re contextual. Situations change. When they do they make the answers we worked so hard to master wrong.

The world has no shortage of people who refuse to acknowledge change because of this. But relying on answers designed for the world as it used to be leads to the well-known military mistake known as “fighting the last war.”

Except that nobody ever fights the last war. They prepare to fight the last war. That’s why they lose the next war.

These are my guidelines. Use them as you like, but please remember:

I’m no expert.

There’s never been a worse time to be a bad IT manager.

IT unemployment rates have plummeted nationwide. Even where it’s bad, like West Virginia, 4.3% is still pretty good. And if you’re an unemployed IT professional who lives in West Virginia and you’re willing to relocate, it doesn’t have to be Nebraska or North Dakota (1.6%). You could probably find work in Hawaii if the island life appeals to you (2.0%) or a true paradise like Minnesota (2.3%) (okay, it isn’t paradise, but it’s where I live).

Right now, if you’re an IT professional with even a few years of experience under your belt and can’t find a job, it’s safe to say you’re doing something wrong.

Which also means that if you’re an employed IT professional working in a toxic situation, there’s little reason for your suffering to continue.

What you might need are ways to spot when your work environment is about to become toxic … for example, when a new manager replaces the one with whom you’ve established a comfortable working relationship and it isn’t clear what working with your new boss will be like.

As always, KJR is here to help with some Workplace Incipient Toxicity Indicators, to help you spot when it’s time to polish your resume, redouble your networking efforts, and scan the landscape for more congenial situations.

But first, a non-indicator, just in case you’re a newbie at this and not a hardened cynic (that is, someone who looks at the world through glass-colored glasses).

The non-indicator: Your new manager says all the right things. Of course he does. In my experience, every new manager always says all the right things because they’ve all been through this themselves and have memorized the Right-Thing-To-Say Playbook.

Instead, pay attention to these, more reliable indicators:

Talk-to-listen ratio: Smart managers know that when they walk into a new situation, they know very little about what they’re facing. Smarter ones know the odds are high that what’s been explained to them has at best a limited correlation with what’s really going on.

The smartest make time to listen to the people who do the actual work of their organization or, if the organization is too big, to ask lots of people who the star performers are and then make time to listen to them.

If your new manager doesn’t invest heavily in organizational listening, it’s a sign it’s time for you to move on.

High-level/low-level attention span: The higher up someone is in the management hierarchy, the less time they have to understand the details. The effective ones understand that this is a problem — that “the view from 50,000 feet” is ManagementSpeak for “wrong” — and make sure their having too little time to master the details doesn’t lead them to make ignorant decisions. They achieve this by delegating decisions to those most competent to make them, namely, those who do sweat the details, to whom they share the strategy without considering it to be the only decision dimension that matters.

Those who care more about climbing than about getting the job done look at upper managers who don’t personally deal with the details and consider it a career advancement strategy. They make it clear they operate at a strategic level — that details are unimportant irritations best left to lesser mortals, so please don’t waste my time with trivia. I have more important matters on my superior mind.

If your new manager doesn’t recognize that, in the wise words of the KJR Manifesto, “Before you can be strategic you have to be competent” … if she doesn’t recognize that strategies that ignore the details are strategies that will fail … it’s probably time for you to choose a new employment strategy.

One that will allow you to succeed.

Too much to do. Too little time: One of the most important skills for anyone in management is to keep control of your calendar. If someone else controls your schedule, they control you.

If your new manager is chronically overwhelmed by his list of appointments, all of which require his personal attendance, your new manager isn’t someone you should tie your fortunes to for the long haul.

If we were living through a replay of 2008, I’d be giving you different advice — about how to survive in bad situations.

Right now, employees have choices. So don’t be victimized by a toxic workplace. You can do better.

So do it.