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Following the science

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Just for giggles, take a few minutes to google the contents of your average MBA curriculum.

I’m not going to quibble about what’s in them. My quibble is with what isn’t. High on the missing courseware list: project management. Curiously, this, the practice needed to make tomorrow different from yesterday isn’t important enough to be a mandatory business management skill.

Then there’s this week’s missing subject: epistemology.

Yes, epistemology. It sounds abstruse and esoteric. But one of the eight tasks of leadership is making decisions, and decision-makers can’t make good ones if they don’t know what they know and how much they should trust it.

Read about epistemological thinking and you’ll bump into Karl Popper, the pre-eminent philosopher of science. His key insight: Science never proves anything. Scientific research fails to disprove – to falsify. Fail to falsify an idea enough times and scientists start to have confidence in it.

Or, more accurately, they have more confidence in it than in any of the competing ideas floating around in the meme-o-sphere.

Which leads to the business response to COVID-19.

Most of the decisions your average business leader must make might be scientific in a metaphorical sense, but they’re rarely about scientific issues. Quantum electrodynamics, for example, has little impact on compensation policy.

COVID-19 changed that, calling for business decisions about a scientific issue. And so, decision-makers were advised to “follow the science” – advice I made myself and still endorse.

With this caveat: As pointed out in Michael Lewis’s excellent The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus appeared there was no science to follow. Epidemiologists had few established facts about it – too few to formulate high-confidence policy recommendations. Even such fundamentals as the virus’s lethality and contagion had large error bars.

Nor did economists have a body of knowledge to guide how to go about putting the economy in an induced coma … necessary given the millions of lives that were at stake … and then, when the situation was safer, to resuscitate it.

To everyone’s credit, most leaders endorsed the idea of “following the science” in their decision-making. What became blurred, though, was that the science being followed wasn’t yet actual science. Our ability to forecast how the virus would behave in real-world populations hadn’t yet been tested by multiple Popperian falsification loops.

What we did have were seasoned, dedicated, brilliant researchers who extrapolated from their knowledge of coronaviruses, viral propagation, and economics to the situation at hand.

Recall that even the prosaic idea of taking maximum advantage of the tools and practices associated with employees working remotely was an extrapolation from far too little data to accurately predict where it would lead.

“Follow the science,” that is, didn’t, and couldn’t, mean what the plain words signaled. It meant that, given the choice, we should take the current scientific consensus about the virus as the best alternative available – in the phrase made famous in Argo we followed, for the most part, the best bad plan we had.

Bob’s last words: In the early 1990s, Al Gore sponsored the legislation that, combined with Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of HTML, led to the modern internet.

Imagine what today’s world would be like had he not provided this leadership. And yet, as his reward, he was widely ridiculed for a claim he never made … that he’d “invented the Internet.”

Culminating on January 2, 2000, an army of dedicated and hard-working technologists successfully prevented world economic collapse through their response to the Y2K problem. Instead of throwing a parade for the IT professionals who had just saved the world, the world griped ignorantly about the so-called Y2K hoax.

And so, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the level of appreciation we as a society have been expressing for the dedication and hard work aimed at deflecting the worst of the pandemic is somewhat lacking in enthusiasm.

Which gets us to takeaways in the leadership and management principles we apply every day to do the work of the businesses we support:

There will come a time when you have to formulate a response to a difficult, complicated, and high-impact challenge. It won’t be the kind of challenge that comes with a well-defined, packaged solution you can follow with confidence.

The best you’ll be able to do is to pull your best experts together to figure it out, knowing they won’t achieve perfection.

Please – when this happens, apply the lessons of recent world history. Thank the team for the successes they do achieve; don’t grouse about what they missed. They did their best … and, very possibly, did the best possible. That they failed to predict the future with precision won’t have been a failing.

It’s the nature of the future.

On CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:The successful CIO’s trick to mastering politics,” about the basic principle that relationships outlive transactions, and what happens when a CIO fails to embrace this fact of organizational dynamics.

Comments (9)

  • What a great piece to share with those who castigate Dr. Anthony Fauci and the other medical researchers who have provided the best responses possible during the COVID-19 crisis. Those who don’t appreciate the world of the scientific community are quick to “cast stones” when a hypothesis fails, and, as you point out, are rarely there to praise the work that goes into formulating a scientific response to any situation.

    thank you for this well-written piece!

  • But Bob, they do teach Project Management!

    Real-world, real-workplace Project Management.

    One person on the team does all the work. The team gets credit. 🙂

    • I stand corrected. But … by that measure I’m reminded of my kids’ description of some of their high school team assignments. Same outcome – one or two people on the team did all the work, while the team got the credit.

      Guess our high schools are more advanced than we thought.

  • Bob:
    Your statement: “In the early 1990s, Al Gore sponsored the legislation that, combined with Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of HTML, led to the modern internet.”

    To put it another way – there would be no internet without Al-Gore-rhythms !

  • Very nice article.

    It reminded me of something new that happened on the PBS science program, Nova, last week.

    The Nova narrator haa always been someone, often an actor, with a great, serious, and objective sounding voice. While I’ve always enjoyed this format, last week a young black woman with a good science background, Danni Washington, did the narration.

    In the credits, it stated that she was a “science communicator”, rather than an actor or scientist. I thought this strange, but surprisingly I found that episode about the invasion of lion fish thousands of miles from their Asian home waters to the Atlantic, easier to understand.

    My point is that few people understand how mRNA works, let alone how mRNA vaccines work, and even fewer people knew how to communicate how they work, and thus, why this new technology was safe use, which in my opinion, created a breeding ground for the misinformation, fear, and resistance ultimately costing hundreds of thousands of lives in this country.

    Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both succeeded because they could explain concepts in a way that a 4th grader could understand. IT, especially IT leaders must have this same teaching-on-the-run skill.

    Because as individuals, we must be able to answer the epistemological question of “how do we know what we know” in a way that feel true, even when it entails some risk to make a decision affecting the organization or our lives.

    • Interesting points. Among them: It hadn’t occurred to me, but I think you’re right – as a gross generality, I find female voices easier to understand, on average, but on the other hand, I think we’re all conditioned to find a James Earl Jones, deep and gravelly voice more authoritative.

      I also agree that throughout the first couple of years of the pandemic the experts were better at explaining what they were learning to fellow experts than to a lay audience. Among the reasons, I suspect, is that re-stating this knowledge in Reaganesque / Clintonesque simplicity takes a lot of energy, and I figure these folks were just too pooped to give it the full treatment.

    • I listen to Alan Alda’s podcast (Clear and Vivid), which supports the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University. He’s mentioned more than once that they use things like improv to train scientists to communicate better. Training scientists to effectively explain their work to non-scientists seems critically important, particularly in recent years. The existence of “science communicators” seems like a step in the right direction too.

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