Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune
April 25, 2022
I recently watched an EDGE lecture by one of my favorite mavericks, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, my personal touchstone to rational person behavior.
His piece was on “adversarial collaboration,” which is what happens when two or more scientists with opposing views work together for a greater truth. But let’s move past the realm of academic theories and put the process directly into your company. I argue often for a rational solution based on the underlying assumption that we both can agree on what the word rational means.
Kahneman says, “the power of giving reasons is an illusion.” In less scientifically nuanced terms, “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” In your management meeting, the CEO says that building XYZ is obviously the right next step. And he waves a spreadsheet to support his reasoning.
You step up and correctly challenge the premise, his math and his underlying assumptions. pointing out the critical flaw in the model. There is the moment of silence, and then the CEO says, “I understand that you think the reasons to not do this are clear and compelling, but we are going to do it anyway,” and you leave the meeting thinking about submitting your resignation. Beliefs are powerful and deep-rooted.
We continue to believe in our reasoning because we believe in the conclusion. Now, let’s do a financial balance sheet together. I need the net revenue number to be $1 million, so I simply go to the CFO and ask her to create a spreadsheet to support my necessary “conclusion,” even though she knows that my sales pipeline reasoning is from outer space.
Kahneman argues for collaboration, but that takes two to tango, and a willingness to learn the steps. If your collaborator has two left feet, there may be a dangerous disconnect from reality.
Next up for Kahneman is “belief perseverance.” Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears — you know the election was stolen and Biden is not really our president. That is a belief perseverance that is unshakable among some.
Kahneman argues that rational reasoning requires that “If a large body of published evidence supports a conclusion, you must believe in it.” Says who, no way am I going to agree with you. You know what you can do with your evidence. The voting machines were rigged, period, paragraph.
You can see how easy it is to double straddle reality and insanity. We can all agree that collaboration for a common goal is a worthy and proper use of our rational human skills. Except that you do not understand the answer that I want.
This comes up all the time in startups. We leave the meeting, agreeing that we will meet downtown. Then you get in your car and go north on Insterstate 15. Sure, you might get downtown sometime next month, but not at 5 p.m. today.
Reasoning is often based on an assemblage of a multitude of facts. If you want to disprove that reasoning, find one tiny mistake and shout it out loudly. When you want to win an argument, focus on the weakest link, the lowest hanging error and then go ballistic and discount the entire presentation. Baby and the bathwater.
Kahneman has a strong personal preference for facts, but he acknowledges that the counter to that is “expert intuition,” which in the face of unrelenting facts, still refuses to bend to reality. Adversarial collaboration takes a back seat to trusting your gut.
Matt Dillon was offered the role of the boxer Butch Coolidge in “Pulp Fiction.” He got the script one evening, said he loved it and told Quentin Tarantino that he would sleep on it and call him in the morning.
After Dillon went to bed, later that night, Tarantino offered it to Bruce Willis who said yes on the spot. The director wanted someone “desperate to play the role.” Don’t we hate it when the VC tells us he is going to think about it. OK, pal, sleep on this.
Getting to the right decision is often ragged and ugly. And the truth is neither obvious nor immutable, facts can be manipulated. But when unanticipated findings appear, you can either engage in “progressive refinement or defensive degeneration.” You pick.
Rule No. 710:
“Can’t we all get along?”
— Rodney King