Why leaders need to demonstrate an understanding of risk and return

Most people dont understand themselves and their own perceptions of risk. As ‘logical’ beings we analyze everything on its own instead of considering the bigger picture. How many minutes a fire service takes to reach a blaze is just one such example. If it takes $200 per household per year to reach a blaze on average in 10 minutes we know it would cost more to reach it (on average) in 5 minutes and we could literally spend every cent we owned but could not reduce the time below say, 20 seconds from notification to arrival.

Cancer care works the same, as does wait times for doctors, or classroom size or teacher/child ratios. Anything of any significance today can cost anything you want it to, and by and large the service will improve. (The jury is out on salaries of politicians).

Decisions that we, the public, need to make regarding any one service cannot be viewed in isolation. The salacious argument, “what happens if it was your child who died because of egg allergies, or your spouse who died of breast cancer” only holds water when we consider that there is only one decision to be made, not a whole lot of priorities to be balanced.

Furthermore, we the public, are not qualified to make judgement in many cases because we dont understand the issues. If we were to say that fire responses less than 120 seconds are likely to save 50% more lives and property than a 5 minute response, but that we are only talking about 20 lives at risk per annum for the whole of Toronto, in other words we save 10 more lives per year, then how much are we prepared to pay?

If we say its $1 million, then if we were to take that $1million and use it for policing we might be able to reduce assault-related injuries by 20%, but affecting 10,000 people per year. What is more important? Our media and politicians would have us believe that whatever is topical is the most important thing.

By turning down a plea for donations to help burn victims or heart research on the phone I am not heartless or uncaring. I might be donating to help peanut allergy research which might not save individual lives, but vastly improve the overall quality of life to the entire North American population.

We intuitively know all of this stuff already, but its convenient to ignore it because it makes the world seem unmanageable – something we are all more comfortable ignoring. In my experience however, when we shine a light in dark corners the monsters have a habit of disappearing. We need to take this on.

Should we be spending more on teachers or fire fighters or police on the beat? I really couldnt tell you, but I know of the law of diminishing returns, and I know there has to be a cutoff point for all of them. And it doesnt mean I dont appreciate police, teachers, firefighters (and yes, politicians as well), but we all need to make ends meet, and there comes a point of tough love, just like for our kids.

Petraeus, Kennedy, Netanyahu but NOT Carter

Petraeus, Kennedy … dealt with situations which required decisive action and a strong sense of empowerment.

Would Carter have had the “balls” to stand up in the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Is there something wrong with elected officials having affairs?

It really reduces the field to the dregs that either dont have initiative or do not take calculated risks.

Is there anything we can measure (ex ante) to support a hypothesis?

Do voters get a package deal?


Development then and now; how the mystery and fun is gone…

Today the realization finally dawned upon me of how sterile most professional programmers have become.

Many years ago I was in awe of the masters of Cobol, Adabas/Natural, IMS, CICS and the high priests of mainframe.  In the early parts of my career I was impressed by the depth and knowledge of my peers and of the people who could pick up these complex things and use them effortlessly to design systems and make things work.

In those days computers, languages, compilers were all far less reliable than today, and getting things to work often took patience, perseverance and all-nighters.  With the era of the PC some people seemed to take to it while others treated us as children, because everyone knew that applications were only made by serious programmers for serious applications on serious (MVS 360, B-Series, Sperry, Univac Burroughs, IBM, Tandy).  Over the years the PC and the workstation have evolved, and now I am part of the main stream.  Even the PC is easier and more powerful (remember the difference between huge, tiny, far pointers?  Programming for 16 bit instructions on 8 bit computers? Programming EXPANDED memory? Hitting the ETX key?  Paging up and down with F6 and F8?).

I have spent too many years of late in management and consultancy, finance, manufacturing, banking trying to earn too much money, but was too often frustrated by the “development experts” who told me to give them the requirements and leave the design to them.  I respected their need for professionalism and not to tread in their turf, although I admit to giving into temptation from time to time.

Unfortunately it appears I threatened them, but in my naiveté I thought they were a little anal and needed to be humoured.  I know now that I seldom worked with the “real” programmers – most of the places I worked in large corporates nobody did anything great or unusual, but merely slogged along avoiding mistakes, and certainly not doing anything risky, like inventing a new way of doing things.  Most of the time they really didn’t know what they were doing, but merely sticking to the tried and tested stuff that they knew worked.  How can you say “outside the box”, to people who are too short sighted to see the walls?

The real programmers are the kids writing stuff like Facebook, and creating new sites with exciting features, but seldom under the auspices of a big name in the computer industry.  I no longer want to even try to be a cog in the big wheel, you merely get to grind your teeth.

I realized too late there is no role for someone who understands too much except President or CEO; and they dont get to do any of the fun stuff.  So I am likely going to do the career equivalent of doing painting on sidewalks.

And if someone stops by and wants to talk – I may tell them about how my paintings took a week and not a year, how I used the natural colouring and contours of the stones and dirt to supplement the shape and form; and how in the final stages it ended up painting itself.

How I painted masterpieces to acclaim; without exhaustive use-case testing trying to prove they were not subject to the unknown unknowns … Hey, Mr Kafka wait for me! – I finally understand …

Machinae ex dei

In this world of complexity we rationalize, categorize and mechanize.

We treat others like machines, we now treat ourselves like machines.

What’s the point?  The answer affects our very souls and outlook on the world.

With advances in technology we have accustomed ourselves to thinking in mechanistic terms. For example: It should be pretty simple to identify all of the tasks we need to do during a particular day, prioritise them, put estimated times next to them, allocate time for them..

… and then execute our plans with clockwork precision.

Okay, we may not completed each of our tasks, but we will have dedicated the planned time to actually EXECUTING them.

We simply don’t take into account the very human needs that we have on a regular basis such as bathroom breaks, sugar cravings, interruptions and buggy software.  We plan with logarithmic memory and execute linearly.

This results in a lot of frustrations and a feeling that our lives are out of control. If we do this to ourselves, how much more so must we do it when managing others?

The advent of outsourcing programming in various computer and systems operations and development to other countries has only emphasised the need to separate tasks into discrete bundles that can be precisely described and e-mailed. No longer do we have roles such as Analyst/Programmer but everything is very precisely defined with the precise requirement associated with it.

 Taylorism has returned with a vengeance; sucking all the fun and creativity out of building systems for example. The mechanistic paradigms that we  commonly use  (like UML) cannot precisely define systems when used in the extreme. We fail in defining the common vision required for great achievements. (Kind of like Goedell’s theorem, there will be no doubt be new theorems emerging about the  theoretical limits to hierarchical divisibility of work in the next 30 years).


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