Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Reading :: Streetlights and Shadows

Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making
By Gary Klein

I just reviewed the methodology text that Klein coauthored; this book is a chance to see his methodological approach in action. Here, Klein focuses on how we make decisions in ambiguous situations. This question is actually quite hard to investigate in the lab, since "systematic errors aren't so serious outside the lab"; indeed, "reasoning strategies let us do many kinds of tasks without consciously or subconsciously performing calculations to perform an estimate" (p.59). So Klein turns to the scenarios that he always turns to in his popular/summary books: aircraft controllers and pilots, firefighters, NICU nurses, etc. (I would complain that he rehashes these scenarios too much across books, but I understand why he does so—they're all great illustrations, and the books use them to make related-but-different arguments to related-but-different audiences.)

Much of this book goes over principles that Klein addresses in his other books, so I'll just highlight a few standouts.

Klein points out that experts avoid data saturation by self-selecting which data to seek. That is, they know which data are most relevant and they shut out the extraneous data, making them more effective (p.133). In fact, he says, "there is never a right amount of information" and "we would be better off if we stopped worrying about getting the right amount of information and instead tried to see the meaning in the data that we do have" (p.135).

People need feedback—"feedback is essential for helping people become more skilled." But feedback itself isn't sufficient (p.165): outcome feedback (what was the result?) does not improve performance as much as process feedback (what were the cause-feedback relations in the performance?) (p.166).

Problems with emergent goals—so-called wicked problems (p.212)—include things such as business models (p.213). For such problems, "when facing wicked problems we have to re-define the goals as we try to reach them. ... No amount of thinking and analysis will make these goals well defined. In such cases, we are going to have to figure out the goals as we go along. The faster we can learn, the more successful we'll be" (p.223, his italics). Yet, he points out, many in this situation will instead "try to increase their control over events" and will thus "stumble into goal fixation" (p.223). In such situations, he advocates "Management by Discovery": "when we face complex conditions we should expect to revise and replace goals on the basis of what we learn" (p.224).

Overall, this book is readable and valuable. It's a little less valuable if you've read Klein's other books, since there's a lot of overlap, but his angle here is different—to dispel myths about decision making. If you're interested in how people make decisions in ambiguous situations (for instance, when entrepreneurs evaluate their business models), definitely pick it up.

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