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Ruminations on Diversity and Potatoes March 24, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior.
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They come in all shapes and size and have close to 4000 varieties. They can be fried, chipped, baked, even twice-baked, or whipped, mashed and stuffed.  Even when you think you know them, potatoes surprise you in unexpected ways with how diverse they can be.

A few years ago at a department meeting, we held an interesting exercise in diversity. At the back of the room, spread out on tables were raw potatoes in various shapes and sizes. The exercise was for each of us to grab a spud, look it over carefully, know your potato; slowly examine it then place it back on the table among the other spuds. After a few minutes, everyone was finished. The spuds were then ‘shuffled’ and placed back on the table. The next part of the exercise was to find our potato once again.

How can you pick one apart from the others? They’re just potatoes, after all. What does it matter? Why do I need to remember how to distinguish one from the rest? And, that was the point of the exercise. Accept things as is, not change to suit yourself. I cheated and marked my potato with an imprint. That way, I could distinguish that one from all the others. I knew my potato by my imprint, not by what made it unique.

The same is true with people. They can be as diverse as potatoes. Just as I did, there are people who imprint those who are different from themselves. We’ve all met people like this. They are they ones who assign a nick-name. There was even a recent president who did that a lot. When that happens, they are designating you as something so they can remember you. They slot you in some way that helps them remember you as ‘that’ person. They are in fact, not accepting you for you, as you are.

Dimensions of DiversityWhich brings us to the facets in the diversity wheel. The most common ones include gender, race, age and sexual orientation. But there are other dimensions as well. They include religion, family status, education and income among others. It can also include first and last names. Imprinting is not supportive of diversity. It suggest a closed mind, unwilling to deal with something different.

It was surprising to me that diversity is mostly an issue in the US. In other parts of the world, this is a non-factor. While America is touted as a melting pot, dealing with people different than ourselves can be difficult. While tempting, we can’t treat people like potatoes. No nick-names, no imprint, just different. We need to change and be willing to accept people for who they are, as they are.

Since that meeting, I constantly caution people not  to ‘mark their potato‘. I explain what I mean via a quick recap of the exercise. It certainly has made an imprint on me as that meeting on diversity  was ten years ago. I’ve met a lot people and come across a lot of potatoes since then. Takes work not to imprint. I can accept people as well as potatoes that are the same and are different than me and mine. I ask for the same. No nick-names, no imprints. Accept me and my diversity, whatever shape it’s in.

Ruminations on Risks and Black Swans March 10, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, Project Management, Trends.
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Whatever we do, we deal with risks.  Despite our best laid plans and intentions, there are always those uncertain and unwanted events that happen which are beyond our control.  In a previous post, I talked about risks on projects. This post deals more with risk behavior. Risk management (or, risk tolerance) covers the spectrum from total avoidance at all costs to a laissez-faire, what-does-it-matter attitude.  A low risk tolerance leads to ‘safe’ choices that eliminate, or substantially reduce, an unlikely event with a negative impact occurring. Likewise, a high risk tolerance leads to choices where outcomes are unpredictable and not guaranteed. In this scenario, the chances for unlikely risks occurring are higher. Financial investors know their level of risk tolerance and how it influences their investment choices.

Black Swan

The occurrence of a highly improbable event that may not always be planned for. The impact can be positive or negative.

There is a related effect with investors called the ‘Black Swan that describes what happens when a uncertain, unstable event does occur.  In a 2007 book by Nasim Nicholas Taleb, titled ‘The Black Swan – the impact of the highly improbable‘,  it is defined  as :

  1. an event that is unpredictable (an outlier),
  2. has a massive or, extreme impact and
  3. after it happens, we create rational to make it more predictable (less random).

Taleb makes a living betting on the occurrence of Black Swans.  He is a contrarian when compared to the typical financial investor who avoids risk by seeking the small gains in the stock market. The positive effect of a Black Swan is seen over time. Likewise, a negative Black Swan happens very quickly. For most investors, the preference is to avoid the downside risk of a negative Black Swan. Managing risk can be a tricky business.  Taleb has 2 observations related to risk assessment I want to highlight:

  1. We have more confidence in what we know is wrong than in what we know is right.
  2. We over-estimate what we know and conversely, underestimate our uncertainty.

The first point bears repeating. We are more certain about something we know is wrong.  Our intuition, skills and experience tells us what is wrong. Sometimes, we know something is wrong when we see it. That confidence drives our behavior with money, work and our personal life more than we may want to admit. I think that is because we are better at dealing with failure than success. We plan for success, of course, but realize we have to deal with a minimal level of failure.

The other facet on uncertainty I have seen at work many times. Providing accurate estimates is a skill built on experience and dealing with knowns. When faced with new challenges, it is tempting to minimize complexity. How hard can this possibly be? More than likely, it is harder than you are able to imagine at this point in time.

When a risk is deemed highly improbable, we tend to not spend much time and energy thinking about it. When a negative Black Swan strikes, the risk mitigation(s) you have defined will be quickly tested. If your tolerance is low, you will have well thought out and documented options. Your sponsors, stakeholders and clients will benefit from and appreciate your efforts. The path forward that is selected is based on their risk tolerance of those negative Black Swans. Positive Black Swans can only make things better, right?

What’s your risk tolerance? What method(s) do you use to deal with uncertainty?