Sunday, November 22, 2009

X and Y but not Z

I work in an engineering culture. This affords me the luxury of speaking my mind if I can select the correct fact base for supporting my views. This is a license I haven't had in more politically-charged work cultures and for that alone I will never take this freedom for granted. Views are meant to be: (a) expressed, and (b) challenged. That is both a given and a taken -- the taken is this precious benefit of working with engineers.

The challenge for a decidedly right brain in the middle of a STEM ("science, technology, engineering, and math") population is that I run a system resistant to the way my colleagues are rewarded by their clients. Their mission is to drive complexity out of systems. Simplicity is not just a virtue but a requirement. All outcomes are reducible to X or Y. There is no Z because Z represents chaos. Even if chaos sounds more rational than two choices it still wrecks the model. The third choice invites uncertainty. It tests the faith that engineers can deliver a purely causal relationship: if you do X then Y is a no-brainer.

I'm not wired to perform multiple-step calculations. I can't steer my way around the break even point or apply the needle-moving macro that will change the expectation or game the system. I'm the artful, conceptual word guy. But even so I can see there are binary outcomes that create clarity, purpose, and a useful instruction for accelerating a plan. Even a confrontation-averse relativist humanist like me can understand that there are only so many parking spaces at the Market Basket in Somerville and many more shoppers. The result is Darwinian dodge ball set to the abrupt stoppage of a musical chairs needle skipping. This is the real world -- eat or be eaten -- the zero sum game.

The allure of sports is the certainty of outcomes. Even ties need to be decided -- there's no corrupting force of interpretation. No middle ground. What could be as uncompromising as a win or a loss? As a parent it's hard not to appreciate the clarifying power of 'no' as in "what part of you're-not-allowed into-X-or-Y don't you get?"

However left to its own limitations this logic can create more false choices than it does true ones. The Profit and Loss ("P&L") statement is based on the premise that we are either revenue-generating or overhead. This model swallows the inclusionary either/or condition. The third way is the third rail of engineering. It stops the train from ever leaving the station.

A binary bias is at work whenever complexity is driven from the service centers we call to inquire about the status of our bills, terms, conditions, and ignorance (a.k.a. tech support). The computer-voiced router tells us to press "1" for the entire range of acceptable questions. Press "2" to scream what about "1" we don't find relevant to our consumption of this service or product. End result? Driving complexity from the system also drives customers away from the relationship. (Dial "3" if you want the word people consultants who fix that one).

As a Z team passenger who rides into town on that live, uncertain third rail I often tell my X and Y members that it's a mistake to equate a fact base with its ultimate usefulness or knowledge-enablement. Zero sum games around learning almost always result in a loss for the knowledge possessor. That's because it's less common for two different people to take the same actions with the same knowledge than it for you to do something differently than me. The world is not flat.

If 15 years of the web has taught us anything it's that access guarantees nothing. Having “possession” of bare facts and figures does nothing either to address their dissemination, analysis, how instructive they are, or ultimately what we intended to do with them. The corollary isn't that knowledge is power -- far from it. It's the universal pain point of recognizing that unlimited access paralyzes our ability to form plans and take actions. Microprocessors foster the illusion that given enough technology, it is both possible and desirable to know anything about everything. The real secret to our transparent world is knowing when to move beyond X and Y.

The Z world is social, interpretive, multidimensional, and easily colored by perception. It is sloppy and potentially correlated but never dualistic or directly causing what happens next or soon thereafter. Experience laughs at X and Y because no two people have the same Z outcomes in mind, body, or the actual events they trigger. Engineers need to face this music in their waltz steps with systems -- whether they partner with Z or pretend it away.

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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.