Liveblogging WES 2007 – Malcolm Galdwell’s Keynote

Over here at RIM’s Wireless Enterprise Symposium showing off some work that I’ve been doing with RIM around Lotus Connections. Today’s keynote speaker is Malcolm Gladwell…

High stakes decisions under conditions of informational uncertainty.

"I want to tell you a story about a statue…" A ‘Kouros’ – a type of Greek statue, typically of young men, that are exceedingly rare. A dealer came upon one and brought it to the Getty museum to see if they wanted it. The Museum spent 14 months doing all manner of verification testing, including comparing marble samples to pieces of the same time.

After the 14 months the museum spent $10M on the statue (1981). Evelyn Harrison, one of the worlds great experts on Greek art visited the museum and got a preview. She said, right away, that it was a fake. They asked another expert from NYC who also said that it was a fake.

They decided to debut this statue in Greece where the preview audience also spotted it as a fake.

Represented here are two different ways at making a decision. One way is exhaustive, with a great deal of research, the other is based off a gut instinct by people who just blurt out their opinions.

Typically we make decisions the way the Getty did and we can even be chastised for making decisions too quickly.

"I think this is very relevant to all of the people in this audience…" No matter what we do day to day, judgment is at the core of what we do every day. Its why we’re hired, promoted, etc. This kind of decision making skill is central to what it means to be an expert. There are plenty of scenarios where the precise exhaustive analytical style is the right way to go. There are, however, scenarios where flash judgment is the only way to make the decision – judging the authenticity of art is one of those.

In authenticating a piece of art you need to pull from years of experience in study of the field of art and experience in working with art. It becomes and instantaneous pattern matching exercise.

There is the notion of ‘cudoil’ (French for ‘at-a-glance’) that separates great generals from those who are not. This also exists in experts in any field.

There is a hard realty about his type of skill in that it is very difficult (or impossible) for someone to give a precise reason for why they’re able to make the decisions they do. Unfortunately we’re often challenged to defend our decisions by backing up the reasons. This is counter to the nature of how these experts make these flash decisions.

Example of tennis players. One of the worlds greatest tennis coaches can predict with almost 100% accuracy if a player will double fault. He’s seen near 500,000 serves and built up patterns that he can call on to make the judgment, but has no idea "how" he does it.

He interviewed a bunch of famous tennis players asking how to hit a topspin forehand. They all agreed on their answer. When taped, however, they did not actually do it as they said. They spend all day doing this, but don’t know how they do it in a way that they can describe it.

(ASIDE) How useful is it to gather people for a focus group if experts can’t determine how to describe how they do something that they do thousands of times.

Respect the mystery of this kind of wisdom – it can’t be explained to most’s satisfaction.

This kind of wisdom is fragile and easily disrupted. For example, the person responsible for getting this art at the Getty was tainted since the Getty endowment prohibits purchases of art from before 1900. She wanted it to be true.

Cops are all about making high stakes decisions in the face of limited information / uncertainty. Police error is highly correlated with the presence of a second officer. Many precincts have instituted single officer squad cars to combat this. (Young men tend to act rashly when in the presence of others).

High speed chases are also illustrative. Officers tend to make really bad decisions after being involved in a situation as tense as a high speed chase.

Judgment is frugal – it thrives under conditions of informational gap. We greatly over value the importance of a piece of marginal information.

A study suggested that taking away information from doctors and just leaving them with 4 (specific) pieces of information they will diagnose chest pain with a much higher accuracy than if they has much much more information.

In the military the problem is often that we "knew too much". Not that we did not have enough information. Pearl Harbor is an example. We had piles and piles of mail that analysts poured though, but in the end it was journalists that had the best judgment and wisdom – they were deprived of enough information and able to make the best judgment.

"The great decision makers have the courage to walk away from the marginal piece of information."

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