Prioritize potential problems rationally

You could be an oracle if you’d only apply some common sense. That’s the basic conclusion of this post. We often make decisions and rely on heuristics which are very powerful and can often be correct, but can also be distorted by our biases. We’re beset by cognitive distortions and perhaps the worst day-to-day offender is the confirmation bias. In a nutshell, that’s when we choose to only see the things that confirm our position and ignore the things that contradict our position. One example would be this: You walk toward your phone having decided to call a friend who you haven’t heard from in a month or two, at that moment your phone rings and it is that person. Your automatic reaction is that “Oh gee, we must be connected. I was thinking about you so fervently that you felt it and called me.” The friend says, “Oh yeah, must be, I didn’t even have a real reason to call, I just felt like I had to.” And the two of you continue with what you see as evidence of “something more”.

What never crosses either person’s mind is all the time you thought fervently about the friend and they didn’t call, all the times they thought fervently about you and you didn’t call, all the times they called and you hadn’t thought about them at all and all the times you called them and they hadn’t thought about you at all. Furthermore, neither of you think about all the other people you were both thinking about at the same time who either didn’t call you nor got a call from you. So in a given month, there may have been 1,000 missed “opportunities” and you may have been friends for a decade but when you dig into your memory, it has only happened once with that friend. So going by those 1,000 missed opportunities a month for a decade with one hit we are looking at a success rate of 1 in 120,000. This is of course a laughably small set of numbers I’ve chosen to illustrate this with. And I’m only counting one friend, if the same thing happens with all your friends and this “connection” has only happened a couple of times the real number would be a success rate of 1 in a few million. Probably a smaller success rate than winning the lottery (perhaps I exaggerate) but my point stands. We humans are held captive by many mental distortions and they affect our ability to make rational decisions.

I went off on a tangent there and it had nothing to do with the point of the noiseclass. What I was trying to illustrate was that your brain plays little games with you because you brain sucks at math. If your brain can betray you in such a laughably simple thing, imagine what it does to you when you’re doing something important like trying to make a meaningful decision on how to allocate your resources? There is a way to stack the odds in your favor. There’s a way to distance yourself from those curious quirks and make rational decisions. You can anticipate the most likely problems, determine the direction to take by having a proper scale of the issues and the probabilities of certain outcomes.

There is no magic to this, no secret, just plain and simple rationality. If you can do basic math and you are willing to devote any amount of thought, this is easy to do. The answers you get are neither guaranteed nor prophetic, but decisions can be made without any, or at least very little, confirmation bias and other cognitive distortions. There are many different skills or systems we can use in the day to day decisions as well as the major decisions around us. Today, I’m going to focus on how to anticipate problems and prioritize them so that you know where to focus your energy. For this we will learn to utilize the Likert scale. A very powerful technique for determining what problems are likely to occur and which should be addressed. I should note that the Likert scale is not the technique itself. The scale is actually a scale of attitudes that gives us an excellent opportunity to turn attitudes or feelings into numbers that we can compute. I will be drawing on Mind Performance Hacks for this because it explains it perfectly. I make no claims to the invention of this technique. It was first taught to me on a 5-point scale by a high school teacher, but I was reintroduced to it with a 7-point scale by Mind Performance Hacks. So props to Ron Hale-Evans the author and I’m sorry I don’t remember the name of the High School teacher.

So on to the scale. I’m going to use the example out of the Mind Performance Hacks book. We will use estimates of probability (Table 1) and estimates of how important something would be to someone (Table 2):

Table 1

1Very Improbable
3Somewhat Improbable
4Neither Probable nor Improbable
5Somewhat Probable
7Very Probable

Table 2

1Very Unimportant if it happens
2Unimportant if it happens
3Somewhat Unimportant if it happens
4Neither important nor unimportant if it happens
5Somewhat important if it happens
6Important if it happens
7Very Important if it happens

This is a very powerful and useful way to measure priority. If you multiply the two items you get a scale of 1 – 49. You can further multiply that by 2 to get a scale of 2 – 98. The importance of this is that you can create an accurate list of priorities based on a number of options and the likelihood as well as importance of them. Or to further simplify, what should I address first? You might be wondering about the 0,1,99 and 100 of the scale. There are things you can do statistically to perfectly match the normal distribution, but there really is no point and if you remember, I reject a Gaussian view of the world. You will find the answers, the numbers, or the gist of things largely unchanged. Besides, almost nothing can be either completely important or unimportant, otherwise this would be a pointless exercise. So how do you use this? Let’s look at an example:

You are about to release a new product but you have a few concerns. I am going to rip directly from Ron Hale-Evans’ book “Mind Performance Hacks” almost directly. Some of the concerns he came up with in his example were as follows.

No one will care and it won’t sell:

Probability = 4; Importance = 6. Priority = 4 X 6 X 2 = 48%

Someone else will publish a similar project first:

Probability = 2; Importance = 6. Priority = 2 X 6 X 2 = 24%

Some people will resent the open source clause:

Probability = 6; Importance = 2. Priority = 6 X 2 X 2 = 24%

Someone will claim an intellectual property violation and sue:

Probability = 2; Importance = 7. Priority = 2 X 7 X 2 = 28%

For clarity, since I took a short cut here, you can read his book. So these are the priorities we have formulated:

48%No one will care
28%Someone will claim intellectual property violation
24%Some people will resent the open source clause
24%Someone else will publish first

So from this, of all the anticipated problems the priority to address is that no one will care and it won’t sell. When looked at objectively (using subjective measures) we see how many of the concerns we had are a relatively non-issue. Note that the problem that is the highest priority had neither the highest probability nor the highest importance. So many problems we face have similarly counter-intuitive signifiers and outcomes. Many times we waste energy chasing the wrong concerns when sitting back and looking objectively would give us a clearer field of operation to address and adapt to.

How do you assign the values? Well, it’s up to you. Use your expert opinion, or the opinion of an expert, or whatever you want. There are complicated ways to calculate probabilities or you can play it by ear which is what you were already doing. The importance is a personal measure but there are also mathematical ways to come to it, as long as you are consistent. This model is designed to make your personal decision system more rational. You can be as scientific or as creative as you want, but once you turn it into numbers and address it logically you get a clearer image. The output is only as perfect as the input, but it is definitely cleaner and more rational.

One great way to utilize this as part of a group is to have each person, who may have a different way of coming to the probabilities, submit their own scales and you can average them as the mean opinion of the group. This method might even get you more detailed conclusions. However, I’m willing to bet there’ll be little deviation and consensus will be shockingly frequent. Minimal variance will rarely undermine the critical importance of items assuming all players are knowledgeable and have some measure of rational (or irrational) self interest.

It is important to note that there are many ways you could use this. You can use a 5 point, 7 point, 100 point, whatever point scale you want as long as you are consistent. It doesn’t have to be probabilities and importance, you can be creative. It also doesn’t have to be just two dimensions, it could be three or four or more. Use your creativity and you can scale this up for incredibly complex strategic planning and decision making. Its job is to tell you, based on the universe you have created, how to more effectively distribute your efforts. Good luck.

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