Improvement or optimisation?

LinkedIn and Bad Science

Bad Science

I’m more aware of bad science than ever since reading Ben Goldacre’s book of the same name a few years ago. Familiarity bias and proximity bias no doubt!.  So, another day, and another LinkedIn post from a well-meaning consultant using “science” to support their argument. This post links to a YouTube video about business leadership.  It makes a perfectly reasonable point about how much interconnectedness there is in the world. The author could support their argument using ideas from Systems Thinking, for example.  However, they invoke, and then mangle, the idea of entanglement from quantum mechanics; a favourite subject for purveyors of woo.

Quantum confusion

Entanglement states that the way sub-atomic particles interact means their quantum state cannot be described independently regardless of physical location. In other words, a change in the spin of one entangled particle will be replicated in the other no matter how many light years separate them.    Now, this might be OK if the entanglement of quantum theory was limited to an analogy, but we are urged to believe that this long-distance connection between sub-atomic particles explains some mystical connection between all humans.  Why? Well, according to the author it is because, of course, we are all made of atoms! Logically, this is the equivalent of stating that humans must be born from clouds because we mostly consist of water and, you guessed it, water comes from clouds too!

Scientific method

The principles of the scientific method are to test hypotheses to find out if they stand up.  The assumption is that most hypotheses will be replaced by better ones as we learn more. Sometimes they withstand testing and experiment sufficiently well to become a theory that provides a robust explanation of something significant.  A good example is the theory of evolution.  Non-Scientists often misunderstand the meaning of the word theory in a scientific context.  The misunderstanding is given away by statements such as: “Evolution? It’s only a theory”. Free speech is important so, by all means, everyone should be free to post any idea that crosses their mind.   However, if you don’t understand the science you want to cite, please remember the quote from Chris Morris’s excellent “Brass Eye” TV series: “…there’s no evidence for it, but it’s a scientific fact”.  At least then we’d know you were only joking even if you are unaware yourself.  
Board room table

Corporate governance reform needed

Corporate governance has been reformed and improved, but recent evidence suggests there is more still  to do.

Financial Services

As Standard Chartered Bank and HSBC join Barclays in the rogues gallery of banks that have suffered severe failures of corporate governance, the reputation of commercial banks can, surely, only be recovered through fundamental reform of corporate governance rules, and the associated regulatory bodies for the financial services industry.

Other industries

Today’s revelation that Oracle Software will pay $2m (£1.27m) to settle federal civil charges of failing to prevent secret payments in its Indian sales operation and the recent fiasco here in the UK surrounding the inability of G4S to fulfil its contractual obligations to give security for the Olympic Games suggests that corporate governance issues extend to businesses in other industries beyond financial services.

Corporate governance regulation and culture

There have been number of actions in recent years that should have improved things. In the UK, for example, there have been changes to the regulatory bodies responsible for financial services, but the evidence suggests that there are too many cases of the FSA having to ‘cure’ problems and not having prevented the problems in the first place. Our consulting experience tells us that, in many cases of systems failure, the cause can be attributed to lack of commitment of people to, in this case, the regulatory regime and, therefore, the principles underpinning it. Cleaning up the behaviour of people inside businesses requires significant change to the culture of many corporations. The culture is informed by the values which, in young, small firms are set by the founder and in large, more mature corporations are set by the Board. In both cases, the existence of a culture that allows, or in extreme cases, condones bad practice is a failure of leadership. Reinforcement of the standards expected by society can be addressed, at least partly, by fines and regulation. In this case, the failure of regulation could also be a failure of leadership which, in this case, means political leadership. However, as the financial and political strength of corporations grows alongside their international reach, political failings aren’t always attributable to political leaders. In many countries the ability of national regulation to control global businesses is severely limited.  This is often due to the relative political and economic weakness of small nation states relative to large, global corporations. If we take banking as a defined segment of the financial services market, it might be time for national governments to recognise that co-operation towards a unified international corporate governance framework of principles, regulation and enforcement backed up by co-ordinated action from national governments is overdue.
Lazy Management development

Lazy Management development

Body language is often included as part of management development programmes.  It’s easy to see why.  Telling people that crossed arms indicate resistance to what you are saying seem reasonable based on ‘common sense’.  However, as with many favourite topics on training courses, the evidence to support a lot of this stuff is either flimsy or non-existent.

The problem for management development

An excellent April 2013 New Scientist article “Lost in translation: Body language myths and reality“, by Caroline Williams, highlights a number of myths about “reading” body language.  Sadly, many of these myths are presented as ‘facts’ in management training and development programmes.  The giveaway is that they are presented with no evidence to support them. This lazy repetition of assertions that make the trainer sound insightful or that are simply attractive sound bites is bad practice and could cause damage by perpetuating myths that are either untrue or,at best, half-truths.

An example

For example, how many trainers involved in management development will admit to repeating one of the canards cited in the article rather than checking the evidence first.  Maybe you have heard it or used it yourself.  The assertion is that 93 per cent of our communication is non-verbal, and only 7 per cent is based on what we actually say. This figure came from research conducted over 40 years ago by Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He found that if the unspoken message conveyed by tone of voice and facial expression differed from the word being used (for example, saying the word “brute” in a positive tone and with a smile), people tended to believe the non-verbal cues over the word itself. From these experiments Mehrabian calculated that perhaps only 7 per cent of the emotional message comes from the words we use, with 38 per cent coming from tone of voice, and 55 per cent from other non-verbal cues.

The source of the myth

The article explains that Mehrabian has spent much of his time in the past forty years explaining that he never meant this formula to be generalised, and that it only applies to very specific circumstances — when someone is talking about their likes and dislikes. Mehrabian claims that “unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable” and so the oldest stat in the body language book isn’t quite what it seems. As Williams points out, if we really can understand 93 per cent of what people mean without using words, we don’t need to learn foreign languages and we would never get away with telling a lie. Needless to say, we believe this is another reason to support the value of evidence-based training as part of management development.