Most people in an organization aren’t in charge of formulating strategy; they just have to understand the strategy and use it to make decisions. But many strategies aren’t concrete enough to resolve a well established psychological bias called decision paralysis. Psychologists have uncovered situations where the mere existence of choice, even choice among several good options, seems to paralyze us in making decisions.
Every organization must make choices among attractive options: Customer service versus cost minimization. Revenue growth versus maximizing profitability. Quality versus speed to market. People development versus the needs of the quarter. Mix together lots of these tensions—an atmosphere full of potential opportunities and risks and uncertainties and incomplete information—and you’ve got a recipe for paralysis.
Consider this need to do-something through an illustrative example. In the 1930s, 389 children were presented to New York City doctors; 174 of them were recommended tonsillectomies [surgically removing the tonsil, a small bell shaped piece of organ hanging inside your throat]. The remaining 215 children were again presented to doctors, and 99 were said to need the surgery. When the remaining 116 children were shown to yet a third set of doctors, 52 were recommended the surgery…note that a death occurs in abo ut every 15000 such operations…every child who undergoes an unnecessary operation has a shortening of her life expectancy.
When you medicate a child for an imagined or invented psychiatric disease, say, ADHD or depression, instead of letting him out of the cage, the long-term harm is largely unaccounted for.
…the doctor who refrains from operating on a back (a very expensive surgery), instead giving it a chance to heal itself, will not be rewarded and judged as favourably as the doctor who makes the surgery look indispensable, then brings relief to the patient while exposing him to operating risks, while accruing great financial rewards to himself.
It’s an underlying human tendency to say ‘Look what I did for you’ than ‘Look what I avoided for you.’
If you watched TV in the 1970s, you may remember Peter Falk’s trenchcoat-wearing detective, Lieutenant Columbo. After he finished quizzing a murder suspect about her whereabouts on the night in question, he would pick up his rumpled raincoat and head out the door. As he reached the threshold and was about to leave, he would turn around, stick his finger up to his temple, and say, “Excuse me, ma’am, but there’s something I forgot to ask.” This question invariably gave Columbo the answer he needed to figure out who did it.
If there’s a particular question you need to answer to, or a piece of data that you want, the Columbo tactic is often a good way to get it. Once the interview is over, everybody becomes more relaxed. The interviewee’s sense that you have some power over him will have disappeared. He is far less likely to be defensive, and will often tell you what you need or give you the information you seek on the spot. Try it; it works.
The Columbo Tactic is a psychological maneuver used by persuasion experts. It’s a subtle hack that goes unnoticed if one doesn’t know about it but it can get you what they want from others, i.e., compliance.
I have been at the receiving end of The Columbo Tactic at least once in my life.
In December 2003, I was resigning from my first job. The Vice President invited me to his cabin for an exit interview. He was obviously concerned because I was leaving the company after spending merely five months. The meeting was done in 20 minutes and I was stepping out of his office. Just when my one foot was out of his cabin, he fired the Columbo shot.
“By the way Anshul, are you sure there is no other reason for leaving the company?”
That was 15 years back but now I can connect the dots. The VP did know a thing or two about human psychology and persuasion tactics.
Greek mythology has a story about a bandit called Procrustes. His name means “the stretcher.” True to his name, Procrustes was a rogue smith who would abduct travelers, treat them with a lavish dinner and invite them to spend the night in a special bed.
He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection, writes Taleb in his book The Bed of Procrustes, “Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.”
Nobody ever fitted the bed exactly and Procrustes’ reign of terror continued until he was captured by Theseus who “fitted” Procrustes in his own bed.
A Procrustean solution is thus the practice of forcefully fitting reality to the rigid containers of theoretical models and preconceived structures. This post is a compilation of my highlights and notes from The Bed of Procrustes — Taleb’s lesser known book.