Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Trust In Process, Not People

Even if we've moved on from the "Great Man Theory" of history, the very human desire for simple stories with clear protagonists continues to affect us today.

I was reminded of this fact by a Fast Company story on how Jeff Bezos and Amazon designed and launched the (at this point) unsuccessful Amazon Fire Phone.  Austin Carr (presumably not the former professional basketball player) wrote a fascinating, carefully-reported piece on how Bezos drove the project, and the (apparent) mistakes he made along the way, such as demanding a premium phone with innovative technology like Dynamic Perspective, as opposed to building a "value" product.

(I'm hedging all of my descriptions because, regardless of the thesis of this essay, I'm still terrified that Bezos will somehow make the Fire Phone a monster success and make me look as ridiculous as the analysts who predicted the iPhone would flop.  That's how much I respect his abilities.)

There's a particularly telling passage that describes how the Fire Phone team was skeptical about Bezos' chosen product direction, but felt they had to give him the benefit of the doubt:

"When it came to the Fire Phone, says one former product lead, "Yes, there was heated debate about whether it was heading in the right direction. But at a certain point, you just think, ‘Well, this guy has been right so many times before.’"
Therein lies the mistake that most of us (including me) are guilty of committing.  We focus on the people, rather than the process that they follow.  Focusing on people just feels good and right--there's a reason we make movies about heroes, and not macroeconomic forces.

When someone has made as many good decisions as Jeff Bezos, we assume that he is a good decision-maker, as opposed to thinking that he follows a good decision-making process.  Yet even geniuses can make mistakes, especially when swelling overconfidence causes them to believe in their own omniscience.

Smart people are especially prone to this mistake--just ask any Hacker News reader who believes he knows the answers to the world's problems, or any technology tycoon who believes he knows more about journalism than its practitioners.  Even the late, great Steve Jobs, perhaps the greatest business savant Silicon Valley has ever known, probably cost himself years if not decades of healthy life by opting to treat his cancer with an all-fruit diet rather than surgery.

Evaluate ideas based on evidence, not provenance.  Just as "because science" isn't a valid explanation, neither is "because Bezos," "because Jobs," or any other such invocation of sainted authority.

4 comments:

Dana said...

The overall consensus was, and still is, that Jobs acted selfishly, stupidly, and irresponsibly when he refused surgery in October of 2003, at the time of his original diagnosis. Based on the natural history of his disease, Jobs acted in none of these ways. The cancer had spread many years BEFORE his diagnosis, and was unstoppable by any means, including surgery. https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2011nl/nov/jobs.htm

Chris said...

McDougall, while well-intentioned, is not an oncologist or cancer expert. He is a former internist who has developed his own set of beliefs about the ability to treat degenerative diseases with diet alone.

I can either believe a wide array of cancer experts with specific training, or Dr. McDougall. While it is certainly possible the McDougall is right and the consensus is wrong, that seems unlikely to me.

Many people (my mother included) like to cite the tendency for medical science to get things wrong (fats versus carbs, etc) as license to believe whatever they want. I could not disagree more.

As my post states, evidence, not provenance.

Paul O'Rorke said...

As a scientist, I believe in generating hypotheses and testing them by looking at evidence. But often, especially when innovation is involved, relevant evidence doesn't exist.

In spite of long training in decision theory, logic and reasoning and even tho it is possibly unscientific I believe in intuition. Steve Jobs deemed intuition "more powerful than intellect."

At the risk of going a little ways back in the direction of the "great man" theory, I believe that great leaders are great because they are able to inspire other people to help them do great things
and they have exceptional intuition about great things to do and/or how to do them.

Great leaders don't do anything in a vaccuum or by themselves but great leadership makes a crucial difference.

Both people and processes are important. In the Bezos example it's important that Amazon find ways to contradict him forcefully when it's appropriate and keep him from running the company into the ground while taking advantage of his great leadership. It's important that he not be surrounded by "yes" men, for example.

Chris said...

Paul, you're absolutely right that "great men" (and women) do have a huge impact. Jobs was a genius. Bezos remains a genius. But as you point out, even geniuses aren't infallible.