Why Design Thinking "Trumps" Big Data

Or "Why the number of films Nicholas Cage stars in annually apparently predicts pool drownings."

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Why: I wanted to write a buzz-worthy post and began to wonder if the title and search terms of an article were more important than the content itself. Do others share my technology-induced ADD? Do all of us need the counsel of ADD leadership coach and psychologist Phil Bossiere?

That said, the making the premise work: Big Data is coming. More and more we will be able to see the correlations between even larger and more disperse sets of data and further unravel the onion-like layers of psychology, science, society, technology and the subtle perturbations of the quantum physics underlying it all. They say "the data doesn't lie"... but it all depends on whether you are asking it the right question. This is where Design Thinking DOES trump Big Data. The core of design thinking always is to ensure "are we asking the right question?" Or as the adage goes,

You can have all the right answers, but it doesn't matter if you are asking the wrong question

Correlation Doesn't Prove Causality: everyone who takes stats 101 learns this phrase, yet history is plagued with an embarrassing pattern of human confirmation bias and erroneous attribution of causality to correlation. Here are a few examples from this excellent article:

  • Hormone replacement therapy was correlated with reduced instance of cardiac disease... until a more important correlation with higher socioeconomic status upended the claim.
  • Crime reduction in the 90's in NYC was attributed to police efforts following the "broken windows theory" and widely credited to those actions and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point... until a better correlation emerged from a potential reduction in birth-rate to low-income mothers driven by Roe v. Wade as popularized by Levit and Dubner in Freakonomics... Except as it turns out the birth rate of at-risk children may have actually increased after Roe v. Wade, so.. what is it?

Other similar claims that were ultimately disproven as nonsense:

  • Eating breakfast = weight loss
  • Eating dinner together as a family = less teen drug use
  • Vaccinations = autism and other issues

Other, funnier spurious correlations: As it turns out given enough data and the ability to process it (e.g. "Big Data") spurious correlations can emerge from all directions. A couple of my favorites:

  • The number of people annually drowning in a pool correlates nearly precisely with the number of films Nicholas Cage appears in.
  • The age of Miss America correlates with annual murders via "steam and hot vapors" (how does one do this? No idea.)
  • The divorce rate in Maine correlates precisely to the consumption of margarine

Asking the right question (and the null hypothesis.) Design thinking constantly anchors to empathy and reframing the question: correlation errors are often driven by confirmation bias - a "belief" that the answer has been found. True statisticians know that you can never "prove" causality from correlation, but they can disprove that things are uncorrelated - a double negative that if inaccurately simplified suggests you can prove causality from correlation.

A terrible question and one of the most embarrassing errors in science: "Does eating fat and in particular saturated fat cause obesity and heart disease?" This question and the corresponding correlation/causality errors over the last 45 years may have killed more Americans than smoking and car accidents combined. Was there a correlation between eating fat and obesity: apparently yes. Was is possible that a lower fat, (and likely higher plant based) diet also correlated with a more health conscious, high income group of people who exercised more with access to better medical care than those who ate a higher portion of fat in their diets? Probably. So the null hypothesis could not be proven (at the time) that eating fat does not NOT cause obesity. The inverse of the null hypothesis was then very logical (if completely flawed):

If you eat fat, you get fat.

Seemingly every doctor and nutritionist in the world with the exception of the much-maligned Robert Atkins jumped on the bandwagon and the US and the world in its wake shifted to a low-fat (and hence high carb) diet in the 70's in accordance with this data and logic.

The Big Fat Lie: unfortunately the correlation that eating fat causes obesity and the corresponding advice to shift to a low fat high carb diet has almost certainly had catastrophic outcomes. The obesity rate in the US was steady at 15% until 1980, and since then has climbed to nearly 40% - close to triple! Lest I also confuse correlation with causality lets get back to our original question and reframe it better: "do our bodies process all foods and calories the same?" and "Which foods lead us to storing fat and which foods lead to burning fat." Better questions that can lead to chemistry vs. correlation.

Chemistry and causality vs. correlation and causality. Data correlations are, as mentioned, slippery slopes to causality, but when you speak physics or chemistry, you CAN prove causality. In physics we have Newton's third law "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." In chemistry and biology there are similar laws including conservation of mass, equilibrium etc. So in testing we can examine what chemicals and hormones are released in the body when consuming certain types of foods, we can then chemically and biologically ascertain which of those food/chemical combinations cause our bodies to burn or store fat, and then we can announce findings with a much greater level of confidence.

And the chemistry says?

Eating fat causes us to burn fat, eating carbohydrates causes us to store fat.

Whoah! how did we have it exactly wrong for so very long?? So basically everything we have been told for 30 years by the "experts" is wrong?? Here we are lambasting McDonalds, when it is really Coke and General Mills that are to blame. I, for one, get angry every time I think about this. For two decades I avoided fats, ate boatloads of bread and pasta, and "carbo-loaded" before every single competition, screwing up all kinds of balances including insulin, causing inflammation and soreness, and taking on probably 5 lbs of extra water weight to carry around the track. Now that I'm low carb, I can see it dramatically any time I go off the wagon: shaky nerves, creaky joints, and an immediate weight gain of 5 lbs. of water. I can speak to this from personal experience, but slowly and quietly the world's experts have eschewed their prior guidance: here are three great books: Eat Fat, Get Thin In Defense of Food It starts with Food

For God's sake, I ate Margarine instead of butter for 25 years! At that time dietary guidelines had butter as Charles Manson and coconut oil was the devil. Now along with millions of other bullet-proof coffee aficionados I put a tablespoon of both coconut oil and butter into my coffee every morning. Just 3 years ago I switched to a high fat low carb diet and within 3 weeks I lost 20 lbs and looked 10 years younger. Eating eggs and butter every day, my cholesterol has dropped significantly and my weight and body fat have stabilized at very healthy levels.

Conclusion: Design Thinking (and asking the right questions) needs to guide Big Data Correlations. We are all human beings and subject to all sorts of biases driven by complex psychological schemes and evolutionary holdouts and shortcuts. The emergence of Big Data and its limitless possibilities for potentially spurious correlations will most likely lead to a host of new rabbit trails and red herrings. Who knows what new wrong questions we might ask and what new unintended consequences may result. I, for one, am glad we no longer have saccharine in our diet sodas, but the reality is, saccharine is slightly less carcinogenic than green beans. Oops. Oh well, bring on the butter!

What kinds of questions are we going to get wrong with the advent of big data ?

PS: I assume somewhere in this article I too attributed correlation to causality, an egregious hypocritical fractal. Apologies in advance - please point it out kindly.




The 10,000 Hour Rule: True . . . and Also Nonsense

What is the "10,000 Hour Rule?" If you are a reader of leadership literature over the last decade then you almost certainly have come across the proposition that "Talent is Overrated" (Geoff Colvin) and that excellence in just about any field comes down to simply hours of practice as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Here's an excerpt from his famous book Outliers:

“Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second group were those judged to be merely ‘good.’ In the third were students who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?

Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, until by the age of twenty they were practicing — that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better — well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.”

The Error: What vs. Why, Correlation vs. Causality. The data looks pretty convincing - the facts are straight "more practice = better performance." But like all correlations attempting to prove causality, there is the risk of unidentified factors - also correlated - that actually drive the results. In this case I think the error is in the question itself (first law of Design Thinking: "are we asking the right question?"). Sure we have the "what leads to great results?" question, and the clear answer is "diligent practice." But I think a better question is "why do great performers practice more than their peers?" And I think the answer to this, potentially more important question, circles back to strengths, talent, and "flow."

What is "Flow" and how is it related to talent? If you have missed the waterfall of books and articles on "Flow" (sorry) just pick up Steven Kotler's book "The Rise of Superman". "Flow" or "The Zone" or "The Peak Performance State" describes those moments of high concentration where time simultaneously stops and speeds up and we deliver our very best performances. Building off Csikszentmihaly's work, Kotler examines the neurobiology of these "altered states" and finds two interesting things: 1) The Flow state is dependent on mastery of the task at hand (native or developed talent) and the Flow state produces the worlds most desired (and addictive) set of chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphis and serotonin.

"For example, when you snort cocaine. All the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin) and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally." 

Peak Performers are addicted! Back to our central question, "WHY do great performers practice more than their peers?" I think the answer is clear: they enter into the flow state more than their peers, become more addicted to the results of the activity, and hence they voluntarily practice more than everyone else. (Sometimes the additional practice is driven from an outside force as well: emotionally manipulative parents and coaches can also drive the 10,000 hours - that's a whole other article.) From Csikszentmihaly:

"In many ways, one might say the whole effort of mankind throughout the millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence."

Whoah! The whole effort of mankind??? Possibly confirmation bias on Csikszentmihaly's part, but given the $11 Trillion (Kotler) spent annually in the global economy on legal and illegal ways to produce these chemicals in our bodies, perhaps not as grand a statement as it seems.

Putting it together: top performers practice more than anyone else. Most top performers are driven to practice more than others because they are chasing flow. The chicken or egg question is which came first - the practice or the flow state? There is good evidence that willpower is both limited and fairly evenly distributed - e.g. that the super-disciplined athlete or performer is a myth. Given this fact, I would argue that without some initial "beginner's flow" (or "talent") most individuals will not have the desire nor willpower to pursue the practice necessary to master the 10,000 rule.

In Conclusion: Identifying natural talents or strengths allows for "beginner's flow." The struggle / reward cycle of the flow state, once initiated, leads to practice. Practice leads to mastery which leads to even more flow moments. Talent is NOT over-rated (but it is not enough.) Flow is under-rated. It is time to discover our strengths and talents and spend more time in flow.

This leads me to my favorite question - and conversation starter:

What are you best at???
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How to Prepare for a TED Talk

How Do You Memorize All That? I'm often asked how I prepare for my talks - particularly for the rapid-fire, time-limited venues like the two TEDx talks and Chicago Ideas Week talk I have given.

If I Had More Time I'd Write You a Shorter Speech: Other than having a great story, useful data and a simple 1 - 2 - 3 framework, the other essential element for a great TED talk is to know your material inside and out, especially key concise phrasing required to deliver a complex topic in 18 minutes. This takes practice - but how to master 18 minutes of new material? Here's how I learn to memorize the outline of a talk and key phrases...

One Proven Approach: (That may, or may not work for you.) I follow the steps below for any new speech:

1) I write out the talk completely long-hand just the way I would say it (~10-12 single spaced typed pages for a 15 minute talk) along with movements, gestures and things to highlight. For an example click here to view my blog post on this topic.

2) Distill it to an outline with the key points and certain specific phrases to memorize

3) Start practicing using the outline - out loud (usually in the car as that’s a good place to be private) and timing myself. The first pass of my Chicago Ideas Week Talk was 34 minutes - I had to compress it to 18!

4) After practicing a few times using the notes, distill the outline to short 2 - 8 word bullets, (approximately 2 pages long) practice again and again until I don't need the notes. I memorized more than 80% of my Ideas Week talk word-for-word to the tight scripted phrasing to finish it on time while covering the topic thoroughly. This meant I practiced it ~30 times end-to-end.

5) Print the bullets on 4 X 6 cue cards - usually 4-6 of them. Staple, keep in my pocket for the talk as a backup and then don't ever use them : ) Talk pretty, bow to the applause.

In Conclusion: This process works as it forces you to A) outline your story and tighten your language B) learn key words and triggers to practice with C) allow you to show up confident in your material.

When You Were a Kid, How Long Did Summers Last?

Two years ago October I came home from work, picked up a pencil, and started writing a poem. This was notable because a) I don’t write poetry, b) I type almost everything and c) when I don't type I use a pen, not a pencil. Regardless, 15 minutes later and I had completed a draft of a poem that represented my deepest thinking and emotions about time.

Shortly thereafter I started meeting weekly with friend and video editor Michael Ziener to bring the poem to life. More than two years later this passion project is finally complete and today we are releasing the first of eleven stanzas of the video - if you like it please share with your friends and family. We will release the entire “Art of Really Living Manifesto” a On November 21st, 2016.

Endless Summers and Dirty Knees... a Guest Post by Katelina Coyle

Sometimes I just want to have fun. This sentiment is not the musings of a very young child. I just want endless summers, dirty knees, and adventures at night where we let our minds run wild in the dark.

Sometimes I catch myself growing up. Sometimes I notice how things have changed without warning. Sometimes I look out the window to the children playing outside and wonder when that stopped being me… and sometimes I forget that was ever me.

Sometimes I just want to have fun, yet always when I do, I can’t. I won’t. Maybe it’s my age, or that I’m too tall now, maybe I’m afraid I’ll look stupid or something of that sort. This, then is the price of growing up… and maybe, the price of being afraid.

Sometimes I just want to have fun,  and sooner or later I’ll be too busy to even consider. And when the reality of the disenchanting teenage world sinks in, I let it. But what if I can’t turn back? I’ve been captured by the not-so-kindness of my youth and age, but wonder if I’m lost forever. There is still so much I want to do!

I want endless summers, dirty knees and adventures at night where minds run free. 

Interview: Entrepreneur on Fire with John Lee Dumas and John K. Coyle

John and I discuss the role of strengths in breakthrough performance, why it matters, and "horology" - my fascination with time.