Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Testing For Reasonableness

Today, I sat in on 'The Business of Entertainment', hosted by Charlie Rose. The most interesting character was not the accomplished blue blooded CEO of Time Warner Inc., Jeff Bewkes, but rather Joe Roth, a self-made eccentric film producer. After discussing the ups and downs of his own career in producing blockbuster movies, his inherent message was that learning the business was the easy part.  What set him apart were the necessary street smarts, savvy, and ability to trust his own gut.  That loyalty was most important in his line of work. He attributes his overwhelming success to this faithfulness to his primitive brain.

A few years ago, I had a boss try to train me out of my instinct. He thought of me as a leader in the making and thought I could be greater, if it wasn't for my pesky habit of leading by my gut. He attempted in every way possible to force me to trust market research and conventional wisdom first, rather than the innate wisdom that I knew to be truer. It caused friction and questioning of him and myself.

This was not something I could abide. Throughout my life I've been guided by my instincts, my sense of people, my perception of my environment. When I've listened, truly listened, they have never steered me wrong, I've seen success, growth and have been awed. But when I haven't heeded the 'little voice', I've had some of the worst blunders and failures of my life.

Maybe for some people, statistical certainties and market research data inform their decisions better than their own sense of how the system should work. It helps them trust the rules outside themselves. In engineering school and even with children I've mentored, the best ones, the ones who really 'got it' had a sense for numbers. Beyond basic calculations and understanding of complex concepts, some students were able to hazard an estimation on the back of an envelope or know that a written calculation was somehow wrong. Those people have a deep feel for orders of magnitude and have automatic mental tests for reasonableness. The ones who never questioned an answer, no matter how absurb, because they followed a formula, frustrated me.

It reminds me of my experience last night. I attended a special board meeting for our condo building. The complex is in a heated debate about a construction contract, soon to be completed and another soon to be negotiated. Thomas and I are have been frustrated by the lack of transparency coming from the board, which makes them seem more dishonest than they actually are. After arguing with some board members on specific numbers quoted and assumptions made, we both realized that it is really not a matter of veracity. We realized that it is about a basic sniff test for reasonableness. It is sadly just not within everyone's bandwidth.

Maybe we need people to be the guardians of the rules, the ones who seek out experts, calculate by rote formulas, think within the box. I think I need them most of all, so that the defiant child in me, and others like me can find ways to break them--- the rules that is.