I do not think there is an idea that is as commonly misapplied in society and in business as causality. There is nothing challenging about the basic concept. It’s the relationship between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood to be a consequence of the first event. Easy, yet we are all wired to screw it up. Misapplication of causation is a plague to successful business and is often more prevalent in young professionals. There are three key causality pit falls we need to avoid for accurate thinking and they are best explained by going tribal!
The idea of causality drives many aspects of our culture including politics, money, religion and countless other topics one does not bring up in proper conversation. I like to use a tribal example to explain my issue with causality best because it seems archaic enough to avoid offending most reader’s beliefs.
Pitfall #1 Rain Dancing:
Somewhere, someplace long ago, times were tough and dry. Out of the blue some bored tribal peoples moved in a rhythmic manner – and it rained. Someone in the group plausibly tied the events together, and rain dances for rain deities followed. If dance causes weather, was Kevin Bacon really just trying to bring rain to a small town in Footloose? This is the perfect example of false causality – taking pointless action hoping for an unrelated result because it seemed to work once. In spite of the rain dances it still rains at normal meteorological intervals and I am positive a number of tribes vanished from existence learning it’s a terrible idea to vigorously dance when you are dehydrated and malnourished.
Business context: Rain dancing is wasted resources in business. It’s taking action and putting resources in activities that don’t help you achieve your goals. This can be prevalent in the “We’ve always done it this way” rituals of business. These are reluctances to move to new technologies or processes that save time and increase productivity because there is a sentimental or superstitious tie to the old way. It can also be just as prevalent in the latest fads. I.E. “Facebook will change B to B marketing circa 2011.” It can clearly be just as wasteful following every new trend and potential opportunity. The key is somebody has to stick their head above the line of lemmings and ask if the action the business is taking is getting you any closer to your goals.
As young professionals, we need to be ballsy enough to expose rain dancing but also measured enough as to not insight claims of heresy. Yes, that is two sided advice, but it is so by intent. Bring your knowledge of new technology and an “outsiders” perspective, while being mindful enough to consider pitfall #2.
Pitfall #2 Planting Fish:
Somewhere, someplace a bit after the dawn of agriculture, some tribal peoples put a fish in the ground with every seed they planted and bingo their crop grew stronger. They assumed their offering to the crop deity greased the wheels of favor and a bountiful harvest followed. It’s safe to say they didn’t have a true sense of fertilizer or nutrition. They got lucky and action rendered a positive result, but not for the reasons they understood. Lucky is fine but it’s inefficient, unpredictable and unsustainable. What happens when they run out of fish? What happens when the environment changes or a new crop is discovered that doesn’t work as well with fish nutrients? Left unchanged with all things equal, is there more nutritional value in the plant that grew or the fish that was sacrificed?
Business context: Planting fish in business is properly identifying the elements in a situation that are creating the effects you want. This is particularly challenging in business because of the many variables and players vying for credit. Ad man: “We ran a super bowl ad in 2014 at a cost of 5 million dollars and sales were up 50%. We need to run one again.” Product man: “We launched a new line of products in 2014 at a cost of 10 million dollars and sales were up 50%. We need to create one again.” Insert accounting man, sales man, consultant man and so on. You have a lot of opinions suggesting that the money (fish) planted in their idea or department will drive success. A business can’t afford to fund all these plantings or they would go bankrupt.
The hardest part for a young person is to find those additional inputs. We often make naive assumptions and miss considering other influences because we lack experience. We are not a CEO that has opinions fed to them by multiple sources. We have to look at the situations we are in, try to identify all the possible inputs and then subjectively determine which ones actually matter and which matter most. It’s not easy and we won’t always do it right, but the key is to always make the effort to dig a layer deeper. Then, when you are digging, be mindful of pitfall number 3.
Pitfall #3 Witch hunting: Understanding your inputs
In this same metaphoric tribe of old, animals were domesticated and none was more sacred than Cluck-Cluck the Chicken. One day Cluck-Cluck went missing. There was only a single feather left in her crude coop. The tribe elders and chief convened and listened to the accusation of the women in the tribe; the men had all gone hunting. In the end Wilber, the only man not hunting due to injury, is accused of making Cluck-Cluck disappear. No one liked Wilber. He had been seen creating fire simply by rubbing two sticks together – truly scandalous for the time, given rock clicking was in vogue. It was clear to everyone present that Wilber practiced witch craft. He was excommunicated and sacrificed to the local cannibal tribe. Thirty minutes after the execution, Cluck-Cluck returned with the men from the hunting trip. She had been used for good luck. The tribe, caught in a moment full of false accusation and conspiracy theories, acted before they got a representative sample of input. Had any of the tribe’s men been consulted, their information would have set Wilber free. The tribe’s chief led by consensus but the consensus was a false subset of the tribe.
Business Context: The Witch hunting pitfall is all about the importance of verifying the data. It’s the step closely associated with fish planting. After you have identified all the components and players claiming to be generating the outcome you desire, you need to verify the data and opinions so you don’t end up on a witch hunt. This is without question one of the hardest things to master. The problem is always verifying data. Some say data is data, it cannot lie. Well that may be true of data, but it is not true of our interpretation of data. If you want proof, watch MSNBC and FOX News the next time economic data is released. I assure you the data will say far different things on each station.
There are really 3 keys to avoid witch hunting. First, take business statistics 101 to help give you reference when viewing data. Grasping the importance of sample size, deviation and margin of error will greatly change how you view data and how you watch the news. This is especially fun come election time. Second always look at opposing views. Be confident in your decisions, but inwardly, always be the one trying the hardest to prove your ideas wrong. That way, failure becomes the point at which you really know you are right! Finally, as Aaron would say R.E.L.A.X. Don’t rush to a decision or consensus until you have gathered and verified all the information you possibly can.
Wrap Up: So now we know the three pitfalls of false causation. Avoid wasteful rain dancing, make sure you understand what resources are rendering your results when planting fish and finally avoid witch hunting by verifying your data!
The following are the answers from the Network Test on pages 2-3 of the newsletter.