Black/White Decisions in a Greyscale World

Post by Rob Collie

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     JACK RYAN:  “…with them in the same place, the odds of coincidence are

     dropping fast. Still, there’s no way I can be… absolutely certain.”

     ADMIRAL GREER:  “Excuse me, Jack.  Tell me one thing in life that IS

     absolutely certain.  What I need to hear is your best guess, and I think

     I’ve heard it.  Haven’t I?”

Belatedly Reviving a Thanksgiving Tradition

In past years I occasionally took Thanksgiving Week as an opportunity to write some more “thoughtful” things, such as The Cult of the Right Thing.

This year, I would like to share something more “on topic” than any of the previous ones, while still very much fitting the theme of thoughtful/reflective.

An Exchange in “Patriot Games” Captures It

The conversation pictured above, between Jack Ryan and Admiral Greer, was pretty much lost on me the first time I saw Patriot Games in 1992.  It’s a relatively “bland” exchange.  No emotion, no drama, no action.

But in subsequent viewings, that brief little clip etched itself in my brain.  It captures something CRUCIAL about being a human being, regardless of what you do for a living.  But for those of us in data-driven professions, I think it’s even MORE relevant.

WHY is it so crucial?  Well, let’s start with Left Brain and Right Brain…

Left and Right Brain:  A Powerful Alliance

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I put “Left Brain” and “Right Brain” in quotes, because I think that physical demarcation has been at least partially debunked in recent years.  But the explanatory power remains, because it DOES highlight the conceptual divide between two VERY different kinds of thinking.

Pause and reflect on the MANY things your brain does in a day.  You are very much “aware” of some things, like deciding on one insurance policy over another for instance, or writing a CALCULATE formula.

Other things happen BELOW the radar:  recognizing someone just by their voice, catching a glass as it slips off the table, finding a particular song to be catchy.  These are ALL functions of your brain, too!

And when you take stock, the VAST majority of your “thinking” happens below the radar!  You’re just not really a “participant” in most of the things your brain does.  I hope that doesn’t bother you, because it shouldn’t.  It’s really quite wonderful, actually:  if we think of our conscious thought as a CPU (which is 100% appropriate, given the way CPU’s operate), there’s this OTHER system, the “right brain,” performing billions of otherwise-impossible calculations every second, occasionally feeding certain information to the CPU (ex:  “hey, that’s Gilbert Gottfried’s voice!”)

Now, Flashback to Childhood!

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We Lack Advanced “Left Brain” Development in Childhood.

In the early years of life, we learn to do some pretty sophisticated things.  We learn to walk, talk, recognize people, and even begin to develop a sense of humor.  My 10 and 12 year old kids are as good at soccer, if not better, than I am at 40.

But oh do we SUCK at the left brain stuff as kids!  Try teaching calculus to the average three year old.  Algebra was torturous (even though I kinda liked it – more on this below).  Heck, even long division was terribly difficult when I was first learning it.

The left brain stuff does NOT come naturally.  I think we can view the entire American education system as a long (and often painful!) assembly line that slowly builds, layer upon layer, left brain skills.  It doesn’t end with school, of course:  learning how to model in Power Pivot is another example of SIGNIFICANT left brain activity.  And um, it’s super fun right?  Don’t answer that.

This Left/Right Brain thing is NOT the focus of this post however.  It’s just a necessary “setup” for something else, and I will start to turn that corner now.

The World “Becomes” Black and White – For a Moment, Anyway.

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Rob as a Teenager:  “I Love Neat and Tidy Answers, and the Feel of a #2 Pencil

’Bubbling Them In’ On a Multiple-Choice Test.  I Have Become Spock.”

To varying degrees, that journey from childhood to algebra has a side effect.  We start to expect the world to just “fit” into clean, black and white answers.  I remember that oh-so-satisfying feeling of an answer that you just KNEW was correct.  It just fit, like the click of a well-engineered mechanical pencil.  The Right Answer practically glowed.  I’d fill it in (on the exam or assignment), confidently move on to the next question, and wait for my tidy numerical reward (in the eventual graded score).

To Recap, the Right Answer existed, there was only One, and you Knew it when you found it.  THAT is what I mean by “black and white” – there was one way to be Right, you could practically SMELL the “rightness” when you found it, and everything else… was Just Wrong.  Heh heh.

Oh, those were the days!  Looking back, I chuckle at the naiveté.  The hubris.  It’s almost like, if I had listened closely in my teens, I could have heard a faint and foreboding “drum roll” in the background.  Something New and Terrible was coming…

…the Horribly Grey Real World (dun dun DUN!)

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Rob at Age 24:  Houston, We May Be Having a Nervous Breakdown

Coming out of college, at first, everything was going according to Plan.  I took a job at Microsoft as a Software Test Engineer in 1996, and wow, were those initial days exhilarating.  The software (Office 97, at the time) was either Working or Broken, and it was my job to find the Broken places!

Better yet, we could write detailed, logical Test Plans, and even OTHER software that helped us find bugs!  Then we had databases that helped us track all of the Broken things we had found.

It was Black and White Heaven, but the cracks were already showing.  Sometimes, it was a judgment call as to whether something was Broken or not.  I’d find a “bug,” like “there’s no ‘Select All’ button in the setup wizard,” and the Program Manager (the referee for what got fixed and what didn’t) would rule that was By Design – something that would not be fixed.  At this point, it was my Moral Duty to be positively Outraged.

But really, that “Outrage” was just Pain.  Two straight decades of successfully identifying the Right Answer had become a big part of my self-image.  To have others question my Right Answers was a big blow to the ego.

It got worse when I left my job in Test to take a job, that’s right, as a Program Manager (PM).  I was drawn to the Program Manager role because I wanted a bigger voice, I wanted to Create rather than just Critique.  That urge persists to this day, and it was absolutely the right decision for me to take the PM job.  Zero regrets.

But it threw me smack dab into the deep end of the “Grey” pool.  I was suddenly expected to make dozens of decisions per day – should the product do X or not?  What happens when the user does Y when they aren’t supposed to?  

My “Spot the Right Answer” radar was borderline useless for this.  I’d strain my brain for hours on end, waiting for the Right Answer to emerge, glowing, of course, as always.  But it would never come.

Other times, SEVERAL answers emerged, and try as I might, I couldn’t narrow them down.  That whole “one right answer” belief kept me beating my head against the wall, looking for the things that would disqualify all but one.

Still other times, One Clearly Correct Answer WOULD emerge, but then I’d submit it to others to implement, only to have them expose it as a Bad Decision.  They would point out some real-world consequence of my “mathematical” decision that was clearly unacceptable.  And I was defeated.

All of this is clear in Hindsight only!  I never realized, at the time, that I was struggling with a Black/White –> Grey transition.

I Think This is a Reasonably Common “Growing Up” Crisis

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Raise Your Hand if My Story Sounds Familiar!

I now believe that many jobs (and especially leadership jobs) more closely resemble my PM job than my Test job.  The whole world is Grey.  Only a few exceptional roles, like my Test job, allow that Grade 1-12 illusion of Black/White to survive past college.

The Rude Grey Awakening also often coincides with the discovery that you aren’t as smart as you thought.  Turns out that you aren’t quite as special as you believed growing up.  That was certainly happening to me at Microsoft in my twenties.  (Read the Cult of the Right Thing for more on that).

I’d hit the Twin Walls of “Grey” and “I’m Not So Special After All.”  What happened next, you ask?

The Next Step in the Progression Can Define You

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Confused World View (Child) –> Black/White World View (Teen) –> Crisis of Grey (20’s)
(And No, You Can’t Live In Crisis Mode Forever – it Will Kill You)

I won’t lie.  My next several years were very unpleasant.  I wasn’t alone – many others were similarly struggling at Microsoft, and I guess I was doing pretty well relative to the average.  I survived, after all, while many others did not.  (Sometimes, sadly, this was literal – we lost a number of colleagues to suicide.)

Thing is, there were still FAR too rock stars running around.  There were some folks doing REALLY well in the same role (PM) that I’d taken on, and I would constantly measure myself against them, knowing that I wasn’t as good.  Ouch.  Ouch ouch ouch!  There was a six month stretch, in 1999, where I was nauseous, to the point of gagging, after EVERY meal.

But slowly, ever so slowly, a new reality was starting to emerge.  Every now and then I’d experience it.  A new set of rules, a new methodology for making decisions.  But it was fleeting.  I couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t make it a habit.

Turning Point:  David Gainer

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This Guy Changed Everything

Around 2003, I ended up reporting to David Gainer, pictured above.  Pretty much the inflection point in my career, self-image, and heck, even just my ability to simply “steer” my own life.

Of course, working for him wasn’t a lot of fun at first, because what new habits I HAD learned at Microsoft, he rejected.  In short, I think MS had partly just taught me an advanced form of black/white thinking, and that STILL wasn’t truly working.

He taught me something different.  I know I’ve delayed the “punchline” for a long time now, so thanks for sticking with me thus far.  Here it comes…

…The World IS Grey, but DECISIONS are Black and White.

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Even in a Grey World, You Just Can’t Split the Difference on Decisions.

Gosh, it sounds so simple.  Maybe you’re not impressed.  But for me, it is profound.  It’s damn near everything.  Let me try another way of saying it…

Our job, our challenge, is to “mine” black/white decisions out of the Grey chaos of the world.  Do you take that job in another state or not?  You don’t get to “grey” that one, do you?  You can’t 75% take it and 25% not.  It’s 100, or 0.

One more try:  we have to take a Grey world and MAKE it black and white.  We shouldn’t try to “discover” the right answer.  The world isn’t going to offer one up (unlike school, which did!)

I know, many of you are STILL disappointed.  THIS is the punchline???  Hey, I get it.  It’s not like this, by itself, suddenly makes you more effective.

But for me, this removed a crucial OBSTACLE to being effective.  The reality of a Grey world was so disorienting that I spent years drifting – while never once realizing that was the root of my struggles.  This is all only clear in hindsight.

So, let’s call this a foundation, a solid rock on which you can stand in a sea of shifting quicksand.  I’d love to travel back in time to 1998 and tell this to Younger Rob Collie:  stop wishing for the return of the black/white clarity of school.  It’s never coming back, so get over it.  That stubborn desire (for it to come back) is preventing you from developing a new way forward.  Learn to MAKE it black and white.

And don’t forget – Jack Ryan himself, Analyst par excellence, struggled with this too.  Then, Darth Vader (aka James Earl Jones, aka Admiral Greer) had to straighten him out.  You will never be absolutely certain, but you have to make a decision anyway.

OK, so HOW Do We “Mine” Black/White Decisions Out of the Grey?

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Yeah, this would be a thoroughly useless article without answering that question, huh?

Hrm, well, tough.  It’s not gonna fit in this space.  And honestly, I’m not the best person to do it.  I think I want to go to the source.  Awhile back, I got clearance (from MS) to interview David himself, but never followed through.  I think this would be a great topic.  He will be uncomfortable with the idea of being “the authority,” of course, but hey, *I* am interested in his take on it.  In truth, this whole Grey vs. Black/White thing is MY view of what he taught me, rather than his.  So let me follow up on that, and maybe with a few others.  If I come up empty, fine, I will circle back and write up my own methods.

I’m also interested in YOUR take of course.  If you have a framework for mining the grey, please share in comments or drop me an email.

A Grab Bag of Parting Notes

#1 – The Black/White worldview isn’t an inevitable outcome of Left Brain Thinking, or even Left Brain Learning.  The Left Brain is Amazing!  Most of what we do with Power Pivot is left brain, after all (although the Right Brain plays an underrated role too). 

I DO think, however, that it’s an inevitable outcome of the way schools test and grade students.  A large system like the American schools would struggle to implement critical thinking and decision making education.  How would we insure that schools were actually succeeding in their attempts to replicate real-world conditions, much less helping students learn to navigate them?  Nope, very hard to imagine.  We’re not going to magically summon an army of millions of David Gainers to serve as our teachers and administrators.  They do exist, but they are the exception.

In fact, we’re headed the OTHER direction, with even MORE standardized, black/white, One Right Answer testing.  We’re now using those results as a critical yardstick for schools and teachers as well.  I think that’s going to produce ever-more graduates with 1998 Rob Collie Disease.  (I tell my kids that what they are experiencing is Fast Food School.  Much like Fast Food simulates Real Food, Fast Food School simulates Real Learning.  At home, we try to supplement with Slow Cooked, Organic Food Learning).

#2 – While I Think I’m Not Alone, I Also Think Not Everyone Lived this Path. 

  1. Maybe you avoided the trap of black/white thinking because you weren’t a fan of math and science classes in high school, and thus got a head start on mining the Grey?  (I firmly believe that my high school math/science “career” was borderline useless, career-wise.  I VERY often encounter FANTASTIC data analysts who were not fans of those classes.  The Data Gene doesn’t care whether you liked high school math or not).
  2. Maybe you went straight into a tech role like my Test role, never left it, and avoided any sort of crisis? 
  3. Maybe you are just less stubborn than I was, and adapted faster? 
  4. Or maybe you DID experience the crisis, and “fled” back into the safe zone of being Spock?  (I suspect this happens a lot actually, and that it’s the fuel for of a lot of the “nerd bullies” we see in certain tech communities like PASS, but I don’t expect people to realize or admit it.  And in fairness, that wasn’t an option for me at MS – it was either soldier forward, or leave.  So it’s not like I was “above” fleeing back into the safe zone.  I would have if I could.)

#3 – I Think the Right Brain Learns from the Left Brain, too.  It’s not all “Right brain informs Left” – it flows both ways.  For instance, when I learned to drive, it was a Long Division-Style Nightmare of epic proportions.  Total concentration.  A million variable to juggle.  No way could I have the radio on – too much noise, too much distraction.  Fast forward to today though, and it’s so habitual that I don’t even remember which stoplights were red vs. green on my most recent drive.  The right brain watches constantly, and “records” or “encodes” left brain-driven activity.  We would never LEARN to drive without the Left brain, but after awhile, we don’t need it to CONTINUE driving.  Over time, even some DAX becomes unconscious too.

#4 – Imagine, for a moment, a world that appreciated Right Brain talent as an equal with Left.  Maybe other cultures do, actually, and it’s just my own personal experience in school that it validated Left while diminishing Right.  In the past few years I’ve come to value Right Brain stuff on even footing with Left, which is a sentence that Teenage Rob would never have expected to utter in a million years.

#5 – that whole saying “In the Zone” that you hear in sports?  Yup, that’s when the Right Brain has taken over and Left has gone quiet.  My handful of high performing sports moments (seriously, they are few) were all sequences that I did NOT personally experience as they happened.  I had to look back on them, and “remember” them from a distance.  Check out this article on golf for instance, or this device that is marketed to athletes and meditation practitioners alike.

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