Friday, July 20, 2012

Decision By Anecdote

A legislator representing Raleigh was guilty recently of what a friend of mine calls "decision by anecdote" when he called into question the well-proven fact that roadside billboards cause much harm, not just in terms of blight but soil erosion and water quality.

For him, his position rested solely on the premise that his favorite restaurant chain is one of a of a handful of corporations keeping this obsolete form of advertising on life support.

His comment illustrates a condition all too common in representative bodies of any size including boards of directors: a failure understand or grasp context.

This condition becomes especially damaging when the board or committee is so large (experts believe that 7-11 is optimal) that meetings primarily consist of a series of isolated comments with little or no opportunity for anyone to ask questions or get clarification or to consider context.

The problem is then compounded by impatient list-checkers irritated by discussion or worse, and this is especially true in legislatures today, by members who don't read, study or recall background materials and rely instead on "who's asking," "who's making the motion," or merely a glance around the room to read the eyes or body language of friends and associates or worse a pre-arranged cabal or powerful self-interest.

These are all good reasons for small and extremely diverse governance boards.  If a board is too large, the more vulnerable it is to manipulation.  If it is too small it is vulnerable to corruption.

Context is the ability or propensity to process the present and future by looking back at the past, back through data and research to gather a complete picture, back to a blueprint, back to the unintended consequences of past actions, back to scans of strengths, weakness, advantages and threats, back to strategic plans and intent.

Lack of context at best leads to a tragic failure to see or anticipate repercussions and at worst it fosters corruption, abuse of authority and unethical behavior.

Context is one of the 34 basic talents (natural way of thinking, feeling and behaving) distilled by a group of scientists assembled in 1998 by the late Dr. Donald O. Clifton with whom I had the honor of working in the late 1980s.

These 34 talents were initially distilled from a database of 100,000 individuals, including me, that studies showed had traits that were most suitable for various occupations.  Clifton’s process has proven itself now with over 10 million participants.

Longitudinal studies conducted over a 23 year period, in part by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have shown that a propensity for traits such as these manifest as young as age 3 and change little if at all by age 26.

Scientists have shown that if an individuals has a propensity for context or any of the other 34 talents it will become a strength when fueled with knowledge, skill and practice.  If it hasn't manifest in a person's makeup by the time he or she is 14-16 years old, education professionals have learned that it probably never will.

The ability to make decisions based on context rather than anecdotes or opinions should, in my opinion, be a prerequisite for running for or holding elected office or holding a seat on a governing board at any level.  It should also be an indispensible attribute of anyone given the responsibility of chief executive officer for an organization.

In fact, without talents for seeing things in context and strategic thinking, those having other talents found in chief executives, such as command or achievement or activation, often become bullies.

Especially in politics, with its propensity to make things personal rather than logical, lack of context leads to decisions informed by little more than the push and shove of strong, anecdotal opinions, fueled by lobbyists and special interests.

Lack of context is how otherwise intelligent and well-meaning individuals become the pawns of powerful special interests, partisanship and demagoguery.

Unfortunately context appears to be a talent held by only 7% of the population.  If a representative body is lucky, it has at least one individual with this gift, to whom it can turn when in danger of decision by anecdote.

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