Monday, 31 January 2011


What drives innovation? Ray Rothwell constructed 5 models to describe how the innovation process has developed over time: the Technology Push Model, the Market Pull Model, the Coupling Model, the Integrated Model and the Systems Integration and Networking Model.

There has been a steady decline in sales of newspapers in the UK and growth in the range of free newspapers distributed morning and evening at railway stations. Television and radio news compete with print media to offer faster delivery of breakings stories and developments. We have become accustomed to 24 hour news. Improved technological capability of the internet offers us increasing access to free news via search engines and several newspapers have embraced the medium enthusiastically, without considering the risk of substantial loss of revenue and fall off in print sales. Blogs offer products to a niche market, providing coverage from war zones, from people with greater access to politicians, or from those with a specific interest. Traditional newspapers sometimes seem to be behind the curve in the content provided. Customer needs have shifted: People have become accustomed to receiving free news via the internet, which has increased the problem of selling 'old news' through print media. Increasingly those on the move receive information through mobile devices (phone/smart phone, such as the Blackberry, laptop/tablet computer, such as the iPad). Content and visual material is no longer guaranteed to appear in A4 size and our attention span may not stretch far in this busy world.

Rupert Murdoch bucked the trend and decided that readers should pay for online content. Since July 2010, for example, readers who don't subscribe to the print edition of Times newspapers are required to pay for online access.

How well did the Times paywall succeed? Not very well so far. Just because NewsCorp has the technological capability to block those who want a freebie, doesn't mean that readers will pay up when free access is denied.

When readers expect free content, how can news media pay for itself?

Free newspapers depend on advertising revenue to fund them. Some blogs rely on advertising or sponsorship to provide an income stream. One blogger, Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes), went from bankruptcy to profitable business owner by running Message Space, a company that sells ads on political blogs across the spectrum. Advertising revenue depends on the volume and desirable market segment of the readership. Technology can deliver some of this information in real time, particularly geographic location of readers and their focus of interest on the page, as well as how they arrived at the specific story. Web sites may gain additional data if they can encourage readers to register. One method is to encourage people to sign up for email alerts for the latest stories or for access to a members only area with additional benefits.

Are all paywalls a complete failure? Not according to commentators.

Success depends on a tricky balance between free access and payment. If some content is free, then content is listed on search engines, providing visibility and access. If no content is free, then publications slip off the internet radar and readership plummets. One model is to provide content to subscribers for a month and then allow free access when it's no longer 'fresh'. Another model is to provide metered access, so that readers may see part of an article for free or a small number of articles per month before being asked to pay. Much depends on the perceived value of the content. Journalists might complain that blogs don't have to obtain independent verification of stories and may be subject to bias, but recent news about the fall off in registration with the Press Complaints Commission undermines this argument.

Some news outlets make most money by selling goods, rather than content. City University of New York did a study of new business models for news which revealed that the Telegraph earned 1/4 of its profits last year from merchandising direct to readers(and became the largest UK retailer of coat hangers.)

A different type of paywall model is offered by Bloomberg. Bloomberg LP originally offered specialist financial data via a Bloomberg terminal (custom hardware). This service now runs as software with 3 levels within standard computers. Bloomberg has seen off competitors offering lower priced alternatives and continues to thrive. The niche is within the lucrative financial sector, where accurate, reliable, timely 24 hour news is essential. Customer service is another feature that explains customer retention. Bloomberg have also mastered the art of repackaging information for various audiences and providing a range of free and paid for content across its media outlets.

Rothwell's work focusses on manufacturing innovation. In the shift away from print media, innovations in digital processes and printing technology become increasingly marginal in the competition for market share. Rothwell highlighted the increasing importance of a powerful electronic toolkit in design processes and management information systems. Rapid innovation has become essential. In this example, the internet is becoming the central focus of development, whereas the medium of delivery may be computers, television, radio and a range of mobile devices.

People will pay for quality content that they value. Increasingly this is a specialist niche market, where the provider offers free tasters so the reader knows what is on offer. High levels of customer service are essential for premium price/value products.

Innovation proceeds at an accelerating pace and all news producers need to keep an eye on future trends to avoid stagnating in old technology or bankrupting the company by blind adoption of the new. 'Follow the Free' may be one philosophy in changing times. Andy Grove, former CEO of INTEL, summarised another view neatly in his book: Only the paranoid survive.


The News of the World has folded and Rupert Murdoch is under pressure from politicians in the UK and USA. Perhaps UK politicians like the idea of haranguing the media after the exposure of their expenses fiddling. It's curious that we have comments from saintly politicians such as John Prescott, who was revealed to have had sex with a civil servant when he was supposed to be deputy leader of the government and Chris Huhne, who is alleged to have forced his wife and son to lie so that he did not lose his driving licence... yes the same Chris Huhne who ran an election campaign promoting himself as a fine upstanding family man, when he was having an affair and planning to leave his wife. Our statesmanlike former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, gave a passable imitation of a 5 year old stamping his feet in the school playground when giving a recent (rare) speech to Parliament. Ed Milliband has his own links to News Corp.

The London Mayors (past and present) have provided a comedy routine on their relationship with News International.

The outlook for print media is gloomy and it is unlikely that former readers of TNOTW will turn to other newspapers. Rupert Murdoch will survive and continue to innovate in all forms of mass media.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Wicked oil (3)

How do Rittel's criteria link to the Wicked oil problem?

10 The planner has no right to be wrong

The oil company has no right to be wrong (around the USA)
During the Gulf of Mexico incident, President Obama spoke critically of BP's actions and announced that they would be forced to contribute substantial funds to clean up the area and compensate those affected directly and directly by the oil spill.

9 The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution

The discrepancy between environmentally sound supply and demand was explained by excess consumption and reliance on one energy source
What is less often publicised are President Obama's firm statements about the context of the event. He suggested that it highlighted America's dependence on oil supplies and the need to reduce consumption and consider alternative sources of energy. A new energy policy was proposed, but had a lukewarm reception.

8 Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem

High petrol prices are a symptom of supply problems, exploration costs, environmental protection costs, increasing consumption, unregulated commodity market speculation, population growth, greed, waste, government taxes............

7 Every wicked problem is essentially unique

At first glance the oil crisis can be compared to the global water crisis. There is NO substitute for water in the human body or agriculture, so we cannot explore alternative technology to flush kidneys, transport blood products round the body or enable plants to grow.

6 Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that might be incorporated into the plan

There are no Queensberry Rules for oil production, distribution and consumption. Even FIFA has problems applying their set of rules for the conduct of the World Cup. Sepp Blatter was attacked in South Africa for banning camera technology in deciding disputed decisions by linesmen and referees.

5 Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly

When Russia or the US drill for oil in the Artic, there is no prior experience to indicate the consequences for the environment. Putin can't replace the ice cap if the unintended consequences are disastrous.

4 There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem

How do we know that there is enough oil in reserve for world consumption and that it can be extracted without cost to lives and environment? Is there an oil x-ray/thermometer/infallible algorithm? Nope.

3 Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad

A team of designers set out to design a new fuel efficient car. Firstly they discovered that traditional ways led them to trip over each other in accommodating for different systems. Secondly, when they all
collaborated over a blank sheet of paper, they devised a small car that could drive from West to East coast USA on one tank of petrol. For Western populations, that have embraced the gas guzzling SUV, I imagine this would be tough to accept. For Western politicians perhaps war is more acceptable than risky off shore oil exploration.

2 Wicked problems have no stopping rule

We'll need energy until the planet/the species dies. Oil has many uses beyond fuel and those applications will require substitutes, if possible. Our oil problem may be eclipsed when another energy source becomes the dominant commodity.

1 There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem

We started with: How do we cut petrol prices? This simple question is inextricably linked to a mess of problems, symptoms and proposed solutions. In the UK we are criticised for squandering our oil resources (compared with other countries such as Norway) Scotland is campaigning for independence from the UK, in part so that remaining oil resources benefit Scotland rather than subsidising SE England. There is no consensus on oil prices and their cause:

So what?

Yep this is a wicked problem. We don't walk away and say it's impossible to tackle. Oil exploration companies are working to find and extract sources of oil around the globe. Politicians are balancing the need for tax income to strengthen the economy, the importance of encouraging fuel saving and tax payer resistance to further demands on their money.

Rittel and Webber remind us that wicked problems can be exhausting and frustrating. We need support in tackling them. Realistically our actions may have limited impact, if we have little power and no appetite to jeopardise our job. Krackhardt and Hanson can help amplify the impact of our interventions if we learn to build trust and support informally.

We can start by recognising that a sub-set of the wicked terrain can be tackled and may be phrased as a more Tame and manageable problem. How can we maintain stable oil prices? Seems to be the UK government's problem statement when planning specific tax/subsidy devices. How can we maintain oil supply for the forseeable future? seems to be Russia & BP's problem statement behind the decision to prospect for oil in the Arctic.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Wicked oil (2)

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber developed the concept of wicked problems in relation to planning issues. I've done work with planners and have experienced their frequent 'yes, but' responses during Idea Generation phases of creative problem solving, so I recognise that their field is constrained by many competing factors. Rittel and Webber identified the challenge of context in dealing with social problems, which makes these wicked problems so difficult to tackle.

Rittel and Webber identified at least 10 distinguishing properties of wicked problems summarised in the following extract from their 1973 paper:

1 There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem

The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one's idea for solving it. In order to describe a wicked problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time. The reason is that every question asking for additional information depends upon the understanding of the problem - and its resolution - at that time.

2 Wicked problems have no stopping rule

In solving a chess problem or a mathematical equation, the problem-solver knows when he has done his job. There are criteria that tell when the or a solution has been found.

Not so with planning problems.

The planner terminates work on a wicked problem, not for reasons inherent in the "logic" of the problem. He stops for considerations external to the problem: he runs out of time, or money, or patience.

3 Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad

There are conventionalised criteria for objectively deciding whether the offered solution to an equation or proposed formula of a chemical compound is correct or false.

For wicked problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections. Their assessments of proposed solutions are expressed as "good" or "bad" or, more likely, as "better or worse" or "satisfying" or "good enough".

4 There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem

For tame-problems one can determine on the spot how good a solution-attempt has been.

With wicked problems, any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended-virtually an unbounded- period of time. Moreover, the next day's consequences of the solution may yield utterly undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages or the advantages accomplished hitherto. In such cases, one would have been better off if the plan had never been carried out.

5 Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly

In the sciences and in fields like mathematics, chess, puzzle solving or mechanical engineering design, the problem solver can try various runs without penalty. A lost chess game is seldom consequential for other chess games or for non-chess-players.

With wicked planning problems, however, every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves "traces" that cannot be undone. One cannot build a freeway to see how it works, and then easily correct it after unsatisfactory performance. Large public-works are effectively irreversible, and the consequences they generate have long half-lives.

Whenever actions are effectively irreversible and whenever the half lives of the consequences are long, every trial counts. And every attempt to reverse a decisions or to correct for the undesired consequences poses another set of wicked problems, which are in turn subject to the same dilemmas.'

[Town planners in Glasgow wanted to solve the problems of slums by building a brave new world of tower blocks called the Gorbals. The break up of communities contributed to stress and isolation. 38 years later the last 2 tower blocks were demolished in 2008]

'6 Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan

There are no criteria which enable one to prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered.

Normally, in the pursuit of a wicked planning problem, a host of potential solutions arises; and another host is never thought up. And it is, of course, a matter of judgment which of these solutions should be pursued and implemented.

Chess has a finite set of rules, accounting for all situations that can occur. In mathematics, the tool chest of operations is also explicit; so, too, although less rigourously, in chemistry.

7 Every wicked problem is essentially unique

Despite seeming similarities among wicked problems, one can never be certain that the particulars of a problem do not override its commonalities with other problems already dealt with.

The conditions in a city constructing a subway may look similar to conditions in San Francisco, say; but planners would be ill-advised to transfer the San Francisco solutions directly.

8 Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem

Problems can be described as discrepancies between the state of affairs as it is and the state as it ought to be. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a "symptom". In turn, it can be considered the symptom of still another, "higher level" problem. Thus "crime in the streets" can be considered as a symptom of general moral decay, or permissiveness, or deficient opportunity, or wealth, or poverty, or whatever causal explanation you happen to like best. The level at which a problem is settled depends upon the self-confidence of the analyst and cannot be decided on logical grounds. There is nothing like a natrual level of a wicked problem.

9 The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution

"Crime in the streets" can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right? There is no rule or procedure to determine the "correct" explanation or combination of them. The reason is that in dealing with wicked problems there are several more ways of refuting a hypothesis than there are permissible in the sciences.

The choice of explanation is arbitrary in the logical sense. In actuality, attitudinal criteria guide the choice. People choose those explanations which are most plausbile to them.

10 The planner has no right to be wrong

As Karl Popper argues, it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. This habit is based on the insight that there are no proofs to hypotheses, only potential refutations. The more a hypothesis withstands numerous attempts at refutation, the better its "corroboration" is considered to be. Consequently, the scientific community does not blame its members for postulation hypotheses that are later refuted.

In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to those people that are touched by those actions.'

[In this case, from Arizona, the engineer gets the blame.]

Wicked oil (1)

In the last week 4 friends have sent me an email outlining a campaign to force oil companies to lower petrol prices.  The suggested solution is to buy from supermarkets to force oil companies to compete for trade.

I was surprised at the idea.  The Big Four supermarkets already have a dominant position in high street retail and I'm not keen to contribute further to this trend.

Here's a different view from Down Under:

The assumption in the email that the problem:  How to reduce petrol prices? is simple to solve or Tame in the terminology of Rittel and Webber.  I'm not so sure.

Ever since oil was discovered at Spindletop, Texas in 1901, sources of easily refined crude oil have been mined extensively.  On shore sources are diminishing and 2010 saw major controversy over an explosion during offshore drilling by BP in the Gulf of Mexico.  The site of the rig indicates that companies are having to explore areas with increasingly difficult access.  People in the USA are accustomed to cheap petrol prices and seem to have trouble connecting the rapid consumption of a finite resource with the need for ever riskier exploration methods.  The US government punished BP for the consequences of the explosion, but is not pleased with the news that BP has done a deal with Russia to explore oil in the Arctic.  This type of exploration is not cheap and requires new and experimental technology.  Tesco doesn't do oil exploration.  They sell what others make at a price the market can bear.

The underlying problem statements for the US public seem to be:

How do we maintain an unending and increasing supply of petrol?  How do we keep petrol prices low?  How do we prevent loss of life and damage to the environment in the process?

Rittel and Webber would describe this as a Wicked problem.

'..we are calling them "wicked" not because these properties themselves are ethically deplorable.  We use the term "wicked" in a meaning akin to "malignant" (in contrast to "benign") or "vicious" (like a circle) or "tricky" (like a leprechaun) or "aggressive" (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb.)'

Several commentators, notably Matthew Simmons (Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy), have alerted the world to the unreliability of Middle Eastern oil reserves and the idea that Peak Oil has been reached - ie that the major sources of oil are now in decline.

Here's a simple graphical illustration of this point. The decline probably doesn't accelerate this quickly, but if we factor Peak Oil in, we're more likely to ride the wave.

It has been suggested that the original catalyst for the invasion of Iraq was the threat to oil price stability by Saddam Hussein. Some commentators assert that Iran became a potential target for similar reasons.

Dominance of oil and gas supplies enables countries to exert control over neighbouring territories. Ukraine developed a degree of independence until Russia brought the country to heel by stopping all supplies and enforcing prices beneficial to them.

The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are developing at a formidable rate with an increasing demand for commodities including oil.  In the West we have shifted from one car per household to one car per adult in many areas.  Developing countries, such as China, have shifted from the bicycle to the car.

The increased use of motor vehicles is thought to be a major contributor to diminishing air quality and greenhouse gases. GHGs are linked to climate change.

Some people argue that cars should be run on biofuels. One suggestion is to use oil from crops such as rapeseed. We have an increasing world population, rising standards of living in developing countries and a greater demand for food. Crops have been poor in the last couple of years because of global weather events, highlighting the vulnerability and unpredictability of food supply. Biofuel crops compete for land with food crops.

We import much of our food in the UK. Supermarkets source a ready, cheap supply of fresh products from around the globe so that we can buy all year rather than consuming seasonal produce. Imports depend on oil supply for transport. In the UK our hard pressed farming sector struggles to meet costs from prices paid by wholesalers (including supermarkets). Some make more money from selling farmland to property developers, reducing the supply of land for food or biomass crops.

My suggested list of problem statements now includes:

How do we continue to run our cars? How do we maintain clean air? How do we reduce our impact on climate change? How do we maintain access to affordable, dependable supplies of food? How do we house our population to an acceptable standard?

My students sometimes struggle to grasp the notion of a wicked problem. I use the analogy of a waterbed. If you press down in one area, another part pops up. There is no neat and easy way to solve this and every solution may throw up unintended consequences.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Green Wash

This week Steve Jobs announced he is taking a break as Apple CEO for health reasons. News stories have criticised the company for its environmental record:

'Apple isn't as transparent as it could be when it comes to the effects its suppliers have on the environment and worker safety, according to a Chinese environmental group. The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) published a report (Chinese-language PDF) on Thursday ranking Apple and 28 other companies when it comes to taking responsibility for supplier conduct, with Apple coming in dead last on the list.'

'An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on the report or its contents, but said: “Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply chain. Apple requires suppliers to commit to our comprehensive Supplier Code of Conduct as a condition of their contract with us. We drive compliance with the Code through a rigorous monitoring program, including factory audits, corrective action plans, and verification measures.” '

Large companies are criticised for their environmental record, their use of sweatshop labour to produce cheap goods and boost profit margins. Since the financial crisis of 2008 there is increasing negative publicity about firms that outsource jobs overseas destroying Western communities in the process. Equity finance specialists that buy established brands but set up a post office box HQ in Lichtenstein (thus avoiding tax) are also under scrutiny.

Michael Porter is famous for his work on strategy and value chains. He now argues that global competitiveness involves creating shared value. This means taking corporate social responsibility into the core of the business, rather than making donations to charity or using biodegradable plastic bags. He claims that this type of cosmetic gesture won't work anymore. He doesn't believe that governments can drive changes in consumer behaviour to improve health, for example, but that corporations should take this on, because they have sophisticated marketing tools. Part of his argument is broadcast in the following video and more recent comments (linked to healthy consumption) have been aired on BBC radio 4.

'I believe that businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable givers, are arguably the most powerful force for addressing many of the pressing issues of society. We've got to do things in running our core businesses that maximise the positive benefits for the community and for society. And guess what... many of those things are going to advance the core agenda of the firm.'

Bloggers and Wikileaks may be part of the groundswell that is having a significant impact on politicians, companies and academics like Michael Porter.

I am sceptical about the impact of his ideas beyond transferring the 'healthy eating' drive from government to corporations.

Levelling the field

Specialists with a problem sometimes have difficulty involving others in creative problem solving. One difficulty is providing enough information so that work on the issue can be meaningful, but preventing non specialists from drowning in detail.

The problem owner risks either over simplifying the issue or getting stuck in the complexity of the detail so that nothing can move.

Jargon can be a barrier to shared understanding. People may not want to look stupid by asking questions and imagine that all of their colleagues know what everything means.

Colleagues may imagine that they all comprehend the issue in the same way. However language can be a false friend and mean different things to everyone involved.

I'm a big fan of making things concrete. This challenges the problem owner to be explicit about the issue. The concrete representation is easier to use in considering various aspects of the problem and looking for solutions.

Here's one example. Hans Rosling may have omitted some factors affecting the issue, but he has managed to create a level field on which everyone can participate.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

More than my job's worth

A former client of mine happily dropped his people management responsibilities for a job in IT. 'Machines are easy. People are awkward and I've had enough. I want to sleep at night and leave the hassles to someone else.' I know how he feels.

This seems to be a common sentiment amongst my clients when we discuss a forthcoming creative problem solving workshop. I hear thumbnail sketches of staff including the awkward union shop steward and the crusty old supervisor who blocks any change.

The strange thing is that most of these people show a different side of themselves during the event. The crusty old supervisor is often the guy who understands the power of a metaphor and is the first to offer ideas for turning whacky analogies into real world solutions. The awkward union shop steward may blame management and state that it's their responsibility to fix the problem, but can easily be prevailed upon to list specific ways that he can move the process forward.

How come?

One of the factors influencing a positive outcome is the fresh eye. As the facilitator, I turn up without any preconceived notions about participants and am willing to provide space for them to be who and how they want to be during the event. I can empathise with crusty old supervisors and resistance to change. I've recently made a move to a new IT system with one client organisation and moaned about it before and during the change. I am really happy with it now that it works and offers greater functionality than its predecessor. That didn't stop me dragging my feet. I've thought about blogs for a long time, but a combination of my colleague, John Gaynard, and a client organisation's system pushed me into starting this blog. I know several entrepreneurs who are Foot Draggers and adopt innovations at a later stage, but bypass some of the early problems by doing so.

The other mechanism I use to control malcontents is an adaptation of certain techniques. I tend to add a column that asks people to specify what they can do to bring something about. If the union shop steward states that management should do x, y and z, then I want them to specify what they will do to ensure this happens. 'What can YOU DO to make this happen? How will YOU take RESPONSIBILITY for this outcome?' It may be irritating for them, but they do it.

I then set up a system to monitor actions taken. Typically I'll arrange a meeting where representatives from the workshop follow up subsequent work. It's curious how embarassed awkward union reps can be when confronted with the fact that they are the only participant who has done nothing since the workshop. That tends to silence opposition to the change.

I believe that human beings aren't as hopeless as we often think and they are capable of great things. However we have to manage the process, or our fears become a self fulfilling prophecy.

One example, demonstrating how ordinary people can do more than we expect, is the Rebuilding Together not for profit organisation. RT brings together volunteers to help maintain affordable housing and revitalise neighbourhoods by providing home repairs and modifications.

Friday, 7 January 2011

It's NOT a fair cop Guv

In recent days we've had news of a murder and arrest of a neighbour. The man was subsequently released on bail. Looking back on UK murders that received a lot of media coverage, there have been some cases of an arrest, trial and subsequent acquittal, where police have focussed on the suspect to the exclusion of other evidence. On resuming the case, the trail has gone cold.

I think about clients who get impatient with creative problem solving processes and just want to fix the problem in the shortest time possible. They risk PREMATURE EVALUATION and the consequences that flow from poor decision making. They may also suffer from confirmation bias, where they seek to collect evidence that confirms their preconceptions, rather than keeping an open mind. When people were hanged in the UK for capital offences, the consequences of a bad decision could be fatal. This is the still the situation for people with limited means in some States of the USA, as the film 'Conviction' demonstrates.

Nassim Taleb writes about one aspect of the human brain that contributes to such poor decisions. In 'Black Swan' he notes the preference for narrative as a way of organising data and retaining it. We find it easy to recall a story than a series of facts in a long list. 'He was hanging around because he was obsessed with the deceased' is easier to grasp and remember than 'He was in the area at the time; he collected photos and material about the deceased...' may look similar, but the latter statement doesn't point to a single conclusion.

One way to prevent our brain from steering us down a cul de sac is to focus on techniques that help us diverge and gather as much information as possible before we converge and start to draw conclusions. Taleb favours approaches that ask us to look for information that contradicts any tentative early theories we might construct. Police routinely look for an alibi for suspects and witnesses to confirm that they were not at the scene of the crime. I like to encourage clients to look at ways they might mess up the process, so that they remain vigilant about their own practice. They're less likely to continue blundering down a blind alley when they've identified this as a risk and considered how to prevent it.

I don't envy the police their job when they are subject to intense media pressure and constant comment on the internet. Pressure may be one of the triggers that leads clients to rush to judgement, whether it be from stakeholders, bosses, or the finance department. One of the elements of robust creative problem solving is how to manage pressure and expectations effectively so that good decisions can be made.


Newspapers have been fined for contempt of court in articles about Christopher Jefferies, referred to at the start of this post. He was later released without charge and was found innocent of any involvement in the murder.

Premature evaluation by newspapers may well have damaged this man's reputation and hampered the investigation.