Split Personalities – Tax Breadth and Tax Depth

We seem to have split personalities when it comes to the news and our politics. In the news we hear about natural disasters and the sour economy. In politics we hear about the failings of the President and the deficit. Why are these two voices talking about different subjects?

The truth is they are talking about the same problem, just different ends of it. The US is maturing. A large portion of the population is entering their retirement years. Every day, for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65. By 2030, 18% of the U.S. population will be over 65, compared with today’s 13%.

This is important for several reasons, but here are two:

  1. Federal tax collection is based on income. Those that are retired usually don’t make significant income, so the taxes they contribute are very low. A change or decrease of 5% is a huge impact to the revenue of the government. Or said another way, 10,000 people, who have a high average income, can drop out of the tax pool everyday.
  2. The baby boomers have been in leadership positions for two decades. The groups behind them, smaller in numbers, will need to fill the void.

The first reason is why you hear about Medicare and the budget. The second reason is why you hear about stimulus and silicon valley.

– When we talk about the deficit and paying down the debt we are talking about the inevitability of time. Our demographics show an aging population who will not be contributing to tax rolls. Less income means less spending. Tax Breadth.

– When we talk about innovation and stimulus spending we are pushing for investment and hopefully an improvement in future wealth and the standard of living. This would offset the loss of tax income from those no longer in the workforce. Tax Depth.

Both of these are concerns. I tend to be more transfixed with the latter. Many young professionals are either not entering the workforce or they are at compensation levels below the norm of 5 years ago. This lag in pay is not easily overcome and tends to persist for a career. Smaller income means smaller taxes paid. In addition to that, younger professionals are not moving into challenging roles as they would have in the past. Opportunities for learning experiences are reduced. Plus what they’ve been taught in school isn’t applicable e.g. China has changed dramatically since 2007, but the text books didn’t.

The 18% not in the workforce is unavoidable, but what should be asked is what’s to come of the under employed?

There will always be some number of the under employed, but we are currently looking at a devastating mix of long durations and loss of skills. The recession as it began in 2007 was a supply and demand recession, meaning nothing out of the ordinary occurred. But the last two years has led to a structural recession. This means that the skills and knowledge the US worker has isn’t quite matching up with what labor is needed. If this is more than a blip then high unemployment will continue for a few years as education and training requirements sort themselves out.

But I also feel like the 16-24 group, or more broadly the under 30 age group, is pioneering a new track. The way the view the world is much different than their older counterparts. As a consumer group they can influence the creation and offering of products and services. The next 24 months will be telling about the future of this country.

Using Particular Phrases to be More Compelling

I’ve recently been on vacation and I’m catching up on some reading. One of my favorite magazines and websites is the Harvard Business Review or HBR.org.

In the March 2011 issues is an Idea Watch section about the persuasiveness of experts. What the finding suggests is that when experts are less certain about their opinion, the more likely the opinion is going to be interesting and perhaps more intriguing to the audience.

What does this mean? It’s a little nugget for helping when people are scanning through information. If there are themes or patterns people tend to zone a out a bit. Important nuance can be lost. But when those themes are broken the reason for the deviation prompts curiosity.

This can be applied in the workplace. As the labor reports are coming out the economy is slowly picking up steam. There are many people looking for work. If you are writing a job recommendation for someone, its good to pepper in the phrase “high potential” in addition to “high achieving.”

  • High Achieving – Is a reference to the past. It shows capability and success but it isn’t necessarily relevant.
  • High Potential – Is a reference to the future. It latches onto a vision, onto hope, and shows adaptability and flexibility. Its more inspiring.

Here’s a blurb from the article Experts are More Persuasive When They’re Less Certain:

What makes a message compelling?

By “compelling,” I mean relevant to the core argument. In
another study, we had subjects read reviews that also gave four out of
five stars, but their content wasn’t really about the restaurant. They
said things like “My friend and I laughed the whole time. I liked the
way the menu looked and the colors they used.” That’s not compelling.
Even if it were interesting, it’s not what makes a restaurant good or
bad. Whether the reviews were confident or not, people didn’t find them

Where else do you want to take your certainty research?

One thing I’ve started looking into with some other
collaborators, Jayson Jia and Mike Norton, is how people view potential.
Our initial findings seem to show that people value high potential more
than high achievement.

That explains why a rookie quarterback like Sam Bradford makes more money than Super Bowl champ Drew Brees.

Sports are a great example. In one study,
participants read the scouting report on a basketball player. Some read
the actual stats for the player’s first five years in the league; others
read predictions for the first five years’ performance. The numbers
were identical. Then we asked, How much would you pay this player in
year six? On average, people gave the veteran who had performed $4.26
million and the rookie who was projected to perform $5.25 million, over
20% more.

Rookie talent in general, not just in sports, seems vastly overweighted.

Exactly. If you present people with letters of
recommendation for one job candidate described as “high potential” and
another described as “high achieving,” they’ll find the letter for the
high potential candidate more interesting and possibly more persuasive.

How can people be so thick?

Proven achievement is very certain. It’s less surprising
and less interesting to think about. Potential is uncertain and kind of
exciting. You can imagine many outcomes. Maybe they’ll do better than
you expect!

OK, I have to ask: How certain are you about the validity of your research?

I think our findings tell us something important. But you
never know what other variables could be in play here. The more we
research this, the better we’ll understand it.

I’ll buy that.

You see? It works.

Using Data as a Predictor of Sports Success

There’s a huge celebration going on this week – a celebration of decision making. You see the NFL Draft starts Thursday (4/28/11) and runs through Saturday (4/30/11) and fans tune in to see who their team selects. No games are played, just people’s names being called.

Why do we care? The simple answer is hope. We’ve entrusted the future of our favorite teams to a room full of guys with spreadsheets. We want to believe they have the magic formula for selecting the players who succeed in the NFL. They’ve studied film, measured height, weight, speed, interviewed the candidates, and surveyed other experts. They’ve quantified all these inputs and ranked the candidates. Most of the time they tier them for purposes of trading up or down. Teams win Super Bowls because of these three days.

It’s a lot of data and yet every year mistakes are made. As a General Manager, the person ultimately making the decision, you need the hits to be proportionally more successful than your misses. And you need to learn from your data year over year to see which inputs pan out and which ones do not. From there you can use heuristics to simplify the ranking order and reduce the risk of missing on a selection.

Below are two videos. One is from the Sloan Sports Conference and it features Peter Tingling. I’m a fan of Mr. Tingling and his company, Octothorpe Software (this is not a paid endorsement). Peter provides a presentation about how how successful NHL drafts are.

The second video is from the most famous sixth round pick ever – Tom Brady. He is your classic case of not using the data correctly.


Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart – A Book Review

Quick Take: Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart is a collection of academia based essays proving the comparative value of decision making based on good enough information. The examples and anecdotes are good, but there is complex math to wade through. It isn’t a leisure read. However, each section can be consumed on it’s own. If you’re a student of decision making, whether it’s group dynamics or individual situations, then this book is a good heuristics reference.

Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart Cover

Detail Review: Many of us have a comfortable chair which serves as our place to relax.
Its great for 40 winks. But why do we relish peacefully falling asleep
in a chair? Most of the time it’s because we are mentally exhausted. Everyday we are faced with an ever changing list of choices to make and each has a list of known variables and all kinds of factors which are unknown. We try to streamline choices that have worked so we don’t need to concentrate on it. I take the same route to work everyday even though there are probably another ten ways to get there, for instance.

I wish I had a computer in my head to compute all the different inputs into making a decision. I could continually collect data and analyze it practically to a 100% decision certainty. But I don’t have a computer or unlimited time, instead I rely on heuristics. Heuristics are simple methods for using particular cues and constraints to make a choice. Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and The ABC Research Group authored this tome as a study of how accurate specific heuristics are.

Here are a few heuristics covered in the book:

Definition – If one of two objects is recognized and the other is not, then infer that the recognized object has the higher value with respect to the criterion.
Example – If I ask 100 Americans which city in Germany is more populated Berlin or Saarburg? The results will be close to 100% correct – Berlin is more populated. Of the 100 people few, if any, will recognize Saarburg as a city, but practically all of them will have heard of Berlin. Because of that recognition they will answer Berlin even though they know little about the actual number of people who live in either city.

Take the Best
Definition – When making a judgment based on multiple cues, the criterion are tried one at a time according to their cue validity, and a decision is made based on the first criterion which discriminates between the alternatives.
Example – Suppose we ask the question about population again, but instead of Saarburg we use Frankfurt. Berlin and Frankfurt are both recognizable so we must use other reasons to discriminate population. We pose a list of usual indicators of large populations – historical relevance, it’s a capital, tourism, sports teams, and so on. From that list we rank the list based on which ones usually are more of an indication of population and try to separate the two. We compare Frankfurt and Berlin for tourism and realize that Berlin is much more of a destination than Frankfurt is. We stop there and don’t review the other reasons. We take the best separator – tourism – and decide to invest no more time in evaluating. Berlin is the answer.

Take the Last
Definition – When making a judgment based on multiple cues, the criterion are sorted according to what worked last time. It uses memory of prior problem solving instances and works from what was successful before.
Example – I’m now comparing Frankfurt and Munich in population. I’ve heard of both so I can’t use Recognition. I use Tourism as the candidate since it worked with Berlin and Frankfurt. This time I go with Munich because they’ve hosted an Olympics and is more of a destination than Frankfurt. This answer is correct and time and energy was saved because I didn’t need to sort through all the other criteria.

In addition to those there are:

  • Franklin’s Rule – calculates for each alternative the sum of the cue values multiplied by the corresponding cue weights (validaties) and selects the alternative with the highest score.
  • Dawes’s Rule – calculates for each alternative the sum of the cue values (multiplied by a unit weight of 1) and selects the alternative with the highest score.
  • Good Features (Alba & Marmorstein, 1987) selects the alternative with the highest number of good features. A good feature is a cue value that exceeds a specified cutoff.
  • Weighted Pros (Huber, 1979) selects the alternative with the highest sum of weighted “pros.” A cue that has a higher value for one alternative than for the others is considered a pro for this alternative. The weight of each pro is defined by the validity of the particular cue.
  • LEX or lexicographic (Fishburn, 1974) selects the alternative with the highest cue value on the cue with the highest validity. If more than one alternative has the same highest cue value, then for these alternatives the cue with the second highest validity is considered, and so on. Lex is a generalization of Take the Best
  • EBA or Elimination by Aspects (Tsersky, 1972) eliminates all alternatives that do not exceed a specified value on the first cue examined. If more than one alternative remains, another cue is selected. This procedure is repeated until only one alternative is left. Each cue is selected with a probability proportional to its weight. In contrast to this probabilistic selection, in the present chapter the order in which EBA examines cues to determine by their validity, so that in every case the cue with the highest validity is used first.
  • Multiple Regression is a statistically analysis of how the typical value of the dependent variable changes when any one of the independent variables is varied, while the other independent variables are held fixed. This is beyond the capacity of a normal human and usually requires a resources like a computer.

The book uses the city example to run a test against a few heuristics and Regression testing (computing intensive). The results are startling when you consider the number of cues needed to reach the decision (a low number for Take the Best and Take the Last and a high number for the other three).

Here’s a chart showing relative performance for this particular case study:

As you can see, Take the Best and Regression Analysis are very similar in performance. This means if you pick the right Heuristic to use for the situation you can save time and resources and still get the performance that is comparable for the trade off (time and energy).

So what does this mean? Sometimes it’s the difference between life and death.

man is rushed to a hospital in the throes of a heart attack. The doctor
needs to decide quickly whether the victim should be treated as a
low-risk or a high-risk patient. He is at high risk if his life is
truly threatened, and should receive the most expensive and detailed
care. Although this decision can save or a cost a life, the doctor does
not have the luxury of extensive deliberation: She or he must decide
under time pressure  using only the available cues, each of which is,
at best, merely an uncertain predictor of the patient’s risk level. For
instance, at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, as
many as 19 such cues, including blood pressure and age, are measured as
soon as a heart attack patient is admitted. Common sense dictates that
the best way to make the decision is to look at the results of each of
those measurements, rank them according to their importance, and
combine them somehow in to a final conclusion, preferable using some
fancy statistical software package.

Consider in contrast the simple decision tree below, which was designed
by Breiman and colleagues to classify heart attack patients according
to risk using only a maximum of three variables. A patient who has  a
systolic blood pressure of less than 91 is immediately classified as
high risk – no further information is needed. Otherwise, the decision
is left to the second cue, age. A patient under 62.5 years old is
classified as low risk; if he or she is older, the one more cue (sinus
tachycardia) is needed to classify the patient as high or low risk.
Thus, the tree requires the doctor to answer a maximum of three yes/no
questions to reach a decision rather than to measure and consider 19
predicators, letting life-saving treatment proceed sooner.



To wrap up, the book has many interesting essays as chapters, ranging from bicycle races, hindsight bias, ants, mate selection, and bargaining. It’s a solid 365 pages with small font. The math and the science can be dense, but the applicability of the results are real. It doesn’t sugar coat what goes into making heuristics worthwhile – a lot of up front analysis. It does however show how powerful those paths or decision trees can be once they are implemented.

Gerd Gigerenzer has other books that are probably more digestible for the heuristically curious (Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious and Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You) but if you’re into behavior and why particular decision paths are more economical than others, then this book is a good educational read.

Other Reviews:
The IBM Data Governance Unified Process: Driving Business Value with IBM Software and Best Practices – A Book Review / How Pleasure Works – A Book Review / Why We Make Mistakes – A Book Review / Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates US – A Book Review / Rules of Thumb – A Review / I Hate People – A Review / The Job Coach for Young Professionals – A Review / A Review of The Fearless Fish Out of Water: How to Succeed When You’re the Only One Like You / A Quick Review of Johnny Bunko (a manga story)

The March 2011 Silicon Valley Positive Outlook Update

The focus of my last post was on whether or not I believe Silicon Valley has inflated like a 1999 bubble. I don’t think it has, but the stock valuations are still pretty high. If I were to guess, I’d say the apparent investment upswing is a byproduct of cash sitting on the sidelines. Investors have it and big companies have it. Investors plant the seeds and companies like Google buy the fruit at the first sign of flowering.

Silicon Valley is an interesting place though. Many of the companies there don’t want to be viewed as uncool. Once that happens it means a particular culture has set in. Which of these companies seem more exciting: Facebook or Yahoo? Google or Microsoft? You get the picture.

Earlier this week there was an article on cnn.com in the Tech section about the hiring on Silicon Valley. Here are some quotes and stats from the article “Silicon Valley experiencing new hiring boom” by Dan Simon:

  • Silicon Valley: 10.6% unemployment rate
  • Last month’s (March 2011) national average was 8.8%
  • Silicon Valley produced 1,200 jobs last month and expected to add thousands more in 2011.
  • According to SimplyHired.com, a search engine for job listings:
    • nearly 40% of 130,000 open positions in Silicon Valley are for software engineers
    • Since July of 2009 there’s been a 245% increase in openings that have “Facebook” as a keyword
    • Over the same time period, a 421% increase in “Twitter” job postings
  • Innovations in social media, mobile and cloud computing are driving the growth, said Dion Lim, SimplyHired’s president.
  • LinkedIn, the social-networking site for professionals, hired nearly 500 workers last year — almost doubling its workforce.
  • “As we grow the company, we’re always on the lookout for top talent,” said Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO.

A Dan Pink Speaking Experience

A couple of weeks ago I was staring at my computer screen and in comes an Instant Message asking if I knew Dan Pink was speaking in Charlotte? The IM was from Jill, a work friend for over 10 years. I had no idea about the event, but I was excited. She sent me the link to the UNCC NEXT Speaker Series and I promptly bought a $40 ticket.

The day of the event arrived, but I wasn’t sure where to go. The Blumenthal has several stages and the one I was looking for was the Booth Playhouse. Luckily, there was an event before hand for networking, so I figured I could follow the crowd. It was easy. There were several people standing in the hall welcoming Dan Pink fans and pointing to will call for picking up tickets. I was in extrovert mode and introduced myself to several other attendees, but the response I got was uncomfortable friendliness, forced smiles and all. After a few of these interactions, I realized the people I was trying to chat up were college professors. Maybe they aren’t used to networking in a real business world? Undaunted, I bought a beer and spotted someone who wasn’t part of the school clique. I introduced myself to Darren and we discussed Pink’s books.

Although we are standing in the lobby of a small theatre, it sort of feels like a post modern fashion store. There are doors at the ends, but the entire area is visible through clear windows. I wasn’t at the mall, but I could have sworn I saw some t-shirts on sale for $250. Thankfully, Jill arrived and we discussed our day of work.

We decided to head in early to get a good seat. I heard it was interactive so I wanted to be near the front. However, when we walked in I was very stunned to see the first eight rows or so were reserved for VIPs. It isn’t a big venue so this preferential seating situation was a bit much. For $40 I should be able to sit close.

I met another friend as we were deciding where to sit. My inner voice was screaming “yea!” that this friend showed up. There’s always a rewarding feeling when someone else tries out music, a book, or a restaurant you suggested and this was the same appreciation.

The lights dimmed and the last few seats were taken. I noticed Peter Gorman, the Superintendent of the Charlotte-Mechklenberg schools, sitting across from us – not a VIP either. I’m not sure who kicked it off. It was either the Chanceller or the President of UNCC. He was kind of funny. The Dean of the Business School then introduced Dan to the audience.

I’ve viewed most of the videos for Drive and was nervous that Dan would stick to the script. He mostly followed the themes but he certainly was able to ad lib. He did his homework and talked about the local area some. He quizzed the audience about motivation and interacted with a few different guests. Throughout the session some slides were used to highlight the research that reinforced his points. Time flew by and it felt like it was short, but he spoke for about 70 min.

Overall, I enjoyed my first Dan Pink speaker series. I went with friends and made some connections. Next time I’m going to penetrate the inner circle though 🙂

Working Thoughts 2/10/09
Sustaining Large Economic Growth is Key for the US

An Interview with Dan Pink and the NEXT Speaker Series

Perhaps I’m just now noticing it but over the last 5 years there’s been what I consider an upswing in speaking series, notably around new ways to think and perceive our world. A local college in Charlotte – University of North Carolina in Charlotte – has a program going called NEXT in the Belk School of Business. Dan Pink is speaking tomorrow night (February 1st, 2011) and I’m excited about attending it.

I’ve featured Dan Pink throughout this blog and figured I’d email him some questions. Below is our exchange plus links to his books and a video with Oprah.

1) You’re currently doing a speaking tour – sharing ideas and promoting your books. Does the repetition of this ever sap your enthusiasm for it?

Airport security lines sap my enthusiasm. Big time. As does bad food and lack of exercise on the road. But the conversations with people never get old. Folks seem extremely engaged in this set of ideas — and they’re always showing me new practices or new ways to look at the topic. That’s what keeps me going.

2) Clay Shirky and others have recently highlighted a change in how people spend their time. He calls it the Cognitive Surplus. It’s the observation of people spending less time watching TV and more time creating something, whether its an update to Wikipedia or a dance video on youtube. These themes tend to run throughout your books as well. What are your thoughts on this situation? Is it good or bad that math and science scores are down, but evil squirrel videos are up?

Cognitive surplus is a fascinating idea. And if even a fraction of it goes for noble, interesting pursuits, that can be a game-changer. Wikipedia is a good case in point.  That said, some people will always squander their time.  Today, though, there are many more options for people to use time in (slightly) more creative and ennobled ways.  As for math and science scores, I give evil squirrels a pass on this one. The real problem is that we’ve got an 19th century education system that’s designed mostly for the convenience of adults rather than the education of children.

3) Since publishing Drive, I bet many people have told you about how they instituted ROWE or 20% time. For instance Michael Lebowitz of Big Spaceship in the NY Times mentioned Intellectual Property Fridays. A few hours where they brainstorm very simple ideas and see which ones to run with. Can you share one or two that stuck out to you?

There are lots of examples – and they’re all pretty cool. For instance, I heard about Intuit doing 10 percent time — with terrific results. The head of innovation there, Roy Rosin, told me: “After our CEO declared ‘mobile’ was key to our strategy, none of our business units were able to change direction on a dime, but our employees using 10 percent time create seven mobile apps before any other mobile projects even got started.” What’s also cool is that several schools have begun holding “FedEx Days” — both for teachers and for students.

4) How are your books received in other countries? I imagine many of the concepts in Drive are scoffed at in China or the ideas of A Whole New Mind are “duhs” in Europe.

Both of those books have done surprisingly well overseas — especially in Japan, South Korea, and Brazil.  In Europe, A WHOLE NEW MIND did pretty well — but DRIVE has done much better.  In general, though, the curious reaction to both baskets of ideas — anywhere in the world — is similar. People say, “I’m a right-brainer. I’m motivated internally. That’s how I want the rest of the workplace to be.”