The XY Problem

The beauty of technology problems is that they are applicable in so many different fields, including daily tasks. Back in high-school, I used to deliberately leave some parts of assignments half-assed just so I would be asked to re-do them. I would always make sure these were sections that I was more more confident in my ability. It would always lead to instructors ignoring the parts I was less confident in their quality. Later on, I had my moment of clarity when I learnt about Parkinson’s law of triviality. It is a phenomenon that spreads as far as management, one among many. I cannot count the number of times I have abused this technique.

Of those problems that seem to persist in a cross-field basis, I have recently been guilty of one that tends to lurk under the radar. Let’s say an arcade owner has a problem with counting coins. He decides to employ ten people for $8/hour. He then struggles with the logistics of organizing the 10 people to finish the task in a timely manner. He goes out and asks his friend on the best procedures to organize 10 people in a factory line. He ends up with even more complicated situation after his friends mentions the fact that two five-person groups seem to work better than one ten-person group. He now has another problem on deciding on how to divide the group of ten into the best five-man packs.

Ignoring the terrible thought-out hypothetical scenario, the arcade owner is at fault for not realizing what problem he was solving in the first place. He needed to find the optimal way to count coins at the end of the work day. In the way he went to seek for help, he avoided to mention his primary problem. Alternatively, he needed to mention his coin-counting problem that led to his decision to hire ten people in the first place. His friend might even mention about the possibility of leasing a coin-counting machine, a much cheaper alternative used by all arcade owners.

Like any developer, I tend to scour online help forums. I cannot count the number of times when the first response to most questions is “What exactly are you trying to do?”. An old post from Usenet describes it as an XY-problem. In short, one wants to accomplish task X. He is not sure on the solution to X. So he comes up with a solution Y. He is not sure on the best way to implement Y. He asks for the solution to Y, assuming that by solving Y he will end up solving X. Those trying to help fail to understand why one would want to solve Y, usually because Y is a strange problem to solve. In the end, no one is usually happy.

I think it is a safe guess a good number of these questions were trying to obtain the file extension. Instead of directly referring to their main problem, they came up with a solution which assumes that all file extensions are three characters long (HINT: not true). The issue is so pervasive to deserve its own wiki with numerous examples.

In all this seemingly noob-bashing (and by extension self-bashing), I feel some of it is accidental. In the arcade owner example, he probably does not know that other arcade owners are faced with the same problem. Maybe he is the only arcade owner in the area. Maybe he is a new arcade owner without a clue on the best practices. While it is easier to blame the asker for their lack of knowledge, ignoring their position is equally unfair. It is too easy to forget the number of times we all assume our problems are unique. The main lesson should not be how to ask questions but rather most problems are not unique. Sometimes that lightbulb might just be a firefly.

Foucault Explained with Hipsters


A comic I made for a second year gender studies course I tutored for in 2012, to help students understand some of the themes from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol.1:f1

f2All page references from Foucault, M. (1976 [2008; trans 1978]), The History of Sexuality: Volume 1., R. Hurley, [trans], Victoria: Penguin Group

Stay tuned for Judith Butler explained with cats!


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Talking the walk

I recently spoke to a close acquaintance about his plans to expand his business. He had these grand ideas, more than what would be considered normal for a business of its size, and proceeded to ask me on specific information concerning particulars that I had had experience dealing with. At some point during the call, he mentioned that it is probably not a very good idea to keep planning and never quite successfully implementing the said plans. This was after an hour long phone call when he painted a rather beautiful picture of his future growth and was convinced, or he at least sounded so, that this golden path was the ultimate Eureka moment. It then hit me..

This time science had my back. To quote:

Positive fantasies that idealize the future are found to be inversely
related to achievement over time: the more positively the fantasies
are experienced, the less effort do people invest in realizing these
fantasies, and the lower is their success in achieving them. 1

Once you really think about it, it makes sense. Our brains aren’t quite good and differentiating between ‘real’ and fantasy. It’s the reason why people can act convincingly by portraying emotions that aren’t driven by their current situation, hallucinate, become anxious and a whole lot of situations. William James suggested: “Everyone knows the difference between imagining a thing and believing in its existence, between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (p. 283). To go back to my story, the person I was speaking to believed that his business was going in that direction. Scratch that, he believed that his organization was in that position by just thinking about the plans and throwing the ideas around. This wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

There is a well written paper on the difference between expectations and fantasies. In short:

These studies suggest that there might be two forms of
thinking about the future with different effects on motivation
and performance. More specifically, beliefs about the future
(expectations) should be differentiated from images (fantasies)
depicting future events. 2

Here is where brains become confused. It has been proven time3 and time again that brains ‘get off’ equally from fantasies in comparison to reality. It is not surprising that an hour long talk on fantasies is compared to a mental massage. Most of the time, these events feel real because someone else is sharing the same fantasy hence empowering the images further.

Why are fantasies dangerous? They allow us to believe we achieved success here and now without fully comprehending the bigger picture. They distort the plan (expectations) into an incomplete picture. Even worse, fantasies can easily convince one that the goals have finally been achieved. In this study there were experiments consisting romantic crush, academic grades, and career choices, all measuring the effect between fantasies and expectations. In every single one of them expectations came out on top. Fantasies led to poor outcomes that resulted from low motivation. In other words, your brain mistakes you for having achieved the fantasy by just thinking about it. After all, it gets its fix cheaper and quicker that way.

What happened to my acquaintance and his business plan? I still havent heard from him despite being reassured that the plan was flawless (and it genuinely sounded so).

1 Heather Barry Kappes & Gabriele Oettingen, Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy, 2011
2 Gabriele Oettingen & Doris Mayer, The Motivating Function of Thinking About the Future: Expectations Versus Fantasies, 2002
3 Andrea Kuszewski, The Neurological Orgasm, 2010

21st Century Enlightenment

The biggest thing I take from this video is the idea that empathy is equally important as logic and reasoning. While we clearly are at an informational age, it requires well-intentioned framework trying to incorporate these ideals through employing the information. This raises an even bigger question; how? It seems to border on the lines of Marxism in terms of approaching solutions. There is a quote from Robert Kegan:

Successfully functioning society with it’s diverse values, traditions and lifestyles requires us to have a relationship with our own reactions rather than be captive of them. To resist the our tendencies to make right and true that is which is merely familiar and wrong or false that which is only strange.

I could live by that passage. Whether we agree on a working principle based on its efficiency and not its detailed workings is still a debate I would gladly be a part of. But short term planning, just like the narrator pointed out, is still our vice. Which reminds me of something I read last week. “The reason the Catholic church prevails for so long is because it thinks in centuries.”

Fix The Machine, Not The Person


The General Motors plant in Fremont was a disaster. “Everything was a fight,” the head of the union admits. “They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly. … It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States.”

“One of the expressions was, you can buy anything you want in the GM plant in Fremont,” adds Jeffrey Liker, a professor who studied the plant. “If you want sex, if you want drugs, if you want alcohol, it’s there. During breaks, during lunch time, if you want to gamble illegally—any illegal activity was available for the asking within that plant.” Absenteeism was so bad that some mornings they didn’t have enough employees to start the assembly line; they had to go across the street and drag people out of the bar.

When management tried to punish workers, workers tried to punish them right back: scratching cars, loosening parts in hard-to-reach places, filing union grievances, sometimes even building cars unsafely. It was war.

In 1982, GM finally closed the plant. But the very next year, when Toyota was planning to start its first plant in the US, it decided to partner with GM to reopen it, hiring back the same old disastrous workers into the very same jobs. And so began the most fascinating experiment in management history.

Toyota flew this rowdy crew to Japan, to see an entirely different way of working: The Toyota Way. At Toyota, labor and management considered themselves on the same team; when workers got stuck, managers didn’t yell at them, but asked how they could help and solicited suggestions. It was a revelation. “You had union workers—grizzled old folks that had worked on the plant floor for 30 years, and they were hugging their Japanese counterparts, just absolutely in tears,” recalls their Toyota trainer. “And it might sound flowery to say 25 years later, but they had had such a powerful emotional experience of learning a new way of working, a way that people could actually work together collaboratively—as a team.”

Three months after they got back to the US and reopened the plant, everything had changed. Grievances and absenteeism fell away and workers started saying they actually enjoyed coming to work. The Fremont factory, once one of the worst in the US, had skyrocketed to become the best. The cars they made got near-perfect quality ratings. And the cost to make them had plummeted. It wasn’t the workers who were the problem; it was the system.1

An organization is not just a pile of people, it’s also a set of structures. It’s almost like a machine made of men and women. Think of an assembly line. If you just took a bunch of people and threw them in a warehouse with a bunch of car parts and a manual, it’d probably be a disaster. Instead, a careful structure has been built: car parts roll down on a conveyor belt, each worker does one step of the process, everything is carefully designed and routinized. Order out of chaos.

And when the system isn’t working, it doesn’t make sense to just yell at the people in it — any more than you’d try to fix a machine by yelling at the gears. True, sometimes you have the wrong gears and need to replace them, but more often you’re just using them in the wrong way. When there’s a problem, you shouldn’t get angry with the gears — you should fix the machine.

If you have goals in life, you’re probably going to need some sort of organization. Even if it’s an organization of just you, it’s still helpful to think of it as a kind of machine. You don’t need to do every part of the process yourself — you just need to set up the machine so that the right outcomes happen.

For example, let’s say you want to build a treehouse in the backyard. You’re great at sawing and hammering, but architecture is not your forte. You build and build, but the treehouses keep falling down. Sure, you can try to get better at architecture, develop a better design, but you can also step back, look at the machine as a whole, and decide to fire yourself as the architect. Instead, you find a friend who loves that sort of thing to design the treehouse for you and you stick to actually building it. After all, your goal was to build a treehouse whose design you like — does it really matter whether you’re the one who actually designed it?2

Or let’s say you really want to get in shape, but never remember to exercise. You can keep beating yourself up for your forgetfulness, or you can put a system in place. Maybe you have your roommate check to see that you exercise before you leave your house in the morning or you set a regular time to consistently go to the gym together. Life isn’t a high school exam; you don’t have to solve your problems on your own.

In 1967, Edward Jones and Victor Harris gathered a group of college students and asked them to judge another student’s exam (the student was a fictional character, but let’s call him Jim). The exam always had one question, asking Jim to write an essay on Fidel Castro “as if [he] were giving the opening statement in a debate.” But what sort of essay Jim was supposed to write varied: some of them required Jim to write a defense of Castro, others required Jim to write a critique of Castro, the rest left the choice up to Jim. The kids in the experiment were asked to read Jim’s essay and then were asked whether they thought Jim himself was pro- or anti-Castro.

Jones and Harris weren’t expecting any shocking results here; their goal was just to show the obvious: that people would conclude Jim was pro-Castro when he voluntarily chose write to a pro-Castro essay, but not when he was forced to by the teacher. But what they found surprised them: even when the students could easily see the question required Jim to write a pro-Castro essay, they still rated Jim as significantly more pro-Castro. It seemed hard to believe. “Perhaps some of the subjects were inattentive and did not clearly understand the context,” they suspected.

So they tried again. This time they explained the essay was written for a debate tournament, where the student had been randomly assigned to either the for or against side of the debate. They wrote it in big letters on the blackboard, just to make this perfectly clear. But again they got the same results — even more clearly this time. They still couldn’t believe it. Maybe, they figured, students thought Jim’s arguments were so compelling he must really believe them to be able to come up with them.

So they tried a third time — this time recording Jim on tape along with the experimenter giving him the arguments to use. Surely no one would think Jim came up with them on his own now. Again, the same striking results: students were persuaded Jim believed the arguments he said, even when they knew he had no choice in making them.3

This was an extreme case, but we make the same mistake all the time. We see a sloppily-parked car and we think “what a terrible driver,” not “he must have been in a real hurry.” Someone keeps bumping into you at a concert and you think “what a jerk,” not “poor guy, people must keep bumping into him.” A policeman beats up a protestor and we think “what an awful person,” not “what terrible training.” The mistake is so common that in 1977 Lee Ross decided to name it the “fundamental attribution error”: we attribute people’s behavior to their personality, not their situation.4

Our natural reaction when someone screws up is to get mad at them. This is what happened at the old GM plant: workers would make a mistake and management would yell and scream. If asked to explain the yelling, they’d probably say that since people don’t like getting yelled at, it’d teach them be more careful next time.

But this explanation doesn’t really add up. Do you think the workers liked screwing up? Do you think they enjoyed making crappy cars? Well, we don’t have to speculate: we know the very same workers, when given the chance to do good work, took pride in it and started actually enjoying their jobs.

They’re just like you, when you’re trying to exercise but failing. Would it have helped to have your friend just yell and scream at you for being such a lazy loser? Probably not — it probably would have just made you feel worse. What worked wasn’t yelling, but changing the system around you so that it was easier to do what you already wanted to do.

The same is true for other people. Chances are, they don’t want to annoy you, they don’t like screwing up. So what’s going to work isn’t yelling at them, but figuring out how to change the situation. Sometimes that means changing how you behave. Sometimes that means bringing another person into the mix. And sometimes it just means simple stuff, like changing the way things are laid out or putting up reminders.

At the old GM plant, in Fremont, workers were constantly screwing things up: “cars with engines put in backwards, cars without steering wheels or brakes. Some were so messed up they wouldn’t start, and had to be towed off the line.” Management would yell at the workers, but what could you do? Things were moving so fast. “A car a minute don’t seem like it’s moving that fast,” noted one worker, “but when you don’t get it, you’re in the hole. There’s nobody to pull you out at General Motors, so you’re going to let something go.”

At the Toyota plant, they didn’t just let things go. There was a red cord running above the assembly line, known as an andon cord, and if you ever found yourself in the hole, all you had to do was pull it, and the whole line would stop. Management would come over and ask you how they could help, if there was a way they could fix the problem. And they’d actually listen — and do it!

You saw the results all over the factory: mats and cushions for the workers to kneel on; hanging shelves traveling along with the cars, carrying parts; special tools invented specifically to solve problems the workers had identified. Those little things added up to make a big difference.

When you’re upset with someone, all you want to do is change the way they’re acting. But you can’t control what’s inside a person’s head. Yelling at them isn’t going to make them come around, it’s just going to make them more defiant, like the GM workers who keyed the cars they made.

No, you can’t force other people to change. You can, however, change just about everything else. And usually, that’s enough.

This article was part of Raw Nerve series.

‘Gamification’ Effect

One of the things I’ve always been wary of is the idea of ‘gamifying’ work places as the video explains. I am an avid user of reddit and recently I’ve seen the decreasing quality of links and constant barrage of marketing links. This could be attributed to people chasing intangible and irredeemable points mainly for a sense of belonging. But I would go as far as claiming that it is a result of gamification of social media.

I remember back in one of my management classes, a class I prefer to forget, we had a game simulation as a class exercise. It was designed to teach us business running and decision making. It didn’t take long for the whole ordeal to turn into a contest on who could get the most points in a digital simulation. It stopped being about how to successfully circumnavigate the bureaucratic process and quickly became a race on who could click the right buttons. Mind you this was an exercise that winning ensured a straight A without the extra step of writing a report on the simulation. And win we did. Did I ever learn anything from it? Besides that it only takes 2 people to win a simulation, I’m not even sure what the lesson was. Oh, let’s not forget the friends who asked for help in the following semesters because it became clear the simulation just required someone to know the right time to press the right buttons. And they all won too (I’m still waiting for my payment guys).

One of the things the video mentions is the idea that gamification is a marketing tool. And as all marketing is concerned, it is a popularity contest. Whoever achieves the quickest results is the winner. Whoever sells the most wins. It automatically becomes an insecurity button. If you don’t have so&so you will definitely stagger behind which means you will fail. It overrides the whole concept of constant review on the goals a particular project is trying to achieve. Posting insightful links becomes a contest on who can quickly get 1000 points through whichever means. Learning how to make business decisions becomes who can quickly click the right buttons at the right time. It stops being about how and becomes a when question.

I’m very curious on how the marketing side of this will develop. It is only in its infancy stages after all. Its evolution will be very interesting. Will facebook start giving achievements like “The Hermit: You’ve successfully not added any friends in the last month”? Will twitter start having badges like “Social Awkward: You’ve twitted 20 celebrities without a reply”? Jokes aside, this could be pivotal in the next couple of years. Marketing gurus are catching up on this. Some websites like Huffington Post have already been using this (although to a limited extent) for a while now. Sharing links on social networks can be changed into a marketing game. A simple badge could be the difference.