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Information Without Context

Information without context is falsely empowering and incredibly dangerous.

As an adult, have you ever picked up a child’s shape-sorter and tried to put the square item through the round hole? Of course not. Adults know better — or at least we’re supposed to. Yet we often take square solutions and cram them into round problems.

Consider, for example, a project that falls behind schedule. A project manager is apt to adopt whatever solution worked the last time a project was falling behind schedule. If more people were added last time and that produced a successful outcome why not do it again? Our tendency to stick with what has worked in the past, regardless of why it worked, creates a powerful illusion that we are solving the problem or doing the right thing.

When posed a difficult question by an informed reporter, politicians often answer something related but simpler. The politician treats what should be a complex topic as something black and white and portrays the topic as simpler than it really is (reductive bias). In the corporate world we do the same thing when we take something that worked previously (or somewhere else) and blindly apply it to the next problem without giving due consideration to why it worked.

Maybe we’re just becoming an intellectually lazy society constantly looking for then next soundbite from “experts” on how to do something better.  We like the easy solution.

In Think Twice, Michael Mauboussin writes: “Consultants, researchers, and practitioners often observe some success, seek common attributes among them and proclaim that those attributes can lead others to succeed. This simply does not work.”

Our brains may be adult, yet we demonstrate a very childlike level of consideration. Decision makers often fail to ask key questions, such as: What’s different about this project? Under which circumstances is adding more people likely to work? and, Am I doing this because someone else is doing it?

Adopting best practices has become the reason to do something in and of itself.  It is, after all, hard to challenge logic of best practices. But what do best practices mean? Whom are they best for? What makes them successful? Can we replicate them in our company? Culture? Circumstance? Do we have the necessary skills? What are the side effects? What are the incentives? … More often than not, we embrace a solution without understanding under which conditions it succeeds or fails.

I think there are some parallels between business decision making and medicine. In Medicine our understanding of the particulars can never be complete: misdiagnosing a patient is common so doctors look at each patient as a new mystery.

A doctor, applying the same thoughtlessness spewed by management consultants might, reasonably, determine that all people with a fever have a cold. However, we know people are more complex than this simple correlation. Medical practitioners know the difference between correlation and cause. A fever by itself tells the doctor something but not everything. It could indicate a cold and it could be something more serious. Doctors, like good decision makers, check the context and seek out information that might disprove their diagnosis.