Archive for August, 2011

Seek Rigorous Evidence

August 27, 2011

Both scurvy and infant crib death offer insights about the value of evidence.

  • In 1747, British naval surgeon James Lind conducted an important experiment. He wanted to find a treatment for scurvy. Scurvy begins with gum disease, progresses to open wounds, internal bleeding and ultimately death. A variety of cures were proposed. Lind selected a dozen sailors from three dozen who suffered with scurvy. To six pairs he provided different treatment. Some were given cider, some oranges and lemons. Since we now know that scurvy is caused by lack of vitamin C, those who ate oranges and lemons recovered. Lind’s trial designed, collected and reviewed evidence.
  • Standard advice, years ago, was to place an infant to sleep in a crib on its stomach. In Baby & Child Care, the famous pediatrician Benjamin Spock advised against putting a baby to sleep on its back. It took almost twenty years to review evidence which conclusively identified the dangers of front-sleeping. Some estimate 60,000 infants died between 1970-88 because of this delay.

Useful Experiments

Good intentions and bad advice can certainly yield disastrous results. The imperative of life and death impact suggests we ought to get faster and far better at experiments that provide rigorous evidence for decisions. The choice about front or back-sleeping infants was never designed or intentional. Parent behavior and death incidents were studied for patterns. But, Lind’s action research did provide different antidotes to sick men.

 Ethical Design

It is strange that arbitrary decisions seem to have little ethical review while designed experiments face severe scrutiny. Yet, it is possible to establish a trial without denying others.

 It is simply a matter of locating an appropriate contrast or control. In early reading skill development research our clients did not deny service to any preschool students –  they simply identified children similar to those who participated in a special, enriched intervention program. This provided the experimental design which ensured claims could be made about the distinct contribution of the enriched intervention.

 Knowing is Not Doing

Despite Lind’s work centuries ago, scurvy is, regrettably, a disease that still affects malnourished people today. Knowing is not the same as doing. Spreading awareness of evidence or  transferring knowledge is an important process that requires time and resources. They are part of the reason that it took a long time for school districts and parents to adopt Kindergarten or for the public adoption of seat belts. Decades after the evidence is in, social marketing is actively promotes awareness about placing infants on their backs to sleep safely.

 Experiments  or “Wander-Squander”

Complex problems we barely understand preclude  making change. Discovery of what works requires experiments. A mindset that actively designs and executes trials is a critical step toward adaptation – a precursor to learning. What experiments are relevant to your work? Are you consistently seeking evidence for your own advice and actions?

Tim Harford, Adapt author, writes: “The alternative to controlled experiments are uncontrolled experiments.” We think this is an accurate description.  At our office we reference the thoughtless, uncoordinated  busyness of many activities as “wander-squander.”  Unfortunately, uncontrolled experiments dominate many work days for most people. And, there’s little or nothing that they teach us. Controlled experiments help us learn what works, what doesn’t and why.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also n author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Informed Perceptions

August 14, 2011

It’s frequently said: “Perception is all.”

Significant research indicates that Asians and Westerners think and perceive differently. University of Michigan scholar Richard Nisbett’s famous experiment showed pictures of a fish tank to American and Japanese. They were asked to describe what they saw. Interestingly, Americans most often described the largest and most prominent fish in the tank. Japanese made 60 percent more references to the context elements. They commented far more often on the water, rocks, bubbles and plants in the tank.

Context & Interdependence

Charles Blow’s recent (6 August)   New York Times editorial alerts us to context, relationships, paradox, and interdependence. He notes the “greatest casualties of the great recession will be a decade of lost children.” He includes troubling findings from The State of America’s Children produced by The Children’s Defense Fund. Their findings indicate:

  • Since 2000, four million more children live in poverty. The increase between 2008-9 is the largest single year increase ever recorded.
  • The number of homeless children in public schools increased 41 percent 2006-7 and 2008-9 school years.
  • The majority of children in all social groups and 79 percent or more of Black and Hispanic children in public schools cannot read or do math at grade level in 4th, 8th or 12th grades.
  • The annual cost of center-based child care for a 4-year old is more than the annual in-state tuition at a public four-year college in 33 states.

Focus Influences Perception

These demographics describe important symptoms of human distress. While child advocates may know this information – most others don’t. Yet, these demographics  have implications for all of us. They signal growing and new concerns for K-12 education, health care and other sectors. Blow’s editorial provides a critical service. He offers visibility to the invisible and vulnerable. Many people tend to focus on the “foreground:” our own children, neighbor or grand kids. He asks us to consider a larger picture.

Differences in perception vary by gender, age, culture, income and other factors. A perspective may be valid, but is it limited? Be sure to consider both the big fish and other elements of the fish tank. It may significantly influence plans or other factors related to effectiveness. Inclusion and cultural competence can expand our view and  results.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Don’t Shoot The Messenger

August 1, 2011

Consider the story of a man named Peter Palchinsky.  It is capably shared in  Adapt, by Tim Harford, an engaging author well regarded for his columns in the Financial Times. Harford writes Palchinsky “was murdered for trying to figure out what would work and for refusing to shut up when he saw a problem.”

Engaged Talent

An engineer with considerable international experience and reknown for his analysis, Palchinsky was assigned to advise on two of Stalin’s most vital projects: the Lenin Dam and Magnitogorsk. They both were ambitious. The Lenin Dam was the world’s largest. The  mills of Magnitogorsk were intended to produce more steel  output than all the United Kingdom. Technically without peer, Palchinsky offered sound, thoughtful counsel. His perspectives were ignored.

In 1928, Palchinsky was arrested late at night and executed. His crimes: “detailed statistics” and setting “minimal goals.” He had many colleagues – more than three thousand engineers were arrested in the USSR during the 1920s and 30s. Those who tried to identify disaster and suggested alternatives were called “wreckers.”

Palchinsky Principles

We now know the knowledge, skills and honesty of the Russian messenger should have been heeded. Harford suggests the “Palchinsky Principles:”

  • Seek out new ideas and try new things
  • When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  • Seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along

Valuable Experiments

Ultimately, the Soviet Block fell apart because of the inability to experiment. It lacked repeated variation and selection. Soviet leaders were unwilling to consider a variety of approaches to problems and they couldn’t decide what was working and what was not. Quite simply, they failed to adapt.

Harford says that adaptation doesn’t happen in organizations because of egos and grandiosity. While “big” efforts win attention these flagship projects too often leave little room to adapt. Consistent standards, instead of variation, are also an impediment. While uniformity is tempting, it is good for static problems. Far more often knowledge work is complex and situational.

Finally, selection is also difficult. Politicos generally reject ideas with objective measures of success because they are in a hurry. They can’t wait long for proof of success. Since about half of pilot schemes fail, it means coping with evidence of failure. Regrettably, tests that result in failure are not welcomed, let alone tolerated. They are not understood as part of learning and part of the journey of adaptation.

Invite Feedback

Are there Palchinskys in your organization or community? Is their feedback sought and used to improve results? Or, are they ignored and rejected? Suppressed feedback has high costs for organizational effectiveness. Feedback is essential to learning from failure and achieving success.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

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