Prospecting Vs. Judging

The Myers Briggs test is a personality test that is based on categorising people into four sets of binaries. For example, introversion or extraversion is one group, and then it does this three more times to cover four different aspects of personality in total. Although it doesn’t have much authority in the world of serious psychology because it’s not repeatable (i.e. you can do the test once and it’ll class you as an ENTP, do it again and you’ll be a completely different INFJ. In fact, the only personality signifiers that hold weight in psychology due to repeatability are “the big five”) it’s still very popular. I think the reason for this popularity is that it gives us insight into different ways in which people think, allowing us to see the world in a way that would otherwise go unnoticed to us.

That’s not to say we’re not capable of seeing things from the other person’s perspective, it’s just that we tend to favour looking at things from one world view to the other if possible. However, I also think that a given situation will affect which side you choose to take within that specific time frame. For example, you might be drawn towards the extraverted side when you’ve not socialised for a while and want your fix (which has now been termed “ambiversion” – you show signs of both). I think that this is ultimately the downfall of the test and why the test isn’t repeatable.

Today I’d like to examine the 4th category of the Myers Briggs test: categorising into either ‘judging’ or ‘prospecting’. I think this category is perhaps the most obvious example of how we need be capable of reacting to the world as either a ‘judger’ or ‘prospector’, depending on the situation. If we weren’t capable of doing both, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world. Let’s just look at both categories quickly before jumping in.

Judging is the strategy of making plans, and then carrying that plan out, to achieve a goal. Prospecting is the strategy of ‘going with the flow’, being present in the current situation and reacting to it in a way that moves you towards the desired outcome. I’m definitely predominantly a ‘judger’ and have tended towards tasks that prefer this strategy throughout my life. But I’m always interested in people who prefer the “prospecting” side of things.

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in Economics for work in this area, describing his findings in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  If anyone has read the book, the ‘prospecting’ strategy can be loosely thought of as what Kahneman described as “System 1”, and the ‘judging’ strategy can be loosely thought of as “System 2.” Let’s have a look at each strategy in a bit more detail, and see when each one is applicable.

 

Prospecting

There’s just one problem with people who structure their life predominantly on planning, and Mike Tyson summed it up with surprising eloquence.

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

You might have the best-laid plans, but they only work in an environment that either doesn’t change, or if it does change: it won’t influence the outcome of the plan. If either of those conditions isn’t true, ‘judging’ strategy is useless. The plan will become obsolete before you even start to carry it out. In situations like sports, complex board games (like chess, where there are 8,902 different possible board positions after only 2 moves), and even everyday normal conversations – where you don’t know which way the conversation is going to go – you need a different strategy. There’s no possible way we can play enough games of chess so that we can have a plan for each situation, or have a plan for every possible conversation. So what can we do?

In Thinking, Fast And Slow, Kahneman described the strategy of heuristics to deal with a constantly changing environment. Heuristics can be seen as quick “rules of thumb” or “common sense” – basically they’re rules to follow that can be applicable to either a general situation (although the specifics may differ), or a by reacting to only certain sub-section of the environment (that will have the most impact) and then ignore the rest (which may still have an impact, but a lesser one). In real life, this is applied by trusting yourself to recognise the important factors in the current environment, and then to make a good snap decision based on having dealt successfully with a familiar situation in the past. The computer program Deep Blue used a heuristic-like strategy – by comparing a library of previous chess games to the game it was playing, finding all relevant (based on board similarity) examples in the library and picking the move that had the best outcome out of the given examples – to be the first computer to beat the chess Grand-Master, Kasparov, in 1996. The trick here is to know what aspects of the board are important: this is the spine of the algorithm that searches for relevant examples.

Another element of sports is to ingrain a specific movement until it almost becomes unconscious: an unconscious competence. This way, when the time comes, we do it automatically. There is no planning, just unconscious reaction.  Writing about the philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, it was said (in the introduction to “Meditations”):

“But Marcus Aurelius knows that what the heart is full of, the man will do. ‘Such as thy thoughts and ordinary cogitations are’, he says, ‘such will thy mind be in time’. And every page of the book shows us that he knew thought was sure to issue in act. He drills his soul, as it were, in right principles, so that when the time comes, it may be guided by them. To wait until the emergency is to be too late”

 

Finally, one strategy to work in a prospecting-regime is just to be quick-witted. This works better for some than others (and I’m jealous of those who it works well for!)

In the work-place, there are multiple methodologies that work from a prospecting strategy. The most popular one is the software engineering methodology, Agile, which has become popular in the last 10 years. Agile has become so popular because customer requirements change frequently, but sometimes it takes a long time to write the code to create functions that satisfy those requirements. To overcome these issues, Agile methodology is an interesting hybrid between a prospecting mindset and a judging mindset. It works from a set of principles designed to get the code written as quickly as possible during periods known as ‘sprints’. During each sprint, the code structure is planned and then written based on the requirements (this is the judging bit). After each sprint, the code is compared to requirements and another small sprint is planned based on a reaction to the new environment (this is the prospecting bit).

 

Judging

Some tasks, however, are just too complex to be undertaken by a prospecting strategy, especially those in project engineering that take many years. Countless companies have gone bankrupt by not planning well enough in the beginning phases, only to find out half-way down the line that there was a critical element they overlooked, which means that sub-components designed by different departments aren’t compatible (one example from a countless number), causing them to scrap the whole project and start again. By the time they’re half-way finished through the second iteration: the project is years late and the company has run out of money.

Of course, we can’t plan for things that we can’t see we don’t know (unknown unknowns), but we can do many other things that may bring possible complications to the surface and thus we can plan for them accordingly. The first step of solving a problem is realising there’s a problem.

A popular engineering methodology that uses the “judging”/planning mindset is Systems Engineering: where the emphasis is placed on the beginning stages of a project, in which requirements are clearly set and then planned on how to fulfil them, with each department involved. In this way, and basing the planning on aspects that were covered in previous successful projects, unknown unknowns can be minimised through a number of different micro-strategies and mid-project problems can be mitigated.

 

Final words

I could write more about different ways the “judging” strategy is useful, and the different ways we can use it, but many books have already been written about it (countless systems engineering handbooks, or project management training books, for example) and, really, I think it’s the less interesting of the two. I feel that the “prospecting” mindset is usually overlooked, especially among engineers like myself. I think engineers who are used to planning don’t recognise the skill involved in being a proficient “prospector”, as a result, we tend to underestimate the skills needed in those departments: for example, technical sales, where a lot of work is done in conversation and understanding quickly how to react to different environments… which is why I find the prospecting perspective so interesting! Ultimately, though, we need to understand and be proficient at both mindsets, and then apply them accordingly to each situation.

The Repercussions of Robbery

I recently had a drone – which I had spent many hours building – stolen from me. Not very fun. But it has also been an opportunity to revisit the feeling of loss, the feeling of negativity towards the world due to loss, and the process of working through these feelings. You can treat it like a story – a story through the mind as different cognitive destinations are reached. These have then been condensed into stages… and what can be found below is the result. I don’t really seem to align well with the more classical “5 stages of grief”, it seems.

 

1. Feelings of negativity towards the rest of humanity (generalisation). Twenty minutes ago I was flying around, stopping (just in case I flew too close) whenever some dog-walkers  came past. I would smile at them and they would smile back. Now I look at the same people with a frown, thinking, “are you the thief?” When it could have been anyone to have wronged you, it’s easy to look at everyone as if they possibly did. To lose faith in everyone, because you decide the only reasonable action is to trust no-one.

2.  Feelings of negativity towards a small sub-section. After a few minutes of thief-generalisation and a loss of faith in humanity at large, I came to another conclusion: even though I don’t know who did it, that doesn’t mean I can’t trust anyone. Not everyone would steal the drone, only a select few. It’s important not to project the behaviour of a few dicks onto the rest of humanity. Just because – sadly – there is no huge neon sign above each dick who is sneakily integrated into the rest of society doesn’t mean I should imagine everyone with a neon sign over their head.

3. Choosing not to dwell on negativity. I enjoy reading books regarding our relationship with ourselves. Some people give these books labels associated with a lot of questionable attributes such as “self-help”, or “spirituality”. Daniel Goleman has recently successfully rebranded them as under a more respectable (and approachable, for sceptics and scientists) category of Emotional Intelligence. Goleman teaches that emotional intelligent people have learnt how to control the amount of time they spend ruminating: that is, the time they spend focused reliving negative emotions that don’t lead to anything fruitful. One of my favourite ‘spiritual’ teachers, Anthony de Mello, goes into it more deeply.  He says, “understand that the feeling is in you, it is not in reality. No person on earth has the power to make you unhappy. Only no-one told you that. They told you the opposite. Rain washes out a picnic. Who’s feeling negative, you or the rain?” Negative feelings happen due to our judgement of the event and our expectations. I was emotionally attached to my drone so to have it torn away from me is a painful and unexpected removal. I want my toys back. I expected to be able to keep the toys that I bought myself. But reading de Mello allows me to re-frame the experience in a different light. I can enjoy the picnic while it lasts, but if it unexpectedly rains, there’s no point being angry at the rain because it didn’t do what I expected (and hoped). Note that I’m not saying that I should allow myself to be a victim, and I that shouldn’t make efforts to mitigate the rain with, say, an umbrella (I hope you’re still somehow following this analogy). It also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t, as a society, stop trying to minimise the number of instances of ‘the rain’ happening. But, regardless of all our efforts, some events are out of our control. And after all is said and done, does this excuse the behaviour of a thief? No. Which leads to step no. 4.

4. Revisiting negativity. I’ll be honest, a lot of my teenage years were spent thinking (read: ruminating) about the motives of dicks. I was compelled to know: why did they do it? I probably could have had a happier childhood. But at the same time, there’s something to be said for working through a painful thought process for the purposes of insight. I have a huge respect for people who choose to tackle these problems head-on (by going into professions such as mental health, nursing, etc) instead of putting their heads in the sand under the excuse of “not ruminating”.  The conclusion I’ve come to is that everyone, to a certain extent, can be selfish and thoughtless towards others from time to time. The intensity and frequency of these events vary between individuals. But the law of nature is like this as a whole: the lion doesn’t consider the gazelle’s feelings. The lion considers whether he selfishly wants to eat or not. Humans have, to a large degree, been able to transcend this primal natural law by creating a society with its own set of laws. It’s really amazing how malleable the human mind is, to see it come from primitive ‘lion’ origins and then over years have it hammered to conform to view the world through the laws of society. And we can see this in kids: because kids are dicks. The kid who punches another kid in the face because he’s getting more attention. The cruel and thoughtless remarks. Kids stealing possessions from other kids, “because he wanted it.” But then, over the years, something magical happens. We can slowly watch as the once-dickish kids are hammered more and more to society’s vision of how to behave, and amazingly, the number of dicks get smaller and smaller. Indeed, to unconsciously see theft in such a negative light after revisiting how far we’ve come as a species is a testament to our ability to relabel a once “natural” action as “wrong” (I hesitate to call it a “natural” action, because the word “natural” is associated with positive traits. There is nothing positive about theft. Our ability to adhere to the less “natural” rules of society – which are, at the end of the day, a human construct – is nothing but good).

5. Humanizing the thief. As I said in the last point, we’re all dicks to some degree at some point or another. I’m definitely guilty of watching an illegal movie. I.e. I’ve stolen movies. So in some way, I can associate with the thief. Does that mean I also deserve a big neon dick sign over the top of my head? Well, I’d argue, “no”. My drone was a personal singular asset that had an emotional significance to me. The film is an infinitely reproducible digital product that cannot, in the same way, be stolen. The impact: emotionally and economically, is a lot more acute with regards to the drone. Does that excuse what I did? Not really. I guess I’ve stolen a service which the film provided me that I should have paid for. I’ve been a small part of a collective movement that could be destroying film. It made me think about how I can live my life better, when trying to align my actions to my values. Maybe I deserve a teeny tiny dick sign over my head.

6. Focusing on being a winner, as well as not being a loser. There’s one common theme about all of the 5 steps above. They all focus – by either trying to avoid it, extinguish it or understand it – on loss. Even if I was 100% successful in avoiding negative feelings associated with loss, I would only be completely neutral on an emotional spectrum. I’ve avoided the stick, but being completely focused on avoiding the stick, I’ve failed to notice the carrot. The carrot is gratitude. I’m grateful I still have my health. I’m grateful I have the means to buy another drone. I’m grateful I’ve learnt the skills to build the next drone faster, and potentially better. And I’m grateful that I’ve hopefully learnt a lesson on how never to get a drone stolen again.

Intrinsic Value vs Book Value

We’ve all had an instance in our lives when we need to buy a product, and we just turn to the most known name in the industry. Or maybe we instantly refer to the name that’s most prestigious. We don’t look at what it can do on paper, we just trust that the product beats its competitors because of the badge that it has associated with it.

I’ve been looking at buying a Ducati recently. I put a few tentative bids down on eBay and I bought a book that describes the development of the specific bike I’ve been looking at. I got really engrossed into how they created the bike, how everything they do is derived from two principles: handling and power. How they pretty much build the whole bike around the engine, and the heritage they have with L-twin engines.

And then a weird realisation happened. I realised that I was buying the brand more than I was buying the product. I was buying the story of the bike and the association with Ducati, more than the technical ability of the bike. I had shifted from my product focused philosophy to a brand focused one.

Up until now, I’ve rarely cared about a brand. I’ve always judged a product’s merits based on it’s ability alone – untethered to where it actually came from. This is the process of making a decision using logic to quantify the specification of the product vs. it’s cost. The product with the most “bang for its buck” wins (i.e. specs:price ratio).  And I still think this is the correct approach if you’d like to be rational. On paper, the Ducati is seriously overpriced relative to bikes with similar stats from other manufacturers.

But other people judge a product’s merits, less on the actual product, but more on where that product came from. They have “Brand Focus”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a completely rational thing to do in my opinion – but there is definitely an intangible value about owning a specific brand: a bit like art has intangible value. You can’t rationally derive the value from specifications: speed, braking ability, durability etc; rather you start deriving value from how the product makes you feel. And that, in my opinion, is a slippery slope.

Famous stock broker Warren Buffett calls these two ways of valuating ‘intrinsic value’ (product focus) and ‘book value’ (brand focus/how much the stocks are actually selling for, regardless to how much their calculated worth is).

Regardless of all that, however, is that Ducatis seem to really maintain their value well.  With a Ducati, its perceived worth is not detrimentally affected by lacking in specs: it holds the price it was originally sold for simply because it is still a Ducati and people continue to perceive it as valuable. This is also an apparent fact when buying stocks. There’s the worth of the company based purely on stats: it’s assets. But then there’s the public opinion on how much the company will grow: which is pure speculation and creates the perceived worth of each stock.

So, in the end, does it really matter where the value is derived, as long as it’s stable and predictable? To some extent, I think: yes, it still does. Brands can fall out of grace with the public: people might start to perceive Ducati as less luxurious. And public perception of a company’s growth can change overnight: and with it, the perceived worth of a stock. Stats are less fickle. Horsepower won’t change overnight unless someone gets a wrench to the bike (or mistreats it). Will that stop me from buying a Ducati in the future? Only time will tell…

Ad Hominem Absurdities

My colleague was telling me the other day of an instance when Obama came to the UK to give advice. Obama said, “if you leave the EU, you’ll be at the back of the line when you come to negotiate trade agreements.”

My colleague told me that we didn’t like what we heard. Not because of the information we were told: rather, we thought Obama had no right to get involved with British politics.

We didn’t see the information. We didn’t say, “okay, thanks for the feedback, I’ll see how this information fits into what I already know and see if I need to re-assess my decision making.” We reacted, saying, “who are you to tell us what to do?”

Obama is part of the other tribe. He’s not part of us, therefore he has no authority over us. Him even trying to tell us what to do is an insult to us.

It’s the same logic as football fans:  “you’re evil because you support x whereas I support y. Don’t even try to look at me because, although we both are fiercely passionate about the same thing, you’re not part of my group”.

Football fans are an example of when you take the Ad Hominem argument to attack groups rather than individuals. But it’s the same reaction: they’re not part of our tribe, so we attack them based on their lack of association with us rather than what they do.

And when you start seeing how this plays out in groups: when applying it to sales, we might glean an insight into another reason why Trump won. Trump is very good at targeting a market. You’ll notice Ivanka Trump has also picked up this ability. Ivanka is always talking about how she’s trying to represent womens rights: and although I would like to believe her, this is a a sound business market target as well. By making her ‘tribe’ women, she’s creating a very strong brand for half the population to associate with. And half of the population is a huge market to sell to.

Donald Trump did the same thing. While Hilary was busy alienating all the bigoted/racist people by calling them ‘deplorables’, Trump recognised that these ‘deplorables’ still had exactly power to sway the vote as other, more ‘upstanding citizens’. By giving some rhetoric that advocated a bigoted mindset, he created a tribe that included all those people. Suddenly his popularity rocketed. These people, plus the people who felt disenfranchised with politicians and their ability to positively impact their lives, were a huge influence for Trump’s success. Trump also gets double points for using tribalism as a tool to win popularity, because he gains the racist people’s votes by using their hate for other tribes: in the case, Mexicans, by blaming Mexicans for all their shared shortcomings.

Although, at times, watching this kind of behaviour makes me lose a tiny bit of faith in humanity, to isolate myself from it and to say “humans are idiots” would be the highest form of hypocrisy. I would be making the rest of humanity the ‘other tribe’ and then be carrying out the same behaviour I condemn so much. Sometimes all we can do is to take a big breath, go to sleep, wake up the next day, and try again to work together so that we can move ourselves forwards and create a better future for ourselves.