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Coaching the Professions

The 70% Solution

At midnight, May 17, 1968, the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion left Rota, Spain. Its top secret orders were to sail west toward the Canary Islands. As it slipped beneath the waves, the pride of the US submarine fleet and its 99 crew men were never seen again.

It was heard from again. An explosion was recorded five days later somewhere south west of the Azores. The tradition of the navy is to locate the vessel as soon as possible in respect for fellow sailors lost and to secure sensitive technology at risk of falling into enemy hands. The search was made more difficult by a number of factors. The sinking occurred during one of the hottest times of the cold war, and there was almost no information on its location at the time of the explosion. Also unknown were its speed, direction, or angle of descent.

John Craven, a navy research scientist, was given the seemingly impossible task of locating the Scorpion. The lack of reliable information available to him led him to take a very unusual approach. He would dust off the eighteenth century Bayesian search theory. Thomas Bayes was an 18th century mathematician that developed a system of combining averages to find solutions to problems. The theory purported to give one the best chance of finding a solution when seemly insufficient information was available. Craven did know the time of the sinking, the depth of the water, and a search area of 200 miles in circumference.

In developing his search plan, Craven recruited the best minds in the business: naval experts, scientists, mathematicians and engineers. He gave them all the same information, albeit limited, and asked for their best estimation of the location of the Scorpion within the 200 mile search grid. He asked them to work with complete independence from one another. Within two weeks he had their calculated estimations. Using the Bayesian Search theory he averaged them within the grid. Although no one estimate was correct, the average of all their estimates, found independently, resulted in locating the doomed submarine. They found the Scorpion resting on the bottom two miles beneath the surface within 200 yards of the mathematical estimate!

An interesting bit of history, but how does it affect our personally finding solutions in our lives. Let's look at a much less serious example of how the group may find the answer. Just a few years ago, Who Wants to be a Millionaire was one of the most watched television shows. The premise of the show was the contestant would answer increasingly difficult questions, for increasing prize money up to a million dollars. However, the contestant could elicit help from the studio audience or could call 'experts' at home called 'life lines'. Over the running of the show some interesting statistics emerged. The life lines working alone, offered the correct answer 63% of the time. The majority of the studio audience, voting independently, produced the correct answer 91% of the time.

It is apparent that groups of people working independently with 'not all the facts' are very capable of arriving at the best solutions.

Craven' team had very little information but they obviously had enough. How much is enough? According to the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting group, the optimum amount of information needed to make a management decision is 40-70% of the desired information. If we make a decision with less than 40% our chances of making the best decision are limited. If we wait until we have more than 70% of the information, we have taken too long and now our problem has evolved past our present solution.

Consider how leaders traditionally make decisions:

The office meeting, ad hoc committee, board of advisors, cabinet, etc.

A group of people sit together and discuss the best solutions to problems. Some people inevitably do the most talking or the boss is in the room and participants may feel intimidated and defer to the ultimate decision maker. The group brainstorming session misses the power of the uninhibited individual's thought.

Also there may be the decision culture of; 'we need all the facts to make the correct decision.' As we have learned, waiting for all the information is most likely detrimental to the quality of the decision. Also having individuals work as a group may cause groupthink to appear.

The best way to make management decisions may in fact be having people work independently on possible solutions then have them present them individually. Then have the group arrive at the best solution. Also keep in mind that not having all the information, calls on the experience and intuition of the group. This may be the most powerful and predictable way to derive the best solution.

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