Tag Archives: unintended consequences

You give complex diagrams… a bad name

Death by PowerPoint

It’s not often that a Powerpoint page makes it to the front page of a national newspaper.  The story goes like this.  Leaders were discussing the complexity of American Military strategy in Afghanistan.  Someone prepared a PowerPoint slide after lots of work.  The slide was shown to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who leads the US and NATO forces.  There was a awkward pause, broken by his observation that “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”  The audience lets out a roar of laughter.  The presenters and diagram-preparers are embarrassed.

Perhaps you’ve seen this page.  It’s become its own meme.  It was ridiculed by many, including Jon Stewart and probably many of your Facebook friends.  It confirms what many of us have seen with our own eyes: there’s a fine line between trying to communicate a memorable story and drop-off-the-cliff absurdity, especially when you are dealing with a complex story.

As a stand-alone, this is a horrible picture.  Many pictures that try to tell a complex story do not do well by sitting by themselves.  Your audience may be familiar with the topics and may even agree with what you are trying to communicate.  But in general, our audience needs a guided tour through something like this.

There’s a certain fluency required in understanding a complex causal loop diagram.  What makes it worse is that without a guided tour, your audience is misled into thinking that since they can read parts of the diagram, they can also read the “whole diagram”.  This is faulty logic.  You don’t want to make the audience seem dumb.  Your audience may be very smart, but when confronted with a diagram like this, they are likely to ask some practical questions.  Where do I start?  What does this mean?  If there are no grips or footings to stand on, your audience will fall, or at least feel like they are slipping.  So they ridicule the diagram, say nothing, or wait until someone says something funny.

So what do you do if you have a complex story to tell that’s best represented by a causal loop diagram?

You should first establish some “basic rules” of how something like this is read.  There are many ways to do this depending on what you are discussing, how many diagrams are in play, your relationship to your audience and a host of other factors.  Sometimes a one-page introduction with a description of what the following diagram shows, along with one loop or a few links does the trick.

You can show things in chunks.  Do you notice the colors?  There are subsections or subsystems.  You can start with an overall subsystem diagram that shows the stakeholders and links… maybe this has only 5-10 actors and only 10-15 links.  All we’re doing is establishing that there are many players and different relationships… not enough detail to be useful, but enough to engage and prepare the discussion.  Then build out details, chunks at a time.

Never forget to explain WHAT you are trying to do with the diagram.  Also notice that it’s “what YOU are trying to do”, and not “what the DIAGRAM is trying to do”.  The diagram does nothing.  Except confuse and amuse.  Human beings (like you or the audience) use, show, debate, decide, tell stories, and understand.

Ecologist Eric Berlow presents a good approach to stuff like this at a TED conference.  He starts with the whole, then gets rid of stuff.  The key is that he gets rid of stuff to fit a certain sub-story.  I call this “collapsing” the diagram… not a great use of the terminology, I admit, but useful in helping the audience feel a bit of relief from the task of dealing with everything.

Tainted Eggs and Sticky Accelerator Pedals

We’ve had hundreds of millions of eggs recalled in the last several weeks.  That’s more eggs than there are people in the United States.  According to CNN.com, there were 1,953 cases of Salmonella enteritidis reported in a 3-month period.  Salmonella hits you hard. It can leave you sick for a week with cramps, chills, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea.  And that’s if you are healthy.  The elderly, young or folks with weaker immunity can suffer much worse.

1,953 reported cases.  Even after the recall, there could be more cases since the symptoms can hit several days after consumption of tainted eggs.  That’s a lot of sick people.

Or is it?

Another recent recall involved Toyota vehicles and the problem of accelerator pedals.  Cars accelerated out of control.  People died.  There were multiple stories carried by the media in quick succession.  Police were interviewed.  Congressional hearings were held.  A company’s reputation was at stake.

Take a look at the graph published by the Wall Street Journal that shows the “daily number of complaints about vehicle speed and accelerator pedal control” and the dates of some key events.  I am not sure what the “normal average daily complaint rate” should be, but before the warning from Toyota in late September 2009, it seem like there were fewer than 10 complaints per day.  There’s a small spike after the September warning.  The complaints seem to show a temporary peak about 6 weeks after this. In late November, Toyota announces a recall, accompanied by another spike in the days following.  Finally, in late Jan and early February 2010, there are calls to investigate the possibility of faulty electronics.  Around the time regulators officially expand the probe, the complaints spike, reaching a height of over 150 on a single day.

It’s difficult for Toyota to claim that either the drivers were becoming less careful or that the complaints were unjustified.  We have seen such PR blunders before from companies.  When a company makes such a mistake, no amount of science, facts, statistics or promises can fix the PR damage.

Back to the tainted eggs.  According the the CDC, from May to Jul, we would expect about 700 cases of Salmonella instead of 1,953.  Clearly, there is a spike associated with the eggs.  And it’s also likely that not all cases relating to the eggs have been reported.

What do you think?

Can recalls “cause” complaints?  Should companies (and organizations) revise the way recalls are done?  How should we use such statistics in setting the communications or policies regarding recalls?

Unintended Consequences of a Unmanned Speed Gun

Perhaps you have seen these unmanned speed guns.  Some are temporary, perhaps around construction zones or around dangerous curves.  Some are permanently placed as part of a sign, a flashing set of numbers indicating your speed just under the sign with the posted speed limit.  Many work well; they are relatively low-cost reminders of the need to watch our speed.

Except when they don’t.  Near where my brother lives, there is a slightly upward-sloping stretch of a 4-lane street that starts at a stop light and goes near a school zone.  The speed limit is 40MPH.  Because of the slope, it’s actually difficuly to reach the speed limit by the time you reach the speed gun.  Difficult if you are using normal acceleration.  The “watch your speed” zone has now become a “how fast am I going” zone as drivers use the convenience of the speed gun to see how fast his or her car can reach.

And so we have an example of unintended consequences.  Here, it’s much worse than the typical ones.  The “fix” actually encourages the opposite behavior.

In systems thinking, we describe an “archetype” called “fixes that fail”.  Sometimes, “fixes” work for awhile, then fail.  Sometimes, they fail from the start.  Sometimes, they work in some cases, but fail in others.

What “fixes” are you working on now in your organization or personal life?  Could they be candidates for unintended consequences or “fixes that fail”?