Saturday, 2 March 2013

History is the best predictor of the future

I had a brief conversation this past week with someone who used this statement. Something about this bothered me, something just seemed off; wrong about this, but I wasn’t sure what so I just smiled politely and when on with my work. Then this morning, while I was busy doing something else, it hit me – ‘broken telephone!’

Somewhere along the line, that person on their own or through another imparting this little tidbit of non-wisdom dumbed down “past performance and behavior is a predictor of future performance and behavior” into one all encompassing factor of reality. Well, in their mind anyway. In essence, they played the game of broken telephone with a nice, concise piece of wisdom.

That got me thinking. I wonder what else that person and how many others in and out of their places of business play that game on a regular basis due to some combination of misunderstanding and misinformation? I wonder how many variables and constraints were completely forgotten or discarded to further cloud that tidbit of wisdom?

This statement is most accurate when no variables change. When one or more variables in the equation start to shift and depending on how dramatically they shift this black & white equation becomes more and more gray to the point where there is no relevance or correlation at all. These variables include things like changing jobs, companies, company culture, people working there, new laws (well enforced ones), and the manager(s) taking a new training course, etc.

I suspect the graying of this change becomes more exponential with the number of variables changed. I suspect that last specific example has a more significant impact than others. The behaviors and perceptions of those in leadership roles whether it’s someone that’s a SME, team lead, resource manager, or yes, even a program or project manager can have a significant positive or negative impact on others’ motivations, performance, and work and personal habits. My basis for this is remembering some research on self-efficacy. In one such study (in the U.S. mind you) grade school students’ IQs scores were replaced with their locker numbers and giving those numbers to their teachers at the start of the year. The smarter kids were generally assigned lower locker numbers and vice-versa. The results were significant. Students who were top performers were now getting B- and lower grades. Students who in previous years had average and below average grades now had slightly to significantly above average grades. And the only school where the results were not statistically significant was at a school where a teacher happened to mention something in the teachers’ lounge and they all got to talking. Still, let’s not pick on teachers shall we? The fact is a lot people in all business fields behave this way. Even today. I’ve personally lost count of how many times over just the past month I’ve heard people say things in and out of my own workplace that make me want to just shake my head and say “What!?” Things like,
  • Oh, he must know, he’s a VP / a doctor / a .... !
  • She couldn’t possibly know. She’s just a secretary / .... .
  • It’s important for us to teach children about democracy and standing up for one’s rights (by neither showing children that adults can behave well (ahem) like adults nor allowing individual teachers to decide if they want to support extracurricular student activities on their own). Oh, BTW, don’t get me started on the ‘might equals right’ strategy of Ontario politicians!

This was also a driving factor (of many) when ITIL as of version 3 changed from a set of ‘best practices’ to ‘good practices’ perhaps realizing this.

I’ll look for an opportunity to have another chat this week at the coffee machine with that person.

Oh, one other thing, history can be a very good predictor of the future. Wars, bigotry, overspending, listening to and sharing gossip just to name a few. It all depends on how open or closed one’s mind is to continually learning new things. When behaviors like I’m too busy to talk with so-and-so; oh, I already know. I ….; and so on are commonplace in any setting these broken telephones will also be rampant.