Why are simple rules so effective in so many different settings?
Simple rules work, it turns out, because they do three things very well. First, they confer the flexibility to pursue new opportunities while maintaining some consistency. Second, they can produce better decisions. When information is limited and time is short, simple rules make it fast and easy for people, organizations, and governments to make sound choices. They can even outperform complicated decision-making approaches in some situations. Finally, simple rules allow the members of a community to synchronize their activities with one another on the fly. As a result, communities can do things that would be impossible for their individual members to achieve on their own. Car sharing company Zipcar relied on simple rules to share cars across thousands of users.
Several of the examples in the book describe people who use simple rules under extreme pressure. Why are simple rules so effective in these settings?
Simple rules help people to act quickly without agonizing over their decision. This advantage is particularly important in situations, like improvisational comedy or sports-casting, where people have to react as a situation unfolds in real time. Simple rules are also important when decision making is impaired by exhaustion or extreme stress, and we see them used by front-line medics to assess injured soldiers, firefighters, and mountaineers. These high-stakes situations illustrate the danger of ignoring simple rules under pressure. One of the deadliest days for mountain climbers on Mt. Everest resulted from the mountaineers’ failure to follow the 2 O’clock rule that if you don’t hit the summit by that time, you turn around no matter what. Five climbers lost their lives because they ignored that simple rule.
A lot has been written about checklists to shape behavior. What’s new about simple rules?
We are huge fans of Atul Gawande’s work on checklists, which are the perfect tool to help anyone, like a pilot or surgeon, avoid forgetting steps in a well-documented process. Checklists eliminate errors by making sure people follow the process to the letter every time. But there are many situations where we need to exercise judgment and creativity to get the job done, such as developing a new product or making investment decisions. In these cases, you want to give people some guidance but also leave lots of room for them to exercise judgment. By the way, the same person might use a checklist in one situation and simple rules for a different task. The same doctor who systematically checks off the items in a pre-surgery checklist might use simple rules to diagnose a patient with a disease like celiac disorder or depression that requires judgment.
These days a lot of people are concerned that algorithms and computers will eliminate the need for human judgment. Do you agree?
I teach at MIT, a hotbed of “big data” so I get this question a lot. Many people believe that relentless increases in data and computational power will render human decision makers obsolete. Recall the scene in the movie Moneyball, when Jonah Hill, (playing an Ivy-League statistician) describes his statistical analysis to a room full of tobacco-chewing baseball scouts. Many viewers left the theater thinking the scouts’ days were numbered. In fact, Billy Beane has increased spending on scouts since Moneyball was written. The scouts bring judgment based on decades of experience and can pick up factors that computer models miss. Instead of replacing scouts with computers, Beane developed a set of simple rules for drafting players that was based on the statistical analysis. Within these guidelines, the scouts were free to exercise their judgment. Simple rules allowed the Oakland A’s to combine the best insights from data analytics with the expertise of the scouts.
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