IF SHE WEIGHS THE SAME AS A DUCK, SHE'S A WITCH
LOGIC AND DECISION-MAKING AT LARGE CORPORATIONS
When I read the following section of the Monty Python script, I get reminded of the loads of crazy decision making I’ve encountered in my career. Feel free to compare the scene with any decision-making process you've been a part of at work.
CROWD: A witch! A witch!
A witch! A witch! We've found a witch! A witch!
We've got a witch! A witch! A witch! Burn
her! Burn her! Burn her! We've found a witch!
We've found a witch!
VILLAGER #1: We have found a witch. May we burn her?
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! Burn her! Burn her!
BEDEVERE: How do you know she is a witch?
VILLAGER #2: She looks like one.
CROWD: Right! Yeah! Yeah!
BEDEVERE: Bring her forward.
WITCH: I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch.
BEDEVERE: Uh, but you are dressed as one.
WITCH: They dressed me up like this.
CROWD: Augh, we didn't! We didn't...
WITCH: And this isn't my nose. It's a false one.
VILLAGER #1: Well, we did do the nose.
BEDEVERE: The nose?
VILLAGER #1: And the hat, but she is a witch!
VILLAGER #2: Yeah!
CROWD: We burn her! Right! Yeaaah! Yeaah!
BEDEVERE: Did you dress her up like this?
VILLAGER #1: No!
VILLAGER #2 and 3: No. No.
VILLAGER #2: No.
VILLAGER #1: No.
VILLAGERS #2 and #3: No.
VILLAGER #1: (feeling guilty) Yes.
VILLAGER #2: Yes.
VILLAGER #1: Yes. Yeah, a bit.
VILLAGER #3: A bit.
VILLAGERS #1 and #2: A bit.
VILLAGER #3: A bit.
VILLAGER #1: She has got wart.
BEDEVERE: What makes you think she is a witch?
VILLAGER #3: Well, she turned me into a newt.
BEDEVERE: A newt?
VILLAGER #3: I got better.
VILLAGER #2: Burn her anyway!
VILLAGER #1: Burn!
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! Burn her!...
BEDEVERE: Quiet! Quiet! Quiet! Quiet! There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
VILLAGER #1: Are there?
VILLAGER #2: Ah?
VILLAGER #1: What are they?
CROWD: Tell us! Tell us!...
BEDEVERE: Tell me, what do you do with witches?
VILLAGER #2: Burn!
VILLAGER #1: Burn!
CROWD: Burn! Burn them up! Burn!...
BEDEVERE: And what do you burn apart from witches?
VILLAGER #1: More witches!
VILLAGER #3: Shh!
VILLAGER #2: Wood!
BEDEVERE: So, why do witches burn?
VILLAGER #3: B--... 'cause they're made of... wood?
BEDEVERE: Good! Heh heh.
CROWD: Oh yeah. Oh.
BEDEVERE: So, how do we tell whether she is made of wood?
VILLAGER #1: Build a bridge out of her.
BEDEVERE: Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone?
VILLAGER #1: Oh, yeah.
RANDOM: Oh, yeah. True. Uhh...
BEDEVERE: Does wood sink in water?
VILLAGER #1: No. No.
VILLAGER #2: No, it floats! It floats!
VILLAGER #1: Throw her into the pond!
CROWD: The pond! Throw her into the pond!
BEDEVERE: What also floats in water?
VILLAGER #1: Bread!
VILLAGER #2: Apples!
VILLAGER #3: Uh, very small rocks!
VILLAGER #1: Cider!
VILLAGER #2: Uh, gra-- gravy!
VILLAGER #1: Cherries!
VILLAGER #2: Mud!
VILLAGER #3: Churches! Churches!
VILLAGER #2: Lead! Lead!
ARTHUR: A duck!
BEDEVERE: Exactly. So, logically...
VILLAGER #1: If... she... weighs... the same as a duck,... she's made of wood.
BEDEVERE: And therefore?
VILLAGER #2: A witch!
VILLAGER #1: A witch!
CROWD: A witch! A witch!...
VILLAGER #4: Here is a duck. Use this duck. [quack quack quack]
BEDEVERE: We shall use my largest scales.
CROWD: Ohh! Ohh! Burn the witch! Burn the witch! Burn her! Burn her!
BEDEVERE: Right. Remove the supports! (The woman and the duck balance each other out on the scales.)
CROWD: A witch! A witch! A witch!
WITCH: It's a fair cop.
VILLAGER #3: Burn her!
CROWD: Burn her! Burn her! Burn her!
Isn't this just like the decisions we make in business? Typically, someone high up wants to do something, like merge or buy a business or invest in a radical new product, and then assigns a team to work on the business case for said action. The people assigned to the team tend to be supportive of the idea and they design analyses to justify the decision. While they are creating the analytical tools, sometimes surveys or financial models, they are looking to provide data to support the decision. Remember that old adage about people finding what they look for? And when they find it, they stop looking. The problem is that their research is designed to support their conclusions, not to disprove them. We look for evidence that we are right, not evidence that we are wrong. This is why the CEO's pet project always manages to look good on paper.
Much of the time, the people involved in these analyses are well-intentioned and think that they are being fair. However, cognitive scientists have shown that humans have a confirmation bias or a tendency to weigh evidence consistent with our beliefs more than evidence that is not. All the feedback from the survey that reflects what we believe are the important issues seems to relay a consistent message. The feedback that does not align with our beliefs appears random and inconsistent and is easily thought of as noise. Someone else looking at the survey results who holds completely different beliefs will see feedback that confirms his or her beliefs. You can see this type of thinking all the time watching the talking heads on Fox News and MSNBC.
For instance, a person with right-leaning tendencies who thinks Guantanamo should remain open will look for confirming evidence in the news. This explains Fox News' reporting that the local terror plot to bomb a NY synagogue, initially hatched in a prison, is evidence that putting terrorists in US prisons is dangerous to US citizens. Logically, it would be very hard to jump to this conclusion, and more logical conclusions would be that solitary confinement is necessary for all prisoners or that Miami should be on high alert because of its proximity to Guantanamo.
This is why diversity is so important to a company. Leaders tend to fill their leadership teams with people who think alike and hold the same beliefs. Imagine if our Big 3 automakers' leadership was stocked with Europeans who were accustomed to much smaller cars with much better mileage. What if our financial industry included ethnicities that were more risk-averse than Americans or had a more long-term perspective? What would our Congress be like if it were full of diverse twenty and thirty-somethings rather than lots of old white males?
Instead, our corporate decision-making is much like the Monty Python villagers. They’ve come up with a conclusion, that she's a witch, without considering any other hypotheses. Then they look for confirming evidence, like “she has a wart,” and create more confirming evidence by adding the nose and the costume to an otherwise unwitch-like, beautiful, young woman. Hence, a woman is a witch, and we have all the evidence we need to prove it.