Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Insight: A Conversation with Gary Klein

Edge presents a nice video in which Psychologies Gary Klein explains some of his ideas about the way people chose their actions.

He recognizes that there are formal approaches to decision making that depend on quantification and mathematical (or at least arithmatic) analytic procedures. They simply are not used in the situations in which his research has taken place.

So too he recognizes the utility of formal procedures, such as the flight check procedures used by airline pilots. Neither he nor I would want to fly on a plane for which the ground crew and flight crew had not successfully completed their preflight checks. On the other hand, he finds that in too many firms there are efforts to limit all personnel to routinized and formalized procedures to the expense of the application of expertise to situations and at the expense of valuable insights from the experts.

Expertise by the line people in important functions like fire fighting is developed with on the job training and experience and includes a lot of tacit knowledge. Klein emphasizes that experts will confront a situation, (almost always) recognize its pattern as fitting in a known categories, and frame the search for actions in terms of those categories. His research suggests that they will then generate options sequentially and model each mentally until one is found that appears to successfully resolve the situation. The expertise based intuition is involved in recognition of the pattern fitting the situation and/or identifying ways in which the pattern is not fulfilled, and in the mental simulation of the options. I would suggest that it is also involved in the ordering in which options are reviewed, where options more likely to prove successful are likely to be first considered.

Insight is then invoked (especially by experts) in discarding some aspect of the expert routine and innovating with a new classification of the situation or a new solution to its problems and opportunities.

Klein seems to be one of those people who combine a lot of practical experience and deep thought to produce a deceptively simple synthesis. I like very much the implication of his talk that many organizations put too much emphasis on formal procedures and too little emphasis on the promotion of expertise and productive insight.

I think of the various efforts at "management by objectives" and "logical framework" planning, monitoring, management, and evaluation of projects. In the hands of experts these can be fruitfully combined with expert insight and intuition. Without the appropriate use of expertise the results may not be pretty. Moreover, a key management effort should be to develop experts in the organization with strong intuition and insights as well as mastery of formal procedures.

Of course, there is a problem as to when to use formal quantitative analysis, when to depend on expert opinion, and when to fall back on routine.

Thanks to my friend Julianne for pointing me to this talk!

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