Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Planning Fallacy

We were assigned to read the article, "Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures," by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky for my Federal Acquisitions class this week (one of seven!! articles, each about 45 pages long...woe is me! Thank goodness for 10 pages of endnotes/references.). Their premise is that forecasting is most often fallacious in two predictable manners: an over-reliance on intuition, rather than regressive analysis; and overconfidence with precision of estimates. Quotes from the article are in italics.
"Our  view of  forecasting rests on  the  following  notions. First,  that  most  predictions and  forecasts  contain  an irreducible  intuitive  component.  Second,  that  the  intuitive predictions of  knowledgeable  individuals contain much  useful information.  Third,  that  these  intuitive  judgments  are  often biased  in  a  predictable manner.  Hence,  the  problem is  not whether  to  accept  intuitive  predictions at  face  value or  to reject  them, but  rather  how  they can  be  debiased and  improved."
Usually as I read stuff, especially conceptual stuff, I try to relate it to something with which I am familiar. The article did a good job of providing understandable examples, but for me, what resonated was trying to predict how long something, particularly engineering-related, will take to repair. When something breaks--and it's inevitable that something *will,* every operational planner knows that there's "real estimate" and "engineering estimate" for repairs.

Real time is what it actually takes to fix whatever is broken, and is never actually known until the piece of equipment is fixed. Engineering time is the EO/EPOs best estimate for how long it's going to take.
"...the  element of  uncertainty  is  typically  underestimated in  risky decisions.  The  elimination of  overconfidence  is therefore an  important  objective  in  an attempt  to  improve  the quality of  the  intuitive  judgments  that  serve decision making."
Under extreme duress and lots of nagging on my part, a first-rate, highly skilled, extremely talented EO shared with me his engineering time algorithm: 2*estimated repair time + 20 percent. So if he thought it would actually take an hour to say, fix the fuel leak on the small boat, he'd tell me that the small boat would be FMC in about two and a half hours, give or take. That way he and his engineers looked like rock stars when it was done in an hour and a half, and they still had plenty of time to thwart the annoying gremlin trickery that is inherent to engineering repairs.

Of course, I always tried to reverse engineer his engineering time to get the real time...usually only ended up annoying the hell out of both of us.
"A probability distribution  that  is  conditioned on  restrictive  assumptions  reflects  only  part of  the  existing uncertainty regarding  the  quantity,  and  is  therefore  likely to  yield too many  surprises."
Somehow, though, I was never able to effectively apply the same theory to predicting how long it would take to launch the small boat. Like, *never.* I would always underestimate it, and we'd be late (guaranteed to aggravate me), or overestimate it, and the boat crew would have to haul a mile, usually upswell, to get to the boarding target, arriving thoroughly soaked and more tired than they needed to be (and I always knew it was my fault). I think my "restrictive assumption" was that it would either take 15 minutes to launch the small boat, or 30 minutes (mostly because my brain thinks most easily in quarter-hour increments), when actually it takes, on average, 22 minutes to get the boat in the water and boat crew and boarding team loaded. It's really hard to take the Plan of the Day seriously when it says, "0938 - Set Boat Lowering Detail," for a 1000 arrival time.
"In many  problems of prediction  and estimation, available  information  is  limited, incomplete,  and  unreliable.  If  people  derive almost  as much confidence  from poor  data  as  from good  data, they  are  likely to produce overly narrow confidence  intervals  when  their information  is  of  inferior quality."
I guess my point is that I like what the authors did with the article in trying to break down the nature of uncertainty in planning. I'm poking gentle fun at it because they take it so seriously, and turn it all scientific and statistical. But, in the end, they're right...the important thing about predictions is honestly recognizing where they are weak, and trying, despite ourselves, to compensate for those weaknesses.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reflection Paper #1

BACKGROUND: I'm taking a class titled "Managing Differences: Resolving Conflict & Negotiating Agreements." We met for the first time this past Monday, and went through an oil pricing exercise. The class was divided into small groups, and then paired up with another group. Each small group represented an oil-exporting country in direct competition with our partner group for exporting oil to a (third) neighboring country. We had to decide how to price our exported oil based on a given matrix for profits, with the goal of maximizing our country's profits. We couldn't talk with the other group initially, but then after a couple rounds, we were able to attend a "summit" with them.

The first couple of rounds, we were able to maintain prices at their, relatively profitable initial level. When we attended the summit, we negotiated a price increase with the other country that would benefit both of us. 

We got *totally* ** PUNKED!** The other group undercut us and made a huge profit for themselves, but *completely* destroyed the future potential for continued friendly relations between the group. 

Our homework assignment from the exercise was to write a short paper, reflecting on our reaction to the events. Here's mine:

PAPER: I tend to think that most everyone shares my perspective that the world would be a better place if we could all at least consider others’ needs along with our own. Unfortunately, my experience in the oil pricing exercise definitively illustrated that this is not the case. Our Alban (the other country) counterparts went into the negotiations with a clearly stated objective of luring us into a trusting relationship solely to take eventual advantage of the situation. I was also disappointed that they saw the exercise as a win-lose environment instead of one in which both parties could fully optimize their circumstances. The situation made me feel naïve and upset that my trust was used against my pursuit of a potentially mutually beneficial goal. 

For the last 12 years, my professional (and a great deal of my personal) life has been dedicated to being underway on Coast Guard cutters. It has been a very team-oriented existence. Not much happens on a ship that involves a single person; nearly everything requires the significant effort of many people working together. Trust is quickly built…or nothing gets done. The bridge watch has to trust the engine watch to keep machinery running within parameters, and the rest of the crew has to trust the bridge watch to, well, not run into anything and to navigate the ship safely. With this background, trust comes easily to me.

As the Commanding Officer, I worked hard to diligently and conscientiously build trust and camaraderie among my crews through shared missions, clearly communicated expectations and sincere respect of individuals’ talents and abilities. It is a source of personal pride to me that those crews--my guys--trusted me to be their Captain and lead them during difficult and dangerous situations. So, while trust comes easily to me, I also take it very personally. 

During the exercise, when our Alban counterparts nefariously lured us into believing that they would also raise their price to $30/barrel in the fourth month, I took it personally that they blatantly lied to us. It meant that I hadn’t done as good a job as I could have communicating the benefits of a long-term commitment to increased prices. It meant that they were only hearing what they wanted to hear, rather than what we were saying. It meant that we didn’t have common goals. It meant that our trust in them was unfounded. It might even have meant that they were bad people.

The major insight I gleaned from this exercise is that other people’s motivations are not my personal burden. As long as I make my best effort to clearly state relevant concerns and opinions, I am not responsible for their independent actions. If their goals are different, it does not make them bad people. Even if they are deceitful, I have no place to either judge them or take on their "salvation" on as my own cause.

There is a balance required between getting so personally involved that I lose my objectivity and am emotionally hurt by people with less honorable intentions and being so detached to not care one way or the other about the outcome. The balance point will likely change with each circumstance. But maintaining an awareness of my tendency towards emotional involvement may help to find that point at which I can be passionately committed to achieving my own objectives, which usually include some consideration of the Other’s situation with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place.

ON ANOTHER NOTE: I got a call from my Assignment Officer today, which is not an insignificant occurrence, especially when I'm waiting (somewhat breathlessly) to find out what office I'll be working in for the next few years. He had a "short-fused" assignment opportunity he wanted to talk to me about. 

We talked yesterday; I tried to reiterate to him exactly which office I want to work in (which just happens to be open, and wanting an off-season transfer). He didn't commit to anything, but definitely indicated I was in the running for my top two choices.

This morning he told me he had reviewed my record again last night and thought that I would be a good candidate for a *VERY* high profile, like ridiculously prestigious, assignment within the Executive Branch. Would I consider applying for it?

Um...WOW!! Holy crap!! Lil' ole' me?!? Hunh-uh, you're joking, right? Ok, deep breath, calm down, and...say no.

I thanked him first for deciding that my record of performance indicated that I might be competitive for this particular assignment; it's a huge honor to even be briefly considered for it. He asked me why I said no.

I told him I didn't think I'd be a good fit for it, that there is likely someone much better suited to that kind of highly visible job, and that, truthfully, I just don't have the social skills necessary to be good at a job like that. He thanked me for my honesty, and told me I was still in the running for the jobs I had asked for. We quickly finished our conversation.

I stood at the dining room window for a moment, looking out into my yard, breathing a little shallowly, at the thought that I had just turned down the opportunity probably of a lifetime. I'm still a bit shaken by it. I *know* I wouldn't be good at it. I'm awkward in social situations, prone to saying stupid things, don't think especially quickly on my feet. But...did I really turn it down just because I'm scared of all those things? Or am I scared of being potentially successful and influential far beyond my wildest dreams? Or am I using that as an excuse (lack of advanced social skills) to avoid something I don't want to do?

I like to think that I'm pretty good at taking on challenges, stretching my capabilities, testing myself. But this...I'm just not sure that I *want* to be good at the things I think this job would require. I don't want to be able to know at a glance who is the most powerful person in the room, and the entire pecking order on the way down from there. I don't want to be good at politics. I like the fact that I'm oblivious to a lot of that stuff. I like the fact that I say what's on my mind, with very little self-preservationist-censorship. I like the fact that I'm kinda rough around the edges and not always fit for polite company. 

In the end, I think I made the right choice. Someone else *wants* that job, would be better at it, and wouldn't embarrass the Coast Guard just by being called for an interview (as I likely would). 

But it's pretty freaking cool that the AO thought, even for a small second, that I might be the right person for that job!

Friday, September 9, 2011

An Indelible Commitment

I started writing this while I was still officially taking a break from blogging, so it's a little out of order. But still relevant.

9 Aug
I’m getting more artwork done on my right arm today. The plan is to finish out my lower arm so I’ll have a full sleeve. Jimmy McMahon at Jimmy Mack Designs in Haleiwa started the sleeve the summer of 2009, a few weeks after I got back home from Bahrain. I gave him a general idea of what I wanted…something with magnolia blossoms, irises and snap dragons. He filled in the rest, and I’ve gotten endless compliments on how beautiful the tattoo is.

So now I’m going back in and he’s gonna draw down to my wrist. This time I asked him to use the same design concept as the upper arm, but instead of wind lines, I want waves, with some fish and birds peeking out. I have no doubt that it’s going to be gorgeous. (9 Sep update: it's about 80 percent done. I tapped out after four hours on the day I left (fourth sitting). Still have a large stripe of teal/turquoise water to fill in; probably another four or five hours, including touch-ups. Jimmy left it so that it doesn't look totally weird, and you can get a sense of how it will look completed. I'll get it finished when I head back to Hawaii in December after graduation. Pictures to follow upon completion.)

I got my first tattoo when I was 21, a cute little chain of daisies around my upper left arm. Bodean, a big-bellied, bearded biker in Richmond, KY gave it to me. I thought I was pretty bad ass. I think I got it right around the time I graduated from college. It took me two years before my mother saw it. She didn’t approve. After that, I got the thistle on my right foot (quote from the guy in Raleigh, NC who drew it, “that’s the weirdest f'king tattoo I’ve ever given.” I think he might have been exaggerating a little). I got that one after attending a strategic planning conference at my alma mater, Berea College…the small stipend they paid me as a guest speaker covered the cost of the tattoo. And then I got the weird black lines around my daisies just before going to OCS at some random shop in Cherry Point, NC. There’s something about doing something responsible that makes me get tattoos, I guess.

After that I went on about a six year hiatus from getting tattoos…and was able to give blood again on a regular basis.

But then I found myself in another position of responsibility and not a little bit of stress, and I went back to my tattooing ways. One of the warrant officers onboard HAMILTON found an artist in Vasco de Nunez, Panama that we all ended up going to. Jimmy (don’t know what it is about tattoo artists named Jimmy) had been tattooing since he was 14 years old, and by the time we all met him, he had over 40 years’ experience. I started with the slightly absurd skull and trident on the back of my upper right arm, just before going to two months of Tactical Action Officer (TAO) school in Newport, RI. Then I got the first two swallows on my belly, and the last tattoo I got from Panama Jimmy was the Leo sign on my right wrist…figured it was fair warning to anyone who met me.

Being in Bahrain didn’t stop the tattoo plans. MAUI had a tattoo party. We kept three tattoo artists busy for more than eight hours, giving eleven crewmembers tattoos. I got my third swallow…in desert camo colors this time. I’ve got a master plan for all those swallows, but can’t really go forward with it until I’m done with getting underway.

When I got back to the states, KISKA was in drydock…I've told that story here before. But it was a hard time for me, coming home, but not having a home; dealing with the ship and the shipyard; readjusting to stateside operations. I wanted something good going on. And that’s when I met Jimmy Mack. I wanted magnolia blossoms, irises and sweet peas because my grandparents had them in their yard when I was a kid. My grandfather had a *huge* garden, and did some hobby-breeding of roses and irises. And in their front yard was a big, beautiful magnolia tree that I always loved. Being a half-sleeve, that one took quite a while and got me through a good part of my 14-month tour on KISKA, what with healing time and touch ups and such.

Right before my change of command I got another swallow, this time from Jess at Habitat Tattoo in Hilo. A couple of the guys on the boat had gotten work from her that I liked. And I knew I wanted a swallow from the Big Island. Her bird is cheeky and flirty and colorful…right over my heart (so very, very cheesy, I know). But it was tough leaving Hilo. And KISKA.

Now, this summer, I’m back in Waialua, taking care of my terminally ill mom. I love Hawaii, and one of the hardest parts of this whole experience for me is wishing I wasn’t here, having to deal with my mom’s cancer…her incremental decline, the narrowing of her world, her discomfort and inability to do much physically for herself.  Let’s just say it sucks, and leave it at that for now. But looking back over my history of tattoos, I realize that I get them when I need something good and quintessentially *me* in my life. I think the thought actually crossed my mind recently, if I get my full sleeve this summer, at least something good will have come out of the time…which is a little more grim and grumpy that my usual attitude. I must have been having a bad day.

Somehow I find myself a little nervous about getting this one done though. It’s kinda a huge commitment and a very visible statement of individuality. The commitment part doesn’t bother me so much. I’ve pretty much gotten used to having tattoos to the point that I don’t even really notice them on my skin anymore. Most people I’ve talked to that have extensive bodywork recognize that level of commitment I’m talking about. It’s a little different than the decision to get that nice, but small piece of artwork that can be easily covered by a t-shirt or long pants…you know, the one on the shoulder, or the tramp stamp, or the ankle tattoo. There’s a time commitment to getting it done, a definite financial commitment, but also, I think a commitment to knowing yourself well enough to go through the process and then live with that decision.

But I’ve also gotten used to being judged by other people because of them. I think the worst experience was at the airport in Bahrain one evening. I had gone to pick up someone probably coming back from Kuwait. But as I was standing there at the gathering spot, an older gentleman in a traditional headscarf took notice of me. He would look at my foot, look at my face, look at my foot and then stare daggers off into the distance. In retrospect, I appreciate his restraint for not being more aggressive or vocal with his denunciation of me. I kinda got the point regardless.

Maybe the commitment I’m nervous about making is the commitment to long-sleeved uniforms. Every day. Year round. Even in summer. I’ve done some preliminary math. I’m good from November 1 to March 31 with the Winter Dress Blue uniform. So it’s really only seven months of the year I have to worry about. And of that seven months, I should be able to wear ODUs (with the sleeves rolled down, of course) about 90 percent of the time, depending on what HQ office I go to. And for that other ten percent, SDBs might be appropriate about five out of ten occasions. If I’m in a meeting in the HQ building where trops are required, there’s always the woolly-pully. In the end, there might be two times a year that I have to wear plain ol’ trops. Umm, personnel inspections, in trops—yeah, kinda nervous about those. Maybe I'll just take leave those days...and make sure I ask for feedback from my supervisor on my professional appearance to ensure s/he is satisfied with my uniform presentation.

Now, all of my tattoos are well within the written Coast Guard regulations on what is allowable…nothing below the wrist, nothing explicit or offensive. I did my homework. I looked at COMDTINST M1020.6F (Uniform Regulations Manual) which says in section 2.A.1, “Appearance in uniform is a key element for how the public perceives the men and women of the Coast Guard, and how the Coast Guard men and women honor their country and the service. Coast Guard personnel are responsible for maintaining their personal appearance and their uniforms to reflect the long and proud history and traditions of the Coast Guard.” If there’s anything that positively influences my decision, it’s that little quote, “long and proud history and traditions of the Coast Guard.” I mean, really, what’s more traditional than sailors getting tattoos?!? 

I looked at COMDTINST 1000.1B (Tattoo, Body Marking, Body Piercing and Mutilation Policy), which says in paragraph 4,  The ultimate goal of this instruction is to ensure our workforce presents a sharp, professional military appearance to the public we serve while also allowing individual expression through authorized body art that is consistent with the Coast Guard’s core values.” Check. 

And I even reread the Commandant’s Guidance to PY12 Officer Selection Boards and Panels, you know, just to be sure that I wasn’t doing anything to blatantly disregard a focus on professional appearance for officers. It really doesn’t go into appearance much at all; it’s much more focused on performance.

So, am I safe? Do I really think there will be no professional repercussions for having a tattoo that is visible in trops? How much do I care? I guess I care only as much as the tattoo impacts one thing: my ability to be effective at my job. Now in my mind, I’ll do the same job if I’ve got my entire face covered with tattoos or nary a speck of ink on me. I'll give my best effort at any job because that's what I believe in. It's not like the tattoo ink physiologically interacts with my body chemistry to negatively impact my brain capacity. Jimmy and I joked about this...he said, oh wait, I'm using this new ink, it's called Moron Ink (and then we went on to talk about how he mixes his own inks, using a natural preservative as a base so that the inks will last longer if he doesn't use that particular color for a while).

The one thing about tattoos that may impact my ability to do my job is how other people react to them. Hence the long-sleeved uniforms, long-sleeved shirts to and from the office, and long-sleeved shirts during unit-sponsored events including workouts. I don't think that will completely make the tattoo invisible and totally keep coworkers, supervisors and other professional acquaintances from seeing it, but it is a recognition of how tattoos can distract from whatever might be the actual task-at-hand. 

Life is...a daring adventure or nothing.