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Why Business Defies Logic

2015 September 6
by Greg Satell

In the early 20th century science and technology emerged as a rising force in western society.  The new wonders of electricity, automobiles and telecommunication were quickly shaping how people lived, worked and thought. Empirical verification, rather than theoretical musings, rose to the fore.

It was against this backdrop that Moritz Schlick formed the Vienna Circle, which became the center of the logical positivist movement and aimed to bring a more scientific approach to human thought.  Throughout the 20’s and  and 30’s, the movement spread and became a symbol of the new technological age.

In time, the positivist movement came to be widely recognized as a failure, yet still it inspired no shortage of imitators.  There seems to be an endless stream of thought leaders and consultants who claim to have engineered a more “scientific” approach to business.  Yet they, just like the positivists, always seem to fall short.  Unfortunately, the real world defies logic.

A World Of Atomic Facts

The inspiration for the Vienna Circle was a young Austrian wunderkind named Ludwig Wittgenstein and their bible was his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein, at the time, believed that much of the confusion surrounding problems stemmed from a failure to state them clearly. He thought that if we could be more precise, many difficulties would simply melt away.

So he set out to create a perfectly logical language.  Statements would be reduced to atomic facts that could be verified as being true or false—no opinions or speculation allowed.  Those statements, in turn, would be governed by a set of logical algorithms which would determine the validity of any argument or set of arguments.

The Tractatus is, even today, considered a masterwork and one of the most influential books ever written.  Still, the idea of a perfectly logical language has insoluble problems.  First, for all practical purposes, the set of verifiable facts is far too small to be useful.  Second, Kurt Gödel, a member of the Vienna Circle, would later show that logic itself is flawed.

In time, even Wittgenstein himself would renounce many of the ideas in the Tractatus and the positivist insistence on verifiability would give way to Karl Popper’s less stringent standard of falsifiability.  Still, the positivist idea would live on, not least of all among business leaders and economists, with sometimes disastrous consequences.

The Rise And Fall Of Business Engineering

Reductionism in business, which can be traced to the scientific management ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, actually predates the Vienna Circle.  Yet while philosophers and scientists soon saw the flaws in reductionism, business leaders pressed forward, spawning offshoots such as scientific marketing, financial engineering and the six sigma movement.

Much like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, each of these promised a more rational approach.  By reducing factors to small, measurable units and creating a compelling logic for evaluating their effects, they sought to wring uncertainty out of the decision making process.  In effect, it was thought that what could be measured could be predicted and therefore controlled.

In each case, the approach was found wanting.  Sophisticated marketers, investing heavily in research and verification, still saw their campaigns flop.  Markets consistently displayed far more volatility than the financial engineering models said they were supposed to.  One study found that the vast majority of companies employing six sigma actually trailed the market.

The problem is that any engineering approach has to be applied to a theoretical model and models, no matter how cleverly constructed, are not perfect representations of the real world. Numbers, despite what many say, can lie.  In fact, as we saw in the 2008 financial crises, an excessive focus on mathematical models can blind us to the real dangers that lie ahead.

Noah Effects And Joseph Effects

In the 1960’s, a young mathematician at IBM Research named Benoit Mandelbrot began to study the strange phenomenon of noise in communication lines.  It was a maddening problem, because data transmissions would tend to be smooth for long periods and then, for no discernable reason, go haywire.  No one could seem to figure out why.

Yet Mandelbrot, using mathematical techniques that were obscure at the time, identified the pattern, which he referred to as “Noah effects” and “Joseph effects.”  Joseph effects, as in the biblical story, supported long periods of continuity.  Noah effects, on the other hand, were like a big storm creating a massive flood of discontinuity, washing away the previous order.

Sometime later a professor at Harvard invited Mandelbrot to give a talk about his findings. When he arrived, he was startled to see one of his diagrams on the professor’s wall.  Asking how the professor managed to get his hands on the material before he gave his talk, he was even more shocked to find that he was looking not at his own work, but cotton prices.

That began Mandelbrot’s long feud with financial models.  The idea, more recently popularized in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, was that the effort to predict real world events is doomed to fail, because there will always be Noah effects—large unforeseen events— that will render models irrelevant.  Engineering certainty, in other words, is a pipe dream.

Science, Not Pseudoscience

The problem with so-called scientific approaches to business models is that they are not scientific at all, but pseudoscientific.  That is, they borrow certain vocabulary and techniques from science, but apply none of its wisdom.  Science, after all, is not about certainty, but uncertainty.  It is a method of inquiry, not an engineered solution.

The problem is that an idea, when accompanied by sophisticated charts and mathematical formulas, can seem like a sure thing.  We become so enthralled with the engineering of a solution that when something doesn’t fit it is dismissed as an “outlier.”  Yet it is outliers—financial crises, iPhones, Justin Bieber, etc.—that create and destroy markets.

Still, while Noah effects are more consequential, we generally experience the world through Joseph effects, with a continuous stream of events highly dependent on that which preceded them.  Managers grow their business by doing more of what was successful in the past and less of what failed.  Most of the time, that’s a pretty safe bet.

Yet we know from Gödel that all systems fail and from Mandelbrot that extreme events will always thwart our best laid plans. So a truly scientific approach to business would not be based on certainty, but inquiry.  As I’ve argued before, we need to take a more Bayesian approach to strategy.  Getting it “right” isn’t as important as becoming less wrong over time.

Or, as the physicist Richard Feynman put it, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

– Greg

9 Responses
  1. Kuldip Singh permalink
    September 6, 2015

    My Spiritual Master explained to me the philosophy of thought –

    The mind accepts that which the mind likes.

    For example, an article on the Big Bang –

    If my mind likes the article, my mind will accept Big Bang theory as fact.

    If my mind does not like the article, my mind will reject the Big Bang theory.

    Whether or not Big Bang actually took place or not is totally lost in my mind’s acceptance of this theory!

    Greg Reply:

    Interesting perspective. Thanks Kuldip.

    Kuldip Singh Reply:

    Within the next 2 months, my wife and I could be in the US. If I happen to be in your neck of the woods, would love to have a vegetarian meal with you.
    Could you please reply to my email id kuldip46@gmail.con.
    Thank you.

  2. September 6, 2015

    Brilliant post Greg.

    I am working on a similar view .. seeing business pseudo science as a form of witchcraft – scientific managers as Shaman with special (BS) language, techniques (rituals).

    E.g. Predicting the weather using bones – if the prediction is correct the Shaman takes the credit but if the prediction is wrong then its all down to other factors .. for example the client must have had a moral flaw, or some aspect of the ritual was not carried out properly etc etc.

    Greg Reply:

    Well said Martin!

  3. September 7, 2015

    Hi Greg – excellent and thought-provoking as usual. The big factor that scientific management ignores is people. In a scientific context, we experience biological variability – it’s difficult to predict human behaviour with algorithms…..


    Greg Reply:

    Very true (and in fact I have an upcoming article that addresses that very issue). The drive to optimize and engineer, all too often, overlooks the complexity of organic systems.

    Thanks Kevin!

  4. September 14, 2015

    Brilliant post!! thank you Greg. I believe Joseph and Noah effect should be a mental model in everyone’s thinking toolkit


    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Vivek!

    – Greg

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