Tag Archives: malcolm gladwell

Book Review – What The Dog Saw And Other Adventures

Not a project management, but thought-provoking nonetheless, Macolm Gladwell’s most recent book, What The Dog Saw and Other Adventures is not so much a bespoke book as a collection of articles he has written for New Yorker magazine. He groups the articles thematically, but still each chapter is standalone. If you’ve read Gladwell’s prior books, Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, this book lacks a unifying theme, the tone is the same. If you’re new to Gladwell he picks controversial, broad topics, often references academic research aiming to change your perception of perceived wisdom. Gladwell also writes with great structure, his topics are always non-fiction, but he uses vivid descriptions of key people in the events he describes and his reasoning flows throughout the different chapters, often using plot twists resembling fiction. 

Perhaps more interesting is that you don’t actually have to buy the book. All the chapters, except one, are also available free on his site, in addition Malcolm Gladwell’s views on free are here. The links are below: 

The Pitchman The Ketchup Conundrum  

 Blowing Up 

 True Colors 

 John Rock’s Error 

 Open Secrets 

 Million-Dollar Murray 

 The Picture Problem 

 Something Borrowed 

 Connecting The Dots 

 The Art of Failure 

 Blowup 

 Late Bloomers 

 Most Likely To Succeed Dangerous Minds The Talent Myth The New-Boy Network 

 Troublemakers

When Can Risk Management Be Counter-Productive?

In reading Macolm Gladwell’s compelling recent book What The Dog Saw and Other Adventures, there is an interesting chapter titled “Blowup”, which covers various topics including the provocative research of Gerald Wilde, a Psychology Professor at Queen’s University in Canada. Professor Wilde, in his book, available free online, Target Risk puts forward a counter-intuitive theory of how people adapt to risk, and it has implications for project portfolio management.

Most people believe that devices engineered to reduce the risk of being injured in a traffic accident, serve to make people safer – bicycle helmets, anti-lock brakes and seatbelts. For example, conventional wisdom assumes that if you have anti-lock brakes on your car, you are able to break more effectively and so the chance of you having an accident falls. However, Professor Wilde draws on a number of empirical studies to contradict this, here are some of them. They are biased towards traffic safety because that is Professor Wilde’s specialism:

Innovation Impact Research source
Anti-lock breaks (ABS) Likelihood of accidents unchanged with ABS Aschenbrenner, M. and Biehl, B. (1994).
1966 US legislation for safer passenger vehicles No decrease in accidents per KM driven Peltzman, S. (1975)
Increase road lane width 30cm Average speed increases 3.2km/h OECD (1990)

 

What this implies is that people adjust their behavior depending on the level of risk they face. If roads are wider, then people will drive faster. If a car has anti-lock brakes, then a driver is more likely to tailgate and brake more abruptly. If cars can better protect drivers in the event of an accident, people will drive faster. Professor Wilder, argues for risk homeostatis, meaning that people will assume the same level of risk that they desire independent of changes in technology such as safety improvements. Therefore, changes in behavior can entirely offset safety improvements. It is the level of risk that people want to assume that matters, improvements in technology will not necessarily change people’s risk preference.

In terms of project portfolio management, the implication is that systems in place to reduce risk may be offset by participants engaging in offsetting riskier behavior, so that their total risk remains unchanged, this can occur despite the best efforts of risk management strategies

Does this, admittedly rather extreme perspective mean that risk management is ineffective? The answer is no, for two reasons. Firstly, as Gladwell notes, even in these examples there is a benefit to the tools in place – people are able to drive faster and get to their destination quicker because of the technologies introduced. Their chance of being in an accident might be unchanged, but they are able to travel faster for the same level of safety.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is another implication deeper in the study concerning anti-lock breaks, even though during the 3 years of observation, drivers with anti-lock breaks took compensating risk and neutralized the safety benefit, in year 4, all the drivers (who were taxi drivers) were told that they would bear part of the cost of accidents and be terminated if they had a bad safety record. Even though technology did not improve safety, changing the incentives the drivers faced resulted in materially less accidents. When they knew they would bear more of the cost of accidents, the drivers took less risk.

The implication is that if you put in place risk management tools that compensate for peoples mistakes, they may ‘take advantage’ of them by taking more risk, offsetting the risk management benefit. However, the incentives you put in place to reward and punish people for taking risk will have an impact.