————————-Via Negativa (My Philosophical Notebook)——————-

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Below is my philosophical notebook. Everything here is a work in progress; I welcome and encourage comments. This is my thinking at it’s roughest (expect but ignore typos). The “Articles” tap contains articles I’ve written as a “science writer.” They are much less philosophical and represent an earlier period of my thinking.

5 Things Business Leaders Can Learn From Engineering Failures

Henry Petroski is a professor of history at Duke University with a dark specialty: engineering failures. His first book, To Engineer is Human, dissects the anatomy of several disasters, from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the walkways at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel. If you’re squeamish about flying or driving over bridges, this book won’t make you feel better. But it’s a captivating window into how engineers think, valuable for anyone in business.

Engineers are natural skeptics. They treat each new engineering project as a hypothesis to be disproven. By imagining a structure under every conceivable situation, engineers are forced to think in the negative. How could this building collapse? How could this bridge fail?  What could go wrong? Even a structure as rigid as the Brooklyn Bridge should be treated as an accident waiting to happen. That it has stood for over one hundred years is no guarantee that it will stand tomorrow, despite its structural soundness today.

To think like an engineer is to think critically about success and failure. If you’re seeking business wisdom but you’re sick of the business aisle, Petroski’s books are a good place to look. I’ve curated five insights from To Engineering is Human, Success Through Failure, and his latest, To Forgive Design.

1)  Success Does Not Imply Soundness

The I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis stood for more than 30 years before it collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people. An investigation discovered that the steel gusset plates, which secure the trusses, were undersized. To make matters worse, two inches of concrete were added over the years, increasing the load weight by 20 percent. Even though engineers examined the gusset plates during routine inspections, nothing was visibly wrong.

Lesson: Assume weaknesses exist, even if you can’t see them. Find them before they hurt you.

2) Be Aware of “Organizational Drift”

In 1855, engineers completed the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, the world’s first working railway suspension bridge. The bridge was a success, but it led to an embarrassing failure nearly 80 years later. Suspension bridges became popular, and every new bridge introduced a small, seemingly innocuous change, that sacrificed safe engineering practices for slender, narrower and more stylish looking decks.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, completed in 1940, was especially slim and flexible. At the time, it was the third longest suspension bridge in the world, and it was designed to withstand 100 mph winds. However, it could not hold morning traffic in a forty-two mph crosswind one November morning. All suspension bridges move in the wind, but the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was too light, and it collapsed four months after it was completed.

When a design works well, it’s natural to adopt it elsewhere, again and again, each time with a change. The small incremental changes add up, and all of a sudden they result in disaster.

Lesson:Beware of “Organizational Drift,” the tendency for companies to move away from their original focus too slowly for anyone to notice.

3)  Good Engineers Crave Counterexamples

The psychologist Gary Klein talks about the pre-mortem. Before you start a project you should imagine the following scenario: “It’s a year later, we’ve done the project, and it’s been a massive failure.” We’re more likely, as Robert Sutton explained to me in an interview, to imagine a more detailed and accurate future when we’ve considered worst-case scenarios from a future perspective.

Lesson: Before you start a project, conduct a pre-mortem. Imagining failure is vital.

4) The Innovator’s Dilemma

In 2009, a thirteen-story apartment building in Shanghai collapsed, nearly intact. Oddly, the design and construction of the building had nothing to do with its demise. After the building was completed, workers excavated a deep hole on one side to make room for an underground parking lot. They trucked the excavated dirt around the building and piled it on the ground, creating a thirty-five foot heap. Heavy rains saturated the dirt, putting unexpected lateral pressure on the building’s foundation, which began to shift. Eventually, this asymmetrical strain caused the building to fall on its side like a domino. One worker was killed.

After a highly visible engineering failure, our knee-jerk reaction is to blame the design or the designer. The disaster in Shanghai had nothing to do with either. “Had its designers known that the piles would be subject to sideways pressure, they would have made them larger and thus more resistant.” Sound business practices fail for the same reason: unforeseeable, external pressure. In a passage that could come from Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, Petroski writes that, “Even if a building is well designed structurally, it can still succumb to failure through no fault of its own.”

Lesson: Expect unforeseeable external events to undermine sound business plans.

5) Failure is Good (In the Long Run) Because it Reveals Latent Errors

In a lecture at Case Western Reserve, Petroski imagines what would have happened if Titanic did not crash into an iceberg. Titanic could have safely crossed the Atlantic thousands of times without sinking. If it had, engineers would have concluded that the design was sound, and built an even bigger ship. The latent errors responsible for killing 1,500 people on Titanic—too few lifeboats and thin bulkheads—would have been ignored, resulting in more deaths, not less.

Smart engineers know not only which methods work but which methods have failed and why. The same is true of successful entrepreneurs. The best business books I’ve read this year—Ben Horowitz’ The Hard Thing about Hard Things comes to mind—are filled with practices that we should avoid, not just business platitudes (skin in the game) and truisms (have a bias for action) that we’re instructed to follow. While we can’t plan for every possible failure—engineering catastrophes will happen as long as we build, just as bankruptcy is an important part of the economy—we can avoid mistakes we’ve already committed.

Lesson: Acknowledge and value failure so that you can learn from your mistakes. Conduct postmortems, just as FAA investigates every aviation accident.

(Pitched this to FC, they weren’t interested. Might pitch to Fortune, eventually to 250Words.)

Problem of Induction in Engineering

Reading Henry Petroski’s To Engineer is Human. Excellent passage here:

The past success of an engineering structure confirms the hypothesis of its function only to the same extent that the historical rising of the sun each morning has reassured us of a predictable future…. [For example] the structural soundness of the Brooklyn Bridge only proves to us that it has stood for over one hundred years; that is will be standing tomorrow is matter of probability, albeit high probability, rather than one of certainty.

4 Tips for Writing and Thinking Well As Recommended by Charles Murray

Writing begins with a blank page. It starts with a feeling of doubt, the uneasy sense of not being able to craft the first sentence. We know what to say, but we’ve hit the wall. And so we step away and head somewhere else, an amusing website or the kitchen for coffee. Once we’ve procrastinated long enough, a sting of guilt lures us back to the blank page, which still needs that dreaded first sentence—and that ominous first paragraph.

Such are the melodramatic moments of the writing process. It’s a constant tug of war between craving perfection and feeling incompetent, idealism versus pessimism. And because this mental clash is necessary—no one ever wrote the perfect first sentence—it’s impossible to avoid false starts or the terrifying feeling that you’re simply inadequate. There’s nothing pleasant about it.

Given how difficult this process is, it’s a no brainer to seek advice on how to write well. Instead of fine-tuning an opening paragraph for hours, listen to your favorite writers talk about how they write. Take notes on a piece of writing that you enjoyed; try to figure out what makes it good.

When I did, I uncovered a valuable insight. I used to think that great writers had good ideas all along—as if they were walking encyclopedias from the beginning—but I realized that it’s the other way around. Great writers have great ideas because they became great writers—it’s the act of writing that triggers good thinking.

That’s why I feature the occasional post on grammar and usage on this blog. Writing forces us to confront the gaps in our knowledge. If you can’t explain an idea clearly on paper, you probably can’t explain the idea at all. And while writing well won’t guarantee a promotion, poor writing could have the opposite effect.

That brings me to Charles Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead—specifically chapter five, “On Thinking and Writing Well.” I re-read this short book last night and found a few insights that I’d like to share. We’ve already touched on the first:

Don’t Assume That You Are Aware of All You Know Before You Have Written It

No one can think through all the implications of a complicated body of information before putting a word on paper, any more than one can think through how all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle will fit together when they are spread out of a table. The act of beginning the text involves suspension of disbelief… just as you have to write each sentence as if it is final draft, even though you know that it probability will not survive, you also have to start writing as if you know what you know, even though you realize that your thinking is going to change, perhaps radically, as you go along.

(See also Dan Pink’s Convocation Address: “writing… is a way to figure out what you actually think”)

Kill Your Darlings

Probably the best writing tip there is. Here’s Murray:

In his essay “On Style” [Arthur Quiller-Couch] wrote, “whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

It has happened to me many times. I write a sentence or paragraph that I’m extremely proud of. It’s way above my usual expressiveness, nuance, and imagination. I just love it. Then a still, small voice says to me, “It doesn’t belong.” My impulse is to respond, “Who cares if it doesn’t belong? It’s great.” But the still, small voice is right. You’ll know it when it happens to you. Delete it. Mourn it, but delete it.

Let the Final Draft Cool Overnight

A relaxed state of mind is crucial for creative insights.

There’s no mystery to this. Writing is not a unitary thing. Even a piece of less than a thousand words has dozens of moving parts, and it is not within the scope of the human mind, or at least my human mind, to review all those moving parts consciously and at one time. And so while watching a TV show the evening after finishing the piece, a word or phrase will pop into my head that works much better than the one I used in the afternoon. At three in the morning, I will suddenly awaken and realize to my horror that there’s an obvious lacuna in my argument—so obvious that it’s inconceivable I could have missed it. But I did, and, by letting the final draft cool overnight, found it.

Talk to Yourself

The easiest way to identify clunkiness in your prose is to hear it, out loud or in your head. The awkward phrase or the clumsy Latinate word becomes obvious. It sounds clunky. Right now, for example, I’m still fretting over the phrase “I know from experience that there’s a good chance…” in the preceding paragraph. The “that there’s” combination sounds clunky and is driving me crazy. I’ll probably leave it unchanged so I can use it as an illustration. Otherwise, I’d go back and fix it.


The Defensive Worker: Big Data Could Squash Innovation

British Airways offers two flights a day from London City Airport to Kennedy International Airport in New York. The planes, two Airbus A318s, contain just 32 seats—all business class. From Westminster (roughly central London) it takes less than 35 minutes to get to London City Airport, the closest of the five airports that service London. With so few passengers, the BA flight boards in a few minutes—ideal for travelers who commute between New York and London.

Yet secretaries and corporate travel agents—business class tickets are rarely purchased by the traveler—typically book flights out of Heathrow or Gatwick. The reason is an example of “defensive decision making.” If something goes wrong at Heathrow or Gatwick—the busiest of the five London airports—it’s the fault of the airlines or the airport. Not so at London City Airport. By selecting the unusual option, secretaries and corporate travel agents risk getting blamed for a delay, so they simply stick with the status quo.

A few months ago, Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, spoke to Brighton Business School about defensive decision making, citing flights out of London City Airport as an example. We opt for the safe and justifiable option, especially at work, to protect ourselves if something goes wrong, even when a superior option is available. Just as legal ramifications influence the decisions of doctors, people in business make decisions that may not benefit the company but guarantee that they won’t get into trouble.

Like Sutherland, I worry that the rise of big data could worsen the problem of defensive decision making. Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, co-authors of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, expound the ways big data is improving business. In the media, data determines the content on popular sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed; compared to writers and editors, it’s is more effective in terms of racking up pageviews. The-Numbers.com uses data to predict the income of movies by considering budget, genre, cast and crew. It’s a valuable resource for big blockbusters than run the risk of losing millions. (Remember John Carter and The Lone Ranger?)

No doubt, big data is an exciting new genre of economic output. But innovation emerges from what data does not reveal—from what people don’t talk about. Henry Ford famously quipped that customers would have demanded faster horses. Big data, if it existed at the beginning of the 20th century, would have never recommended cars. That took the human mind. Imagine executives, middle managers, or data scientists deciding between what the data says and advocating a potentially innovative position that the data does not support. With your job on the line, which would you pick?

Defensive decision making is costly, which makes this question all the more pressing. In one study, decision making researcher Gerd Gigerenzer asked 36 executives how often they picked the second-best option to protect themselves, instead of advocating for what they believed was best. A dozen managers admitted a few defensive decisions, and a third said half of their decisions were defensive. As Gigerenzer writes in his new book Risky Savvy, “defensive decisions are not a sign of strong leadership and positive error culture”—essential traits of a healthy business.

“In a world of big data, it is our most human traits that will need to be fostered—our creativity, intuition, and intellectual ambition—since our ingenuity is the source of our progress,” Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier conclude. This paradox puts leaders in a difficult position. Do I go with the innovative idea that’s impossible to justify? Or do I make a safe bet and go with the data? The future of a company might depend how its leaders approach this question.