Competent, honest people often don’t do very well

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

According to Techniques of Systems Analysis, almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results — in the simpler, narrower field of Operations Research:

This last statement does not carry over at all to the much broader problems faced in Systems Analysis. Here we no longer have a definite context with specific equipment. Sometimes we don’t even have definite objectives. Rather we are trying to design a system capable of meeting contingencies which will arise five to ten, and sometimes fifteen, years in the future. We must not only design this system, we must also decide under what conditions it will be used and what we shall want to do with it. The recommendations of the Systems Analyst are mainly concerned with “beliefs,” research, development, and procurement, and only incidentally with operations.

Under these circumstances, competent, honest people often don’t do very well; this does not, of course, mean that we want incompetent or dishonest people. It does mean that, in addition to technical competence and honesty, a certain sophistication is necessary.

To make the role of the Systems Analyst clearer it seems worth while to make a distinction among at least three kinds of conclusions — what might be called intuitive judgment, the considered opinion, and the technical or scientific “fact.”

The first is essentially based on the individual’s experience and background. It is the basis of the day-to-day decisions of executives, businessmen, and in fact almost everyone. While it may be informed, the machinery by which it has been arrived at is not explicitly shown. It is essentially as good or bad as the man who is making it.

The second we have called the considered opinion. It differs from the intuitive judgment in that the logic behind the judgment is made explicit — this usually means that it is quantitative. In the best case it is arrived at by a reasonable and impartial examination of the known facts with due and explicit allowances being made for uncertainties. In the worst case, it may be an extensive and misleading rationalization of a prejudged position. In both cases it usually claims to be “rational.” The value of the opinion still depends on who is making it; however, insofar as the machinery is clearly shown, and not hidden by a mass of charts, calculations, and technical verbiage, the audience has some change of make its own considered opinion from the information presented.

(It should be clear to the reader that we have taken some liberties with common usage in making these definitions. For example if somebody spent some days in trying to decide some crucial choice problem and after much internal debate and struggle made the remark, “Well I have done a good deal of cogitating and it is now my considered opinion that I should…,” we would probably say he has made an intuitive judgment.)

To make the contrast between our definitions of intuitive judgment and considered opinion clearer, it is worth mentioning that in previous times there wasn’t much room in human affairs for considered opinions. In most situations there were experienced men available to make off-hand decisions, or the pace of events was so slow that people acquired experience almost without trying. Even when people tried to make opinions explicit, the best they could usually do was essentially a simple or complicated listing of the pros and cons with little or no explanation of how to balance the pros and cons quantitatively. In addition there really wasn’t much place for any process of arriving at conclusions that tends to take 3 to 12 months and uses “analytic” rather than “practical” processes, except in the fields of criticism, commentary, or reform. The contrary seems to be true today — hence, a major reason for what is called Operations Research and Systems Analysis.

The last kind of opinion is the scientific or technical “fact.” While such “facts” are much more subject to controversy than the general public suspects, it is still true that they can usually be clearly separated from the individual and are in some sense “objective.” In particular, insofar as the opinions are based on experiments, logic, or calculations, other people will invariably have repeated the steps and come up with the same answers, or the results will not be believed.

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