Hugh Gibbons' references and extra information
hunnybone for November 2015

for pharmaceutical physicians, colleagues and friends

at Work
PPhood for
PPhurther Education:



I predict your obituary will not start: “Much-loved pharmaceutical physician…” But when baseball player Yogi Berra died in September, the obits were full of his humanity and generosity of spirit, as well as outstanding professional record. And of his quirky nuggets carrying grains of truth, such as: “What makes a good manager? Good players!”; and "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." Oft cited (if apocryphal) is: “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future”.

Quite so. In 1902, HG Wells predicted: “Very probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound.” The Wright Brothers must have fallen about with laughter at Kitty Hawk the next year.

But hey. Here’s Wilbur in 1907. “In 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for 50 years. Ever since, I have avoided predictions.” Yet in 1908, Orville felt: “No machine will ever fly from New York to Paris without stopping.” And in 1909, Wilbur offered: “We saw that the helicopter has no future, and dropped it”.

My bad, too. In the late 1990s, I made three predictions. First, that New Labour would mean the end of the Conservative Party. Second, that if the climate was changing, governments would hush it up. Third, that IT systems enabled such sophisticated warnings that a global financial crash would never happen. (Mind you, I was in good company. In 1966, economist Paul Samuelson noted that "Wall Street indices predicted nine out of the last five recessions.")

But are you – trained in prognosis-making - any better? Would you have foreseen the rise of blueberry muffins, or denim, or people happy with plastic kegfuls of coffee, or Manchester City? Or compelling commitments to work, as seen in mission statements, eg “Passionate About Deep-Sea Nurdling Rods”?

In business, making predictions is a given – often collectively and unaware of the many cognitive biases that affect decisions. Take Survivorship Bias – when you focus on surviving examples, causing you to misjudge a situation. (Example? Thinking that being an entrepreneur is easy because we haven’t heard of all those who failed.) Have faith in the rabbit’s foot if you choose, but remember: it didn’t work for the rabbit.

So I warm to Daniel Kahneman’s recommendation in the ever-readable Thinking Fast & Slow: the Pre-Mortem. This gets you to imagine that the proposed project or organisation has failed. You then work backwards to determine what potentially could lead to failure. This technique breaks possible groupthinking by facilitating a positive discussion on threats, and increasing the likelihood that the main ones are identified and addressed.

And Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School has the delightful How Will You Measure Your Life? He offers a question that should be a PostIt on every plan or proposal, as well as your desk, home and satnav. "What assumptions must prove true for this plan to work?"

As Yogi put it: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you could wind up somewhere else.”

Mind you, I predict that will be my own happy obituary.




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