Predictable Failures: The Failures of Prediction

July 24, 2012

Failures of PredictionReptilian Brain

We still have vestiges of our reptilian brains, pushing us toward either fight or flight, but human brains have evolved. The neocortex stores a vast amount of sensory data: sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. A simple algorithm tells us whether we have encountered a similar stimulus pattern before and guides us toward a response—fight, flight, or a wind range of alternatives in between.

Invariant Memory Speeds Retrieval

Over time, specific stimulus patterns lose their precision because similar patterns are stored together in our memory. The way we store and retrieve information, it turns out, makes us incredibly predictive and predictable. Take, for example, the following:
“Mary had a little lamb whose fleece __________________________.”

You not only know how to fill in the rest of this nursery song line, based upon your memory, but you also predict what words are coming next as you’re reading. Even if you don’t finish other people’s sentences out loud, you do it silently, unconsciously, matching sensory data up against invariant memory patterns. Your mind can’t help itself; it is designed to be a prediction machine. As a result, we’re all a bit judgmental or prejudiced.

Once a stimulus pattern becomes ingrained, you believe it, almost unshakably. If others disagree with you, you suspect they don’t recognize a particular pattern as well as you.

Idea Labs Pushes Past Discomfort

I met a CEO some years ago who ran a company that was born in Bill Gross’ Idea Lab. The CEO had a longstanding dispute with Bill over what was or was not possible from a position of science. The CEO is a PHd and considered one of the smartest in his field and studied the very subject that Bill was convinced could be solved easily. Both stuck to their guns, Bill saying we should be able to solve this technical issue in weeks and the CEO scientist saying it had been studied for 20-plus years and it would not happen. Both had patterns based upon invariant memories that suggested what they knew was true. Bill’s career was built upon his creative brilliance that challenged the status quo, and the CEO scientist (a contributor to the Mars Lunar Lander) was taught that this was likely an impossible feat.

Both parties were so trapped by their own failures of predictions that they could not, nor did they want to see the other’s point of view. And yet, to both of their credits, Bill did not ask the CEO to step down and the CEO continued to persist to solve the issue. Within a year, the CEO and his team did, in fact, solve the problem. If they had recognized their faulty beliefs earlier, however, they likely would have achieved their breakthrough much sooner.

Getting Past the Prediction Machine

Your mind creates barriers based upon the way it stores information and makes predictions. As a leader, here are some steps to get past these barriers:

1. Learn to recognize your own belief patterns and help your coworkers identify their patterns.

2. Encourage coworkers to try a new path, even though they predict it will fail. Remind them of examples of how seemingly insurmountable hurdles have been overcome–by them, the organization, or others–in the past.

3. Ask coworkers when they were proven wrong in the past–despite believing so firmly that they were right that they would have bet their lives on the outcome.

By better understanding how our minds work, you and your coworkers can overcome some of the barriers that lead to the same barriers and same results. The CEO later confessed to me that, had he not been pushed by Bill, he wonders if he would have ever (despite his very capable team) made the breakthrough.

What breakthroughs might you and your team be missing?


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