Thursday, March 01, 2007

Calling your shots before you make them

In straight pool, you have to call your shots before you make them.

That's a smart approach for working with system dynamics simulation models, too. Most people showing simulation models to others have likely noticed that you can show a person a simulation model result and often get the response, "Sure, that's what I expected. What's the big deal?" If you ask that same person to "call their shot" (draw a graph of the expected behavior of key variables) before you run the model, though, you and they will often discover they won't have a good record of predicting the outcome. That's not because they are dumb; it's because nonlinear feedback systems of the sort in which we usually live and work exhibit behavior most of us find rather unintuitive.

So do I suggest you do this to make people feel foolish? Not at all. I suggest this to help them (and me) learn. When any of us sees a result and says "What's the big deal?", that person likely hasn't learned from the experience. When we call our shots in advance, using our best insights, and then compare our prediction with the results of a simulation, we often learn one of three things:

  • Perhaps our current insights are pretty decent after all, and we can be even more confident in our future predictions.
  • Perhaps our insights aren't so good, and we can use the discrepancy between our insights and the simulation results to hone our intuition.
  • Perhaps our simulation model is wrong, and we can use the discrepancy to build a better model of the problem we're facing.

There's more to this than just working with simulation models. As Bob Williams and I describe more fully in chapter 10 ("Learning Logs: Structured Journals That Work for Busy People") of Effective Change Management Using Action Research and Action Learning: Concepts, Frameworks, Processes and Applications, there are great benefits to be gained from calling our shots and then comparing those shots with what happens in real life. Done carefully, that becomes an action research approach to getting things done while simultaneously learning how to be more effective in the world we live.

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Blogger Bill Harris said...

Andrew Gelman posted today about having physics students learn better by calling their shots before seeing physics demonstrations; that stimulated me to write today's note. Check out his links to learn more about the initial research in this area.

01 March, 2007 08:51  

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