Friday, April 9, 2010

Criminally Clueless

Over the past couple of months, I've come to realize how few people actually know what the heck they're talking about. It's taken me a while to accept this realization as I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt (understatement) and there are so many people who are capable of conducting syntactically flawless conversation without ever having a clue as to what they've said. Nonetheless, I think it's time that we do something about it.

This Internet Thing
I was working at AT&T when the executives of the company finally decided that this Internet thing wasn't just a passing fad and that, as a communications company, they might actually need to address the burgeoning Internet market. AT&T was structured as a large bureaucracy with hords of minions and middle managers who were still reading and responding to email using paper; their secretaries would print the email, they would scribble their responses on the paper and their secretaries would type the responses.

Suddenly, everyone at Bell Labs who knew anything about the Internet was asked to educate the bureaucratic masses on what the Internet was, how it worked and what it meant to them and their customers. People gobbled up 'for dummies' books on all things Internet. Meetings were called, task forces created, and everyone started using also sorts of Internet-related words and phrases.

At one of our biggest customer conferences (where each customer represented many millions of dollars of annual business), I helped prepare a speech for one of the executives who would present AT&T's plans for Internet-based business services. Throughout her speech, she had pause to allow time for rousing applause and cheers as customers enthusiastically embraced and endorsed the company's grand vision for Internet services. As she walked off the stage, those of us who had helped her prepare congratulated her on a great presentation. She responded, "I don't know what I said, but they sure seemed to like it!"

The audience response did not go unnoticed. Before you know it, everyone seemed capable of delivering rousing speeches without a clue.

Pod Speak
As the Internet 'strategy' developed, I would attend meetings (more accurately depicted as convocations) where the agenda would bounce along like the ball at a kids' soccer match. Absurd propositions would be put forth with nary an eyelash batted. Intractable conclusions would be reached without anyone voicing an objection or pointing out the 'then a miracle occurs' steps. The business executive who had brought me into these meetings asked me to observe, but not to say anything. He would later ask me to tell him in private what I thought.

At one particularly delusional meeting, I finally raised my hand to voice a comment. The meetings were not ones in which people raised hands; instead, anyone wishing to speak would wait for dead air or simply interrupt. After a few minutes, the woman running the meeting determined that my hand would likely not descend until she asked what I had to say. In a room full of executives clad in Giorgio and Hugo, I stood up in my T-shirt and jeans, and began talking about the various conclusions that had been reached and the relative likelihood of success. I believe I might have used the phrase, "we'll have time travel before then" or something like that.

I spoke for just a few minutes providing some clarification on what was and what was not the Internet, how the business model was different than charging 20 cents a minute for a phone call, and so on. Then I sat down.

After a few moments of silence, I was thanked for my comments. The executive who had brought me in was bestowed an evil eye from the meeting's organizer, and the meeting ramped up again to full pod-speak.

The Execution
After the meeting, I stood outside the conference room taking in the imperial majesty of AT&T corporate headquarters one last time. As I stood there, one of the senior executives walked up to me and asked if I'd accompany him to his office. I said, "Uhmm... sure..." wondering if they did 'wet' work at AT&T. We walked into his office (the kind with its own bathroom and where the secretary had a secretary) and he began to ask me questions about the Internet: not convoluted, high-level questions, but basic nuts-and-bolts questions.

I answered. The more I answered, the more he asked. As we proceeded, I noticed a stack of Wired magazines on his credenza and I started to relax a bit. It seemed that he actually wanted to understand the Internet, not just to know what to say and when to say it.

We talked for about three hours after which he asked to me to attend all sorts of meetings and to speak up whenever I felt like it.

Not Everyone Was Happy
When I showed up at the next meeting, I was greeted with an interesting mix of quizzical expressions and sideways whispers. The meeting's organizer quickly approached me, but then noticed the executive who'd invited me beckoning her with outstretched palm and motioning fingers.

I had become part of the business group of AT&T and was no longer just a researcher.

Pervasive Cluelessness
Lately, I've started to notice more and more cases of aggravated cluelessness. I'm sure whether I'm simply becoming better at diagnosing what's been there all along or if there's been a significant increase.

While picking up some batteries at Radio Shack, I overheard the manager telling a customer about the new Sprint mobile phone plan. He mentioned that Sprint works everywhere that Verizon works (as Sprint has a deal with Verizon) and that the Sprint plan is much cheaper.

Since we rely on Verizon Wireless for everything from telephones to our home Internet connection (we can't get cable or DSL where we live), I asked him if the data capabilities on the Sprint phones worked with the Verizon EVDO high-speed data services. This was a question to which there were three acceptable answers: "yes", "no" and "I don't know". After five minutes of buzz words and references to 3G versus 4G, he stopped, looking at me to see if he'd satisfied my request. I told him that I'd understood everything he'd said, but was pretty confident that he'd not answered what I'd asked.

Shotgun or Rifle?
As I've learned more about autism and its treatment, I've started to realize that Pod-speak is perhaps as pervasive and insidious as it had been at AT&T. For years, there has been no foundational theory or blueprint of the physiological basis of autism; instead, treatments have been developed on a trial-and-error basis; a technique or approach is tried and changes are measured symptomatically.

In the absence of a foundational theory, if you want to start helping people right away, then trial-and-error is the way to go. However, if you're using trial-and-error where your only metrics are symptomatic, then you want to be really disciplined in attribution and tracking of what works and what doesn't.

Unfortunately, although a lot of empirical research has been conducted on the causes of autism, most of the work in autism treatment has been conducted outside the lab, or worse, by PhD's in psychology. What you end up with is fuzzy notions of what works and what doesn't, but no exacting specification of techniques and methods. It's somewhat akin to going a doctor who, not knowing exactly which pill will cure what ails you, prescribes a regimen of 100 pills to be taken daily. She knows that something about the combination works, but she can't pinpoint it.

Similarly, if someone prescribes an all encompassing and pedantic regimen designed to help you a person with autism, it's likely that they simply don't know what they're talking about it. It's not that the regimen won't work per se; it's not that they're ill-intended; it's just that they don't know specifically what works and what doesn't, so they prescribe the whole thing.

The problem is that you can end up in a situation where the burden of doing everything just so you can accidentally get to the something that's working often mitigates against doing anything.

What to Do?
I'm not sure why people seem so keen on being perceived as knowing what they're talking about, but it does seem to have reached epidemic proportions. But fear not, there are things that each of us can do to help.

First, if you ever find yourself saying something so as to sound 'smart' or to not be found out, where the easiest answer is simply to say, "I don't know", then repeat after me... I DON'T KNOW. Say it loud. Say it proud. Say it often. You'll feel better. You really will.

Second, if you ever suspect that someone is saying things that they don't fully understand or about which they're clueless, ask them about it. If they throw up the defenses, thank them for their help and move on.

Third, if you've embraced I DON'T KNOW, then you're perfectly positioned to begin learning and discovering on your own. Surely you can gather lots of data by googling and reading; however, don't confuse collecting data with drawing conclusions. Once you've read and talked and discussed, step back and build your own conclusions one step at a time. If there are missing steps, then conduct your own experiments noticing what works and what doesn't. You'll be amazed at all you can figure out on your own.

Fourth, if you really want to rely on the conclusions of someone else, then ask lots and lots of questions.

In the end, clueless is an artifact of neglect, not stupidity.

Have a thoroughly clued-in Friday!



  1. Lets not refer only to the cluelessness surrounding Autism, but also about how 'experts' pretend, and believe themselves to be 'helping' those confused with thoughts and resulting emotional experiences, behaviors, classified as psyciatric issues, with psyciatric models of lobotomization with drugs or ECT. bw (few and far between are psychiatrists skilled or who actually spend time actually assisting clients with their thinking choices...drug-em with pills and don't bother me,...too busy......and don't know much except how to experiment with drugs....clueless)

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  3. reposted: 2nd response: "I'm not sure why people seem so keen on being perceived as knowing what they're talking about" Neither am I, for sure, but it smells like fear to me ;)

    Perception of others, or self, that one doesn't really know much...and is not important enough unless one pretends to know something, anything......and gosh, if you've got a title like psychiatrist, well, the belief you're supposed to be an authoritive expert and have another persons answers, solutions. Criminal indeed.

    anyone notice my link on facebook?

  4. BW, I was using autism as an example because its current for me. However, I think you hit the nail on the head with the word 'expert'. There are indeed experts who love what they do and spend their lives expanding their knowledge, developing their skills and embracing all that is new and challenging. There are also 'experts' who essentially do what they need to do to get their certifications and credentials, but afterward rest on their laurels.

    The latter tend to operate in a manner that defends what they 'know' rather than embracing what they don't know leading to clueless 'expertise'.

    My dad came to the states from Finland after WWII. When he goes to Finland and speaks his native language, it's as though he's passed through a time warp. I think that this is the case with many experts. They're expertise is trapped in another era.


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