Monday, October 18, 2010

Four-Sigma Expectations

"You don't know what you're talking about", I said to my to good friend Fern whose husband Clay and daughter Lindsay came to visit on Friday. "If you were listening to you right now, you'd completely dismiss everything you just said as unfounded and hypothetical!"

Fern and I have known each other as friends and colleagues for years. She's one of those super-smart, analytical people who can look at huge volumes of seemingly disjointed and disparate data and transform them into a simple statement of what they mean.

We met when one of my "big ideas" at Bell Labs received several million dollars of funding from one of the business units and the business stake-holders thought it a good idea not to simply send a check to the crazy, long-haired researcher, but also to provide a bit of oversight. Fern walked into my office one sunny afternoon and introduced herself as the person designated to provide "governance" on the project. My first response was simply, "Umm... that sounds like you think you're in charge of me and my project."

And we were off and running. From that contentious first meeting our relationship evolved to that of strong business allies and great friends.

Fern and I are complete opposites who connect in ways that transform opposition into strength. There are the differences: I'm a leap-and-figure-it-out type, she's a never-make-a-move-before-you've-figured-it-out type. Fern transforms vast quantities of hard facts into general, theoretical conclusions; I transform ephemeral intuition to concrete action.

There are the commonalities. We both see contention as "good" thing, a necessary thing if you want to actually do something new. We each hold strong opinions that we argue passionately until we hear better arguments for something else in which case we drop our positions immediately without any if's, and's or but's. We analyze differently, but we both analyze all the time.

Guitar Week
Last summer, Fern's teenage daughter Lindsay participated in Guitar Week at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Guitar week is this amazing, transformative program attended by expert guitar players from all over the world. In the company of hundreds of talented musicians led by some of the best teachers in the world, you plunge deeply into all aspects of guitar: music, musicians, instruments, theory, technique and method.

For many, Guitar Week is a make-or-break experience. The study is intense; the competition is as good as it gets. Some leave inspired and others overwhelmed.

The summer after eighth grade, my son Luke participated in Guitar Week. He'd been the playing in bands with high school seniors and knew that he was "the shit". I drove him and one of his buddy's into Boston on the first day to sign in. The room was full of people of all ages from all over the world. Luke and his friend looked around and knew that they were gonna kick ass. That evening at dinner, Luke looked a bit lost in thought. I asked him how his first day was. He responded, "Dad, these guys are really good.

With that fresh perspective, Luke managed to soak up so much new information and insight throughout the rest of the week that he spent the next year practicing and processing it all.

Lindsay plays guitar and wants to be a musician. One of the conclusions that Fern and I would agree on is: what better way to see how deeply Lindsay's desire runs than to send her to guitar week. Lindsay applied for the program submitting a recorded audition. She wasn't just accepted; she received a merit scholarship based on the strength of her recorded audition.

Lindsay left guitar week even more conviction that she wanted to be a musician.

You Don't Know What You're Talking About!
On Friday night, Lindsay pulled out her guitar and sang some of her songs. She is really good. Scott (our bass player in No Room for Jello) and his girlfriend Catherine had joined us for dinner. He pulled out his bass, I plugged in my keyboard and we played a few songs together. Lindsay took to it like dust to a ceiling fan. She is really good.

However, for Fern, Lindsay's success at Guitar Week has been a good news/bad news story. She's thrilled that Lindsay did so well and is so focused and passionate about her music. Yet her finely-tuned, constantly-churning analytical engine has been thwarted in its attempts to chart a path from you-are-here to you-are-a-successful-and-happy-musician. At least in finding one that has a reasonable likelihood of success.

As we sat talking after dinner, it had become clear that, in the absence of a clear path with a high likelihood of success, Fern had begun hedging her bets with Lindsay placing significant effort into accommodating all the negative what-if scenarios. Not only that, but her super-rational analytical self had gone all anecdotal which led to my saying, "You don't know what you're talking about!"

Fern looked at me as if to ask, "What do you mean?"

I responded with, "You've gone all anecdotal. Where's your data?"

Fern, knowing how ridiculous it is to make plans and decisions based on the odd story here or there, dropped her line of reasoning and we found our groove of strength through opposition.

My basic tennet was: all things being equal, the person with the greatest focus and passion will win.

Fern's basic tennet was: from all the data, the likelihood of succeeding in music is minuscule, therefore, you better prepare for less-than-success.

We talked on into the evening, my first principle taking me to suppositions like: "Why would Lindsay bother finishing high school? Why not just put all she has into her music?", and Fern's taking her to: "Perhaps she could do a combined major in music and the music business?"

Four Sigma
The next morning as Clay was out for his run and Lindsay slept in, Fern and I sat talking over tea and coffee. I thought aloud, "You're looking for 4-sigma results with a 1-sigma plan."

Fern paused, looked at me, and after a few moments said, "Yeah, you're right!"

In probability and statistics, there's this phenomenon called Gaussian Distribution, the Bell Curve.

In Bell Curve distribution, data that falls within 34% of the mean (average) is referred to as 1-Sigma, data from 34% to 48% as 2-Sigma, data from 48% to 49.8% as 3-Sigma, and data outside that as 4-Sigma.

In other words, 68% of whatever you're analyzing is 1-Sigma, 27% is 2-Sigma, 4% is 3-Sigma and only 0.2% is 4-Sigma.

In music, the really successful people are in the 4-Sigma crowd. They're beyond exceptional. Although luck plays a factor, it's just one of many. In the end, the people who end up in the 4-Sigma group do so because they're activities are also 4-Sigma. The paths they pursue are more than exceptional, let alone normal.

The discomfort we often feel when undertaking a project with 4-Sigma aspirations is due not to the poor likelihood of success, but instead, to the dissonance and friction between our 1-Sigma activities and our 4-Sigma goals. Deep inside, each of us knows that playing it "safe", checking in to see what people "normally" do, and "balancing" our lives won't get us 4-Sigma results. Misaligned, our activities and goals chafe against one another until one or the other gives way.

As Fern and I contemplated our 4-Sigma insight, the door opened to all sorts of ideas. We had a really great discussion of the things that Fern might do to help Lindsay achieve her goals and we came up with a cool plan rich with activities.

Do you have any 4-Sigma or 3-Sigma or 2-Sigma aspirations? In business? At home? With your kids? Is your action plan in the same category?

Happy Monday!

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