Friday, February 25, 2011

So What?

One of the key management techniques I learned in my first gig working almost exclusively with executives was to constantly be asking myself the question, "So what?" For me, learning to do this effectively was the most significant success factor in advancing within a large corporation, in becoming an effective executive in a small-cap public company, in raising venture capital to start my own company, and finally, in making life-decisions that changed everything. Whenever I would make a presentation, whenever I would interact with the executive team or the board of directors, whenever I would interact with staff or clients, every word I considered saying would first be passed through the filter of So What?

Changing our process to bypass thus and such would save 50% in development costs? So what? What does that mean in actual dollars or as a percentage of our overall budget? How much will it cost us to save 50%? What will the impact be on morale? Who will be distracted from other tasks in order to achieve the savings? How will all this impact our competitive position?

Whenever you hear numbers being bandied about, the first questions that you want to ask are those that lead to context. 50% savings sounds like a lot of money, but is it? If it's 50% of your overall budget, sure (well maybe). But if it's 50% of something that is in turn 1%, who cares? Sure, details and specifics can be important, but the question is, "What makes them important?"

I've mentioned before that a key to effective bullshitting is to state a whole bunch of specifics that are true and supportive of your point. People use it all the time and it works, at least until someone starts asking, "So what?"

Airport Scanners Emit Radiation that Can Cause Cancer!
Consider the measurement of REM (not the rapid eye movement associated with deep sleep, but the dosage of an ionizing radiation that will cause the same biological effect as one RAD of xray or gamma-ray). Everyone knows that walking through airport security is risky because you're exposed to radiation from the baggage scanners. Everyone knows that living near a nuclear power plant is risky because of exposure to radiation escaping from the nuclear core. We've all been warned about exposure to radiation from watching television or working on a computer. For the most part these "facts" and warnings are true and they seem meaningful until you start asking, "So what?"

The average exposure to radiation of someone living in the US is about .360 REM per year or 360 mREM (1/1000 REM). Of that 360, 300 is from naturally occurring radiation. Living on earth, we're constantly bombarded with cosmic radiation from space above (an average of 27 mREM/year), from the earth below (an average of 28 mREM/year) and from the environment (an average of 70 mREM/year). So, that's an average of 125 mREM from cosmic, terrestrial and background radiation.

Let's say that you fly round-trip from New York to LA every week and you're concerned about your exposure to radiation from the baggage scanners. First of all, each round trip flight exposes you to about 5 mREM (you're higher up so you experience more cosmic radiation). Passing through security exposes you to 0.002 mREM. In other words, your exposure to radiation during the flight is 2500 times your exposure to radiation from the scanner.

If you live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, your exposure to radiation is about 0.009 mREM annually. On the other hand, living within 50 miles of a coal-fired power plant, your exposure is 3 times greater at 0.03 mREM. Live next door to a nuclear power plant? 0.6 REM per year.

Do you watch television or play video games? Well, that would be 1 mREM per year (for each activity). Work with a computer? That would be 0.1 mREM.

All these are source of radiation. But so what?

Move to the Mountains and Breathe the Air
What about moving from Boston to Denver? How would that affect your exposure to radiation?

Well, in the context of scanners, nuclear power plants and watching television, quite significantly. Your exposure to cosmic rays in Boston (at sea level) would be 26 mREM, but in Denver (at a higher altitude) it would be 50 mRem. In Boston, annual exposure to background radiation averages 23 mREM and to terrestrial radiation, 16 mREM. In Denver that would be 90 and 40 mREM, respectively.

So your exposure to radiation in Denver is 3 times that of Boston. Or to better put it into perspective, your increased exposure to radiation from living in Denver for just 1 year is equivalent to living next door to a nuclear power plant for 192 years.

Perspective & Context
The essence of So What? is to gain perspective. Let's look at radiation exposure side-by-side to gain some perspective. Specificity is great, but only if you've first established context. Without context, it doesn't particularly matter whether or not what is being said is "true".

The table below compares anual exposure to radiation from a variety of sources. The flight statistics assume 12 round-trips from New York to LA, and the x-ray statistics assume once per year.

Sure, watching television, walking past an airport scanner and living near a nuclear power plant increase your exposure to radiation, but when compared to other sources, you gotta ask yourself, "So What?" For example, your anual exposure to radiation from sources inside your body (e.g. potassium) is 812 times that of an airport scanner (taking 24 flights).

Airport Scanner (24-Times Annually)0.05
Nuclear Power0.10
Working on a Computer0.10
Coal Power0.17
Next Door to a Nuclear Power Plant0.60
Watching Television1.00
Playing Video Games1.00
Extremities X-Ray (Once/Year)1.00
Building Materials (e.g., concrete)3.00
Drinking Water5.00
Living in a Stone or Concrete Building7.00
Chest X-Ray (Once/Year)8.00
Natural Gas in Home9.00
Dental X-Ray (Once/Year)10.00
Head/Neck X-Ray (Once/Year)20.00
Cervical Spine X-Ray (Once/Year)22.00
Cosmic (Difference Between Denver and Boston)24.00
Terrestrial (Difference Between Denver and Boston)24.00
Radionuclides in the Body (e.g., from potassium)39.00
Pelvis X-Ray (Once/Year)44.00
Round Trip New York to LA (12-Times Anually)60.00
Background Radiation (Difference Between Denver and Boston)67.00
Hip X-Ray (Once/Year)83.00
CT Scan (Once/Year)100.00
Lumbar Spinal X-Ray (Once/Year)130.00

Of course, contextualization and so-what-ed-ness can be applied to much more than radiation exposure. Where should I focus my time? How should I spend my money? What should I read? How should I change my diet? Should I buy a fuel efficient car? Any number of actions can be beneficial, but how much impact is the change really going to make?

For example, fine-tuning your diet is beneficial, but it's all airport scanners compared to eradicating your diet of sugar. Sure, it's better than not doing anything, but so what?

Happy Friday,

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