Hans Rosling: How to Make Better Management Decisions than a Chimpanzee

Adam Gordon

Hans Rosling, who died earlier this month (Feb 7, 2017), was a well-known global health statistician and educator who came to prominence via a famous 2006 TED talk where he mimics rapid-fire, sports commentary as country bubbles vie with each other to reach development goalposts. 

In that video, since viewed by tens of millions, Rosling tells us how when he started as Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute, he wanted to find out how much his students knew about the world.

He gave them a pre-test and one of his questions was: of the following five pairs of countries, which country has the highest child mortality rate?

Hans Rosling. Source: TED - The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen » 

Karolinska Institute students got 1.8 right out of 5, which reassured Rosling there was a place for a Professor of International Health, and for his course. 

But, says Rosling, “Late one night, when I was compiling the report, I really realized my discovery: I had shown that top Swedish students know statistically significantly less about the world than the chimpanzee. 

"Because the chimpanzee would score half right, if I gave them two bananas with Sri Lanka and Turkey. They would be right half of the cases. But the students are not there. 

“The problem… was not ignorance; it was preconceived ideas.”

In other words, pre-existing misconceptions in the minds of the test-takers caused them to return a worse result than if they had had no conceptions at all. 

Preconceived ideas are ingrained over many years of socialization and exposure to national or cultural assumptions. Rosling half-jokingly says of his students: “I first discovered that the(ir) textbook was Tintin, mainly.”

Everyone has preconceptions, that is, a socially constructed mental apparatus that exists prior to receiving new information, which filters and colors what is seen or interpreted, and which may prevent situations from being perceived correctly or from being seen at all. 

As this translates into the world of leadership and business decision-making, preconceived ideas (sometimes called “educated incapacity” or “mental models” or “paradigms”) can cause a degraded view of the world, therefore are a source of risk or of lost opportunity.

Outdated or incomplete mental models are a lurking threat of error for executives or board members who may be investing millions and building businesses based on preconceptions that are as faulty in their own way as the Swedish undergraduates’ viewpoint was. 

To be clear, everyone has an incomplete mental model and there is no such thing as a correct or perfect model. However, better models are those that are more congruent with contextual reality. 

It like having a map. A map is always a limited representation, but a bad map will have you driving around in circles while a good map gets you to the church on time.

A key task of good quality strategic foresight is to challenge and improve our mental maps

Rosling’s contribution is important: his message is that good data challenges poor paradigms. To this end he created data-animation solutions that allow data absorption in a compelling, accessible way.

Strategic foresight also offers other ways to challenge and refine our paradigms, not least in training delegates to recognize all the common heuristics and biases and “fast-thinking” shortcuts that betray managers’ rational decision-making.

Another form of paradigm improvement comes in horizon scanning, where we look beyond the boundaries of what we comfortably know, and particularly towards weak signals or apparently non-congruent events. In decoding discontinuities we update our preconceptions. 

Building on all this, scenario planning, when properly done, challenges leaders to consider future outcomes situations that are different to their “official future” (that is, everything going forward as expected under current assumptions and preconceptions.) 

In building scenarios of alternative outcome situations, and testing how well management decisions made today would work in them, the unwitting preconceptions that underpin current planning are revealed. 

Leaders “forced” to confront their preconceptions in this way are more likely to make decisions that are robust to an uncertain, unpredictable world.

Dr Adam Gordon is an instructor at Aalto EE's Strategic Foresight program. The program helps to find a clearer roadmap to guide your organization to the future. How to develop an integrated management foresight perspective to make better business decisions under conditions of external uncertainty, and turn this advantage into profitable real-world products and services?

​Read also Dr. Gordon's article: Future Planning? It’s Better To Be Vaguely Right Than Exactly Wrong »

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