Beware of people selling an n of 1

We crave simplicity and causality. We want to understand the world around us. We want to believe that we do. It’s why we’re so drawn to narratives. And, it’s why we extrapolate too much from our own personal experiences.

It’s tough to separate our decision making from our personal experiences.

A Powerball winner is likely to sincerely believe that buying lottery tickets is a good investment.

When there’s a 0.1% chance of something, it happens sometimes to someone. And, when it does, it’s just as real at that moment as something that happens 50% of the time or something that happens every time.

I think about this is as the “n of 1 problem”. When a politician makes a point by finding the 1 (in 100) person or event supporting their argument, it’s very easy to believe them. That story is real. It demonstrates that it could happen, that it has happened. But, it doesn’t mean that it’s likely or statistically relevant. Or, that it should be the basis for an important decision.

I was sitting at the bar of a nice restaurant recently when I overheard a woman making a comment about arming school teachers in their classrooms. She was strongly in support of the idea. Intuitively, I feel it’s a dangerous idea that could make classrooms less safe.

However, as I started to speak with her about it, I realized why she believed this.

A few years before our conversation, she had survived an horrific workplace shooting where many of her friends and colleagues were killed or injured.
She recounted her feeling of complete and total vulnerability. She never wants to feel that way again. Understandably, this feeling leads her desire to have a gun with her at all times.

We can all empathize with her, perhaps to the point of believing that we might feel the same way if we’d had her life-changing experience. But, this still doesn’t mean that there’d be fewer deaths from guns if we were all armed all the time.

The “n of 1 problem” manifests itself in many ways, including the false dichotomy arguments. If you want to be perceived as neutral or independent, you can find people who disagree. It may be that you have to screen 100 people to find someone on one side while the 99 are on the other. John Oliver demonstrated this brilliantly on the climate change episode of his show.

I believe that “n of 1” partly explains why innovation efforts inside large enterprises usually fail to create enterprise value. Most innovative new products fail. If you’re the executive who was responsible for one of the rare but, often large successes, you’re going to support and green light the next one. If you’re the executive (like most statistically) who was responsible for one of the failures, you’re not likely to try again.

The same is often true of start-up investors. When an investment fails, investors find a narrative to explain why that company didn’t make it. And, it’s usually a very simple story — “the founders didn’t hire the right people”, “the market wasn’t ready for the product”, “the company spent too much/too little”. The reality of success or failure, in most cases, is much more complex and nuanced — many butterflies flapping their wings in the right/wrong place and the right/wrong time.

n of 1 often leads us to learn the wrong lessons from experiences. We tend to measure too few (and often wrong) variables in our own experiences. We form impressions very quickly and immediately are drawn to reasonable explanations.

I would argue that the reason that the Lean and Agile movements are so powerful and important is because they counterbalance the impact of confirmation bias and our natural attraction to stories.

The world is very complex — probably more complex than many of us would like it to be or even understand it to be. There are amazing things buried in the complexity. Embrace the complexity. Be vulnerable to it. And, beware of people selling their ideas with an “n of 1”.