Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Sense of Smell

I've been in less than tip-top condition lately, so you haven't seen any posts here for a long time. I just don't have the wherewithal to compose new stuff that's not whiney, so I think I'll start posting some really worthwhile stuff when it comes in from my correspondents (with their permission, of course).

The following is from Jim Batterson, who is currently teaching classes in China. Here's his words:


I thought of a story and a half and I wanted to share it with someone, and you (Jerry) came to mind.

Let's begin with a simple experiment that I remember from a psychology class years ago. I guy thinks he is one of eight test subjects in an experiment. They all sit on a panel and he is number seven. The exercise is simple. They are shown two lines and asked to say which line is longer, A or B. B is clearly longer, but the lines are at different angles and such. One through six all say A is longer and our poor subject goes along with the crowd and agrees with them. Not clear whether he is appeasing or whether he doubts his own judgement or what. This repeats many times. Of course, one through six are shills planted by the experimenter.

Scenario two: same as the first except number two gives the right answer. All the support our guy needs to give the right answer every time.

So there I was in New Jersey sitting around a table for a project meeting. I was only tangentially on the project. I maintained the system that was being partially replaced, and had written an extract program that fed data to the system under development. When I sent them a test file they were supposed to run it through their edits and the rest of the system and I got some feedback at the end, but I really wasn't getting anything meaningful back.

Nevertheless, they went around the room and everyone seemed to be reporting that all systems were go, ready to fly in about a month. They'd been working on it for over a year. I, too, had done everything I was supposed to do and could have reported the same, but the manager detected a bit of hesitation in my voice (not very subtle) and asked me what I thought. She was a pretty sharp woman. I wasn't sure what to say, because I really was hardly involved in the project at all.

I told her that I had been on a lot of projects before, which she already knew. I didn't have any facts or data or even examples to point to, but "this project doesn't smell like a project that is a month away from going live."

I think that her senses, too, were telling her the same thing, but she needed another voice to confirm her suspicions. My sense of smell was all the confirmation she needed to drop the delivery date and push things back three months. She was still off by a month, but the system went live five months later.



Mike said...

That smell is called "NASA Chicken" and it's unfortunately common.

"In fact, it is so prevalent that it even has a name: 'NASA Chicken.' It is a tendency to avoid addressing safety issues that might delay a project, in the hope that someone else from another division or another company might raise the issue, and thereby be blamed for pushing a project beyond its completion deadline."

Unknown said...

Jerry, this brings several thoughts.
You have said, "when the words and music don't agree pay attention to the music". I think you would agree that when the smell doesn't match the words or the music (or both) pay attention to the smell. I think the detection of odor is closer to the gut than music and is also more personal. I don't know if teaching people to walk around and sence the odor is possible or if it just called experience.
My curent consulting assignment is to find the security gaps in a state government agency and my sense of smell says that they do not have control of the security of their data. I guess at least some of the staff smell the problem but they cannot put the sensation into words or donn't have a clue about how to fix things. I was hired to document specific gaps and make recommendations. My difficulty is that the lack of control is systemic and will require many fixes. As you say, "consultants are hired by the problem not the solution."
Thanks Phil

Michael Bolton said...

I read an interesting reframe of "common sense" in McLuhan recently. In the reframe "common sense" doesn't mean "sound practical sense" or "things that people hold in common as being sensible", but instead "things that each of our senses tell us in common". When the smell and the look and the sound don't agree, something doesn't make (common) sense.

---Michael B.