The Many Uses of a Barometer

As I have alluded to in some of my past posts, the way we think about and approach a problem is critical in achieving an effective solution. Many of us with technical backgrounds have a propensity to rush to closure on a solution that seems obvious to us, mostly because we have been educated to view the world in terms of mathematics and achieving the prescribed “correct” solution.  Along that line, I like to share a story:

Setting: High school science class quiz

Question: You are given a barometer and need to measure the height of a multi-story building.  Explain in detail how you plan to use the barometer in making the measurement.

Creative Student: There are at least three alternatives:

  1. Measure the length of the barometer, and then move back from the building holding the instrument vertically at arm’s length until achieving visual alignment with both (1) the top of the building and the top of the barometer and (2) bottom of the barometer with the same height on the building, as my eye is above the ground.  Measure the distance from my eye to both the barometer and the building.  Finally, use geometric ratio of the two right triangles and the height between the barometer bottom and the ground to calculate the building height.
  2. Take the barometer to the top of the building and measure the amount of time it takes to crash into the pavement below upon pushing it off the edge.  Knowing the time and acceleration (gravity) calculate the distance
  3. Find the superintendent of the building and offer him this shinny new barometer, if he will tell you the height of the building

Results: Student fails the quiz because his answer didn’t match the lesson the teacher was trying to convey: Measure the barometric pressure at ground-level and top of the building, then using the difference calculate the height.

The story has a few perspectives worth pondering, because clearly both the teacher and the student came away unsatisfied with the quiz results:

  • Certainly the student provided three valid solutions and I surmise that he knew the teacher’s answer because quizzes usually reflect material recently taught in class.  Was failing the student a just action on the part of the teacher?  After all, he did meet the intended objective, in addition to showing creativity both scientifically and otherwise.
  • Speaking of the objective, which teacher stated as, determine the height of the building, without any criteria for the solution.
    • All four methods can be used to determine this and each produces a different accuracy.  Was accuracy a criterion for the desired results?
    • Another issue is the fate of the barometer, itself.  Was it expendable?  If not, that would eliminate two of the four methods.
    • What if we rephrase the test question to: Explain in detail how you plan to use the primary function of the barometer in making the measurement. Wouldn’t this wording change have added a criterion and narrowed the focus to the teacher’s desired results.
    • I believe the original intent of this story was to illustrate a lesson about the penalty of thinking outside the box.  Yet, isn’t that what we leaders want; someone who solves problems by thinking about them in a new way?

As project leaders, how many times have we been too sloppy in delegating work only to end up with results we didn’t expect?  I know I have. Whether the root is our rushed framing of the situation, poor articulation of our expectations, our cognitive biases creating unstated assumptions, or flawed analogies from past experiences, it was our failure to focus on and communicate our expectations relative to the results.   (Also, see my previous posts: Is the Enemy Us or Fate)

Whether with an individual or the team, next time you delegate work, inside or outside a project:

  • Define the goals/objectives, clearly
  • Share the all the detail data with those involved
  • Articulate your expectations (acceptable/unacceptable), especially the criteria for results
  • Discuss the process for getting there; don’t overly constrain how they do it

They may surprise you and provide something better than you expected.

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