When I think about the COVID-19 pandemic today, the one thing of which I am sure is that I am tired of thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic. I have heard many colleagues and friends describe similar thoughts about mental and emotional fatigue that increases with every month that the pandemic continues. Because it affects every phase of our professional and personal lives, momentary escape is elusive.
Everyone is talking about the pandemic—and the problems, protocols, and politics associated with it. Even traditional diversions such as sports and entertainment are now equal parts 1) watch the event, and 2) review the effects of COVID on that event. Back in March or April 2020, who could have envisioned the cardboard cutouts of fans filling stadiums today in lieu of actual fans?
In an effort to change the channels in my head, I have increasingly been changing the channels of my devices. I have explored newfound interests by watching different TV programs, listening to different podcasts, and reading different books and articles than my usual fare. I’ve thought more about subjects like history, faith, relationships, business, and games. I’ve even grown a beard.
For me, this reprogramming has provided the two main benefits that I sought: intellectual exercise and the desired break from the constant focus on COVID. However, I gained a third benefit that I neither intended nor anticipated. It turns out there is tangible value in the simple processes of listening, learning, and thinking—on whatever the topic. In the process of diversion, I discovered several takeaways that were begging for application and not just mental consumption.
When I inevitably returned to the topic of COVID and the work associated with managing it, I had new perspectives on the decisions, plans, and protocols in which I was and am involved. I would term the impact of these diversions as a “mental cross-training effect.” And why is that important? Now that we know COVID will be with us for a while longer, everyone seems to be reevaluating the plans, processes, and protocols of the facilities profession for their effectiveness. This is where my cross-training application can be most useful.
In the following sections, I will attempt to highlight some of the takeaways I’ve gained from my “mental detour” and their potential applications. Hopefully, they can provide a small measure of help to you in your current phase of COVID management evaluation and planning.
Expected value is a poker term. I encountered it in Annie Duke’s book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. In this book (and subsequent talks, articles, and podcasts), the author provides keen insight on the process of decision making in business and life, derived from her experience of poker and from scholarly research.
In addition to the things we are certain of, most decisions we make today, in any area of work or life, involve uncertainty. There are many factors out of our control (weather, other people’s behavior, luck, etc.) that will play a part in the results of decisions we make. Most of us do not adequately consider these uncertainties when making decisions. Expected value is a cost-benefit model that considers the possible impacts of uncertainties. This analysis is done by reframing the immediate decision not as a single decision but as a decision repeated multiple times. Uncertainties are considered by applying the likelihood (mathematical probability) of their occurrence to their expected outcomes. These outcomes can be considered against the costs required to mitigate specific uncertainties. If the cost to address an uncertainty is less than the expected value, this is referred to as positive expected value. Negative expected value is when the costs exceed the calculated expected value. In an obvious way, good decisions are based on positive expected value.
Suppose I take a certain route to work every day that is the fastest. Road construction, vehicular accidents, and wintry conditions are all variables that influence the time of the commute. When I have information regarding a time-consuming variable (say a report of road construction that will likely add 10 minutes), I can adjust my plans and take an alternate route. The alternate route may add 2 minutes to my normal commute but saves time compared to slogging through the road construction. What should I do if I’m unsure about the presence of construction today? Without additional information, I estimate there is a 50% chance that construction is occurring on the route. If I don’t account for this possibility, I could be 10 minutes late. Now we have uncertainty (unknown road construction) and risk (additional commute time). Lacking information on road construction, what route do I take to work? Let’s apply expected value.
If I take my typical route, there is a 50% chance that it would take an additional 10 minutes or more. Applying the estimated likelihood to the effect produces the following: 50% × 10 minutes equals a theoretical expected value of 5 minutes of additional time added to my normal commute. If I take the alternate route (with no consideration of uncertain events), the additional time to my normal commute is 2 minutes. In this case the alternate route has the positive expected value, because 2 minutes additional time is less than the calculated 5 minutes. I should choose the alternate route.
If I later discover there actually was road construction, I can celebrate my “successful decision” to take the alternate route. But what if there was no road construction. Did I make a bad decision with the alternate route? While the outcome was relatively worse, the decision is still the right one according to the definition of positive expected value. Remember, at the time there was uncertainty regarding road construction (50% by my estimation).
Make no mistake—results are important. However, when uncertainty is a significant component of the outcome of a decision, judging the quality of a decision by results alone is too simplistic and leads to errors in judgment. Annie Duke calls this “resulting.” Unfortunately, too many people are caught in resulting.
Over the long term, better results are the byproduct of better decision making. Resulting is a shortcut to poor decisions and results. Expected value is a better way to judge the quality of decisions.
Sometimes we have good fortune in spite of bad decisions or actions—for example, when a poor golf shot ricochets off a tree and ends up on the green, or when you speed past a police officer and you are not pulled over. However, one false-positive result can lead to faulty decision making in the future if a decision is judged on the results alone. Deliberately hitting a golf ball into the woods or speeding past a police officer is a bad idea, no matter how many times you got away with it before.
Over the long term, better results are the byproduct of better decision making. Resulting is a shortcut to poor decisions and results. Expected value is a better way to judge the quality of decisions. In poker, every bet (decision) is a good bet if there was a positive expected value when the bet was made. That logic also has merit in the world of facilities management.
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First Principles Reasoning
First principles reasoning is a fundamentals-based approach to problem solving. I was introduced to it in The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players, a book by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. The authors describe Major League baseball’s use of advanced metrics and data analytics in player development.
Data-driven decision making is not new. The trick lies in having accurate, timely, useful data, and analyzing the data in a way that identifies some cause-and-effect relationship that can lead to better decisions. If input A produces output B, then improving A should improve B. Baseball has been somewhat on the forefront of applied analytics, which have been challenging traditional paradigms. Like it or not, the game is changing because of it.
While detailing these analytic concepts for athletic training of players, The MVP Machine introduces us to Kyle Boddy, founder and owner of baseball performance training system Driveline Baseball. Kyle’s expertise in the field of performance training is a combination of personal playing and coaching experience combined with considerable research (formal and informal) on numerous topics on the physical and mental aspects of training and skill development.
Through the lengthy process, Kyle has a particular focus on first principles reasoning. He was introduced to the ideology while following entrepreneur Elon Musk. In articles and interviews, Musk states that the process of innovation begins by “boiling things down to their fundamental truths and reasoning up from there.”
A fundamental truth, or first principle, is a basic principle that cannot be deduced from any other. The origin of first principles reasoning comes from Aristotle and has been used heavily in sciences such as physics. It makes sense that the engineering and scientific communities would use this kind of reasoning, given the laws of nature. It is now used in business applications as well, given our current understanding of economic behaviors. This method differs from “reasoning by analogy,” which according to Musk, essentially means “copying what other people do with slight variations.”
The fundamental nature of first principles reasoning is appealing to me. In essence, it is the logic test, which involves a dedication to understanding a problem more completely before designing or accepting solutions for it. This is where the cause-and-effect relationships are identified. A clearer understanding of causation of events is critical to better applications, processes, and protocols. This focus on first principles drives the allocation of limited resources to their best uses and away from inefficiencies.
On the other hand, when we simply mimic the programs and actions of others, we are ignoring cause and effect and considering our situations to be similar, perhaps even identical, in the hope for positive results. But when we examine these situations in terms of first principles, we can see that we are adopting their views regarding the known information, risks, and uncertainties of a particular problem and the best practices needed to address it. Their priorities, assumptions, risk aversions, and expected values become ours by default.
First principles reasoning prioritizes causation over correlation when asking “How does this work?” or “What is required to make this work better?” Even when benchmarking the work/practices of others, we should still take a first principles approach, consider the application, and fit it into our specific situation. This allows us to allocate our resources (time, money, human, technical, etc.) more effectively. The more we understand the fundamental elements of a problem, the better our responses to it. Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” That seems excessive, but I get the point.
Applications for COVID Planning
Returning now to the topic of COVID, no doubt you are probably reviewing your previous plans and protocols for their effectiveness. If so, now would be the time to reevaluate the assumptions and uncertainties that were part of your original decisions. Is there new information that adds or detracts from the uncertainties, costs, or benefits? Were the expected behaviors of students, staff, and faculty properly considered? Were the supply chains for personal protective equipment (PPE) better or worse than anticipated? Are there new factors evolving now that need to be considered? These are all expected value considerations.
Strive to replace old speculations with new information and recalibrate your plans if necessary. Results are important—but look beyond them. Identify steps in the decision-making process that can be adjusted to increase the odds of future success. Remember, decisions with positive expected value are good decisions.
Likewise, this is the time to implement first principles reasoning by evaluating your original decisions against known, fundamental truths. This could include information (medical, financial, organizational, etc.) that was previously unavailable. Are your protocols properly stacked? If COVID is more easily spread person-to-person than surface-to-person, are your distancing and masking protocols in place upstream of your disinfecting protocols? Are any protocols too dependent upon supplies or PPE that have suspect or proven supply-chain problems? What should be done differently and why?
Procedures, plans, and protocols should be driven by health concerns first, and these concerns should be evaluated by the medical staff. Downstream decisions should follow suit.
Procedures, plans, and protocols should be driven by health concerns first, and these concerns should be evaluated by the medical staff. Downstream decisions should follow suit. This strategy assures consistency in the elements of these plans. Today, we review and update plans at my university based on new and better information, not on shifting principles. Much of this approach is due to early adoption of first principles reasoning. If the principles are sound, then best value can be appropriately considered.
Let me conclude by thanking all of you for what you have done at your institutions to combat this pandemic. Despite all the difficulties, colleges and universities have kept their educational doors open. Throughout the different phases of shutting down and reopening a campus, most students have been able to stay on track reasonably well. So thank you for doing what it takes to make that happen. If you find yourself a little fatigued or burned out, I hope you can rest and recover. Remember, it is okay to think about things other than COVID; finding a diversion might even provide some cross-training benefits for the inevitable return to your COVID program. And while I am not certain, I suspect those benefits will continue well beyond this pandemic.
Joe Whitefield is assistant vice president for facilities services at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.