Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Don't jump to a solution!

The fantastic "Overcoming Bias" blog has a piece on how we really shouldn't try to solve a problem until we've done as much as we can to understand the problem.

It is astonishing how difficult it is to follow this advice, even when one tries to.

I consciously try to spend most of my initial meetings with clients asking questions, developing my model of their problem and establishing what properties any solution should have. However, it's really hard... one cannot help mentally considering solutions (or solution fragments) and using them to drive the questioning.

Part of this is healthy: many clients have multiple problems or multiple priorities and so driving questioning in a direction where you have a chance of being helpful is clearly useful. However, considering potential solutions gets in the way of developing a deeper understanding of the client's problems because, as the article suggests, the human brain has a very strong tendency to hold onto a solution once it has been conceived.

I found a language to articulate this on a course a few months ago. It was based on Huthwaite's "SPIN Selling" methodology. The course was one of the most useful (and challenging) ones I've been on and was focussed pretty much exclusively on addressing the problem identified in the Overcoming Bias piece. Specifically, a structured model for questioning that allowed one to arrive naturally at the fullest possible statement of the client's problem and needs prior to moving on to solutioning.

This article was timely; it has reminded me I need to make a renewed effort to implement it!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Emotional Blackmail

I am on training at our Staines location. It is second only to Bedfont in its difficulty to visit if you live in East London. As the education was a two-day affair, I elected to stay in a hotel overnight.

It was quite an entertaining experience:

  • The internet connection didn't work. I had to be "escalated" to a "second-level" specialist before the wired connection would allow me to get online
  • Hot water came out of the tap when in the cold position. Apart from when it was lukewarm. The handyman couldn't fix it so they delivered me jugs of iced water instead. Had no other guest discovered the problem before or do they just hope nobody will complain?
  • As is common these days, the bill was slipped under my door overnight and contained a list of exciting ways to checkout on the back. Regular readers will know that I don't do queues so I thought I'd try one of them:
    • "Checkout by video". Apparently one can use the interactive feature on the TV to view the bill, enter one's address and checkout. I could view the bill, but there was no option to check out. Wonderful.
    • "Checkout by phone" (available to members of their loyalty programme only). Luckily I was a member and miracle-of-miracles my number was printed on the bill. So I logged on to (oops... I've identified the chain!). I defy anyone to figure out which link you must click on to check that the address they hold for you is correct. An utterly shocking website.
    • So I was left with no option but to queue up.

Fortunately, the queue wasn't too long and it gave me time to peruse the bill. It seems that Sheraton believe it is acceptable to add items to your bill that you haven't agreed to. This is called attempted theft anywhere else, isn't it? They had added a £1 charge for "UNICEF". As charities go, I suspect UNICEF are one of the good ones. They're almost certainly less corrupt and do more good for the world than the average UN organisation.

However, I prefer to choose where to donate my money and I like to ensure they can claim back the tax on my contribution.

Sadly, asking for a charity donation to be removed from one's bill - especially one for a quid - makes you look mean. Well, I hate being emotionally blackmailed more than I hate being frowned upon so I asked the receptionist if UNICEF would be able to claim back tax (knowing that the answer would be no). She didn't know so I asked for it to be taken off.

So, yes... I'm a coward. I couldn't bring myself to complain about the principle so I let her believe I upset that they wouldn't get enough money from this little act of involuntary altruism. Not my finest hour... but then outcomes do, after all, matter more than intentions.

However, I'm not an ogre and I've been meaning to reassess my charitable giving for some time now (I keep meaning to cancel my Amnesty membership). So does anybody have any ideas of a charity that I should divert my Amnesty donations to (with an uplift to account for my miserly behaviour this morning...)?

[EDIT 2007-10-30 13:56 - mino typos corrected]

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Roo (many, many weeks ago) asked what I thought of Tim Harford's "The Undercover Economist".

Short answer: I loved it.

I first heard about it on a "Radio Economics" PodCast, where he read the introduction and the first chapter

The rest of the book was equally enjoyable.

The introduction sticks in my mind, however, because it was really a modern reworking of "I, Pencil". That is: not one person in the world knows how to start with raw materials and end up with pencil.

Milton Friedman explained it well:

Maps of London

You can never have enough.

via Diamond Geezer (probably... this sort of stuff usually originates on his blog.... ah yes.... here)

Underground Waterways and unexpected tunnels

Overground Waterways

The underground map is interesting.... it suggests the Northern Low-level sewer heads inland east of Tower Hill to meet the mid-level sewer at Stratford via Bow.

So where does the effluent of Docklands go? (And no... the answer is not that the effluent of Docklands is recycled here; that would be too extreme. They merely recycle the effluent of Westminster)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Economics of Ant Colonies

Attentive readers (all three of them...) may have noticed my blogging has been intermittent to non-existent of late. I've been busy.

Busy learning about ants.

Well, busy working and decorating and stuff. But I did also happen to listen to a fascinating PodCast about ants. And I suppose I could have blogged during that hour had I not been listening to the recording. The pOdcASt (how do you capitalise it?) was about ant colonies and how order emerges even though there is no leader to direct things. It made me think back to my holiday in Provence in July. On holiday, I spent many, many hours on the sun lounger (under the umbrella) reading and watching the ants carry away the various crumbs we had dropped. My ant fascination was such that no fewer than two friends who were on that holiday bought me ant-related products for my recent birthday.

Anyway, the podcast was very interesting and I recommend it.

I need some investing help

Readers, I am ashamed to admit that, having failed to find a suitable investment target in August (see here), I have still not invested the money sitting in my selftrade account. Worse, I have since opened a trading account in the US and have failed to invest that money either.


I know one should not be afraid to hold cash in uncertain times but this is getting ridiculous.

If I believe that stock markets in general (in the UK and US, at least) are probably over-valued, I'm torn between spending some considerable time identifying individual stocks I regard as under-priced (like I did, by accident, with Morrison's - although not immediately...) or investing in a different asset class or using a different approach. Which? I'm not keen on anything that requires active management... so no short term shorting strategies, etc.

Perhaps I should just put it all under the bed.

Just too easy

I make a point of reading The Guardian on Saturdays as I believe it is important to read opinions with which one disagrees. Its economic illiteracy and the sheer lunacy of some of their letter writers makes my Saturday mornings highly amusing, if somewhat infuriating.

I swear they include articles whose sole intention is to push me over the edge and vow never to buy the paper again.

They went one better today and included a whole supplement. Labelled "The Green Guide", it was an uncritical, sanctimonious bucket of propaganda masquerading as journalism.

At least, that's what I thought it would be before I opened it.

Against my better judgement, however, I retrieved it from the bin (landfill-destined, naturally). It turns out my prejudices were unfounded. It was actually just a large advertising supplement, littered with adverts targetted at the credulous fools who actually believe the lies we're being fed about the environment at present.

It was gratifying to realise quite how many companies have figured out that there's good money to be made from these people. Good for them!

(And the best thing is, I get to put it in the trash for the second time!)

Monday, October 22, 2007

The housing market is doomed!

Seen from the DLR: six liveried Volkswagen Beetles parked outside Atkinson Mcleod's Leman Street Office. Why aren't they showing buyers around and chasing after sellers? The end is nigh!

(Alternative explanation 1: the estate agents were having a meeting

Alternative explanation 2: Monday early afternoon is always slow and I only noticed the cars because I normally leave work somewhat later in the day)