POLR – Path of Least Resistance

A few Thanksgivings ago, I was able to convince one of my son’s to accompany me on a stroll through our neighborhood. In an effort to get some fresh air and pretend to be healthy in anticipation of the next round of gorging, we set off on our walk. We came across a spot where a large pile of fresh bear scat proudly stood in the centre of the road. It seemed the strong beasts capable of all kinds of physical feats took the easy way when commuting as opposed to struggling through the rougher terrain off the roadway.

Though the city of Boston is a remarkable and worthwhile place to visit, getting around is a chore. The city has spent over a generation undergoing what’s referred to locally as “the big dig”. That’s a euphemism for massive misery with respect to commuting. Construction is constant. The roadways are just extended parking lots. It’s almost impossible to get around. If you are lucky enough to soak in the sights and sounds of this historical North American city, save yourself some grey hairs and take a cab. Boston’s roadways were established by free roaming cattle. Many years ago, cows and livestock wandered around. Their movements resulted in packed down paths. Bovines not being the most brilliant of beasts moved without deep thought. They went where the food was or where the walking was easy. If they came across steeper terrain, they migrated around or down. They followed the path of least resistance. When the citizens decided to initiate their original efforts at infrastructure the powers that be at the time opted to put roads atop the pathways cows had created. Though this may explain why the roadways in the Boston area seem to make little sense which dictates the perpetual effort to update, it also reflects what we may experience all too often in other parts of our lives.

Just as water flows downhill, electricity follows the path of least resistance. Just as hot air seeks to rise, wind moves from high pressure to low pressure areas. Animals, too, appear to be consistent in finding the path of least resistance. Our hungry bears feast on berries from easily accessible bushes as opposed to climbing higher. Our deer decimate our apple trees where they can get at fruit. Animals go after the low hanging fruit. Energy goes where it is easiest to flow. Garth Brooks reminds us in his song, The River, that “Life is like a river, ever winding as it goes.” We don’t seem to be much different. It’s as if we’re wired to conserve energy where we can. Science suggests this may be the case. Our brains represent only 2% of our body weight yet represent 20% of our energy consumption. The parts of our brain that demand the most energy to function are those parts of our brain that are newest. Our prefrontal cortex which is responsible for our higher level thinking capabilities demands a steady supply of glucose to keep it going. Our brains recognize the deep demand they place on our body’s resources so they try to shut down whenever they can. Our natural state is to seek to shutdown active brain processing where we can.

In a HBR article from Februray 2017, “Life’s Work: An Interview with Jerry Seinfeld,” Daniel McGinn asked Seinfeld: “You and Larry David wrote Seinfeld together, without a traditional writers’ room, and burnout was one reason you stopped. Was there a more sustainable way to do it? Could McKinsey or someone have helped you find a better model?”

Seinfeld: “Who’s McKinsey?”

McGinn: “It’s a consulting firm.”

Seinfeld: “Are they funny?”

McGinn: “No.”

Seinfeld: “Then I don’t need them. If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

Seinfeld recognized that the path to progress was by avoiding doing things that were efficient or easy. He sought to not flow downhill, but fought his way sideways and uphill. He embraced the difficult path. Seinfeld stands out as an example of what most of us are working hard to avoid. Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of the wife who stumbled over her husband crawling around on the floor on all fours in their family room? She asks him what he’s doing down on the ground. He responds, “I’m looking for the car keys. I lost them.” She asks why, did he have them in the family room? The husband offers, “No, I lost them in the front hall, but the light is much better here.” The lazy guy is looking where the light is better not where the problem is. Too often, we’re trying to take shortcuts that are fruitless.

Our brains are looking for the path of least resistance. Over many generations we’ve come up with mental shortcuts that psychologists call Heuristics. Heuristics are ways that our brains reduce conscious thought and get us quickly to an answer. Sometimes they can help. Oftentimes, they cause other problems. These heuristics are our brain’s way of being fast and frugal. Our brain is trying to resolve a problem as quickly as possible while expending as little mental resource as possible. Heuristics can be considered an intentional effort to leap to a conclusion. Our brains recognize that using them burns precious fuel and they are trying to conserve this limited energy. A negative shortcut our brains will take is with respect to conversations with others where we may disagree. Instead of listening to and thinking through what someone else says our brain quickly labels the other person as bad. By identifying the other side as bad, no effort is needed trying to understand their position. Our brain knows all it needs to know and can discount the other. Whatever efficiencies our brain achieve come at a cost. Naturally, we’re not making friends or learning anything. Our possibilities become more limited. This is a downside to our brain’s default to avoid effort. The easy way isn’t the best way.

Winston Churchill welcomed the idea of doing as little as possible. He embraced conserving energy. When asked by one of his biographers to what did he attribute his success in life to, Churchill responded, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” Churchill’s quip wasn’t an attempt at humor or facetiousness. He genuinely believed in and benefitted from taking time to retreat from hectic effort. His exemplary productivity and ability to manage extreme stress was enhanced by his willingness and commitment to step back and relax wherever he could. Churchill was able to consciously control where and when he exerted himself in order to be as productive as possible. Yes, taking a break is a good idea. Yes, avoiding some decisions all together in order to maintain energy to focus on important tasks is important. However, we should work to overcome the default pursuit of the path of least resistance. When we’re using phrases like “It’s inevitable” or “This is just the way we do things” or “It’s the world we live in today”, we’re succumbing to lazy thinking. It’s a sign that we’re avoiding real thought. Phrases like these reflect mental laziness. Contrast this passive posture of acceptance with a quest for curiosity. Why are we doing this? Is there a better way? What problems are we causing by doing this? Are we overlooking something? Questions follow curiosity which lead us to better ways of doing things.

Memorization used to be a bigger part of education. Rote learning of our country’s past leaders, math formulas, poems, and more were a regular part of our daily school program. We may recall being in awe of our parents or grandparents parroting back extensive lines of verse that they learned many decades prior. We may even now be able to recite something we learned in school to our kids. What tasks of memory are being pursued in school by our youth today? Rote memory is considered unnecessary as technology offers this type of information to any of us at any time. Why memorize who the Prime Ministers of Canada were over the last hundred years when Siri can give you the answer instantly? Students were all too happy to embrace the approach of educators that now minimizes memorization. However, this comes at a cost. Less memorizing isn’t freeing up our amazing cranial capacities to tackle higher level problems, it’s doing the opposite. We’re switching off areas of our brain. We’re reducing our processing capacity as opposed to increasing it. What we’re memorizing is less important than building the brain muscle. We can only do this by avoiding the path of least resistance and doing the hard work of memorizing.

Continuing with schools, so much of the evaluation is based on measurements which are easy as opposed to useful. For example, attendance is pretty easy to measure but how well does it correlate to test performance or success in life? We can measure pages read or scores on tests. However, how do either of these relate to actual comprehension of material or lasting knowledge beyond a month or two? In a separate area, participating in elections to pick leaders is a privilege of democracy. Presumably, the actions of lawmakers have impact on our lives and we should be motivated to make good decisions as a result. Yet, instead of digging in and learning about issues and candidate’s positions on those issues, our brains default to an heuristic that nudges us to make decisions on irrelevant factors. Canadian Psychologist, Gad Saad, writes in this Psychology Today article from 2012 that we use sensory information to make voting decisions as opposed to substantive issue driven information. The height, looks, and voice of a candidate are bigger decision factors than their position on issue X. Sometimes we’re using these same decision criteria in our hiring decisions. It’s work to review someone’s objective body of work. It’s work to ask probing questions to ascertain how they have managed past challenges. It’s much easier to default to first impressions and charm. We’re making decisions on information that’s easy to collect instead of information that applicable to the quality of decisoin. For example, if we’re in a restaurant with 50 other people of which one of them is Warren Buffet, the average income of patrons will be wildly different than the actual incomes. Sure, it’s easy to calculate the average, yet the mean is useless when numbers are skewed by numbers that are outliers. How are we defining our average sale, our average customer, our average policies in force? Are these useful numbers to measure? The more similar our customer base may be, the more useful an average becomes. The wider the variety of customer that is served, the less meaningful an average becomes.

Todd Rose in his book, The End of Average, recounts a story of how the taking the easy way becomes costly. In the early days developing planes for the US Air Force many smart engineers got together to determine how to configure cockpits. They recognized that the men that would be flying these planes would likely be different shapes and sizes. Having taken high school math like the rest of us the engineers decided to size the cockpit design around the mean average of American men. They had data which had been collected for any number of physical characteristics. They had averages for height, weight, arm length, leg length, and more. Each of these averages were considered in the design of the cockpit. The planes were then built and the planes launched for service. As time progressed, the accidents piled up. Planes and pilots were being lost at an alarming rate. As another group of engineers piled through the wreckages, no mechanical or electrical fault could be found. They were left with human error as the most logical possibility of problems. Was it more training that was needed? Was it better screening for military recruits before placing in pilot programs? What was being missed? After many smart minds studied the accumulating problem, someone stumbled on the original cockpit design as an issue. Yes, it had been designed for the average user. However, the average user was a fiction. No actual man conformed to the mean dimensions on any of the variables measured. The cockpit had been rigidly designed to accommodate no one. Relying on the easy measurement of the mean was worse than meaningless, it was dangerous. Just because something could be measured doesn’t mean it should be measured. With this insight the cockpits were modified to accommodate men of different sizes. Adjustable seats were inserted to allow pilots with different leg and arm lengths to better position themselves to handle controls. Pedals were repositioned and other modifications made. The plane crashes reduced substantially and immediately upon release of these changes.

The US Air Force example represents a tendency we continue to fall into in our business worlds today. We love to measure things. It gives us a sense of control. We can build strategies around trying to move these numbers. If we’re successful, we’re justifying our existence and seeing the impact of our efforts. However, we need to exercise caution in chasing strategy around something just because we can measure it. When we make decisions and implement policies on easily measured variables, we may be making mistakes and wasting resources which create bigger problems down the road. We may be causing more trouble than we’ve fixed. Does data determine the direction of your business decisions? If so, what data? Are we using low hanging fruit to fuel our strategy or something we have to work harder to measure?

Just because it is getting colder, let’s try to avoid our thinking falling into the trap of following POLR.