Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cognitive Resonance & Business Decisions

Dr. PG Madhavan is CTO at Symphony Teleca Corp for the ISV division. 
Previously, he was the CTO & VP Engineering for Solavei LLC and the Associate Vice President--Technical Advisory for Global Logic Inc

PG has 20+ years of software products, platforms and framework experience in leadership roles at major corporations such as Microsoft, Lucent, AT&T and Rockwell and startups, Zaplah Corp (Founder and CEO) and Solavei. Application areas include mobile, Cloud, eCommerce, banking, retail, enterprise, consumer devices, M2M, digital ad media, medical devices and social networking in both B2B and B2C market segments.  He is an innovation leader driving invention disclosures and patents (12 issued US patents) with a Ph.D. in Electrical & Computer Engineering. More about PG at

One of PG’s previous blogs, “Jell-O Mountain Approach to Product Innovation” can be found here:

Did you not notice a strange thing when you purchased your last new car? Let us say it was not a common model (you bought a Kia Soul) and you have hardly noticed them on the road in the past. But starting the day after you bought your own Kia Soul, you see three on the way to work, there are a few in the lunch place parking lot, and more in your own neighborhood - even more uncanny, you start noticing reports of celebs driving a Soul everywhere and even comments about Kia management model in Economist magazine!

This is "cognitive resonance"; not cognitive DISSonance that you all have heard of before. Last week I coined the term, "Cognitive Resonance". As I assert ownership of this concept, I can see my in-box filling with comments like, "it is in every Psychology 101 textbook, you d$%b a$$!" or "I invented/ discovered this concept back in 1953 and I have 32 scholarly publications in peer reviewed journals on this topic" and so on. Okay, okay . . . you can be the owner! (Google it and you won't get much relevant hits!).

The concept of "resonance" is familiar to all - a bridge in my neighborhood destroyed itself many decades ago due to this phenomenon (remember Tacoma Narrows bridge?) or all of you have seen a tuning fork ringing out a pure note. Engineers think about it a similar way and put it to good use in many objects you use every day. If I may, let me 'anthropomorphize' resonance a bit; for whatever reasons, a particular frequency becomes special and gathers up energy from nearby frequencies and builds up in energy and amplitude - it dominates everything!

This ability to self-tune is put to use in certain wireless receivers that you use every day; resonance is what causes "chatter" in machine tools when a lathe or milling machine starts shuddering and tool and work are destroyed - all the vibration energy gets poured into a certain frequency (due to too much speed or feed usually), it grows and grows and ends up cutting deep grooves into the metal or worse, shear it off. So resonance can be a force for good or force for bad.

When I assembled a team for the start up I founded, I was very particular that my team had diverse behavioral traits - some talkers, some loners, some in-your-face, etc.; some analytical, some holistic, some artsy and so on. It is like everyone is at different "frequencies" and there will be very low chance of resonance in thinking. I believe that this is important to avoid 'group think' and keep the team open to emergent opportunities and more importantly, dangers in the start up case. However, there is a group of people who believe that start ups should comprise a team of 'like-minded" people and their "resonance" will amplify their work and get the firm moving quickly forward in a single direction.

I doubt that there is a magic formula - however, my current thinking is that in the early, early stages, it is best to have a 'resonant' group to get quick traction in the face of uncertainties and as soon as their is a semblance of stability, refactor the team into a diverse one that is alive to new possibilities and threats.

My start up story has relevance to established corporation teams also in how business decisions are made.

Let us say you are pitching a new project to your boss, your Board or a VC. You marshal every evidence that you can lay your hands on and try to make it fit your thesis - your mind is in high "cognitive resonance" mode. You are blind to minor fallacies and wishful thinking at this point. How do you break out of this trap?

Precision Questioning! This is standard operating procedure at Microsoft. Knowing that your review is going to proceed according to PQ principles, the "pitcher" works through the PQ sequence while preparing for the pitch. There are many online resources; this is from a Microsoftie: . As the author points out, "PQ / PA is not about building rapport or brainstorming, it’s about efficient and effective intellectual exchange."
7 Categories of Precise Questions There are 7 types of questions for focused drilling down.
  1. Go / NoGo.  Do we need to talk about this?
  2. Clarification.  What do you mean?
  3. Assumptions.  What are we assuming?
  4. Basic Critical Question.  How do we know this is true?
  5. Causes.  What’s causing this?
  6. Effects.  What will be the effects?
  7. Action.  What should be done?
  8. There is a lot of detailed drill-down in each of the 7 sections.

When cognitive resonance is not in your favor, practice PQ (I call it "Rude Q&A") and you will be less swayed by your own wishful thinking and get the info that your reviewer needs more quickly and efficiently. Good luck with your PQ practice!

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