Forecasting by “The Lamp of Experience”

https://www.loc.gov/item/2001700209/
No, this is not a planning-poker meeting.

Many people are familiar with Patrick Henry and his “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech on March 23, 1775, whose closing line became the war cry of the revolution that led to independence, which Americans celebrated yesterday.

Less well known is Henry’s position on forecasting! But the wisdom of this American patriot is as prescient today for us in knowledge work as it was for the fledgling freedom-seeking colonies of the 18th century.

First, here’s that founding father on the idea of basing decisions on hopefulness:

…it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I was once involved in a leadership group that met weekly to review its work board. The chair of the group would go card-by-card through the in-progress tasks and ask each responsible person when he or she thought the card would be done. “Oh, about two more weeks, I’m pretty sure,” was the inevitable reply. Two weeks was the time-honored estimate that the leadership group had learned was just right: Not too ambitious as to require an accounting at the following week’s meeting, but also not too much of a sand-bag as to call the boss’s attention. It was also, I suspected, largely based on hope.

But if not borne of hope, how would Henry propose we plan? He continues:

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House.*

Indeed! Henry was encouraging his fellow patriots to lean against the human optimism bias and use data to inform their decisions.

In my example with the leadership group, after hearing leader after leader parrot the “two weeks” estimate, I went through the archive of cards that had been completed. Sure enough, hope was hardly a reliable guide: I found that the 85th-percentile completion mark was 63 days! That meant that 85% of the time, work finished in 63 days. Even the 50th percentile was 35 days, more than twice the two-week estimate.

To paraphrase patriot Patrick, the group simply had nothing to justify those hopes with which they had been pleased to solace themselves and their chair. Rather, they could have used the “lamp of experience” to forecast when their work would be completed.

Ultimately, Patrick Henry’s data-driven argument held sway, and the colonies acted not by “hugging the delusive phantom of hope” but by seeing that the battle “is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

Fortunately, in most organizations, moving toward a data-driven way of making decisions isn’t a life or death proposition as it was in 18th-century America. It can, however, require vigilance (track your data!) and a bit of bravery (dare to offer your estimate in probabilistic terms!).

*The “data points” of British conduct that Henry enumerated:

Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years.

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