Even after co-writing "Freakonomics" and "Superfreakonomics" — fascinating, best-selling mashups of economics, sociology, applied logic and a little intuition — Stephen Dubner has no cut-and-dried answers for anyone — including ATM operators. He confessed as much at the beginning of his address to nearly 1,000 ATM industry members last week at ATMIA US 2013.
"I wish that I had magic answers and silver bullets where I could march into any industry group and say, 'Here are the five things you need to do and everything will be better,'" Dubner said. Instead, he promised to share a few of the stories that had taught him and his co-author, economist Steven Levitt, a different way to look at the world.
What he and Levitt had learned, Dubner said, was to "Think Like a Freak" (which just happens to the the title of the pair's next book, due out this October.)
To think like a freak is to observe, define, deconstruct and recontextualize the elements of a problem, Dubner told his audience in an hour-long keynote address. It is to abandon all assumptions except the one that says, "There must be a reason why," and all rejoinders except the one that says, "I don't know, but I'll find out."
To demonstrate his point, Dubner told a story about, of all things, hand sanitation in hospitals.
How to get people to do what they already know they should be doing
Ask a room full of people whether they wash their hands after visiting a restroom and a great number of them will lie, Dubner said.
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"People want to produce an answer that they think you want them to give," he said, which is why "self reporting data can be very misleading if you're basing your business on it."
For instance, in one Australian hospital, 73 percent of staff doctors self-reported that they soaped up after a trip to the wash room. But a study based on observed behavior showed that only 9 percent of them did.
At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, hospital administrators tried everything to get doctors to observe basic hand hygiene:
- A strongly worded memo produced an increase in hand-washing of exactly zero percent;
- An incentive that awarded a $10 Starbucks card to docs caught soap-handed was a huge success — until the incentive was removed.
Then an epidemiologist at the hospital came up with a perfectly absurd idea. At a lunch meeting she had each administrator — the very people who were telling others how to behave — place one hand in a petrie dish. She sent the handprinted dishes to the lab, where analysis turned up a who's-who of nefarious bacteria.
Then an IT guy at the hospital got the idea to take a photo of these bacteria-laden samples to use as screensavers on computers all over the hospital. "Literally overnight, hand hygiene rate shot up to about 100 percent," Dubner said. In fact, it worked so well that other hospitals started asking for the picture.
"And the moral of the story really is that human behavior is much harder to change than we think," Dubner said. To change people's habits you almost always have to change something in their environment, as well.
Whatever it looks like, it's definitely not "eating"
In a second example, Dubner explained how a Japanese hotdog-eating contestant became a champion not by simply stuffing himself with more food faster, but instead, by deconstructing the whole process of eating a hotdog into elements of efficient consumption:
- Separate the hotdog from the bun;
- Break the hotdog in half so it can be swallowed with one bite;
- Soak the bun in water and turn it into a "bun ball":
- Use hot water and a little oil to make the ball go down faster:
- Jump up and down while you eat.
By deconstructing the act of eating and recontextualizing it as a contest, rather than an everyday act, Takeru Kobayashi doubled the previous record in the world-famous Nathan's Coney Island Hotdog Eating Contest on July 4, 2001, eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes.
The key to Kobayashi's success (if "success" is consuming a holiday cook-out's-worth of weiners in 12 minutes) was understanding the true nature of the project before him, and calibrating his goal, not to past performance, but to desired results. Twenty-six hotdogs would've gotten Kobayashi the record — 50 got him worldwide recognition.
Throw it against the wall and see what sticks
Dubner said that Kobayashi's approach to speed-eating also works in business. That is, break down a question or problem into its most basic elements and explore it from every angle, no matter how outlandish that angle might seem.
Dubner said that many businesses mistakenly approach such experimentation in a linear way — trying one idea for six months to see if it works and, if it not, trying the next idea for six months. But he said that's not what he means by experimentation.
"Experimentation would be — let's take 100 people, give them all six hours to come up with their best idea. Take those 100 ideas, throw out the 90 worst and then take the 10 that look viable, affordable, and legal and put them all into play in some form at the same time in a random setting.
"The more technology you have, the cheaper experimentation becomes — the ATM industry is a perfect place for a lot of experimentation," he said. "It might seem very expensive and very complicated, but it's actually very cheap and fun … It's incredible to find out how people perceive your ideas."
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