Values can cause trouble

Strong personal values are good. Right? Yes …  and they can also cause trouble.

Here’s a scenario: Respected young doctor switches two research study participants so a person she knows is in the treatment group, rather than the control group. She wants to help this person and thinks there is no harm to the study as long as no one knows about the change except her.

When colleague learns about the switch and reports it,  the doctor faces the possibility of losing her job and her husband, the senior doctor in charge of the study. (He thinks she’s crazy and  irresponsible for doing this.)

This is  fictional drama that illustrates a real challenge. It  unfolded on this season’s (2011) final episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The doctor was Meredith Grey helping Adele, wife of the Chief of Surgery, get an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s. [Small disclaimer: I happened upon this episode but did not watch all of the possibly relevant preceding episodes.]

What was she (fictionally) thinking?  Possibly … OH, NO … Adele is in the control group, she won’t be treated! I’m not supposed to know this. What can I do? She needs treatment – a chance for a normal life, not gradual disintegration of her brain. (Visualized in detail since Meredith’s mother had Alzheimer’s.) I can fix this. After all, it was random. She could have been assigned to the treatment group. It’s OK. Nobody will know.

The immediate and personal won out over the longer term goal.

A unique combination of circumstances perhaps. How might it have been different if Meredith knew it was virtually certain that someone would find out about the switch? Or if it was impossible for her to know which participants were in the treatment or control group, or their names or circumstances?

We all make decisions every day shaped by our past experiences, our values and our emotions, with a dash of information and logic mixed in. It’s human, it’s normal. When the outcomes are critical, we can help ourselves and others to make good choices.

It’s a matter of understanding the pitfalls – knowing the risks – and developing the personal or organizational guidance systems to keep us on track.


Who knows more about risk?

The Wisdom of the CrowdsIn important matters of uncertainty involving predictions we need to hear from a diverse group of people that have different perspectives, and perhaps a stake in the decision that causes them to think before offering their views.

Collectively, the diverse group is smarter than individuals. This is the core message of The Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Surowiecki provides a framework with examples of when and how the knowledge of the crowd can impact decisions positively.

This idea applies well to regulation. Why? Because regulators are generally a step or two removed from the uncertainties they need to know about. First-hand knowledge about these risks reside with the regulated parties.

As well, the sources of uncertainty in most jurisdictions are dispersed and mostly invisible until they are brought to the attention of the regulator. The collective knowledge of constituents (regulatees and individuals who are affected by what regulatees do) is far greater than the regulator. Effective new methods for capturing this knowledge will improve regulatory oversight.

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A drawing worth a thousand words

Take just ten minutes and read Drawings that will change your life by Ralph Perrine. This articulate, beautifully presented manual presents four drawings designed to help planning and collaboration with certain types of problems.

  • For establishing balance in relation to important decisions;
  • For identifying opportunities that you might miss because you’re overly focused;
  • For checking your progress and evaluating your plans for meeting an important objective;
  • For planning a path toward excellence, deciding who to emulate, and who to collaborate with, etc.

360 Degree Awareness

These drawings can help structure a discussion. More specifically, these are tools that fit well with the ‘communication and consultation’ elements of the risk management process.

Drawings that will change your life is just one of many “manifestos” that are distributed through a website called ChangeThis. The site is dedicated to distributing important ideas that can change the world. Idealistic? Yes, but regulation in the context of democratic principles is also a big idea that has and continues to change the world.

Creating the channel for continuous collaboration

The essence of the Internet is that it’s very open, decentralized and populist; a place where knowledge is democratized and mass collaboration is the source of power. It challenges organizations, institutions and systems that are just the opposite; human structures that are confidential or closed, centralized, designed for creating proprietary intellectual products, organized on authority principles, and where power is maintained by controlling knowledge.

So we’re witnessing a revolution spawned by the Internet that’s growing and morphing. There’s no stopping it and there can be no debate that the previous way of being organized and working that ruled last century was better (or worse.) It doesn’t really matter. The genie is out of the bottle and we need to understand how we’re going to adapt to the unanticipated events (risks) that will be driven by the new order of the Internet.

Right now, I believe that the stage is being set in the politics of Canada for a new set of entirely unanticipated events driven by this new way of doing things, made possible by Internet technologies. How this will affect regulators, more on that later, but consider the scenario that’s unfolding.

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