Sorry for the clickbait-y post title. To be honest, I toyed with the idea of having a 15-20 word headline and then decided against it. Of course, there are lots of important factors that go into making good decisions and there’s been plenty of that written about online (including here on this very website). There is one thing, there is one piece of advice, though, that I don’t often come across when it comes to how to make good decisions. In a word — Fermi-ize. Huh? Yeah — Fermi-ize.
A few weeks ago, the superforecasters on the Nonprophets podcast were talking about the possibility that the current POTUS will be impeached. Part of this is because it’s “in the news” and partly because this is one of the forecasting questions that’s currently up on the platform. The framing of the question is important (as is the case with any decision!). The question asks when will POTUS cease to be POTUS (before inauguration day 2021, on inauguration day 2021, or after inauguration day 2021). We’ve got all the important components of a good forecasting question (i.e. falsifiability, etc.).
If you think about the different buckets to that question, you’ll notice that different things would have to happen for the question to resolve in a different bucket. For instance, some sort of untimely death would mean the answer is before inauguration day. So, would impeachment/removal. On inauguration day could mean that POTUS loses his bid for re-election. After inauguration day could mean he’s re-elected. It could also mean that there’s some sort of power struggle with the 2020 election whereby the vote is so close, that we find ourselves with some sort redux on Bush v. Gore (2000).
Circling back to the superforecasters podcast, listening to them (disclosure: I’m a superforecaster) discuss the prospect for impeachment was fascinating. And the main reason is because of how they were fermi-izing the problem. Right, I didn’t explain that earlier. Fermi is one of the scientists responsible for bringing us the nuclear reactor. You may have come across a question like, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” This kind of a question is sometimes referred to as a Fermi problem, whereby you’ll need to breakdown the question into component parts. What’s the population of Chicago. How many people live in each house (on average). How many households have a piano (on average). How often is a piano tuned (on average). Etc. Etc. That’s Fermi-izing.
So, on the episode, listening the superforecasters Fermi-ize the prospect of impeachment — it reminded me of how decisions in the C-Suite unfold. Often times, there are a lot if inbuilt assumptions in a question that might be unbeknownst to all the people sitting around the table. In fact, it’s possible that the question might even be completely wrong. Maybe the question (if we put it back in the political terms of POTUS above) being asked is, will the House vote to impeach POTUS. Many folks think that this is a “slam dunk” that the House will do that. But, what if you’re interested in whether or not POTUS will remain as POTUS. Well, then, you’re probably more interested in whether the Senate will vote to remove POTUS from office. However, even that question might be wrong. For instance, what if the House votes to impeach, and before the trial can be had in the Senate, what if POTUS resigns (!). If you’re focused on the prospects of a Senate trial, you’ll miss the possibility of a resignation. If you’re focused on the trees, you’ll miss the forest.
The key to making good decisions is asking good questions. And when it comes to answering good questions, you’ve got to breakdown the question into its component parts.