When asked what sort of work he did, my father used to tell the following parable.

The employees of a certain company seemed to have low morale, and the president of that company desired to raise their morale.  The president asked one of his trusted lieutenants — a man renowned for his intelligence and integrity — to suggest how this could be accomplished.

The lieutenant prepared a thorough and well-crafted questionnaire about life at the company, and every employee dutifully filled out the questionnaire, answering every question honestly, frankly, and candidly.  The questionnaire was textbook neutral (as we all know, how a question is asked can have a profound effect on the answers!) and the resulting data set was beyond reproach.

Because this is a parable, however, the data set exhibited none of the interesting noise that one usually sees.

Exactly half of the employees complained about the cafeteria, and the other half complained about the lighting in their offices.  Nobody complained about anything else.

The lieutenant quickly assembled estimates for how much it would cost to address each issue, and found that both costs were exactly the same, and each cost was exactly what the president was willing to spend to increase morale.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a parable, and I don’t want to distract the reader with details, so somehow all of these quantities are precisely the same.

At this point the lieutenant presented his results to the president, and the president decided, by flipping a coin, whether to improve the cafeteria or improve the lighting in the offices.  Or perhaps the president decided that since either choice only placated half his employees, neither was worth the price.

In either case, the decision was ill-informed, because it lacked perspective.  The lieutenant did not survey employees at other companies to establish a baseline.  What the lieutenant did not take realize is that (according to decades of data gathered by business consultants and legions of DBA students, and then carefully tabulated and interpreted by people like my father) it is simply part of the human condition to complain about the company cafeteria.  It is unusual for people to like the cafeteria, and if there’s some other issue that employees complain about as much as they complain about the cafeteria, that issue is verging on a crisis.

On the other hand, when employees complain about the lighting in their offices, it means that the lighting is terrible.  This is an unusual thing to complain about.

Given the proper perspective, it would have been obvious that the president should have had the office lighting fixed.

In short, my father’s profession was figuring out what “normal” is, which is much more subtle and complex than most people appreciate.

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The author works for a company that has recently changed its office lighting and renovated its cafeteria in ways that he thinks were ill-advised and lack perspective.


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