Things That Go Fud…(Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)

Peter MerrittFunLeave a Comment

This item involves an illustration of some of the exaggerated and warped ‘group-think’ which was engendered by the famous V2 missile, the first man-made object into space. Whilst much of Jones’s comments in the article concern the missile, try to think of it in our terms as the next, fab solution/fad… As always, I am indebted to my colleagues both here and in the US professional gaming community for the inspiration and basis of this article.

Wishful nightmares

One of the key questions Jones and his colleagues struggled with in the early days of little hard facts was the size of the rocket and therefore the rocket’s possible warhead. The experts’ estimates were at times rashly speculative (for which Jones excoriated them—a subject for another post). This was quite apart from the other experts who denied the very existence of the rocket – because they couldn’t build one!

Frustrated with the variation in the intelligence reports and experts’ suppositions, Jones decided to filter the available reports using a single touchstone: if a report mentioned liquid oxygen, he would consider it valid and tentatively accept that report’s deductions regarding weight. This reduced the huge population of reports to just five. From these five, Jones concluded that the weight of the rocket was around 12 tons, and the weight of the warhead around one (very close to the real numbers, as it turned out).

The real enemy (i.e. the dept across the hall)

Of course, the experts chided him for these seemingly low estimates. One of Jones’ allies even warned him that his detractors were waiting to pounce on Jones for a misstep, and many felt this was finally the opportunity – a perfect example of large organizations in which the objectives of individuals are actually harmful to the parent body as a whole!

As the British began to, um, ‘acquire’ rockets and rocket parts from the Germans, Jones was vindicated. He notes, however, how the rocket FUD had seized experts and leaders alike:

“The arguments in Whitehall concerning the weight of the rocket lasted throughout July and well into August. Herbert Morrison was near panic: on 27th July he was wanting the War Cabinet to plan immediately for the evacuation of a million people from London …”

Jones does acknowledge the psychological power of the rocket:

“One of the greatest realizations of human power is the ability to destroy at a distance, and the Gods would call down their thunderbolts on all who displease the. Perhaps we may be permitted to express a slight envy of their ability, if not to destroy their victims, at least to raise one of the biggest scares in history by virtue of the inverted romance with which those victims regard the Rocket.”

As always, he also seasons his observation with a dose of reality, which is just as pertinent across many fields today:

“I suspected that Hitler had been carried away by the romance of the idea of a rocket, just as our own politicians had been carried away by its threat: for some psychological reason they seemed far more frightened by one ton of explosive delivered by rocket than by five tons delivered by aircraft …”

So, what the FUD is in it for us?

Just like the leaders in WW2 we seem far more frightened by a tiny handful of suicide hijackers than by thousands of drunk drivers, or by once-an-eon meteors than heart disease. Cognitive scientists and risk experts have long recognized our inability as a species not only to estimate but also rank risks. Any innate ability we do possess is easily distorted by fear. In many ways, we are creatures of fear. Fear often motivates our individual actions and, at times, even our national agenda – let alone the poor clients. So a good consultant should perhaps:

  • Beware stories of ‘ IT Armageddon’ without evidence to support it. The Y2K panic grew from useful observations affecting a few key areas into a giant, self-perpetuating sub-industry. Lucrative, to be sure, but blown out of all proportion;
  • Beware ‘solution creep’ which spends the first 90% of any project resource on addressing the boring, mundane (actual) requirements, then another 90% to address some theoretical problem or use of some fab new technique/tool which a bit more actual analysis of operational facts (perhaps by asking the users) would dismiss as if not impossible, then perhaps simply unnecessar;
  • Finally, recognize that we are not immune to FUD. The seasoned consultant recognizes it for what it is and manages it rationally – and should protect clients from those (within and without) who may seek to exploit it.