Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ranadivé and Maney, The Two-Second Advantage

The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future—Just Enough (Crown Business, 2011) by Vivek Ranadivé and Kevin Maney explores how our brains predict future patterns and what this might mean for predictive software technology. Here I’ll limit myself to a couple of insights about our predictive abilities. Yes, you may have read most of this before, but it bears repeating.

The hero of the book is Wayne Gretzky, the 170-pound “weakling” who developed “an exquisite hockey brain.” I assume you know the famous line: “he doesn’t skate to where the puck is—he skates to where it’s going to be. Commentators would often say that Gretzky seemed to be two seconds ahead of everyone else.” (p. 5)

In fact, the authors claim, “most successful people are really good at making very accurate predictions—usually about some particular activity—just a little faster and better than everyone else.” (p. 8) How do people develop predictive skills? Some people are born with them, others acquire them through extensive deliberative practice.

Talented people have “an unusual ability to focus the brain’s resources on one task. … They seem to start up their mental models, quiet everything else, and open channels between regions of the brain. They run their minds so efficiently that time seems to slow down, possibly because they’re actually perceiving the world faster than the rest of us—which helps them get their predictions out ahead of the rest of us.” (p. 70)

Talented people also have a heightened sensitivity to weak signals, even to missing signals. They “make predictions based on a lack of events. This means they catch the notes that didn’t get played because someone in the orchestra missed them or recognize the deal that didn’t happen or the move an opponent didn’t make. It’s much more subtle than processing the things that do happen and takes a greater level of knowledge and a higher level of thinking.” (p. 46)

Let me conclude with a takeaway that applies to business management. Ben Horowitz, whose credentials go all the way back to being an “unheralded” product strategist at Netscape and who with his old Netscape boss launched the venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz in 2009, believes that “there are two types of people in the top ranks of companies:” ones and twos. “Ones are predictive. Twos have to rely on mountains of data to figure out what they think. Ones should be CEOs, and twos should not.” (p. 24) Steve Jobs, of course, was the quintessential one; Steve Ballmer is a two.

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