14.10.08

We’re all experts…

I had to take a commercial flight yesterday morning. As is usually the case, I was amused by the latest changes in the TSA’s security theater.

For those readers who have not traveled in the US recently, I will remind you that prior to entering the terminal travelers have to go through security screening. To be allowed into the terminal, you have to:

  • present photo ID and boarding pass
  • resent your carry-on luggage to be x-rayed
  •  remove your shoes and any coat you may be wearing
  • place them on a flat bin to be x-rayed
  • take your computer out so it can be x-rayed by itself
  • remove any liquids such as shampoo or toothpaste from your luggage
  •  ensure said liquids are in containers no larger than 3 ounces by volume
  •  ensure that the containers of liquid are in a one quart clear plastic zip-lock bag
  • walk through the metal detector while carrying your boarding pass

As Security Theater goes, it’s actually not that bad. I've had more intrusive security checks in Asia, and I've had more thorough scanning for possible weapons or explosives in both Brussels and Paris. But it is a lot to ask people to get right.

That list of procedures places a lot of expectation on the traveler. And people mostly get it wrong and gum up the works.  If you remember any of my recent posts about checklists, this is a set of complex high-expectation tasks.

The TSA clearly had the bright idea of segregating frequent travelers from neophytes, so the “frequent traveler” line would work like the express lane in grocery stores… you know, 14 items or fewer, cash only. 

But, the way it was implemented was laughable and made matters worse. And it played into a facet of human nature that frequently hurts those of us involved in managing offshore partnerships or teams. The implementation was this:

At one end of the terminal, there was a sign stating that there were three lines prior to the screening. One was for novice travelers.  One was for experienced travelers. One was for expert travelers.  You had to work your way through a maze of rope barriers for each line, so you couldn't really tell which line was shorter. So everyone picked according to how well they thought they knew the TSA regulations.

Once I got deep into the maze, I could tell that I picked badly.

There were about 150 people in the “expert” line. There were about 50 people in the line for “experienced” travelers. There were two families, seven people total, skipping to the front of the “novice” line and going through their own private. If you were smart, you would have selected that line. But no one did.

Almost everyone asserted that they were experts.  And as a result, all the self-proclaimed experts had to stand in line for 45 minutes waiting to get to the screening tables.

This efficiency effort failed because of a fascinating facet of human nature that inflates our assessment of our own skills. 

I have run “self-assessment” programs with engineering teams and people usually treat it as an affirmation of their aspirations rather than a true and honest assessment of their capabilities. And people will very rarely publicly admit that they are novices at anything.

So, the TSA should clearly try to find a better way to select for their express lane. Maybe they could select by number of bags and get the desired effect of sorting out people who are likely to forget some of the requirements I noted above.

But more interestingly, the object lesson in this is that you should find a better method than self-assessment when analyzing your team’s expertise. Because clearly, we’re all experts.

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