TEDxBoston Adventures

  • Decision Research Lab at Harvard
    Decision Research Lab at Harvard Can the capability of a team be dramatically improved by the experience of effective decision making? July 15 Decision Science Lab, Harvard Square

    Located at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, an innovative lab is creating a revolution in how decision making is studied and extended in many fields of use. Get an inside look at how research into behavior is enabled by state-of-the-art systems that measure behavior together with a person’s physiological signals such as heart rhythms, skin sensitivity, and eye tracking. In the context of local and global issues of vital importance, participate in a hands-on study examining how people work in teams to make decisions. Following a tour of the lab and introduction to the field of decision science, get first-hand experience in learning how people’s behavior can make or break the effectiveness of decisions.  Attendees will gain knowledge of the latest thinking on decision science and how this self-knowledge can be used in their own personal lives and in the organizations where they work.

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Two groups of approximately 15 Adventurers gathered at Harvard University’s Decision Science Laboratory to hear Ph.D. candidate Ethan Bernstein talk about his research on group decision making. Ethan completed degrees in law and business administration at Harvard before working as a consultant for several years. While consulting, he found questions he wanted to answer which could not be investigated in the consulting world.

Ethan set out to understand what happens when you rewire groups after having pulled everything apart as a consultant, and to help him answer his questions, he found mentors in Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. An article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Davis, Eisenhardt, and Bingham entitled “Optimal Structure, Market Dynamism, and the Strategy of Simple Rules” was the impetus for much of the research Ethan has been conducting. Ultimately, he wants to know whether we have the right level of connectivity in the groups we form in the workplace.

This TEDx Boston Adventure provided attendees with the opportunity to experience cutting edge technology used to study groups in ways that were previously impossible. The Executive Director of the lab, Mark Eddington, explained that his facility brings together emotional, neuroendocrine, and neuropsychological information to gain insight into organizational behavior and individual decision making. Students and faculty from across all areas of the university make use of the lab’s unique capabilities to collect a wide range of data in a controlled environment. 

After a brief introduction from Ethan, participants were divided into teams of four and seated at individual stations where they watched a video introduction which explained how the simulation would take place. Then students were able to experience two modules of the simulation in which they received and shared information via email and/or via video and audio. The goal was to figure out the precise date, time, and location of a pending terrorist attack.

 After the simulation, Ethan shared the much-awaited correct answer with the group. He also shared more information about his research into group structures such as hierarchy, caveman, rewired cave, and lattice. Ethan is conducting this simulation research for the Department of Defense to help them better understand whether a distributed network structure is better at searching and solving problems.

Ethan is interested in what he calls a transparency paradox. He spent last summer in China with three Chinese-born Harvard undergraduate students who were planted to work in the second largest cell phone factory in the world. He measured 44 different metrics over the summer and found some quite interesting results after giving workers privacy by placing a curtain around their workspace. Production levels spiked, and workers gave three reasons for this when interviewed after the fact:

  1. They could tweak the line without permission.
  2. They could experiment without justifying why they were doing so.
  3. There were no distractions. They could just get their work done.

These factory employees worked more productively when managers were not watching, and this goes completely against the generally accepted idea that transparency in the workplace increases productivity. 

TEDx Boston Adventurers were very lucky to spend the evening with Ethan on his last day at the Decision Science Lab before moving into his new position as Deputy Assistant Director at the
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, DC. He invited participants to continue thinking about his research and to play with the ideas. He would like to hear from those who apply some of his ideas and would be particularly interested in hearing about any anomalies in the results.