Alphabet Soup: Framing cognition


Alphabet soup is an exercise which focuses students to think about the managerial decision process, and the limits to how we analyze complex problems. The key points are that managers deal with complex problems, and often use cognitive frameworks to help constrain the problems. These frameworks tell the managers what information is needed; however, unless the managers understand that all frameworks have limitations, these frameworks can fall trap to cognitive biases.

Preparation:

  1. Write on the board: “Please do not speak unless called upon”
  2. Write on the board: “_any”
  3. Ask the class to raise their hands when they have thought of a single letter which makes “_any” into a word.
  4. Call on a student which raised their hand early. Ask him or her to say the word. Usually, most will say “m” for “many”, although “z” for “zany” is in some dictionaries.
  5. Now, repeat the “Please do not speak unless called upon” request.
  6. Write on the board: “_eny”
  7. Again, ask the students to raise their hands when they have thought of a single letter which makes “_eny” into a word.
  8. Wait a while then look at a student which has not raised their hand. Ask if the student has a letter, but don’t tell you what the letter is. If the student does not have a letter, then ask how they are trying to solve this “complex” problem. The student may either be trying letters at random (an unstructured solution) or using the alphabet.
  9. Suggest the alphabet as a way of framing this problem. Go through the alphabet with the student, having the student say the word after you say the alphabet (a, any, b, beny …). Make sure you go to at least “m”, and that you do “d” rather quickly.
  10. After going trying the alphabet, ask a student which raised his/her hand what letter they came up with. After they say “d” for “deny”, look at the student which said “Denny”. Ask the student why she/he said “Denny” rather than “deny”—is it possible she/he likes the food at this restaurant?
  11. Make the point of the exercise.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it better to use a framework or approach a problem using brain storming (random idea generation)?
  2. What are the advantages of a random approach to problem solving? What are the disadvantages?
  3. Why did the majority of the class  pronounce “deny” as “Denny”? How did the “many” example set-up this cognitive bias?
  4. Is the alphabet a flawed tool (framework)? Or is it that we forgot that a limit to the alphabet is that many letters have different sounds and pronunciations?
  5. What lessons  does this exercise have what lessons does this exercise have for a manager is faced with a complex problem?

Key Lecture Points

  1. This is a class which uses tools or frameworks to foster analysis of complex problems.
  2. Every tool or framework is designed to solve certain types of problems, and has limits to their usefulness. These tools make certain assumptions. Similar to a road map, in order to use these tools certain details have to be omitted from the problem in order for us to comprehend (bounded rationality) the problem.
  3. The manager/student must know the limits to the tools or frameworks that they use.
  4. Finally, this exercise starts a discussion on typical managerial biases (e.g., using an inappropriate analogy, prior hypothesis, escalating commitment, representativeness, illusion of control, allowing framing to bias the decision, overemphasizing selected data) and ways to lessen the impact of these biases (e.g., using frameworks—but know their limits, devil’s advocate, use multiple frameworks, consider improbable or unpopular assumptions, re-evaluate your decisions and analyses over time).

Contributed by Don Hatfield

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