Two heads are better than one


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #63, 2013.

It’s said that every day we each make thousands of decisions. Starting from the moment we wake up: do we get out of our chariots or roll over? And then: if we decide we want to eat, what’s for brekkie, what to wear, who to talk to, what to say and just, plainly, how to react to the world around us? Decisions. Decisions. Our day is jam-packed with damned relentless decision-making. And it’s tiring.

Consider something that has come to be known as “decision fatigue”. A 2011 study of an Israeli parole board analysed more than 1,100 of their decisions, judgements that saw prisoners – a nod to The Clash here – stay or go.

The jig time version of the study goes like this: the common thread in what the parole board decided centred on timing. Forget the crimes committed, ethnic background or sentences served, the probability of parole being  approved changed with the sun – it all depended on the time of day the case was heard. The study showed that prisoners who had their cases heard early in the morning were granted parole about 70% of the time.  Those who appeared before the panel late in the day were paroled less than 10% of the time. The early bird really does get the worm. 

So what gives? Well, researchers assessed the outcome and thought the whole thing was pretty easy to understand: the parole board – the judges – showed an occupational hazard: “deciding” stuff is hard work and the more you’re asked to “decide” the weaker the quality of your “deciding”.  Welcome to “decision fatigue”.

Like it or not, one of the best parts of the Great Highland Bagpipe world is based around competition. And for that, I’ve always been interested in how judgements related to merit come to be. Put another way, how fair is our judging set up? What’s the best way for our piping and pipe band judges to come to the best decision-making possible?   

Well, I don’t have an elegant answer to lay out before you today. But I do know we can learn from experts in worlds beyond bagpipes.

The solo piping world has had it figured out for a long time: whenever possible multiple judges are hired to work together to build the best result. Our finest competitions have panels of judges. And while creating a consulting panel of judges may not improve the problem of decision fatigue, the two or three person bench absolutely supports the notion that two heads are better than one. In the solo set-up our experts work together, exchange insight and perspective, and, more often than not, land a quality outcome.  

I’ve judged many solo competitions on my own and can tell you, first hand, that the mind wanders. With distractions aplenty, the truth of the judge left to his own devices – or, more properly, faculties – sees easily and frequently made mistakes, or, as old John Wilson (Edinburgh/Toronto) might say, “blunders” – a great old word. In a panel judge set-up, the problem of second-guessing and judging while writing real-time notes is largely removed. As in a team, strengths are bolstered and weaknesses augmented.

There’s many a time where I wished for an instant replay. Did she play that third part three times? Did he leave out that cadence in the middle of line two? Problem solved if, as in some professional sports, we could dial in to an instant replay and confirm truth. So, I say, a consulting panel of judges does help – our sort of old-school instant replay.   

A September 2000 work by Princeton University’s National Bureau of Economic Research, (An experimental analysis of group vs. individual decision-making) found that not only do groups make better decisions but they’re also no slower than individuals in processing those decisions. The five-person group sample size made me immediately think of our pipe band context.

The study confirms what the solo piping world has known forever: two heads are, indeed, better than one.  If true then maybe there’s an opportunity to change things up in the pipe band world. 

I know that a good while ago the RSPBA checked out the consulting way of judging.  And, until a few months ago, Ontario pipe bands saw their judges draw on a simple framework where consulting was enabled. At the end of each contest a few minutes was taken and, facilitated by the ensemble judge, assessments were shared and thoughts exchanged. Judges were allowed to change their result – or, more accurately said – refocus their perspective, to ensure an accurate, overall view of performance, and the fairest outcome. While I’m still a playing part of the competitive pipe band game, I’ve had the opportunity to experience pipe band consultation. It works a treat.

It’s a breath of fresh air, if not a relief, at the end of a long contest to be encouraged to voice your findings and have a listen to how your colleagues heard it. I’ve heard cynics say the process supports axe-grinding, bad politics and suffocation by blow-hards, aka “strong personalities”.  Well, that’s just not true. 

Modern pipe bands are sophisticated musical beasts: assessing rhythm, harmony, melody and all that goes in to its production is brutally difficult (and never let anyone tell you anything different). The pipe band take up a lot of geography these days, what happens on one side of the band might not be heard on the other – and that’s only one problem for anyone interested in accurate and fair assessment.

It has to be said that consultative judging is not about group decision-making, the kind the Princeton guys found so attractive. In fact, it’s far less difficult than group decision-making. Consultative judging in a pipe band context simply sees a process happen where everyone’s views are exchanged and considered. Judges can use this information to inform their result – or not.

The big hair, big toothed American management guru, Tony Robbins, provides great guidance, perfect for any consulting judge: “Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.”

So there you have it: Two heads are better than one.  And better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.