Moneyball, UPS Delivery, and the Magic of Better
Recently I watched the movie Moneyball, and thought about what it might mean for quantitatively-minded people. (Note: For the purpose of simplicity, I’ll temporarily pair together quantitatively-minded and operations research, although not everyone in one group would claim membership in the other). I watched it partly in the hope that a movie aimed at a mass audience would do a good job of explaining what it is “quants” do.
Given my own previous efforts in explanation, such a movie was sorely needed. For example, as a young PhD student, I still recall trying to tell my friend Rachel what it was I was getting myself into. She listened rather soberly to my detailed explanation of efficiency and improved logistics and then, with a twinkle in her eye, remarked “Oh, so you’re like a UPS deliveryman?” Clearly, my attempt to explain Operations Research had failed.
The movie did something better for me, though, than explain quantitative thinking. Midway through, Brad Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, asks Paul Brand, his assistant, if a certain trade is a good idea. Paul Brand, as I recall, worries that the trade will be difficult to explain to people. Then, the movie takes a rather odd turn. Billy Beane says not to worry about explaining. He instead asks Paul if he believes that the trade is a good one, and tells him something to the effect that if something is good, it does not need to be explained. Billy Beane’s reasoning, if applied to operations research, adds an intriguing flair to some old issues.
First, let’s consider the idea of something being so good it doesn’t need to be explained. So often, to gain respect for our field (and ourselves), we want to explain operations in simpler terms. We often are process-oriented in operations, so we want to explain the process. But in trying to prove operations, perhaps we instead should find ways to sharply focus on outcomes. Admittedly, perhaps our knowledge of randomness in outcomes restrains our ability to properly sell results. And sometimes it’s a little difficult to find “Before” and “After” shots of how operations improved things. The simplicity of winning and losing that sports offers seems enviable to many of us trying to prove the worth of operations in less distinct fields. But perhaps we should focus most on those areas where operations techniques defy and improve upon conventional wisdom, just as Billy Beane does in the movie. I believe the true problem is not proving the value of operations research, but proving that operations research is irreplaceable.
Second, consider what Billy Beane says about believing in one’s theories. Stretching this logic further, I wonder what would happen if, instead of “The Science of Better,” we referred to operations as “The Magic of Better?” I define magic very narrowly here, in the sense that operations properly applied often leads to surprising, unpredictable results. The audience doesn’t need to know how those results are attained. They just need to enjoy those results for the show to be a success. It’s enough that the magician, err, operations person know how it works.
I am making this suggestion mostly to generate conversation. I doubt that most operations professionals would enjoy being called magicians! But if you will, have patience with this little thought experiment. Would it help to gain more appreciation for quantitative techniques if we did so? Aren’t there times where operations itself seems rather magical?
We’ve all had that moment of proving a concept or finding an answer where we gasped a little as the pieces fell into place and our intuition was more rapid than our logic. This beauty of operations can be difficult to admit, but perhaps more fully embracing these qualities would be beneficial. Despite stereotypes that quantitative approaches are cold and clinical, there can be much warmth and beauty in these arts. The very best teachers and professionals I have worked with are the ones who found ways to translate this beauty across their specialty to others.
No, I don’t think INFORMS would ever support a “The Magic of Better” campaign, nor should they. But, how can you better translate the magic of your field so that others can enjoy the tricks you perform?