FOUR LAWS OF ADVICE
Learning to give good advice is so important to technologists that special laws of advice have been developed. The first of these is often stated as follows: "The correct advice is the desired advice." However, this form of the law leaves ambiguous whether the recipient wants correct advice or whether the desired advice is by definition the correct advice. A much clearer and completely unambiguous statement is provided by the following version of the First Law of Advice:
The correct advice to give is the advice that is desired.
A classic example of good advice was given to the mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1920. A major city highway, built on the side of a hill, began sliding, a piece at a time, onto railroad tracks below. With every heavy rain, more mud and parts of the road washed down, causing many of the railroad tracks to be unusable. Efforts to remove the mud to keep all tracks operable had been too slow following some of the more massive mud slides.
Several solutions were offered by local engineering and construction firms and by concerned citizens. One was to pave the entire side of the hill to prevent erosion. Another was to build a metal structure to support the road and protect the tracks. All the suggestions would have been quite expensive, causing thoughtful people to wonder how or if the city could pay for the necessary work. Furthermore, no one knew if any of the proposed ideas would solve the problem.
AN EXPERT IS CALLED
The mayor knew he needed good advice. Ultimately, he hired G. W. Goethals as a consultant. Goethals had served as chief engineer for the Panama Canal and had considerable experience with landslides. His expertise was evident not only in his experience, but also in his consulting fee of $1,000 per day - an extraordinary sum at that time.
After only one day of study, Goethals was prepared with his advice and with his bill. His advice to the city was simple: "Let it slide."
The opposition party and one of the newspapers made sport of the city administration for paying so much for this advice. The mayor rightly argued that it was a small price to pay to learn that none of the more expensive proposals would work. The mayor chose to follow this most economical advice and permitted the hill to slide.
Whether technically right or wrong, the consultant's advice was the desired advice. It did not involve construction expenses. Furthermore, any other solution would have been under constant attack from engineering and construction firms whose "solutions" had been rejected in favor of the winning contractor. The desired advice was clearly the correct advice.
This classic example also stands up well in terms of the Second Law of Advice:
The desired advice is revealed by the structure of the organization, not by the structure of the technology.
And it also agrees with the Third Law of Advice:
Simple advice is the best advice.
Another classic example of advice that obeys all three laws was the advice given to the vice president of a petroleum company during the 1920s. The company had discovered a major oil deposit of high quality that could be refined economically into gasoline and other products. There was only one problem. The resultant gasoline had a greenish tint. Because all gasoline at that time was clear, like water, the marketing group believed there would be considerable customer resistance to an impure-looking gasoline.
The production manager submitted his proposal for solving the problem. It called for modernization of the refinery. The company's chief chemist objected on the grounds that there was no proof that refinery modifications would result in a better product. Removing the greenish tint was a difficult chemical problem that had defied every attempt at a solution. The chief chemist, therefore, recommended an expanded research program.
FOR ADVICE, GO OUTSIDE
Rather than adopting either solution, the vice president wisely turned to an outside consultant for advice. The consultant was a chemical engineer of good reputation in academic circles, who had consulted before in the petroleum industry.
He listened to the proposal of the chief chemist and then to that of the production manager. He talked to engineers and managers at the refinery and to chemists in the laboratory. Then he returned to the university for further study. If he were to recommend more experimental work, the chief chemist would be pleased. On the other hand, a recommendation to modernize the refinery was the desired advice of the production manager.
The important thing for the consultant, however, was to determine what advice was desired by the vice president. The vice president did not want to be responsible for choosing either of the proposals already presented. He wanted to avoid responsibility for any decision that would appear to favor either of his subordinates. If such a decision had to be made, it would be best to attribute the decision to an outsider. This, the consultant discerned, was the real reason why he was hired. Even better for the vice president would be a totally different solution that played no favorites.
After several weeks of additional work, the consultant was ready with a uniquely neutral recommendation - one that required neither research work nor modernization of the refinery. His advice to the vice president was simple: "Advertise the color."
The marketing success of the greenish gasoline and the fact that most gasoline is now artificially colored demonstrate once again that the advice found by studying the structure of the organization - not the structure of technology - is the desired advice. It also substantiates the Third Law. Indeed, simple advice is the best advice.