When it comes to Staffing World Conference keynote speakers, the American Staffing Association spares no expense. They'll trot out the big names faster than the Yankees sign free agents, the only difference being that these speakers actually perform!

From last years heart-warming message by Manchester Bidwell President and CEO Bill Strickland about bridging the skills gap with high-risk young people to 2013 and artist Erik Wahl's stunning live (yes live...he stood there and actually painted several portraits while we all watched in awe) visual reminders to "Unthink" the way we view staffing challenges, Staffing World's kickoff keynotes have been chock-full of inspirational and informative information meant to get our creative juices flowing and whet our appetite for more.

As expected, this year was no different. Yesterday, we were treated to a presentation by Stephen J. Dubner, award-winning journalist, TV and radio personality and best-selling co-author (with Steven Levitt) of Freakonomics, Superfeakonomics, and Think Like A Freak.

As he does in his books, Dubner covers unique territory, unconventional ways to think and problem-solve in the business world. His speaking style is visual and compelling, full of stories and real-life examples that, while they may not relate directly to staffing, can help the engaged listener form principles that can be applied to solve problems no matter what business you're in.

After an interesting anecdote about how a staffing gig with Aubrey Thomas Temporaries in New York helped propel him to his own career, Dubner launched into two critical problem-solving keys - 1.) Finding good data and, 2.) Finding incentives that explain why people do what they do. Hard data, after all, tells us what's going on in the world. According to Dubner, it's impossible to understand the world well without good data.

Take, for example, the fact that most turkeys in the US are bred through artificial insemination, a fact that raised Dubner's eyebrows and, being an academic who basically thinks for a living, made him want to explore the issue further. After all, chickens and other farm animals typically do their procreation old-school, so why are turkeys different?

Turns out, since most US consumers prefer turkey breast meat, the fact that turkeys have been bred to have large breasts renders them completely unable to procreate on their own - hence, the need for artificial insemination. Thus, a seemingly obscure data point explains an interesting fact about consumer behavior which, in a way, affects the very circle of life.

Dubner then delved into the differences between what people say and what they actually do, or displayed versus revealed preferences, by asking the audience to raise their hand if they sometimes skip washing hands after a bathroom trip. Not surprisingly, among the 2,000 or so attendees, not a single raised hand could be found.

And yet, we know some people do skip this sanitary step. In fact, one observational study found that 30% of men didn't wash their hands at all after using the restroom. This is the difference, of course, in the circumstances under which data is gathered. If we relied on the simple hands-up question and didn't take into account the fact that people would generally never admit something like that in public, we might incorrectly assume that 100% of people washed their hands.

People, especially more intelligent people, generally seek out data that affirms what we already want to believe. The lesson here is, when we go to make a decision, actually "go to the bathroom" and seek out the real, hard, data.

Dubner drove home his point by citing the hand-washing problem experienced in medical facilities across the country. As smart as doctors are, they are apparently the world's worst when it comes to washing their hands before and after patient visits (yeah, this is a scary thought!). Administrators tried everything, from memos to giving out $10 Starbucks cards, but nothing really changed that is until one of them decided to stick his hand in a petri dish and post a picture of the disgusting results on every screen saver. Education and knowledge and even the carrot / stick approach didn't do any good, but that picture on the screen saver, that did wonders. Who knew?

That's the thing with trying to predict what will motivate employees to do what you want them do do - you never really know until you try and try again.

Dubner ended with an example of Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, who redefined the sport by thinking outside the box and coming up with an entirely different approach, using it to not only beat, but mercilessly smash the previous world record. Instead of trying to figure out how he could eat a gazillion hot dogs, he pondered on how he could make one single hot dog faster to eat.

The first takeaway here is that when we are confronted with a problem, redefine it without merely focusing, as humans tend to do, on the part that bothers us. For example, world hunger is a problem and we might think upon first glance that better farming methods is the solution,  except we already have those. Truth is, we could feed the world and more with no problems if there were no dysfunctional, oppressive governments. So, what's the real problem?

The second lesson we can learn from Kobayashi is the way he dealt with the previous record, by paying absolutely no attention to that number. Mental barriers, after all, are powerful, even if they aren't entirely real.

I'll let you ponder on how these principles can apply to some of the everyday challenges you face in your particular staffing niche. It was an engaging presentation that did jump around a bit but truly aimed to give the audience some tools to, like Dubner does for a living, think. He even answered one questioner with the encouragement for all of us to set aside a period of time during the day to do absolutely nothing else. Thinking, as Dubner would say, "like a freak" is, after all, what it takes to solve the most difficult problems in business as well as in life.