Business is a mystery, not a puzzle – information overload and judgment

Photo by Jorge Franganillo

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Umair Haque, a fascinating writer (which I quoted in my No More Rules! Presentation), wrote a captivating piece in HBR.org the other day. He discussed the famous Efficient Market Hypothesis (definition from Investopeida):

An investment theory that states it is impossible to “beat the market” because stock market efficiency causes existing share prices to always incorporate and reflect all relevant information. According to the EMH, stocks always trade at their fair value on stock exchanges, making it impossible for investors to either purchase undervalued stocks or sell stocks for inflated prices. As such, it should be impossible to outperform the overall market through expert stock selection or market timing, and that the only way an investor can possibly obtain higher returns is by purchasing riskier investments.

Haque, who constantly writes about the need for a new economy based on value creation instead of the old one that was consternated on creating money for itself, offers a new idea:

I’d like to advance a hypothesis. Call it the Efficient Community Hypothesis. It says: where efficient markets incorporate “all known information,” efficient communities incorporate “the best known information.” An efficient market is a tool for sorting the largest quantity of info. But an efficient community is a tool for sorting the highest quality info. On its own, the EMH is simply about informational efficiency: that prices incorporate “all known information.” Where it falls down is in terms of informational productivity: whether prices incorporate accurate, valid, and reliable information — high quality knowledge, instead of low-quality noise. Incorporating all known information doesn’t mean incorporating good information.

Haque deals with a very important point. Let’s assume for a minute that when the EMH was originally hypothesized it was correct (even though there is a debate about that). Well, there is no doubt today that the world has changed dramatically. Just think about the differences in quantities between the information that was available, let’s say, 30 years ago, and the quantities available today. There must be a law of diminishing returns at work here. At some point, the more information we put in, the less we gain from it. And sometimes when we abundance of information happens, just as Malcolm Gladwell tries to convince us in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, decisions become worse, not better.

But it is even deeper than that. The EMH assumes that information is the only thing we need in order to interpret the market. If we only have all the information, we can come with the right answer – the price. It is kind of a puzzle. Give me all the information and I will give you the answer. But the stock market represents companies that work in the real world. And the real world is, well, uncertain. And yes, it is also more uncertain then it used to be 30 years ago. Even if you do give me all the information, I still need to use judgment in order to give you an answer. And it might be right, but it might not. In an article called “Open Secrets”, that is now part of his book, What the Dog Saw, Gladwell writes:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

So what Haque rightly calls for is judgment and trust and expertise on a more common basis. Knowing that we have a lot of information, that a lot of it is irrelevant and that the future is unpredictable, we need two things. First, just like in the case of the doctors described in Blink trying to decide if a patient is a risk for a heart attack, simplify our decision making process. As Gladwell says, they are swimming in knowledge, but lacking in understanding. The simplification helps their judgment. Second, we need people with more practical wisdom, ability to infer judgment and to make decisions that accept the uncertainty.

And that second issue throws me back to my point about rules. In my presentation, No More Rules! I claim that the wide spread use of rules is killing people’s practical wisdom. It is killing their judgment. Just when we have more information than ever and when we need simple good judgment more than ever, we are creating cogs that follow automated rules and formulas that treat the world like a puzzle. Life and business, is mystery, isn’t it time we face up to it?

Elad

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