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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Decision tools

Photo by mattwi1s0n

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This is the third post in a series of post I am writing after reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (for former post see 1, 2).

One of the sentences that struck me as the most important in Blink comes from the afterword. This is it:

The key to good decision-making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking the latter.

This sentence is built upon a number of stories in the book (and connects to other writings by Gladwell about the perils of too much information). One of the leading stories it refers to is the story of how Cook County Hospital improved the decision-making of its doctors by telling them to focus only on three pieces of information in the entire sea of details they had about patient in order to make a decision whether he was a risk for heart attack. Even though all doctors felt that this was the wrong way to go, as they were ignoring precious information, it turned out that by focusing only on three issues, doctors made much better decisions that not only saved money, but more importantly, saved lives.

I have written before about the dangers of using the information and measurements we have just because we have them. As we continue to develop in terms of technology, we will have more and more data and information. As Gladwell says in Blink:

We take it, as a given, that the more information decision makers have, the better off they are. If the specialist we are seeing says she needs to do more tests or examine us in more detail, few of us think that’s a bad idea… extra information isn’t actually an advantage at all; that, in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.

In my mind this connects perfectly with the idea of Vital Signs. This is what I wrote almost a year and a half ago:

I believe the challenge of managers in the next few years, especially in the more subtle fields that are hard to measure will be to create the right vital signs.

I am I the process of reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by the Heath brothers and one of the main concepts of the book is about scripting change. They describe the importance of making people aware of the basic decision principles to guide their specific behavior. They give example of major changes accomplished by ordinary people who harnessed the power of simplifying the decision-making. How? By creating scripted concepts that help decide what is important and what is not.

Reading Blink and Switch just strengthened my understanding of this concept. People are cognitive misers. They are not able and do not want to deal with large amounts of information. As Blink (and Switch) show, when they are faced with so much information it actually affects their judgment, usually in a negative way. The most successful people are not going to be those who can master and absorb large amounts of information. It will be those who will know how to distill this information into a few major signs that help guide decision-making. Thus, our rule as managers is to find the vital signs and make them crystal clear. We need to make sure that we are tackling the right issue. Not lack of information. Lack of decision tools.

Elad

Widespread transparency

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Photo by Arenamontanus

Everybody who ever worked in any kind of an organization has felt the same way. “What the hell are the guys up there thinking?”; “I do all the work down here and I am not sure how what I do relates to what the company does?”; “How do I make a difference?”.

Here is how Anthony Tjan from the Harvard business review blog describes it:

Here’s a test. Ask five to 20 of your employees to explain what your company’s customer value proposition is. How many different answers do you guess you’ll get? Answer: somewhere between five and 20. This is, of course, in addition to the response, “What the heck do you mean by a value proposition?”

When is the last time you thought about how much your team understands about what is your business and about what the team actually does? When I was in the Israeli Air-Force I headed training for new soldiers. I had a couple of new instructors working with me and before the course started we sat down to have a chat about what the new course is going to be like. I planned to have a short discussion of what we were generally trying to accomplish and then move on to the urgent administrative staff. But when we started the discussion I realized, after a few short questions, that was what obvious to me regarding the training, the way it is built and handled and its objectives, was not that clear to them. We ended up spending more than two hours just talking about the big pictures. After a few weeks on the job, one of my teammates came up to me and said: “you know, if we haven’t had that discussion, I would have handled a lot of my daily interactions totally differently. Thanks for that”.

I remember thinking after that about how things that are obvious to me as a manager of that team were not at all obvious to my teammates. Years later I was reminded of this story when I read about the “curse of knowledge” in the great book “made to stick”. The curse of knowledge basically means that we have problems explaining things because we already know them, which makes it hard for us to imagine how someone who does know what we know see it. This means we need to actively seek where our assumptions about the knowledge of other people are wrong.

However, I think that if we look at it from a broader managerial perceptive, it is about creating a culture of widespread transparency. It could be, as Anthony Tjan claims, that it will be about transparency in what is our value proposition It could be financial transparency that helps low level managers and employees make decision. And it could be leadership transparency. But all of these are part of the same mechanism of creating a widespread transparency. A way to engage our teammates, employees and followers and a way that allows them to make the right judgment calls and decisions. To implement strategy below the c-level strategy. In this complex but highly fast paced and fast communicated world, this kind of culture will have to be the norm.

So, what have you been doing to create a widespread transparent environment?

Elad