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Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein: Behavioural Economics

Arguably, behavioural economics is Richard Thaler’s baby. And an important baby it is too, being part of an essential late twentieth century trend. At last, economists – spurred on by psychologists and social scientists, stopped seeing people as ‘rational units of intelligent decision making’ and started seeing us as part rational and part irrational bundles of ideas, knowledge, feelings, desires and biases.

It is with these filters, rather than pure rationality, that we make decisions. And that insight was an essential correction to classical economics. It won the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize in economics. His collaborator and mentee, economist Richard Thaler, then led the development of the ideas.

Writing with University of Chicago colleague, Cass Sunstein, they together produced the massive selling book, Nudge. But why is co-authorship enough to justify Sunstein’s place in a management thinker pair, when Thaler led the charge on behavioural economics? The answer lies in Sunstein’s contribution: he’s a constitutional and administrative lawyer with a strong interest in social policy. His thinking helped bring behavioural insights out of the classroom, ad agency, and boardroom, and into public policy.

It’s not just in the supermarket that we get nudged to buy stuff, but when we interact with Government too. And between them, Thaler and Sunstein’s conception of liberal paternalism inspired a number of benign behaviour changes, with no whiff of compulsion. Their ideas were picked up by governments all over the world, including the US, where Sunstein (a former colleague) served in Barack Obama’s administration, and here in the UK, where Prime Minister David Cameron established a Nudge Unit within Government.

Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein
Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein

Richard Thaler

Richard Thaler was born in 1945 in New Jersey. He studied at Case Western Reserve University, gaining his BA in 1967. From there, he went to the University of Rochester, for his MA (1970) and PhD (1974).

In his PhD, Thaler started the work that still occupies him today, investigating the economic value of a life. What he found was a huge disparity in people’s evaluation of the worth of one week of their life. When asked to put a value on a week lost, or on a week gained, people needed a high payment to be prepared to give up a week of life. Yet they would be prepared to pay far less to gain an extra week.

This imbalance is, of course, irrational. And that interested psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They researched all sorts of biases and shortcuts in our thinking. Thaler became a long term collaborator with the pair.

Thaler stayed in the academic world, holding teaching and research positions at many institutions. His permanent academic homes were the Universities of Rochester (1974-8), Cornell (1978-95) and then Chicago, from 1995 to the present day. It was at Chicago that Thaler met Cass Sunstein.

Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein was born in Massachusetts, in 1954. He gained his BA at Harvard College in 1975 and his JD from Harvard law School in 1978. Before returning to academia, Sunstein clerked for justices in the Massachusetts and US Supreme Courts, and served in the Justice department from 1980-1981.

In 1981, he became an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, becoming a full Professor in 1985. He remained at Chicago until 2008, when he formally moved to a post at Harvard Law School. However, having become friends with another Chicago Law School professor, Barack Obama, he headed up the Whitehouse Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012.

Behavioural Economics

In 2008, after working together on the ideas in the book for five years, and having known each other for ten, Thaler and Sunstein published a best-selling book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. This brought the ideas of behavioural economics to a wide audience, and introduced many of us to the term ‘choice architecture’.

Choice Architecture

Choice architecture is a beautifully simple idea. By framing choices in a certain way, we can make it easier – physically, cognitively, psychologically – for people to make one choice rather than another. It’s how supermarkets channel customers and how governments secure compliance.

Choice architects study the heuristics people use to make decisions. These are the mental shortcuts we apply, that save us from having to think too carefully, expend too much effort, and take time over mundane choices. Except these heuristics effectively hard-wire biases into the way we make decisions. These are the biases that choice architects can exploit.

Nudges

A ‘Nudge’ is simply a selection of how to frame (or architect) a choice, so that people can more easily make a choice that will satisfy them. Setting up nudges that satisfy you, at the cost of the chooser is manipulation. If you can avoid forcing your outcomes upon anyone, but make it easy for them to make a choice that suits them, Thaler and Sunstein refer to this as ‘libertarian paternalism’.

The tools that choice architects use are:

  • Setting the right defaults, so the easy choice is the best one
  • Anticipating errors, and therefore making correct behaviour easier
  • Setting up complex choices to highlight the right ones
  • Creating positive incentives for beneficial behaviour

The Behavioural Economics Context

Choice architecture is a subset of behavioural economics. This is the study of how real humans (not the artificial idealised, wholly-rational ‘econs’ of earlier economic theory) behave. Given economic choices, we are not wholly rational. This distorts markets and creates dynamics that do not conform to rational economic theory. This may seem like an obvious observation, but to economists through most of the twentieth century, it was not obvious at all. Year after year, new models and theories worn prestigious prizes. All were based on the myth of the ‘rational actor’.

Now, we know for sure that  this rational actor is an ideal at best and a mythical creature at worst, we can start to do messier, but more realistic economics. That’s behavioural economics or, as Richard Thaler points out, Behavioral Economics: ‘why do the British need a superfluous u?‘, he asks. Because we are not rational, I suppose.

Richard Thaler on Nudge

A lot of great content, though edited with some disconcerting cuts.

 

 

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Chip Heath & Dan Heath: Made to Stick

Chip and Dan Heath have a writing style that turns important ideas into simple formulations, and illustrates them with compelling case studies. Their three books (to date) are all best-sellers and each is well-worth reading for any manager, professional, or entrepreneur.

Of the three, the first is not only the one that made their name, but the one that, for me, has the stickiest ideas: Made to Stick.

Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Chip Heath

Chip Heath is a graduate of Texas A&M University where he studied Industrial Engineering. He went on to do a PhD in psychology at Stanford University. He is there today, as Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Graduate School of Business, having also held academic posts at The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (1991 to 97) and the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University (1997-2000).

Dan Heath

Dan Heath has a BA from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He has been a researcher for the Harvard Business School and also co-founded an innovative academic publisher, Thinkwell, whch provides school level textbooks. He now works at Duke University, as a Senior Fellow at The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE), where he also founded the Change Academy.

The Heath Brothers’ Books

Chip and Dan Heath have written three books together:

Each of them describes a series of steps for being effective in doing something – communicating ideas, making change, and taking decisions. I strongly recommend you to read these books – I have gained a lot from each of them. Here, all I’ll do is summarise the main content.

Made to Stick

Why is it that some ideas circulate easily? People like to share them and, when they do, the ideas are memorable, compelling and soon become pervasive. They seem to be almost made to stick.

If we can understand the answer, perhaps we can also make our own ideas sticky. This is the substance of the Heath’s ideas, which they present in a handy acronym: SUCCESs.

Simple: We need to simplify our ideas by whittling away every superfluous detail to find their core, which we can then communicate to others.

Unexpected: One way to get attention is with surprise, and then we can hold that attention by stimulating curiosity.

Concrete: Real stories and examples make our ideas solid. Abstract theory is the enemy of engagement with your ideas.

Credible: People need to believe your idea for it to stick, which means giving them examples they can relate to, demonstrating your authority, and providing ways they can access proof for themselves.

Emotional: We make choices and remember ideas, when they trigger powerful emotions, so you need to demonstrate what’s in it for your audience, in terms of self-interest and emotional payback.

Stories: We are story-telling creatures, and we use stories to guide us in how to respond to situations. They make things real and inspire us.

Switch

One of the key roles for managers is to make changes in our organisations. But it is fiendishly difficult. The Heaths argue that the reason is a conflict that’s built into our brains, between our rational mind and our emotional mind. This idea will be familiar to readers of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow.

The Heaths use the metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The elephant is the powerful emotional aspect of our brain, which can easily take us where it’s going anyway, while the rider is our rational side that needs to motivate the elephant to go in the right direction. They offer a three way prescription to:

  1. Direct the rider
  2. Motivate the elephant
  3. Shape the path

Direct the Rider
Here, we have to find out what works and repeat it, discover specific steps that will get people where you need them to go, and create a direction to go and a reason to go there.

Motivate the Elephant
We don’t do things because we know they are right, we do them because they feel right. So we need to appeal to people’s emotions as well as their reason. We also need to make change easy, by presenting small, simple steps. Finally, they advocate instilling a growth mindset.

Shape the Path
Change people’s environment to shift behaviours and make the changes feel easier. Then turn the new behaviours into habits, by making repetition easy. Finally, use successes to spread the ideas and engage others.

Decisive

Back to Kahneman! Our decisions are disrupted by an array of biases and irrationalities. We jump to conclusions and then become overconfident that we’re right. We look for confirming evidence and disregard other information that conflicts with our prejudices. We’re distracted by  emotions – which make emotionally resonant ideas sticky.

In short, we’re rubbish at making good decisions!

And knowing it doesn’t help, ‘any more than knowing that we are nearsighted helps us to see’, say the Heaths. But luckily they also give us a four-step framework to help us make better decisions: WRAP.

Widen Your Options
Yes or no, this or that, big or small. Narrow choices make bad decisions, so the first step is to explore a wider space of options. And the book shows you how.

Reality-test Your Assumptions
Stop trying to show you’re right and start trying to prove you’re wrong. Only if you fail, then you can start to be confident in your assumptions.

Attain Distance Before Deciding
Shift your perspective in time, place or emotion. How will this decision look in five years, what do people do somewhere different, what would you tell your friend to do?

Prepare to be Wrong
Overconfidence hides the flaws in your thinking, so look for the things that can go wrong and find ways to alert yourself when events mean you need to shift decision.

Summary

What? You want more of a summary than summarising three chunky books in a thousand words. Just go out and read them!

By the way, there are lots of great resources linked to their books, on the Heath Brothers website.

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Robert Miller & Gary Williams: Paths to Persuasion

Robert Miller is one of the people who revolutionised ideas around selling, with his Strategic Selling and Conceptual Selling ideas. But of far more relevance to most managers is his second big idea, which he worked on with Gary Miller.

If you want to sell your message, they found, you need to tailor the way you deliver it to the way  others make decisions. And knowing how to do that is not useful only to salespeople.

Robert Miller & Gary Williams
Robert Miller & Gary Williams

Robert B Miller

Robert Miller got his BA and MA from Stanford University, focusing on education, and his whole career has focused on adult education and training. Following service in the US Navy during the war with Korea, Miller worked his way to become a Vice President at consulting and training company, Kepner-Tregoe. He remained there from 1965 to 1974.

While there, he developed his thinking about the sales process that was to lead to a series of books, and the formation of a new sales training business, which he co-founded with his Kepner-Tregoe colleague, Stephen Heiman. Miller Heiman Group became and remains one of the leading sales training organisations. The thinking that Miller and Heiman developed is massively influential in much sales training today.

However, Miller left the business in 1984, although he has had two extended periods of acting as a consultant and advisor to the business. As well as founding Value Sourcing Group in 1996, Miller also collaborated with Gary Williams to create a customer research consultancy, Miller-Williams Inc. There, they conducted the research we’ll be looking at.

Gary A Williams

Gary Williams  studied biology at the University of Alabama, and started his career in the late 1980s, in the software industry. He held a number of positions in both small entrepreneurial and large firms, including Glaxo and IBM. In the mid-1990’s, he was a Vice President of The Sentry Group, a consulting firm that was acquired by The Meta Group.

In 1998, Gary co-founded Miller-Williams Inc. with Robert Miller. This was a research firm dedicated to measuring how consumer behaviour affects market movements. Williams developed the analytical research method (for which he holds a US Patent).

Together, Miller and Williams also surveyed around 1,700 executives to learn how they make decisons. This research led to the book, 5 Paths to Persuasion, and the much reprinted Harvard Business Review article, Change the Way You Persuade.

In 2004, Miller left the business and Williams morphed it into its present-day incarnation, wRatings, which ranks business performance according to how well they serve their customers.

Paths to Persuasion

Miller and Williams surveyed 1,684 executives for their study. This is a reasonable sample size, but we must note a potential for cultural bias: 97% of the respondents were from the United States.

From their results, they divided the executives into five decision-making styles:

  1. Followers (36%)
  2. Charismatics (25%)
  3. Sceptics (19%)
  4. Thinkers (11%)
  5. Controllers (9%)

Note that Miller and Williams defined styles of decision-making. These are not the same as personality traits and they did no work on relating the two.

Whether you are trying to sell, negotiate, or just persuade to your point of view, you need to adapt to the other person’s decision-making style. You need to identify what it is, and then tailor your approach to fit. This gives Miller and Williams’ five paths to persuasion.

Followers

Followers like to make decisions based on what has worked before; either for them, or for other trusted colleagues. They are risk-adverse, but are prepared to take responsibility for their decisions when they make them.

They tend to be cautious and therefore like established ‘safe’ brands, but are also bargain-conscious. They like to feel innovative, but in reality prefer safety, with a slight edge of novelty. They trust expertise, track record, and in depth case studies.

To persuade these decision-makers, refer to proven methods and real results. Use references, case studies and testimonials to support your case. They need to feel certain they are making the right decision, so do what you can to reassure them that their choice is the safe one.

Charismatics

Charismatics love a new idea or proposal but will base their final decision on the evidence. Hook them with novelty, but expect a wholly rational analysis of the risks and rewards to drive their decision-making. When they take their decision, they will be prepared to accept risk and responsibility if the potential rewards are right.

Charismatics are enthusiastic, talkative, and dominant. They are results-oriented and able to focus hard for long periods.

So persuade them with a calm discussion of risks and potential results. Use simple and straightforward language, rather than trying to blind them with science. They often like visual aids like diagrams, maps, and graphs.

Sceptics

Sceptics tend to be suspicious of evidence, particularly if it conflicts with their established point of view. They can be aggressive and combative, and like to take charge. They are prepared to take risks, but will often try to shed responsibility if things don’t work out.

Ultimately, sceptics don’t trust data, they trust people. So you need to establish as much credibility as possible. A good way to do this is by gaining an endorsement from someone the sceptic trusts.

Thinkers

Thinkers are hard to persuade. They need rigorous arguments that are supported by solid data. They dislike risk and take their time to make as certain a decision as possible. Once they trust their analysis, they will commit to it. But they are also willing to re-evaluate it, if new data emerges.

Thinkers, as their label suggests, are cerebral, intelligent, and logical. They read widely, and are comfortable with numbers, processes, and proofs.

To persuade them, start with lots of data; the more the better. Include market research, customer surveys, and rigorous  cost-benefit analysis. Case studies can help. But they need to be in depth, with highly pertinent details and a significant statistical base. If not, the Thinker will brand it as merely anecdotal.

Controllers

Controllers are mercifully rare. They hate uncertainty and try to cast things in black and white polarities. Therefore, they like pure facts. They are also insecure, hiding behind an unemotional exterior, until they need someone to blame. They don’t like risk and don’t want to take responsibility.

Controllers are fairly logical, unemotional and detail oriented, but they also value action. Not surprisingly, from their label, Controllers like to be in charge.

Persuade them with care. They don’t like to feel manipulated, and they hate ambiguity. So you must demonstrate credibility and structure your evidence carefully. Never advocate too strongly for your proposal. It’s better to give the Controller the information, let them convince themselves.

Complicating Factors

This simple model belies the complexity of real people.

It can be hard to diagnose a decision-maker’s style. Many would mis-assess themselves. In their book, Miller and Williams give clues to help spot the decision style.
Additionally, many people have more than one decision style. They either blend aspects of two or more, or switch style, depending on the context. Finding their dominant style is not easy.

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Robert Tannenbaum & Warren Schmidt: Leadership Continuum

Among many types of model of leadership is one that is particularly useful to practical day-to-day managers: situational leadership. And by far the best version of this idea was developed by two UCLA professors, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt. Their 1958 article (reprinted in 1973) is one of the most reprinted from Harvard Business Review.

Robert Tannenbaum & Warren Schmidt
Robert Tannenbaum & Warren Schmidt

Robert Tannenbaum

Robert Tannenbaum was born in 1916, in Colorado. He studied at The University of Chicago, gaining an AB in Business Administration in 1937, and his MBA in 1938. The following year, he started his PhD in Industrial Relations also at Chicago, but his studies were interrupted by the war.

After serving as a Lieutenant in the US Navy, he returned to his PhD, which he defended in 1948. From there, he went to teach at the UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he remained until his retirement in 1977.

Warren H Schmidt

Warren Schmidt was born in 1920, in Detroit, and took a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism at Wayne State University. He then became ordained as a Lutheran minister.

He changed direction again, and after gaining his PhD in Psychology at Washington University, he went to teach at the University of Southern California and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he met Tannenbaum.

By the by, Schmidt is the first of our Management Thinkers and Doers who has won an Oscar. In 1969, he wrote an Op Ed piece for the LA times, titled ‘Is it Always Right to be Right’. This was well received and turned into a short animated movie, narrated by Orson Welles. It won the Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film in 1970.

The Leadership Behaviours Continuum

In what is regarded as a classic 1958 Harvard Business Review article, ‘How to Choose a Leadership Pattern‘, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H Schmidt set out a range of leadership behaviours.  They set out seven distinct stages on a continuum, which vary from telling team members their decision, through selling their idea and consulting on the problem, to handing over decision-making.

Tannenbaum & Schmidt - Leadership Behaviour Continuum
Tannenbaum & Schmidt – Leadership Behaviour Continuum
A range of behaviours from the purely authoritarian ‘Manager makes a decision and announces it’ through five intermediate styles, to the most democratic ‘Manager allows group to make a decision’ within appropriate constraints.

Equally valuable is their assessment of how a manager can decide how to lead and choose which of the styles will work best.  They argue you must consider three forces:

  • Forces in the manager
    Your values and style, and your assessment of the risk
  • Forces in the team-members
    Your assessment of their readiness and enthusiasm to assume responsibility
  • Forces in the situation
    Time pressure, the group’s effectiveness, organisational culture

This article is a foundation for what is now known as ‘Situational Leadership, and the two trademarked models developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard.

The Seven Leadership Behaviours

1. Manager makes the decision and announces it
This is a purely authoritarian style of leadership, with no consideration given to other points of view. Most appropriate in a crisis, the manager sets clear instructions and expectations.

2. Manager ‘sells’ their decision
The manager takes  the role of decision-maker but advocates their decision, appealing to  benefits to the group. Valuable when you need the group’s support.

3. Manager presents their decision and invites questions
The manager is still in control, but allows the group to explore the ideas to better understand the decision. The manager answers to their team, without committing to honour their opinions.

4. Manager presents a tentative decision, subject to change
Now the group’s opinions can count. The manager identifies and resolves the problem, but consults their team before making their own decision.

5. Manager presents the problem, gets suggestions and then makes a decision
Still the manager retains ultimate decision-making authority. But now, they share responsibility for finding the solution with the group, who can influence the final decision.

6. Manager defines the limits within which the group makes the decision
Now decision-making sits with the team. The manager defines the problem and sets boundaries within which the group can operate, which may constrain the final decision.

7. Manager allows group to make decision, subject to organisational constraints
The group has as much freedom as the manager is able to grant them. The manager may help the group and again, commits to respect the decision the group arrives at.

For More Information

This model is fully described, with analysis, in The Management Models Pocketbook.

 

GAC RIP 2/5/2010

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Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner: Freakonomics

Surfing Malcolm Gladwell’s wake on the wave of popular social science books came a pair of writers who set the stage for many journalist/social scientist combinations. Steven Levitt was a rising star in the world of economics when he was interviewed by successful journalist Stephen Dubner.

When the publishing world offered sufficient incentives (in the form of an author’s advance), they began their collaboration that has resulted in four books and over 5 million sales. More important, it opened our minds to the world of perverse incentives that the two dubbed ‘Freakonomics’.

Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

Steven D Levitt

Steven Levitt is a successful academic. Born in New Orleans, in 1967, he studied economics at Harvard, graduating in 1989. He then spent a couple of years in management consulting, specialising in decision-making, before enrolling in a PhD programme at MIT.

His time at MIT was far from conventional. Whilst his peers did the standard thing of analysing case studies and studying theory, Levitt discerned a simple truth about academic life: success depends on published papers. So before even starting his formal thesis work, he was gathering and analysing his own data, conducting his own research, and writing his first papers.

His varied and curious approach to economics, and his succession of published papers, paid off. he was awarded his PhD in 1994 and, following a period as a research fellow at Harvard, was offered a post in arguably the most prestigious economics department in the US, at the University of Chicago. In just two years, he was made a professor.

He is now William Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and was, in 2003, the recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal. This is awarded every two years by the American Economic Association to the most promising US economist under the age of 40.

In the same year, a New York Times journalist interviewed Levitt for an extended article. That journalist was Stephen J Dubner.

Stephen J Dubner

Stephen Dubner was born in 1963 (AVGY), in New York, and started writing young. His first published work was in a children’s magazine . He studied at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He graduated in 1984 and focused on a music career until he switched to writing in 1988 and enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts in Writing programme at Columbia University. After graduating in 1990, he taught in the English Department and started work as a journalist, becoming a story editor at The New York Times Magazine.

Dubner’s journalistic writing is highly regarded, and he has also written for Time, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post. In 2003, he interviewed a rising star among academic economists, called Steven Levitt.

The Spirit of Freakonomics

The thing about Freakonomics is that the book series, New York Times columns, and blogs range over a wide arena of social science and economics. What connects it all is the idea that, whilst everyone knows that people respond to incentives, research shows that some of our responses are surprising. So surprising, shocking, delightful, and curious, that the stories of what happens are compelling, and the unravelling of why it happens often reads like the most gripping of detective fiction.

The other vital aspect of the spirit of freakonomics is the combination of an academic economist’s eye for data and the story-telling capability of a seasoned journalist. These are held together by the glue of a shared sense of curiosity and delight in the phenomena that Levitt and Dubner explore.

The books make for a great read. They are thought-provoking and enhanced by Levitt’s analysis of large amounts of data. Indeed, the use of data is another theme. However, this is not to say that  Levitt and Dubner’s conclusions have gone unchallenged. With astonishing claims, like ‘abortion cuts crime’, come a welter of critique.

In some cases the critiques have hit home, in other cases, Levitt and Dubner have successfully countered them. What all of their writing is, is entertaining and thought-provoking. It is no wonder that their books have sold so well. And, on the margins, they also highlight some important truths that managers would do well to note:

  1. People respond to incentives.
  2. People’s response to incentives is not always what you would expect and is sometimes hard to understand.
  3. Big data sets can hold within them valuable and surprising conclusions. We can uncover useful insights and, equally, demolish cherished assumptions.
  4. Working with big data sets in the messy and complex world of human interactions is tricky. Separating coincidence from causation among correlated data is hard. And extracting data where many confounding variables are present will open you up to biting challenge.
  5. Socio-economic evidence should inform policy, but not dictate it.

The Freakonomics Library

Steven Levitt at TED

Steven Levitt has spoken twice at TED events, in 2004 and 2005.

[ted id=29]

[ted id=30]

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Julia Galef: Scout Mindset

What the world needs now, more than anything else, is a greater degree of rationality. And Julia Galef is on a mission to help us get there.

Julia Galef
Julia Galef

Short Biography

Julia Galef was born in 1983, in Maryland. She studied statistics at Columbia University, graduating in 2005. Initially, Galef continued an academic career, starting an economics PhD course. However, it was not for her, and she moved to New York and began working as a freelance journalist.

There, she joined the New York Skeptics and, with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci started the podcast, Rationally Speaking, in 2010. In 2015, Pigliucci dropped out and Galef continues as the sole host.

In 2011, Galef moved to California to join a group of friends who had secured funding to start the Center for Applied Rationality. It began its work in 2012 and predominantly provides training in how to think more rationally. She is currently its president.

Hang on, Galef is a Public Intellectual…
What has that to do with Management?

Everything.

Management needs to be more rational. It isn’t that there is no place for intuition. It is, however, because intuition only serves us well in situations where we have deep experience.

And in a rapidly changing world where technology, commercial opportunities, and social policy are evolving at a phenomenal rate, none of your really crucial decisions can possibly be based on deep experience. Nobody has that.

So rational thinking is your best strategy for sound decision-making. And that means eliminating bias and exercising the techniques of good judgment.

Soldiers and Scouts: Galef’s Brilliant Metaphor

Galef has a great metaphor for understanding two mindsets, or ways of approaching reality. These mindsets manifest most clearly when we get into discussions or arguments in which we disagree with the other person’s analysis.

Soldier Mindset

A soldier needs to fight to survive. They are therefore trained to be defensive and combative. And by the nature of fighting forces, they are tribal too. The Soldier Mindset is therefore one of feeling safest when we are certain, and fighting against an opponent to protect ourselves. This may be defensive or offensive in nature, but there is value in being right and defending our position – even if it means attacking the other person.

Galef doesn’t say it, but I will. How familiar is this in modern western political discourse?

Scout Mindset

Scouts on the other hand are not tasked to fight, but to gather information. Facts, data and evidence are valuable to a scout, as is objective assessment of what they learn. Consequently, scouts are open to re-evaluate their evaluation, based on new information. The Scout Mindset is one of curiosity and a desire to cut through bias and prejudice to get at the truth. There is value for a scout in testing long-held assumptions and beliefs, so for them, there is no sense of losing face if they need to change their opinion.

Mindset, not Intelligence

This is not about intelligence, any more than Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindsets are about intelligence. It is about how we address the complexities of the real world.

If what you value is the certainty of a simple analysis, and don’t want to let a few rogue facts spoil a good story, then you have a Soldier Mindset. And those facts will, eventually, spoil your story.

If, on the other hand, you recognise that the world is complex and the decisions you make are neither straightforward nor familiar, then you may feel you need to interrogate the data fully, listen to different perspectives, and draw careful but provisional conclusions. These will stand until conflicting evidence forces you to re-evaluate.

That is the Scout Mindset, and it sounds like the basis of grown up management to me.

Julia Galef at TED

Here is Galef speaking about the Soldier and Scout Mindsets at TED, in 2016.

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Philip Tetlock: Expert Judgment

Philip Tetlock has done more than any other academic to help us understand the process of forecasting and making predictions. He has shown us why experts don’t do well, and, with his latest work, has found the secret sauce of ‘Superforecasting‘.

Philip Tetlock
Philip Tetlock

Short Biography

Philip Tetlock was born in 1954 and grew up in Toronto. He studied psychology, gaining his BA and MA at University of British Columbia, before moving to the US, to research decision-making for his PhD at Yale.

His career has been entirely academic, with posts at University of California, Berkley (Assistant Professor, 1979-1995), Ohio State University (Chair of Psychology and Political Science, 1996-2001), a return to UC Berkley (Chair at the Haas Business School, 2002-2011), and currently, he is Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is jointly appointed between the School of Psychology, Political Science, and the Wharton Business School.

Tetlock’s early books are highly academic, but he started to come to prominence with the publication, in 2005, of ‘Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?‘ This book has become highly influential, by documenting the results of Tetlock’s research into the forecasting and decision making of experts. The bottom line is that the more prominent the expert: the poorer their ability to forecast accurately.

Tetlock’s most recent book, 2015’s ‘Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction‘ is one of those few magic books that can change your view of the world, make you smarter, make you feel wiser, and inspire you at the same time. It is co-written with journalist Dan Gardner (whose earlier books cover Tetlock’s work [Future Babble], and that of Daniel Kahneman [Risk]) and so is also highly readable.

The Tetlock Two-step

In ‘Expert Political Judgment‘, Tetlock is a pessimist. He finds substantial evidence to warn us not to accept the predictions of pundits and experts. They are rarely more accurate than a chimp with a dartboard (okay, he actually compares them to random guessing).

Ten years later, in ‘Superforecasting’, Tetlock is an optimist. He still rejects the predictions of experts, but he has found light at the end of the predictions tunnel. The people he calls ‘Superforecasters’ are good at prediction; far better than experts, far better than chance, and highly consistent too.

If you want to understand how to make accurate predictions and reliable decisions; you need to understand Tetlock’s work.

Hedgehogs and Foxes: The Failure of Experts

In a long series of thorough tests of forecasting ability, Tetlock discovered a startling truth. Experts rarely perform better than chance. Simple computer algorithms that extrapolate the status quo often outperformed them. The best human predictors were those with lesser narrow expertise and a broader base of knowledge. In particular, the higher the public profile of the expert, the poorer their performance as a forecaster.

This led Tetlock to borrow a metaphor from philosopher Isiah Berlin: The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The experts are hedgehogs: they know one thing very well, but are often outsmarted by the generalists who recognise the limitations of their knowledge and therefore take a more nuanced view. This is often because experts create for themselves a big theory that they are then seduced into thinking will explain everything. Foxes don’t have a grand theory. So they synthesise many different points of view, and therefore see the strengths and weaknesses of each one, better than the hedgehogs.

One result of Tetlock’s work was that the US Government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) set up a forecasting tournament. This is an ‘Intelligence Community’ think tank. Eventually, Tetlock moved from helping design and manage the tournament, to participating.

Superforecasting: The Triumph of Collective Reflection

Tetlock, along with his wife (University of Pennsylvania Psychology and Marketing Professor, Barbara Mellers) created and co-led the Good Judgment Project. This was a collaborative team that was able to win the IARPA tournament consistently.

The book, Superforecasting, documents what Tetlock learned about how to forecast well. He identified ‘Superforecasters’ as people who can consistently make better predictions than other pundits. Superforecasters think in a different way. They are more thoughtful, reflective, open-minded and intellectually humble. But despite their humility, they tend to be widely read, hard-working, and highly numerate.

In a recent (at time of writing – https://twitter.com/PTetlock/status/738667852568350720 – 3 jJune 2016) Tweet, Tetlock said of  Trump University’s ‘Talk Like a winner’ guidelines :

Guidelines for “talking like a winner” are roughly the direct opposite of those for thinking like a superforecaster

The other characteristics that enable superforecasting, which you can implement in your own organisation’s decision-making, are:

  1. Screen forecasters for high levels of open-mindedness, rationality and fluid intelligence (reasoning skills), and low levels of superstitious thinking (Tetlock has developed a ‘Rationality Quotient’ or RQ). Also choose people with a ‘Growth Mindset’ andGrit.
  2. Collect forecasters together to work as a team
  3. Aim to maximise diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives
  4. Train them in how to work as a team effectively
  5. Good questions get good answers, so focus early effort on framing the question well to reduce bias and increase precision
  6. Understand biases and how to counter them
  7. Embrace and acknowledge uncertainty
  8. Take a subtle approach and use high levels of precision in estimating probabilities of events
  9. Adopt multiple models, and compare the predictions each one offers to gain deeper insights
  10. Start to identify the best performers, and allocate higher weight to their estimates
  11. Reflect on outcomes and draw lessons to help revise your processes and update your forecasts

 

Tetlock Explaining Fox and Hedgehog Theory

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Victor Vroom: Motivation and Decision-making

Why do people make the choices they do at work, and how can managers and leaders make effective decisions? These are two essential questions for managers to understand. They were both tackled with characteristic clear-thinking and rigour by one man.

Victor Vroom

Short Biography

Victor Vroom was born in 1932 and grew up in the suburbs of Montreal. Initially, he was a bright child with little academic interest – unlike his two older brothers. Instead, his passion was big-band jazz music and, as a teenager, he dedicated up to 10 hours a day to practising Alto Sax and Clarinet.

Leaving school, but finding the move to the US as a professional musician was tricky, Vroom enrolled in college and learned, through psychometric testing, that the two areas of interest that would best suit him were music (no surprise) and psychology. Unfortunately, whilst he now enjoyed learning, his college did not teach psychology.

At the end of the year, he was able to transfer, with a full year’s credit, to McGill University, where he earned a BSc in 1953 and a Masters in Psychological Science (MPs Sc) in 1955. He then went to the US to study for his PhD at the University of Michigan. It was awarded to him in 1958.

His first research post was at the University of Michigan, from where he moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 and then, in 1963, to Carnegie Mellon University. He remained there until receiving a second offer from Yale University – this time to act as Chairman of the Department of Administrative Sciences, and to set up a graduate school of organisation and management.

He has remained there for the rest of his career, as John G Searle Professor and, currently, as BearingPoint Professor Emeritus of Management & Professor of Psychology.

Vroom’s first book was Work and Motivation (1964) which introduced the first of his major contributions; his ‘Expectancy Theory’ of motivation. He also collaborated with Edward Deci to produce a review of workplace motivation, Management and Motivation, in 1970. They produced a revised edition in 1992.

His second major contribution was the ‘Vroom-Yetton model of leadership decision making’. Vroom and Philip Yetton published Leadership and Decision-Making in 1973. He later revised the model with Arthur Jago, and together, they published The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations in 1988.

It is also worth mentioning that Vroom had a bruising experience while pursued through the courts by an organisation he had earlier collaborated with. They won their case for copyright infringement so I shall say no more. The judgement is available online. Vroom’s account of this, at the end of a long autobiographical essay, is an interesting read. It was written as part of his presidency of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 1980-81.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory of Motivation

Pocketblog has covered Vroom’s expectancy theory in an earlier blog, and it is also described in detail in The Management Models Pocketbook. It is an excellent model that deserves to be far better known than it is. Possibly the reason is because Vroom chose to express his theory as an equation: bad move! Most people are scared of equations. That’s why we at Management Pocketbooks prefer to use the metaphor of a chain. Motivation breaks down if any of the links is compromised. Take a look at our short and easy to follow article.

The Vroom-Yetton-Jago Model of Leadership Decision-making

This one is  a bit of a handful. Vroom has expressed some surprise that it became a well-adopted tool and, more recently, noted that societies and therefore management styles have changed, rendering it less relevant now than it was in its time. That said, it is instructive to understand the basics.

Decision-making is a leadership role, and (what I shall call) the V-Y-J model is a situational leadership model for what style of decision-making a leader should select.

It sets out the different degrees to which a manager or leader can involve their team in decision-making, and also the situational characteristics that would lead to a choice of each style.

Five levels of Group Involvement in Decision-making

Level 1: Authoritative A1
The leader makes their decision alone.

Level 2: Authoritative A2
The leader invites information and then makes their decision alone.

Level 3: Consultative C1
The leader invites group members to offer opinions and suggestions, and then makes their decision alone.

Level 4: Consultative C2
The leader brings the group together to hear their discussion and suggestions, and then makes their decision alone.

Level 5: Group Consensus
The leader brings the group together to discuss the issue, and then facilitates a group decision.

Choosing a Decision-Making Approach

The V-Y-J model sets out a number of considerations and research indicates that, when a decision approach is chosen that follows these considerations, leaders self-report greater levels of success than when the model is not followed. The considerations are:

  1. How important is the quality of the decision?
  2. How much information and expertise does the leader have?
  3. How well structured is the problem or question?
  4. How important is group-member acceptance of the decision?
  5. How likely is group-member acceptance of the decision?
  6. How much do group members share the organisation’s goals (against pursuing their own agendas)?
  7. How likely is the group to be able to reach a consensus?

A Personal Reflection

I have found both of Vroom’s principal models enormously helpful, both as a project leader and as a management trainer. I find it somewhat sad that, in Vroom’s own words, ‘the wrenching changes at Yale and the … lawsuit have taken their emotional and intellectual toll.’ Two major events created a huge mental and emotional distraction for Vroom in the late 1980s. At a time when he should still have been at the peak of his intellectual powers, he was diverted from his research. I think this is sad and wonder what insights we may have lost as a result.


 

Pocketbooks you might Like

The Motivation Pocketbook – has a short introduction to Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, which it refers to as ‘Valence Theory. It also has a wealth of other ideas about motivation.

The Management Models Pocketbook – has a thorough discussion of Expectancy Theory, and also Motivational Needs Theory, alongside eight other management models.

 

 

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Philip Green: Risk & Control

Sir Philip Green is rarely out of the news. A self-made business man, he has long been a dominant figure in the UK retail scene and a figure with much to admire and much to criticise. When a TV audience is split 50:50 in loving and loathing a programme, it usually becomes a hit. On those grounds, Philip Green is a business hit!

Sir Philip Green

Short Biography

Philip Green was born in the Surrey (now South London) town of Croydon in 1952, where his parents were both involved in property and retail businesses. At the age of twelve, while at boarding school, his father died, leaving his mother to continue to run the family businesses – something she carried on into her eighties. Green, who had been used to earning money from a young age on the forecourt of the family’s petrol (gas in the US) station, left school as soon as he could, to enter the world of work.

His endeavour allowed him to work his way up through all levels of a shoe importer, to discover a real talent for selling. When he left the company he travelled the world, learning practical lessons in business, which he brought back to the UK. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, he became adept at deals involving buying stock nobody else wanted and selling it quickly. He operated primarily in the retail apparel market. He then turned this acumen towards buying and selling companies. His deals got larger and more profitable, his reputation for rapid deal-making grew, and so did his asset base.

In 2000, Green acquired BHS – the former British Home Stores – which he rapidly transferred to his wife, Tina Green. He followed this acquisition in 2002 with the purchase of the Arcadia Group of fashion retail companies, that included some of the big names on the UK high street: Topshop, Burton, Wallis, Evans, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins. This was also transferred to his wife’s name. As a Monaco resident, the tax implications of this ownership structure have attracted much criticism in the UK.

Already owning the second largest share of the UK clothes retail market, Green tried in 2004 to acquire Marks & Spencer – the largest clothes retailer. His bid failed with much vitriol between him and the then M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose. In 2006, Green was knighted for services to the retail industry. The 2010 general election saw him coming out strongly for the Conservative party – a move that was reciprocated by the new Conservative/Liberal coalition with his appointment to chair a review into Government procurement – of which he was highly critical.

Perhaps Green’s largest business was BHS, so his business story is not one of total success. By 2012, the company’s fortunes were waning and in March 2015, Green sold the now loss-making business – debt free but with substantial pensions liabilities – for £1.

As a multi-billionaire (with his wife), Green’s spending and tax affairs attract as much media attention as his business activities. He is famed for lavish parties (spending several million pounds at a time) and equally known for his charitable and philanthropic spending. Forbes rate the couple’s joint wealth in 2015 at US $5 billion.

Business Lessons from Sir Philip Green

Whatever your view of him, Sir Philip has a talent for making decisions and turning a profit. Here are some lessons I draw from his experiences and choices.

Pace and Decisiveness

Green built his business on fast deals: rapidly doing the deal (often making a multi-million pound acquisition in days) and quickly turning that deal into a profit. Yes, Green is adept at risk taking, but taking risks is not a secret to success. Quickly assessing the risk and understanding your own capacity to handle it is what matters, and Green was a master – particularly during the 1980s and 90s.

The Rich get Richer

Money begets money, and Green used a very simple ploy (conceptually) time and time again, to grow his wealth. He would convince banks to lend him money to make his acquisitions – of stock in the early days and of businesses later – and then turn a profit and repay his debt quickly. On one occasion in 1985, he bought a bankrupt business with a large loan, traded for a short while and sold it six months later for nearly twice as much as he’d borrowed.  He then went to his bank and asked ‘what do I owe you?’ They replied ‘3 million 430 thousand pounds’ and so Green wrote a cheque there and then, putting it on the counter and saying ‘Done.’

Discipline and Control

Green has a fiendish attention to every detail of his business, devoting much of his energy to driving efficiency into every last nook and cranny. Why did BHS fail, then? I wish I could ferret that one out, because his regal processes through his London Oxford Street empire of shops are well known within the business for ferreting out even tiny discrepancies in the selling process.

Customers first: Owners second

Perhaps Green’s most closely held business belief is that shareholders drive the wrong decisions. Everything should be about giving your customers what they want, rather than pandering to shareholders. This is why he turned both BHS and Arcadia from publicly listed to privately owned companies. Maybe it is also why BHS failed for him: he could no longer figure out how to give customers what they want in a general purpose multi product store. It will be interesting to see if and how its new owners can square the circle that Green could not.

And…

Of course there are other things too, but most of them are what any manager would tell you are obvious ‘no-brainer’ habits; like: know your business inside out, respect and trust your people, keep working hard, stay alert for opportunities, and protect your supply chain. But the fact that Green does all of these does not make him different from many other successful business leaders. It’s the fact that he does them well and consistently, on top of the differentiators that make him exceptional.

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Daniel Kahneman: Judgement and Bias

Daniel Kahneman has won many awards and honours, but none more surprising, perhaps, than a Nobel Prize. Why is this surprising? Kahneman is, after all, one the most eminent and influential psychologists of his time. It is surprising because there is no Nobel Prize for psychology: Kahneman was co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics ‘for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgement and decision making under uncertainty’.

In short, what Kahneman taught us was that, before he and his co-worker, Amos Tversky (who sadly died six years before the Nobel Committee considered this prize and so was not eligible), had started to study human decision making, all economic theories were based on the same, false assumption. Kahneman and Tversky taught us that human beings are not rational agents when we make economic decisions: we are instinctive, intuitive, biased decision makers.

And, if that sounds pretty obvious to us now, then we have Kahneman and Tversky, and their long walks together, to thank.

Daniel Kahneman

 

Short Biography

Daniel Kahneman was born in 1934 to Lithuanian emigré parents living in Paris (although he was born when they were visiting family members in Tel Aviv). When Nazi Germany occupied France, the family went on the run, ending up after the war in what was then (1948) Palestine under the British Mandate, shortly before the formation of the State of Israel.

In 1954 he gained his BSc from the Hebrew University, in Psychology and Maths, and joined the psychology department of the Israeli Defence Forces, helping with officer selection. Four years later, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he was awarded a PhD in 1961. He returned to the Hebrew University in 1961.

It was in 1968, while hosting a seminar, that he met Amos Tversky. They started collaborating shortly afterwards. Their fertile discussions often involved thought experiments about how we make decisions and judgements, uncovering in themselves a series of heuristics – or thinking shortcuts – which they went on to observe in controlled laboratory experiments. Their collaboration continued until Tversky’s death in 1996.

In that time, they collaborated with other researchers, most notably, Paul Slovic and economists Richard Thaler and Jack Knetsch. Their many insights into how we make judgements and the application to economic decision-making eventually led to the Nobel Committee recognising Kahneman with the 2002 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a summary of a remarkable life’s work. If the ideas are new to you, they may well rock your world. It is not an easy read, but it is remarkably well-written for an intelligent lay audience. Even if Kahneman’s work is familiar to you, this book will repay close reading.

Kahneman’s Ideas

There is far too much in Kahneman’s work to even begin to summarise it, so I want to focus on three biases that he discovered, which have a profound impact on the choices we make; often leading us far astray.

The Anchoring Bias

The first information we get biases any subsequent choices we make. Your father was right, or your mother or anyone else who told you at a young age that first impressions count. Systematically, the human brain takes the first information it receives, and creates an interpretation of everything else that is anchored in the inferences it draws from that first impression. In management terms, this accounts for the horns and halo effect, that biases us to seek and spot confirming evidence for our pre-existing assessment.

The Representativeness Bias

Who is a more likely person to find working in a car repair shop, changing your brakes? Is it A: a young woman with blond hair and pink eyeliner, or B: a young woman with blond hair and pink eyeliner, whose father owns the car repair shop?

If you think B, you have fallen for representativeness bias. The story makes more sense in our experience, doesn’t it? A young woman with blond hair and pink eyeliner is not a person you’d expect to see in that environment. But a young woman with blond hair and pink eyeliner, whose father owns the car repair shop, may feel right at home. But statistically, this is rubbish. For every young woman with blond hair and pink eyeliner, only a small proportion will also have fathers who own a car repair shop.

The Availability Bias

Recent events bias our perception of risk. They are more available to recall and hence have a stronger impact on our intuition than do counter examples. The classic example is perceptions of risk of train travel, after a train crash. Trains are safe: they rarely crash. Cars crash a lot: there are many accidents every day. But they are rarely reported, so we have no immediate intuitive sense of the statistics.

The Impact of Kahneman’s Work

Kahneman’s work has had a huge impact. Decision theory existed before he came along, but he and Tversky revolutionised it. But it was Kahneman, along with Tversky, Knetsch and Thaler who pretty much invented the discipline of behavioural economics – and perhaps the relationship that drove that development was the friendship between Thaler and Kahneman.

Now Behavioural Economics infuses much of public policy and social influence that corporations try to exert over us. Thaler’s book, Nudge (with Cass Sunstein) is a best seller and Thaler and Sunstein both advise Prime Ministers and Presidents. Next time you get a document from Government, or go into a store, and you find yourself complying with their wishes without thinking, there is a chance that you have been ‘nudged’. And the roots of these ‘choice architectures’? The roots are in understanding our heuristics and biases. And that was Kahneman’s contribution.

Kahneman at TED

Here is Daniel Kahneman, talking about how we perceive happiness and discomfort.

[ted id=779]

 

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