Constructive dissent

I am currently reading “Thinking in Bets” by Annie Duke. It is early days but I suspect that this is a book that has some useful things to say about creating the kinds of corporate culture that truely reflect the values espoused in corporate mission statements. It is a truth that actions speak louder than words and she cites a practice employed by the American Foreign Service Association which has not one but four awards for employees who have exhibited behaviours that demonstrate initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.

The attached quote comes from the AFSA website setting out the criteria employed for these awards

Criteria for the Dissent Awards

The awards are for Foreign Service employees who have “exhibited extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent”. The awards publicly recognize individuals who have demonstrated the intellectual courage to challenge the system from within, to question the status quo and take a stand, no matter the sensitivity of the issue or the consequences of their actions. The issue does not have to be related to foreign policy. It can involve a management issue, consular policy, or, in the case of the recently established F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award, the willingness of a Foreign Service Specialist to take an unpopular stand, to go out on a limb, or to stick his/her neck out in a way that involves some risk

Building applied critical thinking into the structure of an organisation

This article in Bloomberg caught my attention. It is a background piece on a team known as the “Applied Critical Thinking” unit that has been operating inside the New York Federal Reserve since 2016.

The general idea of contrarian thinking and recognising the limitations of what is and is not knowable are not huge innovations in themselves. What was interesting for me is the extent to which this unit can be thought of as a way of building that thought process into the structure of organisations that might otherwise tend towards consensus and groupthink built on simple certainties.

I have touched on this general topic in some previous posts. A review of Paul Wilmott and David Orrell’s book (The Money Formula), for example, discussed their use of the idea of a “Zone of Validity” to define the boundaries of what quantitative modelling could reveal about the financial system. Pixar (the digital animation company) also has some interesting examples of how a culture of candour and speaking truth to power can be built into the structure of an organisation rather than relying on slogans that people be brave or have courage.

I don’t have all the answers but this initiative by the NY Fed is I think worth watching. Something like this seem to me to have the potential to help address some of the culture problems that have undermined trust in large companies (it is not just the banks) and the financial system as a whole.


Recently read – “The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute For Good Citizens” by Samuel Bowles

The potential for incentives to create bad behaviour has been much discussed in the wake of the GFC while the Financial Services Royal Commission in Australia has provided a fresh set of examples of bankers behaving badly. It is tempting of course to conclude that bankers are just morally corrupt but, for anyone who wants to dig deeper, this book offers an interesting perspective on the role of incentives in the economy.

What I found especially interesting is Bowles account of the history of how the idea that good institutions and a free market based economy could “harness self interest to the public good” has come to dominate so much of current economic and public policy. Building on this foundation, the book examines the ways in which incentives designed around the premise that people are solely motivated by self interest can often be counter-productive; either by crowding out desirable behaviour or by prompting people to behave in ways that are the direct opposite of what was intended.

Many parts of this story are familiar but it was interesting to see how Bowles charted the development of the idea over many centuries and individual contributors. People will no doubt be familiar with Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”  but Bowles also introduces other thinkers who contributed to this conceptual framework, Machiavelli and David Hume in particular. The idea is neatly captured in this quote from Hume’s Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (1742) in which he recommended the following maxim

“In contriving any system of government … every man ought to be supposed to be a knave and to have no other end … than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, cooperate to public good” .

Bowles makes clear that this did not mean that people are in fact solely motivated by self-interest (i.e “knaves”), simply that civic virtue (i.e. creating good people) by itself was not a robust platform for achieving good outcomes. The pursuit of self interest, in contrast, came to be seen as a benign activity that could be harnessed for a higher purpose.

The idea of embracing self-interest is of course anathema to many people but its intellectual appeal is I think obvious.  Australian readers at this point might be reminded of Jack Lang’s maxim “In the race of life, always back self-interest; at least you know it’s trying“. Gordon Gekko’s embrace of the principle that “Greed is good” is the modern expression of this intellectual tradition.

Harnessing self-interest for the common good

Political philosophers had for centuries focused on the question of how to promote civic virtue but their attention turned to finding laws and other public policies that would allow people to pursue their personal objectives, while also inducing them to take account of the effects of their actions on others. The conceptual foundations laid down by David Hume and Adam Smith were progressively built on with competition and well defined property rights coming to be seen as important parts of the solution.

“Good institutions displaced good citizens as the sine qua non of good government. In the economy, prices would do the work of morals”

“Markets thus achieved a kind of moral extraterritoriality … and so avarice, repackaged as self-interest, was tamed, transformed from a moral failing to just another kind of motive”

Free market determined prices were at the heart of the system that allowed the Invisible Hand to work its magic but economists recognised that competition alone was not sufficient for market prices to capture everything that mattered. For the market to arrive at the right (or most complete) price, it was also necessary that economic interactions be governed by “complete contracts” (i.e. contracts that specify the rights and duties of the buyer and seller in all future states of the world).

This is obviously an unrealistic assumption. Apart from the difficulty of imagining all future states of the world, not everything of value can be priced. But all was not lost. Bowles introduces Alfred Marshall and Arthur Pigou who identified, in principle, how a system of taxes and subsidies could be devised that compensated economic actors for benefits their actions conferred on others and made them liable for costs they imposed on others.

These taxes and subsidies are of course not always successful and Bowles offers a taxonomy of reasons why this is so. Incentives can work but not, according to Bowles, if they simplistically assume that the target of the incentive cares only about his or her material gain. To be effective, incentives must account for the fact that people are much more complex, social and moral than is strictly rational from an economic perspective. Bowles devotes a lot of the book to the problem with incentives (both positive and negative, including taxes, fines, subsidies, bonuses etc) which he categorises under three headings:

  1. “Bad News“; incentives send a signal and the tendency is for people to read things into incentives which may not have been intended but prompt them to respond negatively (e.g. does this incentive signal that the other party believes I am not trustworthy or lazy)
  2. Moral Disengagement”; the incentive may create a context in which the subject can distance themselves from the moral consequences of how they respond
  3. “Control Aversion”; an incentive that compromises a subject’s sense of autonomy or pride in the task may reduce their intrinsic motivation to perform the task well

Having noted the ways that incentives can have adverse impacts on behaviour, Bowles notes that civic minded values continue to be an important feature of market based economies and examines why this might be.

“If incentives sometimes crowd out ethical reasoning, the desire to help others, and intrinsic motivations, and if leading thinkers celebrate markets as a morality-free zone, it seems just a short step to Karl Marx’s broadside condemnation of capitalist culture”

One answer is that trading in markets encourages people to trust strangers and that the benefits of trading over time teach people that trust is a valuable commodity (the so called “doux commerce” theory).

While admitting his answer is speculative, Bowles rejects “doux commerce” as the whole answer. He argues that the institutions (property rights, rule of law, etc) developed by liberal societies to protect citizens from worst-case outcomes such as personal injury, loss of property, and other calamities make the consequences of mistakenly trusting a defector much less dire. As a result, the rule of law lowers the bar for how much you would have to know about your partner before trusting him or her, thereby promoting the spread of trusting expectations and hence of trusting behavior in a population.

The “institutional structure” theory is interesting but there is still much in the book worth considering even if you don’t buy his explanation. I have some more detailed notes on the book here.

Lessons for banking in Pixar’s approach to dealing with uncertainty and the risk of failure.

The report on the Prudential Inquiry into the CBA (“CBA Report”) is obviously required reading in banking circles this week. Plenty has been written on the topic already so I will try to restrain myself unless I can find something new to add to the commentary. However, while reading the report, I found myself drawing links to books that I think bankers would find well worth reading. These include Foolproof (by Michael Ip) and “The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing (by Michael Mauboussin).

I have put up some notes on Foolproof here and intend to do the same for The Success Equation sometime soon. The focus for today’s post however is a book titled “Creativity, Inc” by Ed Catmull who founded and led Pixar. The overall theme of the book is about developing and sustaining a creative culture but dealing with risk and uncertainty emerges as a big part of this.

What does making movies have to do with banking?

One of the lessons Catmull emphasised was that, notwithstanding Pixar’s success, it was important not to lose sight of the role that random factors play in both success and failure. A quote from Ch 8 illustrates this point;

“… a lot of our success came because we had pure intentions and great talent, and we did a lot of things right, but I also believe that attributing our success solely to our own intelligence without acknowledging the role of accidental events, diminishes us.”

He goes on to describe how success can be a trap for the following reasons;

  • it creates the impression that what you are doing must be right,
  • it tempts you to overlook hidden problems and
  • you may be confusing luck with skill.

There is a discussion in Ch 9 of the kinds of things that can lead you to misunderstand the real nature of both your success and your failure. These include various cognitive biases (such as “confirmation” where you weight information that supports what you believe more than the counter evidence) and mental models we use to simplify the world in which we operate. These are hard wired into us so the best we can do is be aware of how these things can take us off track; that at least puts us ahead of those who blindly follow their mental models and biases.

His answer to building the capacity to adapt to change and respond to setbacks is to trust in people but trust does not mean you trust that people won’t make mistakes. Catmull accepts setbacks and screw ups as an inevitable part of being creative and innovative but trust is demonstrated when you support your people when they do screw up and trust them to find the solution.

This is interesting because the CBA Report indicates that CBA did in fact place a great deal of trust in their executive team and senior leaders, which implies trust alone is not enough. The missing ingredients in CBA’S case were accountability and consequence when the team failed to identify, escalate and resolve problems.

The other interesting line of speculation is whether CBA’s risk culture might have benefited from a deeper reflection on the difference between skill and luck. Maboussin’s book (The Success Equation) is particularly good in the way in which he lays out his framework for making this distinction.

I plan to come back to this topic once I have completed a review of Maboussin’s book but in the interim I can recommend all of the books mentioned in this post.