pop finance

21Apr08

The RSA Lecture by Brooke Harrington last Thursday was a great deal of fun. In a few weeks the RSA will put up a full video on their soon-to-be relaunched website, so when I see that I’ll publish the link. As I mentioned before, Brooke’s work on diverse perspectives overlaps somewhat with that of Scott [...]

Brooke Harrington of the Max Planck Institute will be speaking at the RSA on Thursday 17th April, 1 pm, about the subject of her new book Pop Finance. Anyone hearing the news reported this morning about hormonal excess leading to bad risk-taking in trading will be interested in this from the synopsis of Brooke’s book:- [...]

For anyone who missed it, Peter Day’s In Business programme on BBC Radio 4 several weeks ago highlighted the peculiarities of competition and collaboration in the Cambridge University Boat Club in preparing for the selection of its 1st VIII for the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race, or The Boat Race to be precise. (Podcast for download here.)

Judge Business School reader Marc De Rond said that business researchers have had difficulty identifying the impact of one individual within teams. In sport, it is a little easier and he set out to study his local rowing club. Cambridge coach, Duncan Holland, put it thus:-

Rowers are very experienced at making teams because in an eight, in comparison to other sports, you can’t have a star and some water carriers… An eight really is as fast as the slowest member, so rowers have a lot of experience of getting on together and working out how slightly better people can get on with slightly lesser people and focusing on a common goal.”

However, there was an added complexity. All members of the squad have to row perfectly together, but this requirement to co-ordinate their actions perfectly together was simultaneous with their own competitive need to capture the next person’s place in the first team, or “blue” boat.

De Rond’s study noted that the qualities that make the alpha-male rowers good competitors, also make them difficult. They think quickly, believe they can anticipate what will be said to them, and are surprisingly oblivious to the feelings of others. In this instance the skills needed of the coach are of a high order if the team is to be successful.

It may also mean picking an inferior rower in some instances to provide social buffering between otherwise dysfunctionally aggressive behaviours. They highlighted the way in which a majority of the Blue boat chose Dan O’Shaughnessy to row with them rather than a stronger rower, because his sense of humour, among other things, permitted them to relate to one another in a way that they could not on their own. And so they would row faster.

Echoing the work of Scott Page, which we have noted several times, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School said:-

We know that the relationships we have in teams are at the heart of how we feel about our companies. We stay in our companies because we love working as a member of a team and we leave them because we hate working in that team. There is an argument that people are naturally cooperative and that what has happened in organizations is we’ve put an overlay of competition which actually destroys the humanness of being in a team and the pleasure of working.

Having studied companies including Goldman Sachs and Google, she said strong teams had three things in common: all teams were prepared to cooperate with one another, they all had diverse points of view, they all had a mission or a question that was very exciting for them.

She said the best teams for a highly innovative product comprise members from different countries, different mindsets and different genders. Male and female teams are more productive than single gender teams.

A group of experts is only good at finding a better way to do what they do well. Yet they struggle to innovate. Innovation comes from a clash of ideas. And a common mistake leaders make is in believing they should choose all the participants in a team. The best teams are those where there is a core, and then volunteers come in because they are excited by the idea of participation in the project. Naturally, Google’s “twenty-per-cent time” was offered as a compelling example.

Another interesting proviso was to not make diverse teams socialise before they work together. It only makes them realise how much they don’t like each other.

This dissonance was central to Scott Page’s RSA seminar last spring. The New York Times interviewed him in early January here. He offered a mathematical reflection of how all this works:-

What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.

The other thing we did was to show in mathematical terms how when making predictions, a group’s errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict and their diversity. This second theorem can be expressed as an equation: collective accuracy = average accuracy + diversity.”

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When I was in the engine room of journalism — the Fleet Street office of an international financial news agency — 66 characters was the length of a headline.

That’s all that would fit onto one line of computer screen. Ten words or so could send a market into a tailspin, and your pension fund with it. But this practice of modern finance — the trading on news headlines — is less horrifying than what the world is learning about money since the sub-prime meltdown was followed by the August credit crunch.

I was reminded of those 66 characters when considering adding a Twitter service to this blog (see sidebar under “what’s making me twitchy“). Twitter is a short-message social networking tool that allows the twitterer to “micro-blog” his “followers” through different platforms, including instant messaging and mobile phone text messages. The message length, in keeping with mobile texting, is 140 characters.

If you recoil from this idea (as I would because I don’t text or IM that much), then pause a little to consider the devastating way that beatblogger and citizen journalism advocate David Cohn used the service when his request for an interview with Craig Newmark of Craigslist was granted, with just 30 minutes to prepare. Continue reading ’66 characters in search of a story’

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Believe it or not, resolving the issue of the “chippiness” of your chocolate chip ice cream is an exercise in complexity. There’s a variety of ways to approach it: some good, some bad. The optimum outcome is ensured if the testing panel is represented by different, but relevant, points of view.

Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan, explained in an address to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) in London today how Ben & Jerry’s determined the volume and size of chips in their chocolate chip brand. Laying out a range of options in a large room, the testers placed tubs of rising chip size along one axis, and tubs with an increasing number of chips along the other axis. The grid produced all the various options in between. From a complexity theorist’s point of view, the resultant scores should look like a rugged landscape, with peaks of preference forming across the matrix pointing to the best combination.

But, as Page said, chippiness was only one way of looking at the problem. Continue reading ‘how “chippy” do you like your ice cream?’

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