By Dennis Chung
A book I am reading called “Superforecasting” looks at the way in which people go about making forecasts, and draws some conclusions why some people – a select few – are consistently more accurate than others. These people are referred to as superforecasters.
One of the reasons mentioned is that most people think like hedgehogs, while the superforecasters think like foxes. Hedgehog-type thinkers make forecasts or predictions that are influenced significantly by their own biases and experiences. In other words, they lack the ability to think “beyond the tip of their nose”. Foxes, on the other hand, are those who are able to objectively take all surrounding information into consideration, and look beyond their own biases and experiences.
No doubt, foxes in most cases will be much more accurate than hedgehogs. So if we consider someone who can make good investment predictions or economic projections, it is usually someone who thinks like a fox. That is, a person who considers all the information objectively and does not pay attention to the short-term market reactions.
One person who thinks like a fox, and he always speaks to it, is Michael Lee-Chin. He always expounds the same principles of investing, always looks beyond short-term market moves, and believes in the information he has analysed, for long-term gain.
This principle is also very important in organisations. When we think about people who are seen as transformational leaders, more often than not they are “foxes”. In other words, one of the significant characteristics a transformational leader has is his/her ability to look into the future, and consider all the information available, and implement strategies based on that objective analysis.
Some transformational leaders we know include Lee Kuan Yew, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and more recently, in my view, Barack Obama. Closer to home we can think of people like Michael Lee-Chin, Butch Stewart, and Chris Blackwell. And if I were to think of politicians who implemented transformational ideas, I would say Michael Manley, Edward Seaga, and PJ Patterson.
These leaders were able to think about and implement ideas that were not the “talk of the town” at the time. In other words, they looked at the information and the environment around them, and made decisions even when others couldn’t see the reason for it.
One of the challenges Jamaica has, in my view, is that we have too much hedgehog-type thinking. This has frequently caused us to take two steps forward and three steps backward, and has robbed us of innovation and progress.
The fact is that too many of us are not able to see beyond our own personal biases. Because of that (and thanks to social media), you can see where some people have two different views on the same issue, depending on which political party is in power.
When a statement or forecast is made by someone who is not in alignment with other people’s political or personal preferences, some people attack the person and say that the idea is backward, stupid, or political. But if someone who holds their political conviction makes that same statement, they will support it. This is because of their hedgehog style of thinking. In other words, they are unable to think beyond “the tip of their nose”.
After reading this reasoning in the book Superforecasting, I began to realise what makes normally rational people think irrationally, or with unsupported bias, when they enter groups (such as political parties). This also explains why a normally rational person, when he or she takes up political office, would shelve a tried and proven plan in favour of another, sometimes doing the same thing, but with another name. Examples can be found in both parties.
I think this is why we are unable to get consensus many times on governance priorities, because irrespective of how well a plan has performed, because it was implemented by the other party, it must go. Or because someone has always been aligned to the opposing party, then they are not useful. The result is that potentially every five years we can throw out good ideas and start the same process all over again, and then we wonder why after 54 years of independence, it seems like we are still in the starting blocks.
There is no doubt that the only way we will move forward is if more of us as citizens, and at the leadership levels, start to think like foxes. We do see some ministers who are more inclined to be foxes, but there are still too many of us who think like hedgehogs. And we know only too well in Jamaica, from our crime situation, that all it requires is a critical minority that can wreak havoc on any well intentioned plan or idea.
If we are to move this country forward though, there must be an unwritten code that we are going to ensure that we shed our hedgehog-type thinking and start focusing more on objective thinking about national development.
We must learn (especially many of the younger political activists) that it is important to look beyond the messenger and properly analyse the message. Or we must learn to be able to properly assess information, and look beyond our personal biases. If we fail to do so, then we will always be in the starting blocks as a country.
For this to happen, only transformational leadership will set that tone.
Dennis Chung is a chartered accountant and is currently Vice President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica. He has written two books: Charting Jamaica’s Economic and Social Development – 2009; and Achieving Life’s Equilibrium – balancing health, wealth, and happiness for optimal living – 2012. Both books are available at Amazon in both digital and paperback format. His blog is dcjottings.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.