Friday, June 17, 2016

Jamaica needs fewer hedgehogs

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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Maximising Jamaica’s full potential

AS I listened to the PIOJ’s recent review of the Jamaican economy, I thought to myself that we have become a nation that is too used to mediocrity. The PIOJ estimated that the Jamaican economy grew by 0.9 per cent for the fiscal year just ended, and in the current fiscal year it is expected to grow between one and two per cent.

In the context of how the economy has performed, one could easily say that this is welcome news, as since around 2009 we have seen what the economists love to refer to as “negative growth”. In layman’s term, the economy has shrunk.

On the other hand, while we are happy for the growth, our willingness to accept that meagre growth rate is symptomatic of the way in which we have grown to accept mediocrity as a standard. In other words, we should be very concerned that as a country with a lot more potential to expand at much faster rates, we have failed miserably to achieve that full potential.

This is the same way we accept poor customer service, indiscipline, poor governance by our politicians, bureaucracy, and the list goes on. It seems as if we have been shell-shocked by our mediocre performances, and so we set our standard very low and any politician that comes and tells us how nice we look, we are ready to go with them. This, I think, is one of the major impediments to our economic and social development.

If you grow up in a community where it is expected that garbage will be disposed of anywhere (gullies, sidewalk etc) or loud music is as natural as birds chirping, then it becomes a natural part of the environment. And you can’t imagine your life without it. In other words, what is the big deal about these things? Until finally one day, as we are seeing now, it is no longer just confined to a single community, but rather is very much the accepted culture for the whole island of Jamaica.

So we are numb to murders when they happen, or the number of road fatalities. We also see indiscipline as a way of life in the form of road use or squatting, among others. Because this culture and degradation is now ingrained in us, we then begin to celebrate it through our music.

So songs speak about the abuse of women or violence and we cheer when we hear them. Or, one of the new trends is violence in dancing, where men jump from roof tops on women, many times causing physical harm. But it is so accepted as a part of our culture that the patrons at the dances cheer when they see it.

The irony, also, is that we try to sell Jamaica on this “No Problem” culture, as Jamaicans seem proud to display their indiscipline when overseas. Many times when travelling and Jamaicans are on the aircraft, they have to put on some display, including speaking loudly. Recently I saw a sports team representing Jamaica (funded by the Jamaican Government and in Jamaica-branded shirts) playing music and speaking loudly on the aircraft. I had to speak to one of them to get the other to shut up.

But when I think about it, you can’t really blame Jamaicans too much for how they behave because this is how they have been socialised. Because of the failings of government policy and action, over the decades, we have developed an environment of indiscipline and acceptance of mediocrity, hence the reason for falling labour productivity since the 1970s.

Governments have further solidified this mediocrity by creating labour laws that go way beyond protecting workers rights to harming them, as the stringency of the laws have now led to a situation where a great majority of the workforce do not have any health or pension benefits, because it is best to hire people on short-term contracts.

These same Jamaicans, though, when they go to live in other countries, do conform to the social behaviour in the majority of cases. And then we ask the question why do Jamaicans conform when they migrate, but are indisciplined here. The answer, of course, is that the environment we have in Jamaica encourages indiscipline and mediocrity.

It seems logical to me then that if we truly want to realise our full potential as a country, we must as a priority look at the environment we promote.

For example, the best-selling book Rich Dad, Poor Dad speaks to the belief that the environment for learning created by two different fathers can determine the outcome of the child. So, as long as we teach our citizens to be indisciplined, unproductive and give them handouts, then we will continue to create a country where underperformance and indiscipline is rampant.

It is for this fundamental reason why we will always find it difficult to achieve any sustainable growth about three per cent. It is also for this fundamental reason why we have so many Jamaicans earning very low wages. It is also a fundamental reason why child abuse is so high, why squatting continues to grow, and why crime is a challenge.

For me it seems logical, and I can’t understand why we have not seen it expedient, to fix these underlying issues rather than encouraging celebration of our mediocrity as “No Problem”. It is perplexing that we celebrate the very high standards of people like Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Bob Marley, but we seem too ready to accept a mediocre society.

Until we can do so, then we will continue to speak about one to two per cent growth and be willing to accept mediocrity as our highest standard.