Archive for the 'Boards of Directors' Category

The Ultimate October Blueprint


From the WSJ:  winning at home not be part of the blueprint?

Our regular readers know that we often cogitate over the roles both skill and luck play in sports and business.  The eve of the baseball postseason feels like a good time to revisit the subject.

Especially since we’ve found new data, even in an admittedly a small sample size.

In The Ultimate October Blueprint, David Schoenfield studies the past 5 post seasons (“when the strike zone started increasing in size and offense began to decline“) and draws a few tentative conclusions:

  • Don’t strike out – even though you’re facing better pitching!
  • Contact trumps power, although “the weird thing is that home runs in the playoffs have matched the frequency of home runs in the regular season.”    But none of the teams who led all playoff teams in HRs – in either league – have won the World Series in the past 5 seasons.
  • Use your bullpen, early and often.  Starting pitchers don’t fare as well as they start going through the lineup a second and third time, so don’t let them lose a game in the middle innings.  “Go to the bullpen. Hope they do the job.”

However… all of the past 10 World Series teams had a starter step up in the postseason:

The thing is, sometimes that starter is a Bumgarner or Verlander or Lincecum, but sometimes it’s an untested rookie like Wacha, a veteran having a so-so season like Lester (he had a 3.75 ERA in 2013) or a mid-rotation starter like Vogelsong. And sometimes it’s Colby Lewis…

The last team to lead the majors in starters’ ERA during the regular season and win the World Series? The 1995 Braves. In other words, having a season’s worth of gems from your rotation guarantees nothing in October — maybe bad news for all five NL playoff teams, who rank 1-5 in the majors in rotation ERA.

But here’s an indicator that may help: In looking for which pitchers may come up big in October, it appears a strong finish is important.

The data also suggest that velocity is overrated.  “Maybe when the chips are down, it’s those crafty veterans throwing in the low 90s and situational relievers who win you World Series.”

Schoenfield summarizes advice for when the contest isn’t long enough for the Moneyball math to work:

[The playoffs are unpredictable but] there are a few strategies that seem to work: Battle pitchers with two strikes and put the ball in play; turn the game over to your bullpen in those middle innings; rely on one starting pitcher if you have to; get some big home runs from unlikely heroes along the way. And maybe hope you have a starting pitcher who can throw five innings of relief on two days’ rest in Game 7 of the World Series.  [As Madison Bumgarner did for last year’s Giants. – ed]

The fan inside us is fascinated by the prospect of advantages gained in the short term, but over the long term our conclusion remains the same:

While big data may help make accurate predictions or guide knotty optimization choices or help avoid common biases, it doesn’t control events and can be undone by cluster luckModels are useful in predicting things we cannot control, but for those in the midst of the game – players or entrepreneurs – the results have to be achieved, not just predicted.


Related stories:


Power Score – Your Formula for Leadership Success

powerscoreI don’t typically read “business books” on vacation, but I made an exception for “Power Score – Your Formula for Leadership Success”.

Power Score is the new book by Geoff Smart and Randy Street, the authors of “Who: The A Method for Hiring” (with an assist this time from their colleague Alan Foster).  “Who” has been required reading in our shop for several years and informs a lot of the questions we ask (and how we ask them) in our “people due diligence” when we are considering partnering with an entrepreneur or helping one of our portfolio companies hire a new senior executive.

So I was excited to read Power Score, which utilizes the data from 15,000 management interviews over twenty years that the authors and their team have done on behalf of corporations and private equity firms at their consulting company, ghSMART.  I love data, and I was impressed with how they mined their unique database to come up with a formula that facilitates successful leadership.

As it turns out, successful leaders get three things right:

1) Priorities – ensuring that they have priorities that are correct, clear and connected to their mission,

2) Who – making sure they have diagnosed their teams strengths and risks, deployed their people against the right priorities, and continually developed their people, and

3) Relationships – working to make sure that their culture and incentive structures support teams that are coordinated, committed and challenged and promote strong relationships with both employees and external constituencies.

The formula seems fairly simple (simple is good on vacation), but the execution is very hard, and very few leaders operate at consistently high levels in all three areas.

The authors offer a scoring system that challenges leaders and their teams to rate themselves on a 1-10 scale in each of the three areas and then multiply the scores (PxWxR) to see how they compare with the best proven leaders in the ghSMART database. (Hint:  500+ is pretty good but 9x9x9 = 729 is the Holy Grail!)  More importantly, they describe how to increase your Power Score by continuously improving in each area, and they also offer a lot of helpful real world examples of how great leaders do it.

The book is written in an easy to digest question and answer format and it won’t take long to finish, though I found myself rereading various sections throughout the book and applying them to companies I have been involved with over the years.  Much like they do in “Who” for identifying and recruiting outstanding talents, the authors offer a process that can’t help but enhance leadership success if executed faithfully.  And, again, unlike most business books it’s backed up by a lot of great data and research on what makes for a strong leader.

I highly recommend the book and plan to send copies to our entrepreneur partners at Ballast Point Ventures, all of whom are looking for that extra leadership edge in their quest to build great companies.  We’ve added it to “The Library in St. Pete” for books we highly recommend.  You don’t have to take Power Score on your next vacation, but then again haven’t you watched enough movies on your iPad during those long flights?



Make soccer more American

american_soccerIn the wake of the most recent scandal news affecting international soccer, Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution writes that FIFA could address its problems by making soccer more American.

(T)he list of particular derelictions, however long it may be, takes the worm’s eye view of the subject. This cascade of errors does not happen by accident. It takes place in large measure because of the faulty governance structure inside of FIFA. …  It would be wrong, however, to assume that the difficulties with FIFA stop at the institutional level. In the United States, the basketball and hockey playoffs have taken center stage. Anyone who watches all three sports will quickly realize that the defects in FIFA’s governance structure are not only felt in the boardroom, but also on the playing fields. As a game, I leave it to others to decide which sport they prefer. But as a set of game rules, as I have long argued, soccer is so sadly deficient that much has to be done to fix the sport. 

While it makes good sense to us that FIFA’s governance structure could be improved, we’re not so sure that would be enough.  “Good governance” reforms, implemented in the wake of a crisis or scandal, inevitably fail to prevent the next crisis or scandal because even the best procedures won’t stop a determined bad actor.  This is especially true when the institution’s culture is complacent and/or complicit – as is the case with FIFA.

As we’ve written elsewhere, in the context of a start-up company’s board, what makes great boards great are the ‘robust social systems’ in which board members’ informal modus operandi animate the formal procedures.  Transparency and a virtuous combination of tension and mutual esteem will facilitate healthy and constructive debate and improve decision making.

Epstein goes on to address what he calls soccer’s “atrocious penalty structure” with penalties “either too severe or too lax.”  He compares the situation unfavorably to hockey, in which each infraction is treated as a discrete event and the structure of the penalties create “strategic possibilities” more in proportion to the eventual outcome of the match.

Not having penalties proportionate to the offense creates perverse incentive effects on players and officials alike. The definitions of all infractions, especially those that turn on intent, are often subject to disputation. Players will try to inch closer to the line, daring the referee to respond with the nuclear option. Lower the stakes, and referees will be less reluctant to impose a penalty that now fits the offense. Players will respond by avoiding silly plays that can subject them to penalties.

This too parallels something else we’ve written, on the subject of complex financial regulations:  if regulators create the incentive to just “manage to the rules,” even a good actor may tiptoe right up to the hot red line where a crisis can be triggered by a little bad luck.  Regardless of the activity, the rules, or who’s officiating, there is always a need for good judgment.


Sunken treasure and the limits of decision models

What $12.7 million investment in 1988 yielded a vanishing $48 million in 1991, nothing again until this year, and yet may still have fabulous upside?  As ESPN films explains in In Deep Water, a real-world “National Treasure.”

When a hurricane sank the SS Central America in 1857, over 400 lives and at least 3 tons of California Gold Rush fortune were lost.  “At least” because the steamer was also rumored to carry in its hull an additional secret 15 tons of gold headed for NY banks.  The loss contributed to The Panic of 1857, as the public came to doubt the government’s ability to back its paper currency with specie.


1989 file photo shows gold bars and coins from the S.S. Central America

131 years after the ship was lost, oceanic engineer Tommy Thompson  and a team of “data nerds” used Bayesian modeling to find the ship and new deep-water robot technologies to recover items from the ocean floor.  We caught the 30-for-30 movie this week and it captivated us on several levels:  (a) it’s the greatest lost treasure in American history, (b) it includes important lessons about corporate governance, (c) it demonstrates the importance of intuition, and (d) the tale ends with a local twist – fugitive entrepreneur/treasure hunter Thompson was just recently captured in our backyard (Boca Raton).

The story has parallels to another favorite of ours – The Greatest Comeback Ever and the Limits of Decision Models – in which intuition augmented or even trumped the computer model.  Following a hunch they discovered her on “the edge of the probability map,” ending one mystery but starting another.

Thompson – “a combination of Indiana Jones and Tesla” – used lack of transparency and poor corporate governance to keep his investors at bay for 16 (!) years.

The first seven years were consumed by a flurry of lawsuits from 19th century insurers and not directly his fault; his backers then patiently waited for the next nine years as Thompson told them the gold had to be marketed just so.  He sold 532 gold bars and thousands of coins for $48 million in 2000, purportedly to pay loans and legal bills.  In 2005 two investors sued, in 2006 some crew members sued, and Thompson became a recluse in a rented Vero Beach mansion which he paid for with “moldy smelling” $100 bills (they’d been buried underground).  He missed a 2012 court appearance and was officially on the lam up until being caught earlier this year in Boca Raton, FL.

A new company (Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration) re-started salvage efforts in April 2014 – only 5% of the wreck was excavated by 1991, and it’s been left un-touched since then. Recovery efforts will continue indefinitely (is it 3 or 18 tons of gold?) and be used in part to reimburse the original investors.



End-of-year twitter digest, 2014

Thank you to all our readers for joining the conversation here in 2014.  We wish you all a happy and prosperous 2015, and look forward to seeing many of you at the 24th Annual Florida Venture Capital Conference, January 29 – 30, 2015 at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, Florida.

Offered for your reading pleasure, in case you missed any:  a compendium of our twitter highlights from 2014.

BPV twitter header



Regulation of complex adaptive systems

Chess in the Dark / Complexity26

Chess in the Dark / Complexity26

Why do regulatory measures implemented in the wake of one crisis inevitably fail to prevent the next one?

Kevin D. Williamson writes that regulation of complex adaptive systems (such as financial markets) present a challenge that is seldom appreciated or understood:

Every regulatory regime is explicitly or implicitly based on a model of how a particular system functions, but, for any system of meaningful complexity or sophistication, it is virtually impossible to develop a regulatory model that accounts for the effects of the regulatory regime on the system being regulated. (This is sometimes analogized to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems; whether that is an appropriate analogy I leave to the mathematicians.) The complex structured finance of the sort associated with mortgage derivatives and the like did not develop ex nihilo — it developed as a response to regulation and to political attempts to steer markets. We attempt to regulate markets as they exist, failing to account — and probably unable to account — for how regulation will change the behavior of the markets

Rather than admit that regulation is having unintended effects, Professor Taub retreats into moralizing, denouncing the banks’ behavior as “accounting tricks” and “gaming the system.” But these are not tricks or loopholes or games — they are the laws of the land and the products of regulators. If we could for a moment set aside the cheap homiletics, we could meditate on the fact that our current regulations are having certain effects, some of which are other than what was intended, and that other regulatory innovations also will have effects other than those intended, and that our power to regulate is limited by our inability to predict or account for how markets and institutions will react to that regulation.

Andrew Haldane (currently the Chief Economist at the Bank of England) similarly argued that regulations become less effective as they become more complex and likened it to a playing Frisbee with a dog.  Despite the complexity of the physics involved, catching a Frisbee can be mastered by an average dog because he has to keep it simple:

The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple. Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the Frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the Frisbee remains roughly constant. Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.  Catching a crisis, like catching a Frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.  Yet despite this complexity, efforts to catch the crisis Frisbee have continued to escalate. Casual empiricism reveals an ever-growing number of regulators, some with a Doctorate in physics. Ever-larger litters have not, however, obviously improved watchdogs’ Frisbee-catching abilities. No regulator had the foresight to predict the financial crisis, although some have since exhibited supernatural powers of hindsight.  So what is the secret of the watchdogs’ failure?  The answer is simple. Or rather, it is complexity. For what this paper explores is why the type of complex regulation developed over recent decades might not just be costly and cumbersome but sub-optimal for crisis control. In financial regulation, less may be more.

Haldane warned that “fundamental limitations of the human mind” thwart increasingly complex (and sometimes frivolous) attempts at regulation.

In one of our earliest posts in 2009 we asked the same question, from the viewpoint of a board of directors:

The end of every boom-bust cycle during my lifetime has included a fin de siècle scandal:  insider trading punctuated the ’87 crash, accounting irregularities (think Enron and Worldcom) helped pop the tech bubble of the ’90s, and our most recent bust was characterized by lax governance at Fannie & Freddie and more than a few banks.

We all understand the business cycle, and we all understand human nature… but what about all those good governance measures that get implemented in the wake of each meltdown?  Why do they inevitably fail to prevent the *next* crisis?

Presumably, those companies and regulatory bodies have boards comprised of accomplished and highly intelligent members, with personal wealth at stake.  Weren’t they paying attention to, and paying consultants to implement, best practices in good governance?  Ethics codes, audit and compensation committees,  Independent Directors, regular meetings, well constructed board packages…

It’s conceivable that a board member here or there could be corrupt or asleep – but entire boards?  Across multiple companies and regulatory agencies?  Unlikely.  It’s more likely that they were following the current and best practices for strong and effective board oversight.

There is more to strong board performance than best practices.  The critical factor is a ‘robust social system’ in which members’ informal  modi operandi ensure that all the well-designed board processes function properly.   Good boards combine tension and mutual esteem.

This is especially true when dealing with complex and detailed regulations, which increase the likelihood a board will mistake process for purpose and inadvertently tiptoe close to where a crisis can be triggered.




Mt. Everest conquered but not tamed

hillarynorgay61 years ago, on May 29, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, arriving just before noon after spending the night high on the mountain.

The anniversary brings to mind another May (1996) expedition on Everest which ended in deadly disaster.  The details of what went wrong in that May 43 years after Hillary and Norgay’s triumph are recounted by John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (one of the recommended books on decision-making in The Library in St.Pete.)

air_In the author’s retelling, a series of events led to several climbers inexplicably ignoring the “Two O’Clock Rule,” which says:  if not at the summit by 2:00, turn back because “darkness is not your friend.”   Their descent occurred at night, in a blizzard, as they ran out of supplemental oxygen.  5 people died and others barely escaped with their lives after many hours wandering in the dark while braving subzero temperatures.

That series of events was analyzed by Professor Michael Roberto in a 2002 paper entitled “Lessons from Everest.”  It had struck Professor Roberto that “the disastrous consequences had more to do with individual cognition and group dynamics than with the tactics of mountain climbing.”  He found several factors that caused experienced people to violate their better judgment.

Cognitive biases

3 cognitive biases came into play:

  1. Sunk Cost Fallacy:  The magnitude of the personal investment – $70,000 and weeks of agony – made many reluctant to turn back once so close to the peak.  “Above 26,000 feet the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin.”
  2. Overconfidence bias:  The lead guides had impressive track records of success and had overcome adverse conditions before.  One told his team, “We’ve got the Big E figured out.  We’ve got it totally wired.  These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a Yellow Brick Road to the summit.”   He also “believe(d) 100% I’m coming back” because “I’m going to make all the right choices.”  The overconfidence extended to many other climbers as well.  Krakauer wonders if they weren’t “clinically delusional.”
  3. Recency Effect:  Paying too much attention to recent events.  Climbers had encountered good weather on the mountain in recent years so many of the climbers thought the storm was surprising but in fact it was rather typical.

Team Effectiveness

The team lacked the ‘robust social systems’ in which members’ informal  modus operandi ensure that the decision-making process functions properly.

  1. Climbers were almost strangers and had not had time to develop trusting relationships.
  2. Group members did not feel comfortable expressing dissenting views, in part because one expedition leader had stated, “I will tolerate no dissension up there… my word will be absolute law.”  (Sadly, to protect everyone via enforcement of the Two O’Clock Rule.)
  3. There was an absence of candid discussion due to (a) the deference in the “guide-client protocol” and (b) a pecking order amongst the guides that led “lesser” ones to keep their concerns to themselves.

Complex Interactions and Tight Coupling

Very briefly, “the team fell behind schedule and encountered the dangerous storm because of a complex set of interactions among a customs problem in Russia, Scott Fischer’s acclimatization routine in Nepal, a Montenegrin expedition’s use of rope, a failed negotiation with Outside magazine, and so on.”  There was also no slack in the system, so when there was a problem in one area it triggered failure in another.

The bottom line may be that they violated a sacrosanct rule, but the more interesting question is why?  The unwillingness to question team procedures and exchange ideas openly prevented the group from revising and improving their plans as conditions changed.

Though the stakes are (much) smaller in a high-growth company, an entrepreneur faces similar challenges:  he has a team and a plan, faces a fast-changing environment, and the odds might be long.  Success hinges on creating an environment of mutual accountability in which team members trust and challenge each other.



The chemistry must be respected

"The chemistry must be respected."

“The chemistry must be respected.” has advice for early-stage companies: the partners with whom you choose to work are more important than the need for control.

By now everybody has a big stake in your success and would like to feel consulted on the major decisions you’re making with their money.  It surprises me that this is even controversial but in this day-and-age it sometimes is.  I know there are bad investors who do bad things. There are just as many bad entrepreneurs who do bad things.  As with most of life, it’s more about whom you choose to work with, what their reputation is from others and how well you’ve vetted them more than an absolute need for control.

Or as we once put it:  the fate of control is that always seems too little or too much.

Getting this piece right isn’t so much about control as it is about chemistry.  If VC-CEO partnerships are like marriages (as is often said), then the issue of control needs to mirror that of a healthy marriage.  It’s not about 100% control, or even 51% control – it’s about playing to each others’ strengths and making the concessions and adjustments that a given situation demands…  It’s hopefully a long term relationship, and so over time you each learn when to take your shot and when to pass the ball…

Once the honeymoon is over, will you collectively put forth the constant effort required to sustain the relationship?  How will you resolve conflict?  Are communications open and largely free of clashing egos?  Does the quality of the arguments make the outcomes better?  U2 credits their longevity to a “group ego” that trumps everything else.  Can you develop what Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures calls “shtick tolerance?”  You don’t have to accept everything about your partner – outside of integrity/honesty – but you must be able to more or less tune some things out over the long haul.  You’re patient with their shtick because they’re patient with yours.  It’s hard work.

Predicting interpersonal chemistry isn’t always easy.  Most venture firms will have a good “rap”, but it’s absolutely essential for entrepreneurs to verify that through their own rigorous due diligence:

Entrepreneurs who are raising growth capital (i.e. bringing on a long term partner) as opposed to selling their businesses (i.e. get the best valuation) should invest a lot of time conducting due diligence on their prospective financial partner.  A credible partner will let you (indeed, encourage you) to talk to as many of their previous entrepreneur partners as you want to get a feel for what they are like to work with.  Entrepreneurs should ask for references from successful investments, unsuccessful investments and current investments.  Ask for the venture firm’s entire list of previous and current investments and randomly call a number of them.  Find some independent sources on your own who weren’t provided as references but know the venture firm…

The chemistry between entrepreneur and venture partner in private companies is more cooperative, longer-term, and (mercifully) not subject to the quarterly reporting pressures of public companies.  Both will have real “skin in the game” and the same incentive to understand the nuances of the business and focus on long term value creation.


End-of-year twitter digest, 2013

Thank you to all our readers for joining the conversation here in 2013.  We wish you all a happy and prosperous 2014, and look forward to seeing many of you at the Florida Venture Capital Conference, January 28&29 at Hyatt Regency Orlando.

Offered for your reading pleasure, in case you missed any:  a compendium of our twitter highlights from 2013.

BPV twitter header


Is good old-fashioned intuition out of date?

intuition2Is There Still a Role for Judgment in Decision Making?  Harvard Business School Professor James Heskett wonders if recent advice to eliminate decision-making biases might have gone too far in an effort to supplant independent judgment with data and probabilities and decision trees:

The replacement of customs and biases with data, “big” or “small,” has been intended, at least in part, to drive out such things as tradition, habit, and even superstition in endeavors ranging from child rearing to professional sports.  After all, wasn’t the book and film, Moneyball, at least in part a glorification of the triumph of statistics and probabilities over intuition and managerial judgment in professional baseball?  …

In fact, if there is a sense that one gets from all of this work, it is that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to making and implementing good decisions.  We need tools to correct the errors and biases of our own judgment.  This is puzzling, because we are frequently reminded that the ability to exercise judgment is what sets humans apart from other forms of life.  (Perhaps judgment is what leads us to adopt recommendations such as those of these authors.)

Every leader has internal biases, some of them subconscious or hidden, which can create especially tricky traps that complicate sound decision making.  So it is important to think systematically and design the decision-making process to account for the zoo of biases managers face.  Astute management of the social, political, and emotional aspects of decision making can help account for the underlying biases of the participants.

On the other hand qualities such as judgment, engagement and strong communication skills are critical attributes because interpersonal chemistry plays a role in any decision involving more than one person.  What we’ve oft said about boards is true of any team:  processes and best practices may be important, but great teams rely on ‘robust social systems’ and mutual accountability among its members to ensure that they function properly.

As we argued in Thinking consciously, unconsciously, and semi-consciously:  the best results often come from a combination of deliberation and intuition.  Too much deliberation can become analysis paralysis; and studies show that those who rely on intuition alone tend to overestimate its effectiveness.  (They recall the times it served them well and forget the times it didn’t.

Furthermore, the more complex and detailed the process the greater the likelihood managers will mistake process for purpose and manage to the rules without exercising any judgment.  In the wake of the last financial crisis, BoE Director of Financial Stability Andrew Haldane argued that this had been precisely the case with regulators, who tiptoed right up to the hot red line at which a crisis can be triggered.

Mr. Haldane deployed an analogy about a Frisbee-catching dog to explain how increasingly complex (and sometimes frivolous) attempts at regulation push the limits of data or modeling or even the nature of knowledge itself.  The dog can catch the Frisbee despite the complex physics involved because the dog keeps it simple:  run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the Frisbee remains roughly constant.

So while we still do value “good old-fashioned intuition,” it’s also unwise to rely only on one’s instincts to decide when to rely on one’s instincts.  The dog’s doing just fine, but if it involves more than a Frisbee he might want to crunch some numbers too.


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