Sunday, June 29, 2014

Attack on Titans: Decisions

I just can't help writing down these analogies from Attack on Titans. Here's another post. Let me describe one scene relevant to today's topic.

The lead character Eren was in a situation where he had to make a choice: should he trust his teammates or trust himself to defeat the enemy. He chose to trust his teammates which led to all their deaths and he regretted his decision painfully. Eren was advised by the seasoned team leader earlier, one can never predict the results, so one should at least have a freedom to choose rather than being forced to make a bad decision.

Eren after he made the wrong decision

I highlight this story to try to illustrate two points:

1. The future is unpredictable, we will always make the wrong decisions. This is because we always work under pressure, with limited information and with lots of constraints. In investing, 40% of all investing decisions are wrong. But still, good investors can make good money.

2. The more important task is then focusing on the process of decision making, rather than the outcome. Amateur people focus on outcome and not the process. This second point is very important in life.

Let's just expand on the two points above that hopefully can help us make good decisions.

On Pt 1, we must always remember that we cannot predict the future. We may think we are smart, have done our homework, have a relevant understanding of what can happen and hence should be betting well. The answer should be more profound than that.

An important angle in understanding Pt 1 is to know what is the worst case scenario. Once we understand that, we make decisions that try to avoid a scenario that is unacceptable. Another way of putting this is to measure the risk reward of a decision or a bet. If we are only losing 20% in a worst case scenario and we make 100% on a base case scenario and 200% in the best case scenario, then it's an easy, brainless decision.

I would also like to bring up the relevant property example here. In the height of Singapore's recent property bubble, I was getting ridiculed by property bulls as a dumb permabear. If I was so sure that the property bubble will burst and prices would crash, why didn't I sell my property and rent? Well, I didn't know for sure, and I didn't sell my only home for reasons to be explained below. But there are people who did. They sold their only home and rented. Waited for the property bubble to crash. They waited a good five, six years now and are still waiting

Although property prices are falling, it's hasn't fallen enough for value investors to buy. The lesson learnt here is not about betting on the outcome that you think will happen. It is about betting with the best expected return, factoring other factors such as quality of life, peripheral costs and impact to kids and/or parents. And bet such that if you are wrong, you will not get killed. To sell your only property is not betting it correctly. 

What if Singapore becomes Monaco? Yield goes to 1%? Prices stay at $1,500 psf for normal properties and $3,000 psf for prime prime prime properties forever? Someone, with no inheritable parent's place, who sold their only home would have to live in Iskandar. The kids would have commute from Malaysia. Is this an acceptable outcome?

Always know that the future is unpredictable and do not make decisions that is unacceptable in a worst case scenario.

Eren's teammate Petra, who perished after his wrong decision

In Eren's case, the worst case scenario couldn't really be avoid. If he had rely on his powers rather than his teammates, the worst case could still be everyone's deaths. So it's a 50:50 bet. Such cases call for innovation and thinking out of the box. Could there be something else that could be done? It is not easy.

Pt 2 is related to the matrix below, made famous by Michael Mauboussin but actually originated by someone else. It's quite famous and self explanatory. Basically good processes doesn't always give you good outcomes. And more importantly, good outcomes doesn't mean good processes.

As explained earlier, by focusing on outcome, you have no idea whether it was luck or skill. In most cases, it would actually be just dumb luck. But I would say that 80% of the population doesn't understand this. We make all sorts of sacrifice to put our kids into the so-called good schools based on their past results. We follow "star" investors and listen to self-proclaimed gurus. But what's more important is actually to study how they did it. Process, not outcome.

Process vs Outcome

However, a good process does not ensure a good outcome. In investing, even with the best investment processes, we only have 60% chance of getting things right. Because this is an art. This is a game where too many variables go into the system. It's a bit like golf, or trying to make a blockbuster movie, or trying to produce a #1 selling product.

Good processes are not easy to achieve. It's hardwork. Lots of hardwork. In investing, it's about first learning all the relevant skills: honing literacy in financial accounting, adopting a good investment philosophy, understanding businesses and their economic moats. Then it is doing lots of reading. And finally lots of mistakes in actual investing, trying to overcome emotional and behavioural biases. And it does not end. It's continuously learning and adapting.

In other aspects of real life, it is also about diligence and tenacity. Golf is about lots of practice trying to get the right swing, trying to get the short game right. Important decision making is also about a lot of rational thinking, opinion seeking and mustering courage to execute. Focusing on outcomes is like a championship manager who looks only at the scoreboard to make decisions in a soccer game.

So Eren made a decision to trust his team and it turned out to be disastrous. But was it a bad process? It was hard to say. They had a plan. It almost worked. On hindsight, he would be right to trust the team with the seasoned team leader around. When the team leader was absent, the decision should have been trusting his own powers. In the end, Eren and his team did capture the enemy. And they then mounted their Attack on Titans!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Attack on Titans: Office Politics and Corporate Suicides

Here's a well kept secret. Japanese manga and anime have managed to subtly define pop culture and Hollywood for ages. As early as the 60s, robots from the future time-travelled to alter the present in Japanese comics. In more recent times, Ghost in the Shell inspired the Matrix trilogy, Paprika inspired Christopher Nolan's Inception. And the list goes on. Today's topic is about the manga series Attack on Titans or in Japanese: Shingeki no Kyojin.

Being a student of corporate analysis, I can't help drawing a lot of analogies after watching the series. It really left me in awe and I am still pondering over some deeper messages the author could be implying. Of course the huge success of the manga and anime also meant that we could perhaps draw as many other analogies in our own lives, which perhaps better explained its overwhelming success. So for me, it was corporate analogies but for housewives it could well be family affairs, for students it was about friendship and love and for others, another level of meaning.

Manga cover for Attack on Titans

Just to give a flavour of its success. Attack on Titans, the best selling manga in 2013 which to date only has 13 volumes, sold 38 million copies worldwide or 2.9 million per volume. For comparison, Naruto, one of the best selling mangas ever, sold 135 million over 67 volumes, or just 2.0 million per volume. Of course, there's One Piece and Dragonball, which are older and have sold 4-5 million per volume given its wider reach and appeal. But Titans is on track to be on the league tables of best selling mangas.

So what's the interesting idea and what's the corporate analysis about? Why Office Politics and Corporate Suicide? First I have to give a quick synopsis, but rest assured, limited spoilers.

Attack on Titans tells a story in a world where humans lived behind layers of walls in a confined area on Earth. Human-eating Titans lived outside the walls and devour people for pleasure. With limited technologies such as cannons and blades, humans deemed themselves incapable of defeating Titans and supposedly built the layers of walls many years ago for protection. A small elite force ventures out to find ways to defeat Titans but is ridiculed by the majority of fellow human beings. The manga deals with ideas such as Prisoners' Dilemma, camaraderie and betrayal, fear and courage, beggar thy neighbour and other human/social issues. Part of this plot itself was also borrowed by Hollywood in a recent Grade B movie called Pacific Rim.

The relevant plots for this blog in the story obviously were not about Titans devouring humans or the personal struggles, although they were really quite intriguing. To me, what struck were the analogies on corporate environment and organizational structures and how office politics could bring about corporate suicides. Here's my personal take on what's the story might be about. This may or may not be what the author intended. Anyways, here's my analogy.

The whole human society represents a corporation or an organization. The Titans represents the external threats to the organization or perhaps, simply, industry competitors. The walls represents business moats or barriers protecting the organization hitherto and the humans, obviously, represents the employees of the organization. As the story progressed, the Titans managed to break into the walls and wreak havoc. The humans retreated behind the inner walls (there are three walls altogether, see pic below) and the main characters go through personal struggles as they see how some of their friends got devoured by Titans and perished. Cowards chose the easy way out by excelling in training so as to choose their career paths as security guards who get to go behind the innermost walls to protect the society elites and the monarchy (ie a worthless CEO and his cronies in my analogy perhaps).

The three layers of walls

Now in most corporations in Singapore and perhaps more so in Japan, most middle to high income salaried employees are like the main characters in the story. There are always the capable ones who will be able to lead the troops to defeat Titans. Some are ridiculed and their efforts to save humanity actually get undermined. So in a sense, the best employees out there fighting Titans are actually being backstabbed by their own colleagues!

There are also similarly capable characters but with little integrity who would choose the easy way out by hiding and further climbing up the corporate ladder, by stepping on others to save themselves, oblivious to the fact that if the all walls are penetrated, human existence would be wiped out. Well, ie, the organization gets overwhelmed by the threats or get killed by its competitors and vanquishes.

As investors who had analyzed lots of firms would probably agree, we see this time and again in lower quality companies especially those that have succeeded in eras past but are struggling now. There are prominent Japanese firms, but in reality, they are also everywhere, in the US, Europe and even Singapore.

Sony could be a case study here. Before the new CEO Hirai came on board, people who rose to the senior levels of the firm were not leaders who defeated Titans in the battlefields. (They were not managers who created successful new businesses or products or brands that defeated global competition.) They were good corporate ladder climbers who rose to the top playing office politics. 

When everything is smooth sailing, these corporate climbers attract other climbers and their numbers grow over time. People who did real work were marginalized. Climbers, in order to climb have to keep coming up with half baked strategies that alienated even more good people: innovators, researchers, engineers, product managers, marketing and branding experts etc. With no one fighting the Titans, the walls will get penetrated. Now Sony is struggling to survive, not unlike the development in the story. Yet the senior managers are not getting their act together to defeat the Titans! Real corporate Titans like Apple, Samsung and Google.

In Singapore, a lot of established agencies from government entities, listed corporations to sovereign wealth funds could be in similar situations. People are just too comfortable as peacetime passed and people who have rose in power now were not tried and tested in the battlefields. They spend time playing politics and deceiving themselves. So when the Titans penetrated the walls, things started to crumble really rapidly. Sometimes, a small minority emboldened themselves to confront the Titans but their colleagues sabo them (undermine them) in order to save their own skins. The senior management in power doesn't really know what's going on and they also care more about their own safety rather than devising good strategies to kill off the Titans.

In the last few years, some of these spilled over into media sensations. Like the Cecilia Sue saga which came about from some power struggle within the Central Narcotics Bureau. We also see how things really crumbled in listed corporations like SMRT. The Titan in this case was perhaps the unmonitored load on the train system driven by ever growing commuter traffic. As we now know, it brought down the firm, the nation's commuting network and even affected the political support for PAP. 

In the story, Titans were brainless creatures. They were just huge, fearsome in appearance and has this strange ability to regenerate themselves even if their heads got blown off. The only way to kill a Titan was to slice out a piece of flesh at the back of their neck. 

By right, Titans shouldn't stand a chance to be able to wipe out humans. The humans were very weak because of fear, because everyone just wanted to save his own skin. The scarcity of resources within the walls led to turf wars, politics and vested interest and power struggles. All these plus self interest, weak thinking and more negative attributes precipitated the imminent downfall of mankind. If all the humans put their minds and efforts together, draw courage, be fearless, think of the society before self, embolden and synergize, unite and fight, the Titans had no chance. They are the ones that should go extinct.

The best run firms understands this. Our forefathers understood this. Others before self. Teamwork works. United we stand. Divided we fall. The green pastures outside the walls, the oysters in the blue oceans are ours to take when we be the best that we can be, when we mount our culminating Attack on Titans.