Category: General

What I’m reading summer 2017

What I’m reading this summer
Productivity
Why Deep Work Matters in a Distracted World
Even though mobile devices have increased our access to information and ability to communicate with others, they’ve also introduced barriers that could negatively impact our work. By…
Struggling to be productive at work? Take a neuroscientist`s...
Do you ever struggle to get things done? Do you sometimes feel your brain is not as sharp any more? Did you used to read books and now find it challenging to even finish a short article in…
The Surprising Cognitive Benefits Of Small Talk At Work
The weather, Mondays, Game of Thrones, that local sports team… These are all generally considered as safe small talk topics at work. But for many people, bonding with colleagues is not…
Simplify podcast, 6 episodes with powerful and simple ways to...
Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health and thought “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
Evernote Podcast Interview: Tiago Forte`s Approach to...
Tiago forte is a recognised productivity guru and has a lot of thought provoking good-sense ideas on how to increase one’s productivity especially regarding knowledge work. He’s an advocate of Dave Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) methodology and talks about the idea of “intermediate packet delivery” that is to say making sure there is a clear output from each block of knowledge work (could be as small as an agenda for a meeting, or a single tweet) but the key is not breaking a train of thought and forcing yourself to try and pick up again mid-train later.
Pensions & Investment
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Punter Southall Risk of Ruin
In an indication of how thinking in the industry has developed, Punter Southall have also used long-term ALM modelling incorporating allowance for sponsor default to model what they term (slightly less optimistically than LGIM)  “Risk of Ruin” (RoR).Takeway – in this case study they provide an example of how RoR analysis helps the trustees to focus on the most important issue in the case of an action that decreases the scheme’s covenant, in this case pursuing security rather than negotiating for a cash infusion or de-risking.
LGIM Investment Strategies for Covenant Risk
LGIM Investment Strategies for Covenant Risk
Using long term ALM analysis focused on the Expected Proportion of Benefits Met (“EPBM”) under scenarios where the corporate sponsor defaults, LGIM draw some interesting and actionable conclusions for investment strategy choices in response to changes in sponsor covenant. It particularly highlights a tipping point as a sponsor falls below BBB rated. Takeaway – depending on covenant strength scheme may want more return-seeking assets to maximise proportion of pensions expected to be paid.Caveat – this analysis doesn’t appear to take into account the PPF, this is a key debate with regulatory guidance continuing to stipulate that trustees shouldn’t take this into account.
RAFI Asset Allocation Interactive
RAFI Asset Allocation Interactive
Been loving playing with RAFI’s new tool, one for all you investment geeks out there. Broadly it looks to illustrate the properties of various asset-side portfolios, assessing the long-term expected returns, and risk-adjusted returns.Takeaway – we’re in a world of lower returns and most portfolio are unlikely to deliver the sort of real returns we’ve seen in the past. We need to be realistic about outcomes, however diversification and risk management still matter
Books …
" Inside the Nudge Unit | The Behavioural Insights Team
For anyone who has ever pondered how to phrase an email to encourage people to do something, these insights from inside the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the “nudge unit”) are fascinating. Halpern describes the EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) principles for designing nudges and explains how the wording of a letter increased tax revenues by billions of pounds.
Work Rules!: a new book of insights from Google`s Laszlo Bock...
Laszlo Bock (ex-SVP of people management at Google) lifts the lid on the real stories behind some of the people management innovations that have made google such a success. It’s a must for anyone who has ever thought hard about how to motivate high performing teams. My highlights:Tap into the power of intrinsic (vs extrinsic) motivation by empowering employees and giving them purpose. This helps motivate employees, and increases both well-being and productivityIt was great to see the honesty that he puts out there – refreshing to read that everyone at google hates performance reviews but no-one can agree on a better system!Frequent surveying of views, data gathering and clear KPIs are key to making “self managed teams” work bestThe design of many of our institutions, including most companies are “command-and-control” hierarchies inherited from the 20th (or even 19th) century manual work era where the prevailing view was that individuals needed strict rules imposed upon them. They aren’t appropriate for knowledge work and they restrict productivity by reducing intrinsic motivation
TV series …..
Black Mirror (TV Series 2011- )
How did I not see this years ago? Darkly dystopian but utterly compelling. Created by Charlie Brooker. With Daniel Westwood, Hannah John-Kamen, Beatrice Robertson-Jones, Daniel Kaluuya. A television anthology series that shows the dark side of life and technology.
Other Books
Behind Closed Doors
Utterly terrfiying, gripping
created in Publicate

Why a Focus on Personality Matters for a Better Pensions Team

I really enjoyed this fantastic article which featured in the March issue of Harvard Business Review, and explores the Deloitte Business Chemistry model in relation to trying to understand differing work styles and team dynamics. I’d definitely recommend reading the article in full if you haven’t already.

Pensions

It got me wondering – how might these insights apply to pensions? After all, taking decisions, making progress and enacting change within a DB pension fund involves a huge team effort between trustees, corporate sponsor, in house pensions teams and advisors. In many cases there can be big differences in style and approach between these groups and even individuals within the same group. These differences could derail effective decision making, or they could enhance it.

What is the Deloitte Business Chemistry model?

The Model is based around identifying four different personality styles relevant to teamwork. The purpose of this isn’t to “pigeonhole” individuals but rather to identify a common language that helps everyone understand the differences between them, and appreciate the potential sources of tension (both positive and negative). It also gives some actionable takeaways that you can start thinking about straight away.

I’d encourage you to read the whole article but here is a summary of the four styles:

Pioneers value possibilities, and they spark energy and imagination on their teams. They believe risks are worth taking and that it’s fine to go with your gut. Their focus is big-picture. They’re drawn to bold new ideas and creative approaches.
Guardians value stability, and they bring order and rigor. They’re pragmatic, and they hesitate to embrace risk. Data and facts are baseline requirements for them, and details matter. Guardians think it makes sense to learn from the past.
Drivers value challenge and generate momentum. Getting results and winning count most. Drivers tend to view issues as black-and-white and tackle problems head on, armed with logic and data.
Integrators value connection and draw teams together. Relationships and responsibility to the group are paramount. Integrators tend to believe that most things are relative. They’re diplomatic and focused on gaining consensus.

Source: Harvard Business Review

 

The challenge in allowing these diverse styles to work together most effectively are the big differences in what energises and alienates each group. For example integrators dislike conflict, but drivers love a solid debate. Also the style in which each group prefers to think and contribute varies greatly: a guardian is likely to want to step through a plan line by line, for a pioneer this might feel quite painful. This has real consequences for situations where differing styles interact.

You’ve probably already recognised elements of your colleagues’ styles in the descriptions above, but what might this mean for running a pension fund?

It’s easy to see how these differing styles might be present around the meeting room of a typical DB pension fund trustee board. Starting with trustees themselves – the connotation of the word “trustee” in English is similar to “guardian” – even though the role of the modern day trustee is much wider than that – and many trustees approach their role with the mindset and style of a guardian (for all the right reasons). They want to see data and facts before taking any decisions that might expose their members to risk, they want to see rigour and convincing arguments in the choices being made in the management of the assets.

All makes total sense – we’re dealing with members’ future financial security here in many cases after all – however contrast this with (say) a “driver” in the chairman’s seat: someone brought in to get things moving, passionate about making progress, changing things for the better, making members better off. It becomes easy to see how these differing styles might cause tension.

Let’s add in the corporate sponsor angle – perhaps a pioneer in the CFO or CEO seat. A natural risk taker who doesn’t like to hear the word “no”, drawn to bold and innovative approaches and focused on the big picture. Sound familiar?

Where are the advisors in all of this? 

The key advisors to the scheme (actuary, investment consultant, covenant advisor, lawyer) will also contribute to the team dynamic, perhaps significantly so, and might have a variety of styles – and this is one area actually where the model opens up some choice. The trustees can choose their advisors after all and if they are aware of the mix they naturally have around the table, then they might want to select their advisor to complement that. Perhaps an integrator to try and bring people together, or a driver to generate momentum alongside the chair. Perhaps it might even help to have different personalities in the advisors – a guardian to represent and appeal to the guardian types around the table alongside a driver.

Without wanting to generalise excessively, it’s my experience that actuarial-types are likely to often display guardian characteristics to some degree (having said that I do know plenty of pioneer and driver actuaries). In some ways this isn’t surprising: careful study, discipline and logic are what gets you through the exams (and probably attracts many people to the profession). Having guardians among your advisers may be good, but might not be the best choice if the trustee board is already guardian-heavy.

The picture is further complicated in those pension funds that might have significant internal teams involved in the management. Perhaps a bold portfolio manager with pioneering anti-consensus views. There might be an integrator in there, or more guardians.

So what?

So the model’s great, but what can we do with it? What actions can we take away in order to help our pensions teams work better together, harnessing the benefits of cognitive diversity rather than experiencing the tensions.

Well, firstly simply having a common language to understand the differing styles within teams I personally find hugely helpful. Being able to depersonalise by saying things like “look, the guardian in me is saying X”, or “the driver in the room would be saying Y” allows teams to lightheartedly explore the differences without things becoming personal or existential, and hopefully without battle lines being drawn.

But there is more than that.

Adjust your style

Once you are aware that you’re a guardian type, craving rigour and logic, working alongside a driver who is committed to progress and getting things done it becomes easier to recognise and adjust your style – perhaps that means going outside your comfort zone to try and get to a decision on a key issue with incomplete data,  being happy working with a bit of ambiguity in an area that can’t be pinned down, or being open to new types of solution that don’t necessarily fit into existing modes of thinking. On the flip side the driver might need to be patient in systematically exploring the data behind the decision to appease the guardians, stepping through details like by line when their instinct is to get it done and move on.

Recognise minority styles 

Making sure that minority groups are represented and have a voice is really important to be productive and is something that can be influenced – for example it’s possible to verbally acknowledge that a group is guardian-heavy and that they need to try and listen to – and be receptive to the perspective of –  the drivers. Rather than playing “devil’s advocate” in challenging ideas, it may be more helpful to “play driver” or guardian. Especially if that isn’t your natural style.

Add to the team carefully 

When there’s the opportunity or need to add to the team, the model gives a clear roadmap for exploring the fit between the needs of the team in terms of personality and potential candidates. In particular it highlights the need to bring integrators to the table, and potentially the need to bring more balance to the driver/guardian split.

Get close to your opposites 

It’ll often be in one-on-one relationships where the real differences emerge and pain-points become apparent. Knowing how those styles opposite to you will react, what energises them, and how they prefer to work will be really helpful. It might involve getting out of your own comfort zone and adapting your style (as mentioned above), but it must just increase the chance of progress being made.
Beware of cascades

Teams with lopsided composition can be vulnerable to decision making biases such as cascades – where the views of those first to speak become echoed by others and grow into a crescendo until they go unchallenged. The key to addressing this is to consciously “elevate” the minority styles on the team – perhaps making sure they are first to speak when it comes to decision making.

These are just some quick thoughts on how this powerful model could apply to pensions. Do tweet me with your thoughts.

Four Things I Learnt at Work in 2016

  1. Hack your own productivity, figure out what works for you 
As “knowledge workers” we all carry out a wide variety of different cognitive tasks each day: some are repetitive, some are simple but require a high degree of accuracy, some are creative while others involve problem solving or co-ordination of others. Some involve significant willpower while others may not.
Finding individual ways to maximise our own productivity can be hugely helpful – I firmly believe that the productivity of knowledge workers can easily vary by a factor of 4 or 5 times depending on various factors and circumstances, and some of these are quite simple to understand and change.
Things like choosing which tasks to take on at different points in the day, selecting the appropriate space to work in (working from home being great for some tasks, bad for others), harnessing and using your willpower most effectively and balancing requirements to meet and consult with others with working individually. Creating focus on what’s important (rather than simply urgent), and avoiding cognitive switching.

I was influenced in a lot of this thinking by Charles Duhigg‘s excellent book Smarter, Faster better which I discussed in more detail here. Mitesh Sheth also wrote up this excellent list of productivity hacks, which I contributed to.

2. Approach the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be

2016 was a year of surprises and shocks at a macro political level. Some of the events that took place challenged the world views of people – including myself. The result of the EU referendum left many people – myself included-  feeling more than a little frustrated and angry.

One positive I take from this is the opportunity it presents to acquire really valuable wisdom and experience – for those people open enough to be able to move past the frustration and approach the world as it is.
The reality is, disruptive events will create both opportunities and challenges. Spending time fighting the way the world is probably isn’t the best use of precious resources of mental energy and focus.

3. Understand the Building Blocks of Change

Changing habits at work is hard. Rolling out new systems and processes and changing old ones. It’s so vital to keep operating efficiently, but the extra burden to individuals of change in the short term will also be resisted.

This great blog by Mckinsey helped me greatly in my understanding of the 4 key requirements for workplace change:

  1. An understand of why change is necessary
  2. The capability to make the change
  3. The alignment of incentives and rewards
  4. Role modelling by senior and influential individuals
There is a lot of overlap here with takeaways of books such as Nudge and Inside the Nudge Unit. All fascinating and really powerful stuff if you can find ways to implement day to day. It feels like behavioural insights are rightly having more and more impact on policy & decisions across organisations as knowledge and appreciation of the field grows. Great to see this happening and I look forward to more insights in 2017.mckinsey
4. Beware the Narrative Fallacy
In his great book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed talks a lot about narrative fallacy and dissonance – and the effects these can have on decision making, as does Michael Lewis in the equally excellent The Undoing Project.
The hearing and telling of stories is fundamental to who we are as humans. It’s hard-wired into us. It’s part of how we understand and make sense of an uncertain world. It was the way our ancient ancestors explained things to each other and kept children away from danger. We are fundamentally inclined to believe convincing stories.
But there’s a problem, far too often in today’s world stories are constructed that ascribe too great a role to intrinsic characteristics such as talent and too little to luck. Stories dwell on the one thing that worked, ignoring the many that didn’t. Stories can easily make us fall prey to the availability or representative bias, skewing our decision making systematically in unhelpful ways.

Making effective decisions therefore, involves getting beyond stories into data, asking the right questions, and seeking evidence (where it can be found). Testing theories, rejecting hypotheses, trying to assess against a counterfactual and learning as much from the trials that didn’t work as those that did.

2016 was the fifth year-end that I’ve been a part of the team at Redington. As we close one year and start a new one it’s a great opportunity to say thankyou to all my fantastic colleagues who genuinely keep life interesting and make it worth getting up for work each morning – which is what really matters, isn’t it? Here’s to a great 2017 and beyond.

6 Things I Learned from Sir David Brailsford

I was fortunate enough to attend “an audience with Sir Dave Brailsford”. A fundraising event for Bloodwise in London in November 2015.

As a big cycling fan I have read before about Dave Brailsford’s famous “marginal gains” approach, so I was looking forward to the evening. I found it very enjoyable, and felt he shared some really insightful points that have massive relevance in a lot of other facets of life. Including:

  1. Belief in the ability to achieve a goal has to come first. After that its about mapping the route in absolute detail, and making small steps that take you incrementally closer. (DB cited Jason Queally’s 1km time trial victory on the opening day of the Sydney 2000 olympics as the moment when Team GB cycling began to believe olympic golds were achievable, after decades of underperformance).
  2. Culture is more than words written on a wall, it has to run deep. If done properly, culture can be what helps resolve the argument between two mechanics at 11.30 the night before a race.
  3. Win first, then build a culture around it.
  4. Take the problem to the person – moaning to others in a team can be  corrosive, be upfront.
  5. Success is based on building winning behaviours AND removing losing behaviours. The latter can actually be more important, as there can be a  corrosively negative impact on a team of losing behaviours (vocal moaning etc).
  6. Successful teams don’t have to be harmonious, but its imperative to have complete alignment around the team goal.

Great insights that I believe can be applied to almost any collaborative situation in life

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