There were two articles on my Twitter list today about the mindset of good investors. The first was a Techrunch article explicitly about bias in VC decision making. They identified six cognitive biases investors suffer from (similarity bias, local bias, anchoring, information overload, and gender bias) and offer some tips for making bias free decisions. I’m fascinated by cognitive bias because by definition it’s hard to weed out, and reading the Techcrunch article this morning I wondered if that fascination is rooted in a subconscious desire to keep working on myself to be a better investor.
Stepping up a level, the conclusion I’ve come to over the years is that the key to avoiding bias and making good investment decisions is total objectivity. No emotions, thorough analysis, and clearly understood reasons.
The tips in the Techcrunch article are in fact all tactics for keeping discipline in these three areas. Documenting decision making processes, establishing and constantly refining investment criteria, and following principles are all ways of taking the emotion out, making sure the analysis is thorough and the reasons understood.
I haven’t thought of it in this way before but a number of the things we do at Forward Partners serve to bring thoroughness and clarity to our investment analysis. The most important are clearly understood deal criteria (top of the list: every deal must have the potential to return the fund), standard format investment papers, and a culture of open debate and shared ownership of deals.
The second article was an Economist review of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. By Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, which details the characteristics of people who are good at predicting the future. They drew on a contest run by American spies in the wake of the Iraq debacle:
Begun in 2011, it posed hundreds of geopolitical questions (“Will Saudi Arabia agree to OPEC production cuts in November 2014?” for instance) to thousands of volunteer participants. A small number of forecasters began to pull clear of the pack: the titular “superforecasters”. Their performance was consistently impressive. With nothing more than an internet connection and their own brains, they consistently beat everything from financial markets to trained intelligence analysts with access to top-secret information.
Tetlock analysed the superforecasters and found they shared the following characteristics:
- clever, but “by no means geniuses”
- they viewed the world as complex, requiring different approaches to understand different areas (no simple rules or models)
- comfortable with numbers and statistical concepts like regression to the mean, but not statisticians
- hungry for information
- willing to revisit predictions in light of new data
- able to synthesise material from sources with very different outlooks on the world
- self aware and reflective
- willing to learn from their mistakes
- more interested in why they are right or wrong than whether they are right
All of these traits are learnable and for the investors amongst you this is a good checklist of things to be doing and/or to work on. Investing, after all, is about predicting the future.