We saw, albeit often imperfectly, most of the pieces of the puzzle. But we failed to understand – “failed to imagine” might be a better phrase – how those pieces would fit together to produce a financial crisis that compared to, and arguably surpassed, the financial crisis that ushered in the Great Depression.
That captures the three essentials of any attempt to foresee a complex future.
- The pieces
- The fit
In any well managed organisation, “the pieces” consist of the established Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and leading measures. Diligent and rigorous criticism of historical data using process behaviour charts allows departures from stability to be identified timeously. A robust and disciplined system of management and escalation enables an agile response when special causes arise.
Of course, “the fit” demands a broader view of the data, recognising interactions between factors and the possibility of non-simple global responses remote from a locally well behaved response surface. As the old adage goes, “Fit locally. Think globally.” This is where the Cardinal Newman principle kicks in.
“The pieces” and “the fit”, taken at their highest, yield a map of historical events with some limited prediction as to how key measures will behave in the future. Yet it is common experience that novel factors persistently invade. The “bow wave” of such events will not fit a recognised pattern where there will be a ready consensus as to meaning, mechanism and action. These are the situations where managers are surprised by rapidly emerging events, only to protest, “We never imagined …”.
Nassim Taleb’s analysis of the financial crisis hinged on such surprises and took him back to the work of British economist G L S Shackle. Shackle had emphasised the importance of imagination in economics. Put at its most basic, any attempt to assign probabilities to future events depends upon the starting point of listing the alternatives that might occur. Statisticians call it the sample space. If we don’t imagine some specific future we won’t bother thinking about the probability that it might come to be. Imagination is crucial to economics but it turns out to be much more pervasive as an engine of improvement that at first is obvious.
Imagination and creativity
Frank Whittle had to imagine the jet engine before he could bring it into being. Alan Turing had to imagine the computer. They were both fortunate in that they were able to test their imagination by construction. It was all realised in a comparatively short period of time. Whittle’s and Turing’s respective imaginations were empirically verified.
What is now proved was once but imagined.
Not everyone has had the privilege of seeing their imagination condense into reality within their lifetime. In 1946, Sir George Paget Thomson and Moses Blackman imagined a plentiful source of inexpensive civilian power from nuclear fusion. As of writing, prospects of a successful demonstration seem remote. Frustratingly, as far as I can see, the evidence still refuses to tip the balance as to whether future success is likely or that failure is inevitable.
Something as illusive as imagination can have a testable factual content. As we know, not all tests are conclusive.
Imagination and analysis
Imagination turns out to be essential to something as prosaic as Root Cause Analysis. And essential in a surprising way. Establishing an operative cause of a past event is an essential task in law and engineering. It entails the search for a counterfactual, not what happened but what might have happened to avoid the regrettable outcome. That is inevitably an exercise in imagination.
In almost any interesting situation there will be multiple imagined pasts. If there is only one then it is time to worry. Sometimes it is straightforward to put our ideas to the test. This is where the Shewhart cycle comes into its own. In other cases we are in the realms of uncomfortable science. Sometimes empirical testing is frustrated because the trail has gone cold.
The issues of counterfactuals, Root Cause Analysis and causation have been explored by psychologists Daniel Kahneman1 and Ruth Byrne2 among others. Reading their research is a corrective to the optimistic view that Root Cause analysis is some sort of inevitably objective process. It is distorted by all sorts of heuristics and biases. Empirical testing is vital, if only through finding some data with borrowing strength.
Imagine a millennium bug
In 1984, Jerome and Marilyn Murray published Computers in Crisis in which they warned of a significant future risk to global infrastructure in telecommunications, energy, transport, finance, health and other domains. It was exactly those areas where engineers had been enthusiastic to exploit software from the earliest days, often against severe constraints of memory and storage. That had led to the frequent use of just two digits to represent a year, “71” for 1971, say. From the 1970s, software became more commonly embedded in devices of all types. As the year 2000 approached, the Murrays envisioned a scenario where the dawn of 1 January 2000 was heralded by multiple system failures where software registers reset to the year 1900, frustrating functions dependent on timing and forcing devices into a fault mode or a graceless degradation. Still worse, systems may simply malfunction abruptly and without warning, the only sensible signal being when human wellbeing was compromised. And the ruinous character of such a threat would be that failure would be inherently simultaneous and global, with safeguarding systems possibly beset with the same defects as the primary devices. It was easy to imagine a calamity.
You might like to assess that risk yourself (ex ante) by locating it on the Risk Assessment Matrix to the left. It would be a brave analyst who would categorise it as “Low”, I think. Governments and corporations were impressed and embarked on a massive review of legacy software and embedded systems, estimated to have cost around $300 billion at year 2000 prices. A comprehensive upgrade programme was undertaken by nearly all substantial organisations, public and private.
Then, on 1 January 2000, there was no catastrophe. And that caused consternation. The promoters of the risk were accused of having caused massive expenditure and diversion of resources against a contingency of negligible impact. Computer professionals were accused, in terms, of self-serving scare mongering. There were a number of incidents which will not have been considered minor by the people involved. For example, in a British hospital, tests for Down’s syndrome were corrupted by the bug resulting in contra-indicated abortions and births. However, there was no global catastrophe.
This is the locus classicus of a counterfactual. Forecasters imagined a catastrophe. They persuaded others of their vision and the necessity of vast expenditure in order to avoid it. The preventive measures were implemented at great costs. The Catastrophe did not occur. Ex post, the forecasters were disbelieved. The danger had never been real. Even Cassandra would have sympathised.
Critics argued that there had been a small number of relatively minor incidents that would have been addressed most economically on a “fix on failure” basis. Much of this turns out to be a debate about the much neglected column of the risk assessment headed “Detectability”. Where a failure will inflict immediate pain, it is so much more critical as to management and mitigation than a failure that will present the opportunity for detection and protection in advance of a broader loss. Here, forecasting Detectability was just as important as Probability and Consequences in arriving at an economic strategy for management.
It is the fundamental paradox of risk assessment that, where control measures eliminate a risk, it is not obvious whether the benign outcome was caused by the control or whether the risk assessment was just plain wrong and the risk never existed. Another counterfactual. Again, finding some alternative data with borrowing strength can help though it will ever be difficult to build a narrative appealing to a wide population. There are links to some sources of data on the Wikipedia article about the bug. I will leave it to the reader.
Of course it is possible to find this all too difficult and to adopt the Biblical outlook.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
That is to adopt the outlook of the lady on the level crossing. Risk professionals look for evidence that their approach works.
The other day, I was reading the annual report of the UK Health and Safety Executive (pdf). It shows a steady improvement in the safety of people at work though oddly the report is too coy to say this in terms. The improvement occurs over the period where risk assessment has become ubiquitous in industry. In an individual work activity it will always be difficult to understand whether interventions are being effective. But using the borrowing strength of the overall statistics there is potent evidence that risk assessment works.
- Kahneman, D & Tversky, A (1979) “The simulation heuristic”, reprinted in Kahneman et al. (1982) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge, p201
- Byrne, R M J (2007) The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality, MIT Press