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Thursday, March 02, 2006
We get a 100 business people in a room and ask them all to toss a coin. Everyone who gets heads stays in, everyone who gets tails is out. Now there are 50 people left, so we repeat the experiment. Let's say 23 people are left. So we repeat the experiment, and now 12 people are left. Do it again and seven people are left. Once more and four people are left. A final toss, and three people are out and we have a winner left in. We get the winner to write a book "Coin Tossing My Way" or the "Zen of Coin Tossing" or whatever and we sell it at airports. Plenty of people want to know how to get six heads in a row, and since most of the population are mathematically and scientifically illiterate (not to mention just plain stupid), they will buy the book, thinking to themselves "Here's a guy who really did get six heads in a row, I can learn from him and do the same". Far-fetched? Not really, since that's what most of the business books I saw at the airport last week seemed to be. They are books written by winners that discount any element of luck or chance and attribute success entirely to the subject's inherent talent, vision and so on. Charles Cohen, of Beenz fame, wrote a book called "Corporate Vices: What's Gone Wrong with Business?". I happened to have invited Charles to Singapore for a seminar I was organising a couple of years ago while was publicising the book. His thesis, as I remember it, was that people think that some companies are run well and some are run badly so they buy business books from the ones that are run well hoping to learn the lessons. In actual fact, all companies are run badly (and have been ever since the invention of the joint stock company, when the interests of management and the interests of shareholders began to diverge) but some are just plain lucky. They become the winners, and so everyone else looks to them to replicate their special sauce. I was reminded of this reading one of the book reviews ("The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism" (John C. Bogle)) in this month's Financial World. Apparently, this book claims that capitalism is falling apart because enterprises are run for the benefit of their incumbent management rather than their shareholders. Charles is even more of a visionary than I thought.