Practical analysis for investment professionals
12 June 2015

Weekend Reads for Finance Pros: Reorganization, Bias, and Roosters versus Hens

Posted In: Weekend Reads

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.” — Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter

I read that quote last weekend in a Farnam Street post titled Do Something Syndrome,” and it made me sit up. I found it astonishing that someone who lived circa 27–66 AD could make such an astute observation — about a different context and in a different era — and have it be just as relevant today. There is more than a kernel of truth in what Petronius says, which is perhaps why it made me — and anyone who has suffered through a reorganization — sigh.

Except that it’s not quite the full story.

As I was writing this wrap-up, I decided to google “petronius arbiter reorganization” and hit upon a Quote Investigator post responding to a query as to whether the quote did, in fact, originate with Petronius.

But by now you have guessed the answer, right?

If not Gaius Petronius Arbiter, then who? Robert Townsend? Charlton Ogburn, Jr.? Apocryphal?

“There is no substantive evidence that Gaius Petronius Arbiter employed this quotation,” says Quote Investigator. “Instead, QI believes the passage above was derived from words written by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in 1957. Ogburn participated in the Burma Campaign in World War II, and wrote a piece about his experiences titled ‘Merrill’s Marauders: The Truth about an Incredible Adventure’ that was published in the January 1957 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The article included a section that has been simplified and streamlined to yield the popular modern statement:

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization. During our reorganizations, several commanding officers were tried out on us, which added to the discontinuity.

So there you have it. The point about reorganization is still just as relevant, even if it wasn’t Petronius who first penned it. (One of my pet peeves/obsessions is quote attribution, which is why Quote Investigator is one of my all-time favorite resources. You can follow the quote sleuth on Twitter. And the next time you drop a quote into a presentation or blog post, make sure to verify, as much as possible, whether the quote is correctly attributed. Since I’m writing this from Charlottesville, Virginia, home of all things Thomas Jefferson, you may want to test your knowledge in the “Quoting Jefferson” quiz embedded in “To Quote Thomas Jefferson, ‘I Never Actually Said That.’“)

You may be wondering: So how did the quote end up being attributed to Petronius? Apparently, we have a politician to thank for that. As QI states:

By 1966 the statement had been reassigned to Gaius Petronius Arbiter. The Chicago Tribune printed an article about the growth [of]  government bureaucracies in September 1966 that included quotations from John P. Saylor who was a member of the US House of Representatives. Saylor presented an instance of the expression and credited Petronius.

A final note on reorganizing, courtesy of QI: the late Robert Townsend, a chairman and president of  the rent-a-car company Avis who went on to write the bestselling book Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits, remarked, “Reorganizing[:] Should be undergone about as often as major surgery. And should be as well planned and as swiftly executed.”

It’s a very short list this week, but here are some other interesting reads and cocktail nuggets, in case you missed them:

Investing

  • In “What Good Is History?” Morgan Housel points out that we all choose the version of history that fits what we want to believe, which tends to be a reflection of how we were raised, which is different for everybody. “We do this with the economy, the stock market, politics — everything,” he says. “It can make history dangerous. What starts as an honest attempt to objectively study the past quickly becomes a field day of confirming your existing beliefs. This is like steroids for inflating your confidence and puts you on a path to misguided, regrettable decisions.” That said, history can be great at teaching broad, unspecific lessons, Housel adds. In this post, he discusses five lessons. (The Motley Fool)
  • Ben Carlson is thinking about four questions: 1. “Is ‘low rates and low inflation forever’ the new consensus?” 2. “Will the financial advisor ranks be cut in half within the next 10 years?” 3. “Are robo-advisors really that innovative?” 4. “Does 2004–2007 really count as a rising rate environment?” (A Wealth of Common Sense)
  • Michael Johnston writes that technology and biotech stocks are hot again and so the tendency is to start making comparisons to the last bubble. “But the current environment can’t come close to matching 1999, either in terms of valuations or in the sheer madness of the markets,” he notes in “19 Things That Actually Happened in 1999.” (Dividend Reference)

Behavioral Finance

Where Are the Women?

Practice Management/Leadership

  • Liz Rodbell, president of Lord & Taylor and Hudson’s Bay department stores, tells Adam Bryant that there two simple things that make a big difference when you are managing people: “The behavior seems so simple, but it’s the importance of saying ‘thank you,’ and taking the time to recognize people’s successes. Saying thank you is not hard, but not everybody does it. It helps the whole team.” (The New York Times)

And Now for Something Completely Different

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/temmuzcan

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster is managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer for Barron’s and the Financial Times. Prior to her freelance work, Foster spent nearly a decade on staff at the FT as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau. Foster holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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