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Whistling up the secret to good decision-making – with Wayne Barnes

Whatever your line of work, argues international referee, practising barrister and our latest podcast guest Wayne Barnes, the key to top-class decision-making is preparation

25/07/2021

Ben Arnold

Ben Arnold

Associate Investment Director, Equity Value

Andrew Evans

Andrew Evans

Fund Manager, Equity Value

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Uncertainty boils down to the idea that more things can happen than actually do happen – including highly unusual events, such as a professional rugby player using blood capsules to fake an injury, an international rugby match lasting 100 minutes rather than the allotted 80 or, well, whatever might crop up during the three-Test series between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions over the coming weeks.

The reason we are focusing on oddities of rugby is only partly to do with the Lions tour – and more obviously inspired by the latest conversation in our series of podcasts, here on The Value Perspective, on making decisions at times of uncertainty. This time we speak to English international rugby union referee and barrister, Wayne Barnes, and kick off by asking how he approaches decision-making for a match.

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“Decision-making does not start on the pitch,” he replies. “Decision making, for me, starts ... well, it starts when your career starts because you are building a wealth of experience. That said, the key to top-class decision-making is preparation and, in the lead-up to any match, I will spend a huge amount of time preparing for what the game I am about to walk into could look like.

Paint a picture

“There are so many different aspects to a game of rugby. There is the technical side – the scrum and the line-out – but there is attack, there is defence, there is kicking. And so, in the lead-up to any big international, I will use experts in that field – not just other referees but scrum coaches, attack coaches, directors of rugby and so on to help me paint a picture of what might lie ahead.”

Pointing to his parallel career as a barrister, Barnes continues: “If I am going into a court case, I want to be fully prepared. I want to be aware of everything that might pop up so I can prepare for it and I can think about my strategy for it. To take a basic rugby example, let’s say I see an issue with a team, such as a player who will sometimes stray in front of the kicker at kick-off.

“If I can speak to the team’s coach earlier in the week and say, look, we have identified your right-winger tends to be in front of the kick-off three times out of four, then he can tell his player to stay behind the line. Then, for the spectators at the game or sitting at home watching it on television, that is three or four times less you hear me blow my whistle – and what you actually see is more rugby.”

No surprises?

In addition to scaling back how much spectators notice him during a match, Barnes’s preparation allows him to build up an idea of what he is likely to see during a game. “I will know what kind of times and to what kind of areas teams will kick, for example, and I will know roughly what they look like in defence,” he says. “This way, whatever happens during a match, nothing should surprise me.”

That said, Barnes immediately acknowledges the possibility of what he calls “nuclear events – those ones that ‘never’ happen”. “Rugby fans will remember the ‘Bloodgate’ incident in the Harlequins-Leinster game back in 2009,” he continues. “There were allegations of cheating and blood capsules being used but personally, as I sat there watching it, I started to think how I would deal with that. What would I say? How would I say it?

“It is the same way I would prepare for situations in a courtroom – what would I say if my client did X, Y, or Z? What would I do if my main witness did not say what I expected them to say? So I thought about how I would deal with the different elements of the ‘Bloodgate’ incident – although you never really expect those ‘nuclear events’ to happen to you.”

100-minute match

Eight years later, however, Barnes found himself refereeing a Six Nations match between France and Wales in Paris that featured a full 20 minutes of extra time. “There were allegations of biting, allegations of cheating and saying players were injured when they were not – all being played out on terrestrial TV in front of millions of people watching at home,” he says.

“If you have not prepared for that sort of situation, you could easily be swallowed up by that. So you have to think about what potential decisions you might have to make and plan for those – and plan for those ‘nuclear’ incidents. It all starts with preparation ahead of time to make sure that, when you have to make these kinds of decisions under pressure, you have the best opportunity of getting them right.”

The ‘premortem’ decision tool

Barnes’s approach has echoes of the ‘premortem’ decision-making tool, which regular visitors to The Value Perspective may remember from previous podcast conversations with Michael Mauboussin and Ted Seides. “We all do post-mortems to try and improve our processes,” points out Seides, “but cognitive psychologist Gary Klein looked at doing this before rather than after something goes wrong.

“He created a simple 15 or 20-minute meeting with a very rigorous structure so that, when you are ready to make a decision, you can gather your decision-making group and put yourself in the frame of mind of, not ‘What do we think might go wrong?’, but ‘OK, it is three years from today and this decision has not worked. Now let’s go around the room and ask each person – why did it fail?’”

This is not to suggest doing a premortem will necessarily change any decision – only that it has the potential to reduce overconfidence, encourage people to think differently about what might go wrong with a project or decision and, ultimately, unearth outcomes that might not yet have been discussed in what, especially for investors, can be a very momentum-driven process.

Author

Ben Arnold

Ben Arnold

Associate Investment Director, Equity Value

I joined Schroders in 2016 after spending 3 years as an analyst at the Royal Bank of Scotland. I them moved in to the Value team in January 2018 as an investment specialist after working for two years in Schroders' Distribution division. I am a CFA Charterholder and hold an MSc in Corporate Strategy from The University of Nottingham.

Andrew Evans

Andrew Evans

Fund Manager, Equity Value

I joined Schroders in 2015 as a member of the Value Investment team and manage the European Value and European Yield funds. Prior to joining Schroders, I was responsible for the UK research process at Threadneedle. I began my investment career in 2001 at Dresdner Kleinwort as a Pan-European transport analyst and hold a Economics degree.

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