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Skating over the line

July 29, 2014

When Paul Moroz and his brother were little boys they both played hockey. While Paul played an aggressive left wing, Jason was a staunch defender. They were both taught to play their positions, which meant that Paul was taught to attack and Jason was instructed to stay back, protect the net, and clear the puck. It was a system that helped to turn an otherwise chaotic group of kids into proper hockey players. And it worked most of the time… except when it failed brilliantly.

During one fateful game, the puck came to Jason and the ice opened up before him – it was a clean breakaway opportunity. With his family cheering and the puck firmly in his control, Jason pushed forward into the open space, gliding towards the other end of the rink… that is, until he hit the blue line and slid to a spectacular halt. “KEEP GOING,” the arena yelled. But Jason sat there at the blue line, unsure of what to do. His strict training as a defender had taught him to stay back.

Narrow rules have a cost. Although there is value in the clarity of rule, process and position, a system must also be flexible. The world often does not operate as we want it to, but when opportunities arise, we must be ready to act. In that moment, Jason saw himself as a defender playing a set zone instead of a hockey player with a rare chance at a breakaway. He missed an opportunity because his perception of what he could do was arbitrarily constrained by an inflexible rule.

I often wonder how often this trap befalls others. How many little girls don’t pursue sciences because ‘girls aren’t good at math’? How many employees don’t speak up when they have a good idea, because hierarchy dictates that it is not their place? How many straightforward opportunities to improve social conditions are missed by governments because their bureaucracies move too slowly?

Although our team greatly values method, one should never adopt a process just for the sake of having one. Rules must ultimately serve a purpose (an area in which my Condo Board and I routinely disagree). Positions must be flexible. Moreover, they both need to allow for unpredictable, unknowable opportunities. This is not a luxury but a requirement for investors, all of whom must be ready to act on opportunities in the market.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Marc Ecko speak on this very topic. A highly successful American fashion designer, entrepreneur, investor and artist, Marc has a deep skepticism for what he views as long-standing, yet pointless bureaucracy. I will never forget the advice he gave us that day. Putting a picture of a Blivet (below) up on the screen, Marc lamented this visually confusing image, which was, in his words, “totally pointless.”

He then offered advice I still take to heart: when a rule starts to feel like a Blivet: question it.

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