Henry Schniewind off-piste

Avalanches Talk To Financial Planners

The theme of his talk is decision-making, risk and crisis management from an exciting avalanche point of view.

The title of this closing keynote session is ‘Nothing happens most of the time’. It looks at how high consequence and low validity (or low feedback risk contexts) like avalanche terrain and the financial sector mislead even the best of us into making simple errors that can have catastrophic results.

Henry will be showing how and why the international avalanche community has applied behavioural economics and finance concepts to avalanche accident prevention techniques. This can be seen in current solutions to accident reduction, which revolve more around human factors and Daniel Kahneman, expert on the psychology of judgement and decision-making, than around examining snowpack evolution, metamorphism and avalanche forecasting.

Concluding on a note of optimism, Henry will look at the problem of avoidable accident reduction and provide a risk reduction framework that can make engaging in avalanche terrain, like off-piste skiing, no more dangerous than common everyday activity.

Snow.Guide ski editor, Rob Stewart, caught up with Schniewind before the conference to find out exactly what will be delivered to an audience of financial planners, and why skiing off-piste should have any relevance to a group of professionals in the business of money and finance.

Schniewind, internationally renowned snow and avalanche expert, off-piste ski guide and founder of Henry’s Avalanche Talk, starts by explaining that engaging in avalanche terrain can be surprisingly safe if basic risk reduction measures are applied, but surprisingly dangerous if they are not. This has been shown in research, most notably by avalanche expert Bruce Tremper. This fact is logical if you consider that 90% of accidents involve avalanches that were triggered by the victims themselves. Less rational is the fact that the vast majority of avalanche victims did not apply their knowledge learned in training despite multiple signs of danger – signs that they should have picked up on based on their experience. The question then is “Why didn’t the victims of avalanches apply their training and experience?”. Why were they in effect, irrational?

One of the main reasons people stop paying attention to facts, observable evidence and applying rational/real risk reduction measures in avalanche terrain is because Most of the time nothing happens. Indeed, a steep unstable slope with snow on it that ‘should’ avalanche will not actually do so, even when 100s or possibly 1000s of people ski on it without applying any risk reduction measures at all. This is what we mean by low-validity. The slope gives no feedback as, say, a stilt walker would if you took an axe to one of their stilts! This is also known as a ‘false negative’ response (when the slope is unstable enough to be triggered and release but doesn’t).

The problem is that when avalanche terrain does give feedback, the triggered avalanche can and does kill, often to the surprise of everyone… then with hindsight, people put the pieces together and say, “of course the reasons were clear!”. The comments then in wake of the tragic event are akin to “Gosh, they really should have known better…” and we shake our heads and say that it’s the human factor again…

“The basics were known but they weren’t followed” says Atul Gawande, author of the WHO surgical safety checklist, a one-page document required by the NHS to reduce avoidable death and injury in surgery, and of the book The Checklist Manifesto.

Schniewind said:

“Basically, what happens is that when we don’t get feedback from our surroundings, and no-one else does either, we stop being attentive to the dangers and thus stop applying risk reduction measures. What’s worse is that this risky behaviour is thus rewarded (due to this the false negative feedback), and that encourages even riskier behaviour without the person being conscious of it. When this scenario happens, off-piste and ski touring becomes a very dangerous activity indeed.”

In order to understand better why people make irrational decisions in avalanche terrain, the international avalanche safety community turned to the world of behavioural psychology for the simple reason that other professions facing the same problems had done this with positive results. Aviation, medicine, military, business and economics. It turns out that Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow plus several other books on heuristics, decision making and behavioural economics, describes the risk context of the finance sector in much the same way as we describe the avalanche risk context.

From an article entitled, Daniel Kahneman: Four Keys to Better Decision Making by Paul McCaffrey 08 June 2018. In a section called ‘The Perils of Intuition’ of Kahneman’s speech to the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) Institute, he states “We trust our intuitions even when they’re wrong,”

He goes on to say that in order to be able to develop accurate decision-making through intuition, it requires a particular kind of experience that can become “real expertise”, but this type of expertise can really only be developed “in a context that gives regular feedback, that is effectively testable”.

“Is the (finance) world regular enough so that we have an opportunity to learn its rules? The answer is probably no… it isn’t sufficiently regular for people to learn rules.”

“That doesn’t stop people from confidently predicting financial outcomes based on their experience…That sort of intuition is really superstition.”

“When somebody tells you that they have a strong hunch about a financial event,” he says, “the safe thing to do is not to believe them.”

One of the solutions for preventing errors that lead to avoidable accidents that comes from Kahneman’s speech is to follow a set of principals based on proven and observable fact. Indeed, one of Kahneman’s ‘Keys to better decisions’ is “Don’t Trust People, Trust Algorithms”.

‘Algorithm’ is really just a fancy word for a set of rules. Schniewind prefers to call this a “risk reduction framework”. Schniewind’s own avalanche accident prevention framework is a synthesis of his 35 years’ work in the field. It embraces the idea put forth also by Ian McCammon in his ground-breaking study for the avalanche safety community entitled Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications (2002 & 2004).

The problem was not that these victims didn’t have enough knowledge to make good decisions; the problem was that they didn’t know how to apply the knowledge that they did have.

To solve this problem, McCammon continues to emphasise that you need,

..easily applied decision tools. Luckily, such tools don’t need to be perfect to save lives.

These ‘tools’ just need to be more accurate than assumptions and quick thinking ‘snap solutions’, like using intuition.

Schniewind’s ‘tool’, or his framework as he calls it, helps people to focus on what is accurate (see his framework on the Avalanche Talk website) rather than the assumptions that lead victims into tragic accidents. Inaccurate assumptions and overgeneralisations like: there’s tracks on the slope, so it’s OK; it’s safe in the trees; the danger is in springtime and on south-facing slopes etc. have killed many people.

The work Henry has been doing over the last 30 years has helped to raise awareness of these issues, and it has saved lives. Because of this, other professions that work in these ‘low validity – high consequence’ contexts: surgery, military, business and finance, have taken notice of Henry’s technique and hired him. Major safety organisations in the avalanche and snow industry have also noticed.

Dominique Létang from ANENA, the French National Avalanche Association, recently commented on Schniewind’s achievements:

“According to estimates, Henry Schniewind’s work in the field of communication, avalanche awareness and training with foreign visitors in France has prevented over 100 avalanche deaths over the last 30 years.”

Ever striving to improve on his success, Schniewind will be demonstrating, at the CISI Financial Planners Conference, a new ‘Zoom in – Zoom out’ addition to his framework.

Zoom Out is focusing on that top-level area of the framework, sort of like the ‘snap decision making’ that gets us into trouble! BUT these are accurate points! It’s for when you just don’t have the time or headspace to process a lengthy analysis of the situation. It’s not complete, but it helps avoid the flawed quick-thinking that leads to so many accidents. For example, the 30° slope angle rule (deadly avalanches are never triggered on or around slopes of less than 30° slope steepness). This point combined with the ‘Terrain Trap’ avoidance rule are both basically ‘snap decision’ kind of thinking, but much, much more accurate and predictable in terms of accident reduction than some sort of intuition about a specific slope’s chance of being triggered on a given day (even by experts).

Zoom In is the attention to more, then all, the risk reduction points in the framework that are known to make off-piste skiing and touring ‘surprisingly’ safe.

It was Chartered Wealth Manager, Andrew Gillett, a keen skier and a member of the financial planners community involved with the conference, who managed to persuade Henry to get involved. Gillett said:

“Given my career in financial planning, I thought that risk assessment and critical decision-making transfer well from snow to personal finance and, in particular, Henry’s ‘where/when/how?’ mantra (framework) is something that could develop as a relevant thought process for financial planners. It’s especially close to recent articles and blogs arguing over whether capacity for loss means whether the client’s cash flow requirements can be met if investments fall by X%, or does it mean more without the returns of Y%, where the client’s long-term objectives cannot be achieved. In other words, that a degree of risk is compulsory”.

To conclude his speaking part of the session and to stimulate Q & A, Schniewind will plug in financial planning points provided by Andrew Gillett and others to his framework. Henry’s entertaining avalanche talk style combined with discussions about risk in the financial planning sector, will ensure that this conference will end on a highlight!