Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Experimentation and Causal Inference: Strategy and Innovation

Knowledge is the most important resource in a firm and the essence of organizational capability, innovation, value creation, strategy, and competitive advantage. Causal knowledge is no exception.In previous posts I have discussed the value proposition of experimentation and causal inference from both mainline and behavioral economic perspectives. This series of posts has been greatly influenced by Jim Manzi's book 'Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society.' Midway through the book Manzi highlights three important things that experimentation and causal inference in business settings can do:

1) Precision around the tactical implementation of strategy
2) Feedback on the performance of a strategy and refinements driven by evidence
3) Achievement of organizational and strategic alignment

Manzi explains that within any corporation there are always silos and subcultures advocating competing strategies with perverse incentives and agendas in pursuit of power and control. How do we know who is right and which programs or ideas are successful, considering the many factors that could be influencing any outcome of interest?  Manzi describes any environment where the number of causes of variation are enormous as an environment that has 'high causal density.' We can claim to address this with a data driven culture, but what does that mean? How do we know what is, and isn't supported by data? Modern companies in a digital age with AI and big data are drowning in data. This makes it easy to adorn rhetoric in advanced analytical frameworks. Because data seldom speaks, anyone can speak for the data through wily data story telling.  Decision makers fail to make the distinction between just having data, and having evidence to support good decisions.

As Jim Manzi and Stefan Thomke discuss in Harvard Business Review:

"business experiments can allow companies to look beyond correlation and investigate causality....Without it, executives have only a fragmentary understanding of their businesses, and the decisions they make can easily backfire."

Without experimentation and causal inference, there is know way to connect the things we do with the value created. In complex environments with high causal density, we don't know enough about the nature and causes of human behavior, decisions, and causal paths from actions to outcomes to list them all and measure and account for them even if we could agree how to measure them. This is the nature of decision making under uncertainty. But, as R.A. Fisher taught us with his agricultural experiments, randomized tests allow us to account for all of these hidden factors (Manzi calls them hidden conditionals). Only then does our data stand a chance to speak truth. Experimentation and causal inference don't provide perfect information but they are the only means by which we can begin to say that we have data and evidence to inform the tactical implementation of our strategy as opposed to pretending that we do based on correlations alone. As economist F.A. Hayek once said:

"I prefer true but imperfect knowledge, even if it leaves much undetermined and unpredictable, to a pretense of exact knowledge that is likely to be false"

In Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today's Business While Creating the Future authors discuss the importance of experimentation and causal inference as a way to navigate uncertainty in causally dense environments in what they refer to as transformation B:

“Whenever you innovate, you can never be sure about the assumptions on which your business rests. So, like a good scientist, you start with a hypothesis, then design and experiment. Make sure the experiment has clear objectives (why are you running it and what do you hope to learn). Even if you have no idea what the right answer is, make a prediction. Finally, execute in such a way that you can measure the prediction, such as running a so-called A/B test in which you vary a single factor."

Experiments aren't just tinkering and trying new things. While these are helpful to innovation, just tinkering and observing still leaves you speculating about what really works and is subject to all the same behavioral biases and pitfalls of big data previously discussed.

List and Gneezy address this in The Why Axis:

"Many businesses experiment and often...businesses always tinker...and try new things...the problem is that businesses rarely conduct experiments that allow a comparison between a treatment and control group...Business experiments are research investigations that give companies the opportunity to get fast and accurate data regarding important decisions."

Three things distinguish experimentation and causal inference from just tinkering:

1) Separation of signal from noise (statistical inference)
2) Connecting cause and effect  (causal inference)
3) Clear signals on business value that follows from 1 & 2 above

Having causal knowledge helps identify more informed and calculated risks vs. risks taken on the basis of gut instinct, political motivation, or overly optimistic and behaviorally biased data-driven correlational pattern finding analytics. 

Experimentation and causal inference add incremental knowledge and value to business. No single experiment is going to be a 'killer app' that by itself will generate millions in profits. But in aggregate the knowledge created by experimentation and causal inference probably offers the greatest strategic value across an enterprise compared to any other analytic method.

As discussed earlier, experimentation and causal inference creates value by helping manage the knowledge problem within firms, it's worth repeating again from List and Gneezy:

"We think that businesses that don't experiment and fail to show, through hard data, that their ideas can actually work before the company takes action - are wasting their money....every day they set suboptimal prices, place adds that do not work, or use ineffective incentive schemes for their work force, they effectively leave millions of dollars on the table."

As Luke Froeb writes in Managerial Economics, A Problem Solving Approach (3rd Edition):

"With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify successful strategies (and the reasons for their success) or failed strategies (and the reason for their failures). It's much more difficult to identify successful or failed strategies before they succeed or fail."

Again from Dual Transformation:

"Explorers recognize they can't know the right answer, so they want to invest as little as possible in learning which of their hypotheses are right and which ones are wrong"

Experimentation and causal inference offer the opportunity to test strategies early on a smaller scale to get causal feedback about potential success or failure before fully committing large amounts of irrecoverable resources. They allow us to fail smarter and learn faster. Experimentation and causal inference play a central role in product development, strategy, and innovation across a range of industries and companies like Harrah's casinos, Capital One, Petco, Publix, State Farm, Kohl's, Wal-Mart, and Humana who have been leading in this area for decades in addition to new ventures like Amazon and Uber. 

"At Uber Labs, we apply behavioral science insights and methodologies to help product teams improve the Uber customer experience. One of the most exciting areas we’ve been working on is causal inference, a category of statistical methods that is commonly used in behavioral science research to understand the causes behind the results we see from experiments or observations...Teams across Uber apply causal inference methods that enable us to bring richer insights to operations analysis, product development, and other areas critical to improving the user experience on our platform." - From: Using Causal Inference to Improve the Uber User Experience (link)

Economist Joshua Angrist explains about his students that have went on to work for companies like Amazon: "when I ask them what are they up to they say...we're running experiments."

Achieving the greatest value from experimentation and causal inference requires leadership commitment.  It also demands a culture that is genuinely open to learning through a blend of trial and error, data driven decision making informed by theory and experiments, and the infrastructure necessary for implementing enough tests and iterations to generate the knowledge necessary for rapid learning and innovation. It requires business leaders, strategists, and product managers to think about what they are trying to achieve and asking causal questions to get there (vs. data scientists sitting in an ivory tower dreaming up models or experiments of their own). The result is a corporate culture that allows an organization to formulate, implement, and modify strategy faster and more tactfully than others.

See also:
Experimentation and Causal Inference: The Knowledge Problem
Experimentation and Causal Inference: A Behavioral Economics Perspective
Statistics is a Way of Thinking, Not a Box of Tools