Sam Hinkie’s letter to the equity partners of Philadelphia 76ers for the month of April, 2016.
I hope this letter finds you well. I have been serving the Sixers at your pleasure for the past 34 months. Atul Gawande, a Surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, remains (from afar) one of my favorite reads. He laughs that reading scientific studies has long been a guilty pleasure. Reading investor letters has long been one of mine.
What I hope to accomplish here is to give you insight into what has transpired behind the scenes in ways you might not have otherwise heard about. Many of you attended our most recent board meeting in New York, where many of these topics were addressed. But for all twelve of you, I hope that this provides a deeper look into what you have at your organization. Accordingly, you should anticipate some mild cheerleading (of others) sprinkled with a healthy dose of self-flagellation about things I’ve done wrong.
There has been much criticism of our approach. There will be more. A competitive league like the NBA necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag. We often chose not to defend ourselves against much of the criticism, largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room. To attempt to convince others that our actions are just will serve to paint us in a different light among some of our competitors as progressives worth emulating, versus adversaries worthy of their disdain. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes the optimal place for your light is hiding directly under a bushel.
Lastly, this letter will only speak to the part of the business that I’m today’s steward of: the basketball team and its attendant operations. With Scott O’Neil running our business operations, you are in good hands. I can assure you that when your team is eventually able to compete deep into May, Scott will ably and efficiently separate the good people of the Delaware Valley from their wallets on your behalf. Worry not.
A league with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn’t look like much progress, if any. Abraham Lincoln said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
In May of 1969, a 38-year-old Warren Buffett sat down at a typewriter to inform his investors that he was closing his fund (then Buffett Partnership). His reason: market conditions were such that he no longer had the requisite confidence that he could make good decisions on behalf of the investors and deliver on his commitments to them. So he would stop investing on their behalf.
For me, that’s today. Given all the changes to our organization, I no longer have the confidence that I can make good decisions on behalf of investors in the Sixers—you. So I should step down. And I have.
In one sense, it pains me that it has come to this and that I would go at the end of a particularly down year in the standings, one that has been painful for all of us. But the fact is—and a young Buffett said it much better than I ever could—“I am not attuned to this environment, and I don’t want to spoil a decent record by trying to play a game I don’t understand just so I can go out a hero.”
Sam Hinkie - Thinking about thinking
I admire Seth Klarman a great deal. I am consistently impressed by his conviction and humility, a rare combination. About their approach at Baupost, he says, “it isn’t the only way of thinking, but it’s how we approach it.” Below is some insight into a few things we value and how we’ve approached decision making at the Sixers.
First, this list is anything but exhaustive, and hardly mine alone. Whenever possible, I think cross-pollinating ideas from other contexts is far, far better than attempting to solve our problems in basketball as if no one has ever faced anything similar. Accordingly, this approach comes from a frequent search into behavioral economics, cognitive science, and a lot of observation and trial and error over my 11 years in the NBA. And mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes.
To begin, let’s stand on the shoulders of Charlie Munger, a giant to me. He is a man that’s been thinking about thinking longer than I’ve been alive. Let’s start with him and his approach. His two-part technique is:
- First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered?
- Second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things—which by and large are useful, but which often malfunctions?
To do this requires you to divorce process from outcome. You can be right for the wrong reasons. In our business, you’re often lionized for it. You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid. There is signal everywhere that Joel is unique, from the practice gyms in Lawrence, Kansas to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to Doha, Qatar where he does something awe inspiring far too regularly. We remain hopeful (and optimistic) about his long-term playing career, but we don’t yet know exactly how it will turn out. The decision to draft Joel third, though, still looks to me to be the correct one in hindsight given the underlying reasoning. But to call something that could be wrong (“failed draft pick”) right (“good decision”) makes all of our heads hurt, mine included.
So we have to look deeper at process. Here’s a go at it:
(I would be dismayed if you don’t see pockets of this kind of thinking throughout the organization. In fact, I will feel like I’ve let you down.)
Sam Hinkie - The importance of intellectual humility
Lifelong learning is where it’s at. To walk down that path requires a deep-seated humility about a) what’s knowable, and b) what each of us know. We hire for this aggressively. We celebrate this internally. And we’ve been known to punish when we find it woefully lacking.
We talk a great deal about being curious, not critical. About asking the question until you understand something truly. About not being afraid to ask the obvious question that everyone else seems to know the answer to. And about the willingness to say three simple words, “I don’t know.”
Tesla’s Elon Musk describes his everyday stance as, “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.” The physicist James Clerk Maxwell described it as a “thoroughly conscious ignorance—the prelude to every real advance in science.” Bill James of the Boston Red Sox (and, I might add, a Kansas basketball expert) added a little flair when asked whether the learnings available via examining evidence were exhausted: “we’ve only taken a bucket of knowledge from a sea of ignorance.”
A way to prop up this kind of humility is to keep score. Use a decision journal. Write in your own words what you think will happen and why before a decision. Refer back to it later. See if you were right,