‘What were they thinking?’ And Other Questions For A Prize Committee

By Bob Bruner-

“despite the deserving nature of this year’s selection, a growing number of Nobel watchers say the (Peace) prize is damaged. They fear recent honorees…reflect a prestige-tarnishing politicization of the award.”Jochen Bittner, New York Times, Oct. 11, 2013.

“the peace prize…has had a decidedly mixed track record. Recently, it’s been awarded, for example, to Barack Obama, exactly for what it’s not clear (we hope it’s not for his tireless work for the cause of world peace through his drone attacks and kill orders). It’s been awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president previously implicated and indicted for her involvement with Charles Taylor’s rebellion and crimes against humanity by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Committee .”Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson October 17, 2012.

“the integrity of [the Nobel Prize in Literature] has come under question in Sweden. Göran Malmqvist, a sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy, was instrumental in Mo’s selection, lobbying the academy to recognize the Chinese writer and providing Swedish translations of the writer’s work to other members of the academy. Now he stands to benefit financially from those translations. According to a report by Swedish Television, Malmqvist will provide his translations to a Swedish publisher for publication. And according to the head of that publishing company, Tranan, because of the intense interest on Mo’s work as a result of his Nobel win Malmqvist will likely be able to name his own price. “Elias Groll, October 18, 2012.

The Nobel Prizes have incredibly high brand cachet. Yet in recent years, have drawn increasing criticism. Choosing prizewinners well is not easy work and is fraught with extraordinary challenges. And no matter who is the chosen prizewinner, someone somewhere is bound to be upset with the decision. But the recent controversies over the Nobel Prizes seem noisier and more substantive than usual. What were the prize committees thinking? The more important question is, ’How were they thinking?” The Nobel committees are notably mum. But the possible answers hold some important lessons for leaders (and followers). Here is my gallery of rogues and red flags.

The invitation. An industry group with an anodyne name, such as ’The Society for the Organization of Associations,” appeals to you to serve on its prize committee. You’re an outsider to the industry. Such invitations are tempting because they invariably aim to recognize excellence in some dimension of leadership or business practice. Plus, there may be the opportunity for some interesting networking and a free meal or two. Right at the get-go, it is important to ask why they want your advice, and whether they will listen to it. If they are deaf, your reputation will have been ’rented” for the occasion.

Mission drift. You must start with a clear understanding (and endorsement) of the mission of the organization and of the prize. If it is a serious prize and therefore worth your time and effort, it can’t be about gratifying some important person or making some people feel good. The prize must have a purpose. Beware that some members of the committee may want to ’make a statement” about some new development in the field by granting the prize in a way that may have little or nothing to do with its mission. Be very careful about statement-making. Stick to the mission or quit.

Information asymmetry and the in-group phenomenon. As an outsider to the field, you probably don’t know as much about the industry and its members as do the insiders. Worse, the insiders know one-another reasonably well. They probably know the hierarchy of status among the insiders, can anticipate their agendas and read subtle signals. This asymmetry creates an eerie feeling, like a novice gets at a Las Vegas poker table. As Warren Buffett said, ’If you don’t know who is the fool in a deal, it’s you.”

Candor and integrity. Members of the committee must be free to say what they think, but within the bounds of objectivity and while avoiding partisan advocacy. Much like corporate boards of directors, the members of a prize committee have a fiduciary obligation to the mission of the prize and its sponsoring organization. The rule should be to leave one’s private agenda outside. You must have confidence in the integrity of everyone on the committee to faithfully observe the mission of the prize.

Veneer of objectivity and diligence. Many prize processes begin with some scheme of nominations from the field. Then the staff gathers information and packages it into a beautiful three-ring binder. Members of the committee are expected to study the documents and then send in a preliminary vote indicating an evaluation based on the written materials alone. This will take a weekend or several evenings of your work. Then the meeting of the committee may entail two or more rounds of voting in which the finalists are selected. This is followed by lengthy discussion, where things get really interesting—and influential. So influential that one wonders why they bothered with the processes of data-gathering and voting in the first place.

Strategic voting. Elaborate selection systems and the existence of an in-group tend to prompt strategic behavior. In one case, each member of the committee had points that could be spread out across more than one nominee. Comments in the discussion revealed that members had voted in ways that anticipated the voting of other members.

Payback. You know that the prize is in trouble when the committee members convey a sense of entitlement or payback to someone. ’Last year we gave the award to XXX. This year it’s YYY’s turn.” See my comments about mission.

Defining achievement down, and conflict avoidance. People on the committee may seem eager to converge on an agreeable outcome rather than serve the mission of the award or observe the selection criteria. This is understandable given the amount of homework and lengthy deliberative process. Someone may say, ’don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” as a way of justifying some consensus choice. But a prize is a prize, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ’a thing given as a reward to the winner of a competition or in recognition of an outstanding achievement…something of great value that is worth struggling to achieve.” The prize committee should always remember it has an alternative to a mediocre recipient: granting no prize at all.

The ’gotcha” moment. At a tipping point in the deliberations, a member of the committee may reveal an acquaintance with a nominee. In one instance, the nominee was criticized for unspecified behavior unbecoming the values of the sponsoring organization. No laws had been broken. But the say-so of this prominent person sent murmurs through the committee. No one went onto the Internet to check the facts. Nor did this trigger a reputation review of all the other nominees. This particular nominee sank from finalist to oblivion on the assertions of one member of the committee.

The personal testimonial. The polar opposite to a ’gotcha,” is a glowing reference provided by an influential member of the committee. This reference will typically derive from a personal acquaintance (work/family/community) that is not available to other members of the committee. The effect may be to vault a nominee who had not been a serious contender for the prize before this endorsement into finalist status. If you hear much of this kind of talk, you should wonder how representative is the committee of the sponsoring organization’s membership: has the prize committee been ’stacked”?

In a hurry. Research on negotiation behavior reveals that granting any conflict-ridden discussion more time tends to yield more thoughtful outcomes. Haste makes waste.

If you don’t think these deviances are likely, think again. See for instance, any number of movies and books that illustrate the behavioral foundations of group decisions. One of my favorites is the movie, Twelve Angry Men. See also, the writings of Irving Janis, on ’groupthink” and the Bay of Pigs invasion—his book, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos is a classic.

Reflecting on the controversies about prizes, what should one consider before leading or joining a prize committee?

  1. Does the prize itself embrace values that matter to you? Do you care enough about these values to be able to speak up in the face of total opposition by the rest of the committee? ’Be good and you will be lonely,” said Mark Twain. If all else fails and you get used, you must be able to look at the statement that the prize makes. We give prizes to lift up values in society.
  2. Are the criteria for awarding the prize clearly stated? Do these criteria reflect the values in point #1? Mushy criteria produce mushy results.
  3. Do you trust the chair of the committee to adhere to the mission of the prize and the organization?
  4. Can the award criteria be measured objectively? Can data be gathered to compute these metrics?
  5. What, exactly, is the deliberative process like? How much time is available for discussion? A system of preliminary and final voting helps to concentrate the mind of the committee. But discussion before final voting is very influential. A good committee chair will try to avoid ’bandwagon” thinking. Thus, a material break between discussion and final voting is a very good strategy.
  6. What due diligence research is performed on the nominees? These days, reporters and the public at large will almost certainly scan the Internet upon the announcement of the prizewinner. The prize sponsor should assiduously avoid ’gotcha” discoveries by the public after the announcement—or by individual committee members during deliberations. This requires very thorough research in advance.
  7. Who will be on the prize committee? Are they equally familiar with the sponsoring organization and its aims? Does it look like the committee is dominated by an in-group? Do they have your confidence for objective and critical thinking?
  8. Why, exactly, have you been invited to serve on the prize committee?

If a prize has lost the confidence of the public, my advice is to suspend it for a couple of years and then resume with a completely new committee and processes. Many prizes acquire a franchise and cadence of their own, which will discourage this solution—this kind of path dependency is a contributor to the decline of the prize.

You ought to serve on prize committees. The world needs your perspective and objectivity. Like jury duty, this is the price to pay for a civilized society. But beware that the well-intentioned and exalted prizes can go astray, less because of the ’why” and more because of the ’how” of their selection.