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About the Commoncog Case Library

Commoncog Cases are not your typical business cases

The Commoncog Case Library is built around some powerful applied research, and designed to accelerate your business expertise. What is that research, and how do we know it works?

“I had a conversation with a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) once. We were alone. He and I were in my office. And he said something remarkably honest. He was a former CEO, actually: his company had gone bankrupt and he’d lost his job. It was a big company, by the way, not a small company. So, this was — I didn’t bring it up, I wouldn’t have brought it up because I thought it was embarrassing. But he brought it up. And then he confessed to me — and he was a Harvard MBA, which is relevant — and he said, ‘You know, when I had to make that key decision,’ he said, ‘I used the wrong case study.’ I thought this was the most incredible thing. [This CEO] shuffled through the files [in his head] — he went through the mental Rolodex of cases and he picked the one he thought was analogous to the situation he was in — and … he picked the wrong one. Of course, I'm not sure if that's really a meaningful statement. But it is a danger of the case study program: [business] is not like shooting a free throw. A free throw is the same every time: 15 feet away; the ball’s round; it's the same size; the basket’s the same size. [But in business it’s not like that]. You can’t do deliberate practice [with cases].” — Russ Roberts, economist, in an interview with Phil Rosenzweig.

How Do You Learn From Business Case Studies?

Here’s a tricky problem that you may or may not have thought about: how do the best investors and businesspeople learn from history?

Sure, we know that some of the best investors and businesspeople in the world read a lot. They read newspapers, they read annual reports, they read industry journals, and they read biography. They consistently invest in their own business education.

But that isn’t the question worth asking. That question is this: how do they learn from their reading? How do they learn from cases that have come before?

Some businesspeople do not read, but they actively seek out stories from other businesses and other businesspeople. There, the question is slightly different, but it is still the same problem: how do they learn from other people’s experiences?

This is the real challenge, isn’t it?

The question isn’t can you read as much as Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger — that’s pretty straightforward. You buy the books and you carve out the time. It is simply a matter of will. The question you need to ask is: even if you read all those books, can you learn the same way they do?

The truth is that there are many problems with learning from history. The biggest problem is that history is path dependent and unique. What has happened once may not happen again, and definitely won’t occur in the exact same way. Lessons from one industry do not cleanly apply to another. Heck, lessons from one firm often do not apply to a different firm in the same industry just a few years later!

So the wrong answer is to try and come up with some form of generalisable ‘lesson’. Lessons don’t work when it comes to cases — because cases are so varied in business and in investing. You cannot generalise to “do X when you see Y” if every case you will deal with is somewhat unique.

No, to learn from business history, you’ll need another approach. Thankfully, we don’t have to come up with that approach ourselves.

We have all of these great investors and businesspeople in front of us, after all. We can just copy them.

But in order to do that, we have to know how.

“I read and read and read. I probably read five to six hours per day. I read five daily newspapers, I read a fair number of magazines, I read 10ks, I read annual reports, and I read a lot of other things too. I've always enjoyed reading. I love reading biographies for example. - Warren Buffett

How Experts Actually Learn From History

In 2009, the United States Department of Defence commissioned a report on the best accelerated expertise training methods known to man. That report was eventually republished in 2016 as the book Accelerated Expertise. In it, the authors cite two theories as the basis for all the successful accelerated training programs they profile in their report.

One of those two theories explains how experts learn from history in business and in investing. The name of that theory is ‘Cognitive Flexibility Theory’. It is a theory of how people become experts in ill-structured domains.

In other words, it explains how expert businesspeople become expert in the first place.

What is an ill-structured domain? An ill-structured domain is a domain where there are concepts, but the way concepts show up in the real world are highly variable.

Let’s use medicine as an example. Medicine is an ill-structured domain. There are concepts in medicine like ‘heart attack’ that you can read about in a textbook. Hundreds of medical students study such textbooks every year. But they do not automatically become experts in recognising heart attacks. Why?

The answer is simple. In the real world, heart attacks can look very different depending on the circumstances. You and I imagine a heart attack as a patient suddenly collapsing, clutching their chest. But expert doctors do not think this. Expert doctors know that heart attacks can look very different depending on the patient.

Some heart attacks start out looking like indigestion.

Other heart attacks can last a whole week.

Expert doctors hold the concept of a ‘heart attack’ as a rich cluster of cases in their heads. They know that a heart attack is not just one thing — they know it can show up as many things.

Similarly, expert investors and expert businesspeople do not think of business concepts as just ‘one thing’.

They know that business concepts like “competitive advantage” or “scale economy” or “network effects” can look very different depending on the industry, time period, or even the specific company.

The question is how do you get novices to become experts in such domains? To study this, the researchers began looking at the expert doctors. How did they become expert in the first place?

What they discovered was illuminating.

Expert doctors learn to pay attention to cases more than concepts in their domain. They do so because they know that cases are so varied, and that study of the mechanisms of the concept alone won’t help them recognise real cases in the wild.

But the way they used cases was also different from the novices. Concretely, the experts do two things differently:

  1. They construct a model of the problem in front of them by combining fragments of previous cases they’ve seen.
  2. They have something called an ‘adaptive worldview’: they do not think there is just one model that can be used as an explanation for observing their chosen domain. They are willing to entertain many different ‘lenses’ at the same time.

What this means is that when experts encounter a new concept in an ill-structured domain, they know not to oversimplify. They do not reduce the concept down to one or two sentences, or even a handful of examples. Instead, they collect many, many examples of the concept in their heads. They also actively and constantly seek out new examples, in order to improve their understanding of the concept in the real world.

That way, when it is time to act, they can recognise the concept in the wild by drawing on fragments from all of the previous cases they know.

This is what separates experts from novices in ill-structured domains. Novices learn a concept and think that one or two examples shall suffice. Experts know that no finite amount of examples will ever suffice, and collect as many cases as they can for every concept they care for, for the rest of their lives.

The researchers began to realise that this is how experts in all ill-structured domains operate. By pure trial and error, experts in all of these domains converged onto the same approach.

Which brings us to this point.

The military was interested in these findings because warfighting is an ill-structured domain. They wanted their recruits to become expert soldiers quicker, faster.

We are interested in these findings because business and investing are ill-structured domains.

We want to use these methods to get better at business, faster.


“I am a biography nut myself. And I think when you're trying to teach the great concepts that work, it helps to tie them into the lives and personalities of the people who developed them. I think you learn economics better if you make Adam Smith your friend. That sounds funny, making friends among ‘the eminent dead,’ but if you go through life making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas, I think it will work better for you in life and work better in education. It’s way better than just giving the basic concepts. — Charlie Munger, in Poor Charlie’s Almanack

Steal This Insight

So far, nothing we’ve described is radically novel. This research lays plain what businesspeople like Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett have been saying for decades.

  1. Read business biography, annual reports, news articles, and so on … but treat them as concept instantiations: examples of concepts in action.
  2. Store these cases in your head, so that the concepts are represented as clusters of examples. The larger and richer the cluster, the better.
  3. Practice problem solving by constantly comparing between the cases in your head.
  4. Any time you see an example of a concept that is somewhat new to you, pay special attention by comparing with other cases you know. Look for surprising similarities and surprising dissimilarities. Take notes, and file it away for future reference.
  5. The larger the set of cases in your head, the less surprised you will be when acting in business or investing, because the better your pattern recognition will be.
  6. The larger the set of cases in your head, the more likely you will be able to correctly diagnose the situation, and keep your wits about you as you decide on a course of action.

In other words, cases don’t tell you what to do, they teach you how to see.

A novice will say “This doesn’t look like a scale economy advantage to me.”

An expert will say, “This is absolutely a scale economy advantage, though extremely weird. But I know it because I’ve seen it before, this one company in the late 80s …”

If you are convinced by this insight, you may stop now and go execute as the great investors do. It’ll only take you a few decades of reading to catch up.

But: is there a way to accelerate this?

And the answer to that is: yes, there is.

How The Commoncog Case Library Accelerates Business Expertise

What we’ve covered so far isn’t the complete story.

Cognitive Flexibility Theory describes how experts become experts in ill-structured domains. But the researchers also had a bunch of recommendations to speed up the process. This bit — this bit — is the bit that Commoncog’s Case Library is built around.

The researchers say you can speed things up by compiling a case library for students to take explore. They recommend presenting 10-20 cases per concept — the more varied, the better. They suggest students solve problems by referencing a case library, to build the habit of rapidly flipping through cases in one’s head.

The Commoncog Case Library takes this recommendation, and builds on it.

Think about it: say you want to take this insight, and execute a reading program for yourself.

What problems will you face? You will:

  • Have to carve out time to read. Buffett and Munger arranged their lives to spend huge amounts of time reading. You might not have that luxury.
  • Have to hunt for good cases. But this is hard — you may need to spend 10x the time reading and hunting before you uncover good gems.
  • You’ll have to do this alone — though you could create a learning group of your own.
  • And unless you create that learning group, your knowledge compounds as a result of your own efforts, not as a result of the shared efforts of an entire group.

The Commoncog Case Library takes this research and accelerates it by doing the hard work for you.

  1. We seek out and summarise cases for you.
  2. We present you with cases in a live, hyperlinked format — with multiple cases and concepts all interlinked.
  3. You are placed, immediately, into a learning community, with which you can share analysis and comparisons.
  4. And, finally, it grows without your doing anything.

The Commoncog Case Library comes bundled as part of a Commoncog membership.

Go on, give it a spin: