A Better Bias

A Better Bias

By Michael E. Raynor

Theory To Practice

Michael E. Raynor headshotI play tennis. Badly. I’m reasonably athletic and fit, which makes it all the more frustrating when I get my hat handed to me by folks at least a decade older who couldn’t run five kilometers or do a chin-up if their lives depended on it. There I am, wheezing like a two-pack-a-day smoker, while they’ve barely broken a sweat racking up a 6-2, 6-3 victory.

What really takes the fuzz off my tennis balls is that when I hit in practice, I’m actually pretty good. I can hit a solid topspin forehand or a deep cross-court one-handed backhand, and I can do it consistently. I just can’t do it consistently—or for that matter, sometimes at all—in a game.

Why not?

In practice, I focus on my form: low body position, good footwork, full follow-through . . . textbook stuff. As a result, I hit pretty well, and the vast majority of the time, the ball lands in and even goes where I want it to more than reasonably often.

In a game, on the other hand, I worry about getting the shot in. Not focusing on form means I tighten up, I don’t follow through, I’m hitting off of straight legs—it’s a disaster. And so the ball sails out pretty much as often as not.

This infuriates me. Whatever I think I know about the importance of focusing on form to hit good shots, I simply don’t do it when it counts. There’s some sort of visceral and deep-seated bias that overrides my frontal lobe and, in direct opposition to the outcome I want, has me clanging easy overheads off my racquet frame and sending basic ground strokes wide, long, or into the net.

(In my defense, my serve, at least, is consistently mediocre both in practice and in games.)

The same sort of thing happens to a lot of managers trying to improve their companies’ performance. In talking to business leaders, I hear little opposition to the notion that differentiation is very likely more attractive than price-based competition to achieve success. The superiority of increasing revenue over decreasing cost to drive profitability has been memorialized in the aphorism that ”you can’t cut your way to greatness.“

So why do so many managers reach for price and cost levers when the going gets tough? What is it about the challenges of ”the game“ that cause us to abandon what we say we believe is right? Why, when so much more than a meaningless tennis match is on the line, do so many managers stop ”focusing on form“ (differentiation and revenue) and obsess on ”making the shot“ (price and cost)?

Maybe it’s a lack of data.

I asked my 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to watch one of my matches and mark down every shot into one of two categories based on her assessment of what I was focusing on (good form vs. making the shot), and also to record whether the shot went in or not. (Charlotte, thanks, sweetie; Daddy owes you one!)

About two-thirds of my shots were in a third category Charlotte had soon defined on her own: ”?“ Out of the mouths of babes comes a painful but likely too-accurate assessment of the internal confusion that reigns whenever I take the court.

In any event, the remaining one-third of my shots were split about 50-50 between whether I was focusing on form or trying to make the shot, but their respective success rates were reassuringly in favor of what I had hoped would be true: About 70 percent of the ”form-focused“ shots were successful, compared to about 40 percent of the ”shot-focused“ shots.

In short, all those tennis coaches have been right.

Now, you’d think such data wouldn’t make any difference. I would have told you that the coaches were right before I cajoled my unfortunate daughter into this rather bizarre use of a Friday evening.

But somehow it did make a difference: In subsequent games, I’ve been playing much better (though we’ll have to see if it sticks). I seem to be able to overcome whatever it was that prevented me from doing what I thought I believed would lead to better performance (that is, I now focus on form) and actually do it with some consistency. I’ve won matches I would once have lost, and when I lose, I’m not losing so ”ugly“: The shots that miss are likely to ”just“ miss, and as a welcome side effect, I no longer look like such a klutz nor have to suppress my self-directed rage at playing so far below the level I feel I should.

The idea that form matters most even in a game is not something of which I thought I needed convincing. I thought it was a question of more practice. Somehow, though, the good habits I created in practice weren’t carrying over into matches, so simply getting even better with the ball machine was unlikely to help. My game-situation instincts had created an impermeable membrane between practice and match. With these new data, however, I’ve had the courage and confidence to act on those beliefs, and they’ve been reinforced by subsequent experience.

As a result, my biases have pretty much flipped. In the bad old days, when a shot sailed long I’d think, ”I have to take it easy; I have to shorten up; I have to get the shot in.“ I’d forget that I’d made the previous four shots in that rally by focusing on my form, and thus would begin the sometimes very short slide into a frustrating defeat. It was a classically dysfunctional confirmation bias—the selective attention to data consistent with a prior belief and the unintentional disregarding of data that goes in the other direction.

Now, in contrast, I congratulate myself when ”form“ wins a point and ignore the fact that some very ugly volleys actually might have carried the day. In other words, I’ve replaced one bias (focus on the shot) with another (focus on the form). It’s just that now it’s the right bias that distorts my interpretation of the data, which leads to a virtuous cycle of improvement rather than my old friend, the death spiral.

My hope is that years of research into the drivers of superior corporate profitability will do for you what Charlotte’s evening with a clipboard has done for my tennis game: convince you that what you hoped to be true really is true, in a way that finally overturns the intuitions that would otherwise subvert the achievement of your goals.

The other hope is that when your innovation efforts succeed and deliver the sort of differentiation that is rewarded with increased share and higher price premiums, you will celebrate these victories and pursue others like them still more vigorously. When, as will likely be the case, you must occasionally cut cost to sustain profitability, you will see only an unfortunate and short-term departure from the path you more typically should follow. Over time, your organization, too, can increase its likelihood of delivering exceptional performance.

Bottom line? The best way to defeat a bad bias is with a better bias.

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