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 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75(originally published by Booz & Company)


Making Better Decisions over Time

The technique of deliberate practice can dramatically improve performance, but knowing its limits is as important as understanding its value.

Managers make a wide range of decisions, from routine calls they face on a recurring basis, to large-scale strategic decisions they may encounter just once in their careers. For issues that are often repeated, the technique of deliberate practice—which involves action, feedback, modification, and action again—is a powerful way to boost performance. The technique works when a decision is part of a sequence, in which feedback from one part can improve the next. Not all decisions work in this manner, however. Knowing the difference is crucial.

To see how deliberate practice works, let’s start by looking at an activity that takes just a few seconds: shooting a free throw in basketball. Free throws are a good test of pure shooting skill. The task is the same for everyone: tossing a ball, nine and a half inches in diameter, through a hoop 18 inches wide, placed 10 feet off the ground, from a distance of 15 feet. That’s not exactly threading a needle, but it’s close. There isn’t a lot of margin for error. Furthermore, as with striking a golf ball, performance is entirely up to you. You’re not predicting what someone else will do; it’s up to you to throw the ball through the hoop.

During the 2011–12 season, National Basketball Association teams attempted an average of 22.5 free throws per game. The Oklahoma City Thunder made 80.6 percent of their free throws. The Orlando Magic made just 66 percent of theirs. That’s a massive difference between the top team and the bottom, but of course the variance among individual players is even greater. Jamal Crawford of the Portland Trailblazers led the league, sinking 92.7 percent of his free throws, far more than the season’s most valuable player, LeBron James, at 77.1 percent, let alone the Magic’s Dwight Howard, who made only 49.1 percent.

It makes you wonder: What’s the secret to a good free throw?

To find out, a California-based venture capitalist and inventor (as well as former college basketball player and coach) named Alan Marty worked with Jerry Krause, head of research for the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and Tom Edwards, director of aeronautics at the NASA Ames Research Center. After months of research, they determined that the best free throw has three features. First, it’s straight—neither to the left nor to the right, but dead center. No surprise there. Second, the best shot doesn’t aim for the exact center of the basket. The perfect spot to aim for is 11 inches past the front rim, about two inches beyond the midpoint. Third, and very important, is the arc. The best shots are neither too high nor too flat, but leave the hands at an angle of 45 degrees.

Finding the best arc was the result of three methods. First, the researchers observed some of the best free-throw shooters and mapped their trajectories, which revealed a consistent 45-degree arc. At the same time, Edwards, the NASA scientist, modeled the physics of the free throw and determined the best shot had an arc in the mid-40 degrees. Finally, the team built an automated shooting machine and programmed it to throw over and over again in precise and replicable ways. They tried various arcs, from relatively flat shots to high looping shots, and found the best was 45 degrees. Three methods, all of which converged on a single answer.

So far, so good. Of course, it’s one thing to calculate the perfect arc, but something else to toss a basketball with exactly that arc, time after time. How do you consistently shoot the ball with a 45-degree arc and a depth of 11 inches past the front rim?

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  1. K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert,” Harvard Business Review, July 2007: The authors argue that ordinary practice is not enough. To reach elite levels of performance, you need to push yourself beyond your abilities and comfort level.
  2. Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect...and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press, 2007): The book exposes many of the errors and mistaken ideas that pervade the business world and suggests a more accurate way to think about company performance.
  3. Phil Rosenzweig, “What Makes Strategic Decisions Different,”Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2013: The bulk of decision-making research applies to one type of decision, and it’s not the type that’s most challenging for managers.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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