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


Making Better Decisions over Time

The key is to receive immediate feedback, so players can adjust their shots and try again, over and over, until they reach a level of accuracy and consistency. With this in mind, Marty and his team developed a system called Noah, which links a computer with a camera and an automated voice. When a player releases a shot, the camera records the trajectory and the speaker immediately calls out the angle. Players can take a shot, make an adjustment, and take another, several times a minute. It doesn’t take long for the player to get a good feel for a 45-degree arc.

For both individuals and entire teams, Noah has yielded impressive results. One high school coach credited Noah with raising his team’s free-throw percentage from 58 to 74. He explained, “This generation wants immediate feedback. They also want visual feedback, and this system does both. It’s the video-game age now, so having a system available that generates immediate statistics is great.”

Deliberate Practice and High Performance

The principle behind Noah is deliberate practice. Not just lots of time spent practicing, but practice that conforms to a clear process of action, feedback, adjustment, and action again. Not simply experience, but expertise.

The original insight about deliberate practice goes back nearly three decades to a study conducted by Benjamin Bloom, president of the American Educational Research Association. At the time, it was widely thought that high performers in many fields were blessed with native talent, which was sometimes called genius. But as he studied the childhoods of 120 elite performers in fields such as music and mathematics, Bloom found otherwise. Success was mostly due to intensive practice, guided by committed teachers and supported by family members.

Since then a great deal of research has tried to uncover the drivers of high performance. Some of the most important work has been conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University. Ericsson is described by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (William Morrow, 2005), as the leading figure of the expert performance movement, “a loose coalition of scholars trying to answer an important and seemingly primordial question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?” In one of his first experiments, Ericsson asked people to listen to a series of random numbers, then repeat them. At first most people could repeat only a half-dozen numbers, but with training they improved significantly. “With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from seven to 20,” Ericsson recalled. “He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.” Repeated practice led to a remarkable 10-fold improvement.

The technique that worked for a seemingly meaningless task turned out to be effective for many useful ones as well. Ericsson studied activities as varied as playing musical instruments, solving puzzles, and performing surgery. With great consistency, subjects improved significantly when they received immediate and explicit feedback, then made adjustments before trying again.

Subjects improved significantly when they received immediate and explicit feedback.

The game of golf lends itself to deliberate practice. Ericsson describes how a novice golfer, with steady practice, can fairly rapidly reach a level of competence. But after a while, improvement tapers off. Additional rounds of golf don’t lead to further progress, and for a simple reason: In a game setting, every shot is a bit different. A golfer makes one shot and moves on to the next, without the benefit of feedback and with no chance for repetition. However, Ericsson observes, “If you were allowed to take five or 10 shots from the exact location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control.” This is exactly what the pros do. In addition to hours on the driving range and the putting green, they play practice rounds in which they take multiple shots from the same location. That way, they can watch the flight of the ball, make adjustments, and try again. The best golfers don’t just practice a lot; they practice deliberately.

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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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