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Published: January 6, 2014
 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75

 
 

Making Better Decisions over Time

Once Sullenberger determined that the best course of action was to ditch in the Hudson, his focus shifted to implementation. All that mattered now was a successful landing. For that, he needed to muster a positive mind-set so that this landing—this one, right now—would be executed to perfection. In an interview with Katie Couric on 60 Minutes, Sullenberger described his attitude as the plane descended. “The water was coming up at us fast,” he recalled. Couric asked if during those moments he thought about the passengers on board. Sullenberger replied, “Not specifically…. I knew I had to solve this problem…to find a way out of this box I found myself in.” He knew exactly what was required: “I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level. I needed to touch down with the nose slightly up. I needed to touch down at a descent rate that was survivable. And I needed to touch down just above our minimum flying speed but not below it. And I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously.”

The time for deliberation had passed; now, success depended on implementation. Sullenberger stayed focused and kept his cool. At all times, he said, “I was sure I could do it.” His story is a prime example of shifting from one mind-set to another, gaining the benefits of deliberate thinking, but then shifting completely to implementation.

The Limits of Deliberate Practice

It’s tempting to conclude that a combination of deliberate practice and mind-set adjustments can lead anyone to superior performance. As Ericsson has observed, “Outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate talent or skill.” Others have made much the same argument. In recent years, deliberate practice has been invoked as the key to high performance in books including Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio, 2008), and Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 2008). No question, the message of deliberate practice is very encouraging. It appeals to our can-do spirit. We like to think that genius isn’t born. We like to believe that even Mozart had to practice long hours, and that Einstein’s success was the result of good teachers and hard work. It makes us feel good to imagine that Bobby Fischer wasn’t a creature from a different world, but got an early start and persisted. It makes us think there may be hope for us too.

Yet we should be careful. Deliberate practice is hardly the cure-all that some would like to suggest.

First, there’s a growing body of evidence that talent matters—and matters a great deal. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that children who performed very well on intelligence tests at a young age had a significant edge over others in later accomplishment. Very high intellectual ability really does confer an enormous real-world advantage for many demanding activities. Second, if we’re not careful, we can always pick examples after the fact, then look back and claim that extensive practice led to success. Among Gladwell’s examples were the Beatles and Bill Gates, both chosen to illustrate the value of long hours of practice, whether playing music late into the night at clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool or programming computers for hours on end while growing up in Seattle. Missing, however, are the legions of people who also practiced diligently but didn’t find the same success.

Most of all, it’s important to understand that deliberate practice is very well suited to some activities but much less to others. Look again at the examples we have seen: shooting a basket, hitting a golf ball. Each action has a short duration and produces immediate and tangible feedback. We can see right away whether the basketball went through the hoop or the shot landed on the green. We can make modifications and then try again. Furthermore, each action is a matter of absolute performance. Even if a golf shot was made with an eye toward the competition, the shot itself—swinging a club to drive a ball onto the green and then into the hole—was a matter of absolute performance. Executing the task didn’t depend on anyone else.

 
 
 
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Resources

  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: strategy-business.com/organizations_and_people.
 
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