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


Making Better Decisions over Time

Deliberate practice is very well suited to some activities but much less to others.

These sorts of tasks are described in the first column of the exhibit. Duration is short, feedback is immediate and clear, the order of actions is sequential, and performance is absolute. When these conditions hold, deliberate practice can be hugely powerful. As we relax each of them—when duration is longer, feedback is slow or incomplete, tasks are undertaken concurrently, and performance is relative—the value of deliberate practice diminishes. We have to know when it’s useful and when it’s not.

To see how these differences can matter, consider the job of a sales representative. Imagine you’re a cosmetics salesperson, going door to door in your neighborhood. This sort of task is in the left column. The entire transaction is quick, taking maybe a few minutes. Feedback is immediate; you know right away if you made a sale or not. You finish one visit before going on to the next. Performance is absolute in the sense that you’re not directly competing with another offer. The logic of deliberate practice applies nicely. How you describe the products, how you present the options, the words you use and jokes you tell, and the way you try to close the sale—all of these can be practiced and refined, and feedback from one encounter can be applied to the next. The best salespeople approach each encounter as a new opportunity and do their best to project confidence and self-assurance. They can’t afford to be discouraged by the last rejection or worried about rejections to come. They have to believe that this customer, this call, this time can be successful—and muster positive thinking to help make it so. After each call, they can stand back and reflect. What did I do well, and what can I improve for next time? They shift rapidly from deliberation to implementation and back again.

For other kinds of sales representatives, the story is entirely different. Consider the sale of a complex enterprise software system. The sales process—it’s a sales process, not a sales call—demands a deep understanding of the client’s needs and takes place over weeks and months. During that time, feedback is either uncertain or nonexistent. You might not know for several months whether your efforts will bear fruit. Furthermore, because you’re working on many potential sales in parallel, you can’t easily take the lessons from one client and apply them to the next. Your efforts are concurrent, not consecutive. And finally, for something like enterprise software, performance is better thought of as relative, not absolute, because the client is very likely talking with multiple vendors but will buy from only one. If nothing comes of your efforts, you may never know if it was because your sales presentation was poor, a rival’s products and services were better, or another sales rep was more effective. In this setting, immediate feedback that can be applied right away is not possible.

Rapidly occurring and routine activities, including not only operations but many customer-facing encounters, conform very well to the rigor of deliberate practice. That’s the essence of kaizen, the system of continuous improvement at the heart of so many manufacturing techniques. There’s a disciplined sequence—plan, do, act, check. The cycle time is short and repeated over and over. Feedback is rapid and specific and can be applied to the next effort. Performance, whether gauged in quality or number of defects or some other operational measure, is absolute. It depends on you and no one else.

Examples of the limits of deliberate practice go well beyond software sales. Consider the introduction of a new product. The entire process may take months or even years. By the time results are known, additional products will have been introduced. Furthermore, performance is at least partly relative. If a new product was unsuccessful, is that because the company did a poor job, or did a rival introduce a better one? Or consider setting up a foreign subsidiary. Years may elapse before leaders can assess whether they have been successful. Many factors are out of their control, including the actions of competitors and global economic forces. Was entry to a new market successful because of superior insights about customer needs, or mainly because of favorable economic conditions?

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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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