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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.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

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?

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.

The Power—and Constraints—of Positive Thinking

In many situations, positive thinking has been demonstrated to boost performance. The concept of deliberate practice lets us refine that notion. Positive thinking is most effective when it’s bracketed by objective feedback and adjustment.

The result is not simply optimism, but what psychologist Martin Seligman calls learned optimism. The key is to replace a static view, which assumes a single mind-set at all times, with a dynamic view, which allows for the ability to shift between mind-sets. Before an activity, it’s important to be objective about our abilities and about the task at hand. After the activity, whether we have been successful or not, it’s once again important to be objective about our performance and to learn from feedback. Yet in the moment of action, a high degree of optimism is essential.

A related idea comes from Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, who distinguishes between a deliberative mind-set and an implemental mind-set. The deliberative version suggests a detached and impartial attitude. We set aside emotions and focus on the facts. A deliberative attitude is appropriate when we assess the feasibility of a project, plan a strategic initiative, or decide on an appropriate course of action. By contrast, an implemental mind-set concerns getting results. When we’re in an implemental mode, we look for ways to be successful. We set aside doubts and focus on achieving the desired performance. Here, positive thinking is essential. The deliberative mind-set emphasizes open-mindedness and deciding what should be done; the implemental mind-set emphasizes closed-mindedness and achieving our aims. Most crucial is the ability to shift between them.

To test the impact of mind-sets, Gollwitzer and his colleague Ronald Kinney conducted an experiment. People in one group were asked to list all the reasons they could think of, pro and con, for following a particular course of action. The intention was to instill a deliberative mind-set. People in a second group were asked to list the specific steps they would take to successfully carry out a given course of action. The goal here was to instill an implemental mind-set. Next, all subjects took part in a routine laboratory task. Gollwitzer and Kinney found that subjects with an implemental mind-set showed significantly higher belief in their ability to control the outcome. They concluded, “After the decision to pursue a certain goal has been made, successful goal attainment requires that one focus on implemental issues. Accordingly, negative thoughts concerning the desirability and attainability of the chosen goal should be avoided, because they would only undermine the level of determination and obligation needed to adhere to goal pursuit.” An implemental mind-set, focusing on what it takes to get the job done and banishing doubts, improves the likelihood of success.

The question of how much optimism or confidence is good, and how much is too much, turns out to be incomplete. There’s no reason to imagine that optimism or confidence must remain steady over time. It’s better to ramp it up and down, emphasizing a high level of confidence during moments of implementation, but setting it aside to learn from feedback and find ways to do better.

Shifting Mind-Sets on the Flight Deck

Apart from basketball and golf, many other recurring actions, including very consequential ones such as landing an airplane, lend themselves to deliberate practice. In addition, they call for the ability to shift mind-set from deliberation to implementation. A memorable example comes from US Airways Flight 1549, which landed safely on the Hudson River in January 2009, sparing the lives of all 155 people aboard.

In the moments after the Airbus A320 took off from LaGuardia Airport and struck a flock of geese, causing both engines to fail, Captain Chesley Sullenberger kept a deliberative mind-set. He coolly and systematically considered his options, including a return to LaGuardia and an emergency landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Neither was possible. The aircraft had lost all power and wouldn’t be able to reach either destination. At this time, sober deliberation was required.

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.

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?

Making strategic decisions is fundamentally different from shooting baskets or landing an airplane. Decisions take longer to carry out. Feedback may be slow and incomplete. There is often little ability to assess the results of one decision before undertaking the next one. Strategic decisions often involve competition, meaning that performance is not absolute but has a relative dimension. The aim isn’t just to do well, but to do better than rivals—who are also trying to outdo us. Decisions are also hard to reverse. The hallmark of a strategic decision is precisely that it cannot be easily reversed, meaning it is important to get it right the first time.

When to Practice, When to Ponder

The complex reality of real-world decisions forces us to rethink implications for learning and improvement. Anders Ericsson, as a proponent of deliberate practice, recommends that managers and other professionals set aside two hours each day to reflect on their actions and draw lessons. Of course, reflection and evaluation are useful. Stepping back to ponder one’s actions and trying to draw lessons from experience is a very good idea. Yet when feedback is slow and imprecise, when performance is relative rather than absolute, and when particular circumstances rarely recur, we should not imagine that an emphasis on repetition will lead to the same benefits as when, say, learning to play the piano.

Which brings us to the question of coaching in business. The past decade has seen a sharp rise in coaching for executives. Like coaches in other domains, executive coaches aim to equip their clients with tools and knowledge to become more effective. The process relies heavily on providing feedback on behaviors and skills. But if decision making at this level does not improve through routine, is such coaching a waste of time? Not entirely.

Executives handle a number of routine activities that lend themselves well to deliberate feedback and practice. Presentations to employees. Interaction with key managers. Meetings. Presentations to a board. Negotiations with counterparties. Briefings with investors. Each of these involves a relatively short action for which we can usefully get feedback and try again, incorporating suggestions for improvement. It can be very useful to seek feedback from a thoughtful observer and strive to improve. Executives can indeed improve elements of their performance through deliberate practice.

But for the most consequential decisions that executives face, for which feedback cycles are longer and results less precise, coaching is a much less apt metaphor. A good executive coach can be a blend of confidant, advisor, goad, and Lear’s Fool, able to tell the truth when others may not. But we shouldn’t imagine that coaching that works for activities that lend themselves to rapid and tangible feedback can be sufficient for far-reaching strategic decisions. There’s no second chance for Edgar Bronfman selling Seagram to Vivendi. We do ourselves a disservice by implying that we can practice our way to success in all circumstances. We divert attention from asking the more important questions that are the stuff of judgment for managers and leaders. The logic of action, correction, adjustment, and repetition is less effective for strategic decisions than thorough preparation and analysis.

Managers face a series of decisions every day. Some are routine and lend themselves to the power of deliberate practice, in which feedback is rapid and tangible, and adjustments can be made to boost performance. The ability to shift mind-sets, from deliberation to implementation and back again, is vital. Other decisions are unique, and their results take longer to play out, making the use of feedback for subsequent adjustment less likely. For these, a different approach is needed. Above all, decision makers must develop the ability to recognize how decisions differ, and apply the appropriate tools to each. 

Reprint No. 00227

Author profile:

  • Phil Rosenzweig is a professor at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he works with leading companies on strategy and organization issues. He is the author of The Halo Effect...and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press, 2007).
  • Adapted from Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions (Public Affairs, 2014).
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