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  • Writer's pictureJason Nickola

A bad result means a bad decision... right?

I really enjoy viewing my career, projects, goals, and overall life as works in progress. Experiments meant to be adjusted, molded, and otherwise manipulated until I've optimized for the best results possible. It is a liberatingly powerful perspective which allows you to identify and own the variables which are truly under your control. Whether it is how often you study, the kinds of foods you eat, your workout regimen, your approach to a sales pitch, the foundation for your marketing strategy, or any other number of things, there are so many things which a person can command control of. So, if you own the inputs, manipulate variables, and monitor for changes, you can own the outcomes and results, right?

You're killin' me, Smalls

With Tampa Bay Rays' manager Kevin Cash's controversial decision to pull a dominant Blake Snell before his performance started to degrade and while the team still had the lead in a World-Series-deciding game, it is a great time to review the concept of resulting and the chaos it can cause in our decision making. Some decisions are really straight forward and feature a high percentage of relevant details which we can account for. For example, my hand is sensitive to heat and fire is very hot, so it is easy to predict what will happen if I rest my pitching hand in an open flame. But how many decisions in life are actually like this? It may be common enough when dealing with inanimate objects and clearly defined attributes, but complex systems are not so easy. Human beings are not so easy. The real difficulty in these scenarios is that we almost certainly do not have all of the data necessary in order to make a decision and achieve a 100% predictable outcome. And because there are so many unknowns about factors which we weren't aware of, there is an overwhelming tendency to overemphasize what is easily discernible (the result) and assume that there was some flaw in our decision making to account for it. Professional poker player Annie Duke covers this dynamic - known as resulting - in detail in her fantastic book Thinking in Bets.

"That was the worst play call I've seen in the history of football"

If nothing else, Cash does find himself in some notable company. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carrol has made a career finding success in both the college and pro ranks, but will forever go down in history for flubbing a play call to lose the Super Bowl. Most of you have heard this story by now: with one of the best power backs of this generation in Marshawn Lynch poised to pound the rock across the goal-line for the win, Carrol instead opted for a quick pass which resulted in an interception and a loss for the Seahawks. The sporting world didn't pull any punches in condemning both the call and Carrol for making it.

So was Kevin Cash right to pull Blake Snell when he did? I personally have no idea and am not enough of a baseball guy to do the sport-specific analysis justice. But what I can say is that his brand of decision making helped to propel a underdog team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball to the World Series. Should he have changed just because the moment did? And what about Carrol? Should he have stuck to the safe-but-predictable call in running the ball at the goal-line? You can make a case either way: the Patriots surely would have expected the run while a passing play would put the ball in the hands of Russell Wilson, a future hall-of-famer in his own right.

Process, not results

In both of these scenarios, we have the benefit of hindsight and know the decisions that were made as well as the ensuing (disastrous) results, so it seems obvious that both Carrol and Cash should have played things differently. But here is the really important thing which seems to defy logic: the result in each of these cases does not matter at all. In fact, the result in each case is the primary (and maybe only) supporting factor pointing to a flaw in decision making at all. If the Rays' bullpen had pitched lights out baseball in relief of Snell on the way to securing the win, Cash would be celebrated as a "cerebral manager willing to make the tough decisions to put his team in the best position to win". If Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense had completed a touchdown pass rather than throwing an interception, Pete Carrol would be universally regarded as a "cold-blood gambler who won't be overwhelmed by the big moments".

Results are important and ultimately what are all (rightfully) judged by. But there are far more factors which determine a result than our decision making and processes alone and we almost never have a full view or even knowledge of what those factors are. So the next time things don't go how you plan for them to or when the coach of your favorite team seemingly chokes on an important call, think hard about whether a different result would change your perception of the quality of related decision making. Instead, develop and lean on a process which accounts for the information and resources available to you at the time, but recognize that you don't (and won't) have all of the data.

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