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Beware the Critical Points

Some decisions matter more than others.

Key points

  • In projects and processes, some decisions matter more than others.
  • Our assumptions about which decisions are critical can be unexpectedly wrong.
  • Knowing how to identify and prioritize critical decisions is a key skill.
Thaddeus Moore/Pixabay
Thaddeus Moore/Pixabay

In tennis, winning more points than your opponent doesn’t guarantee a win. Neither does winning most of the games suffice. Of course, you need to win a lot of points and games, but some points and games count more than others.

Much more…

For instance, you’d want to hold all your service games and break at least one service game of the opponent. This is what takes place in most elite matches. Things get tense when there’s a break point, and players are ecstatic when they manage to break serve. Also, in each game, 30-30 and 40-40 tend to be critical points. Whoever wins that one gets to have a shot for the game in the next point. It’s when the pressure really starts to build.

Players that deal with these moments better gain a sizeable advantage. It’s in these moments that mental preparation and resourcefulness matter the most. You’ll often see players emphasize these instances in post-game interviews. In some, they will be glad that they managed to seize the opportunity. In others, they’ll regret that they couldn’t capitalize enough on the occasion.

Prioritizing decisions works the same way.

Years ago, one of us was at a presentation by an accomplished colleague. He was applying for a position in a certain university. As part of his application, he had to talk about one of his projects to a group of academics in the department of which he wanted to be a part.

On paper, he ticked a lot of boxes. He had a good track record of past publications and had a good pipeline of future projects. He was a graduate of a prestigious institution. He had good references. When compared to other candidates, he was poised to “win the match.”

But something unexpected happened.

His presentation was bad. He was underprepared and made many unforced errors during the session. He didn’t explain his main idea clearly and answered questions with a needless sense of superiority. Overall, he blundered the talk. And unfortunately, that made a big difference in the ultimate hiring decision.

In projects, some junctions matter more than others.

Hence, it becomes crucial to

  • Agree on what a “win” or “loss” looks like (this doesn’t have to be a clear-cut victory over an opponent like in a tennis match)
  • Map out the process that should be followed
  • Do some research and get consultancy to identify as much as possible which decisions are critical given the aims, and which are less so
  • Design the overall strategy and prioritize decisions accordingly

Yet this doesn’t happen automatically. For example, we tend to focus on choices that are well-defined and/or obsess about details that involve intricate data. Yet some of these might have a marginal effect on the outcome, relative to some other details that are less specific and more difficult to measure.

That colleague had sadly underestimated the importance of the talk. He was too overconfident. He had almost complete control over that event, yet he needlessly got his serve broken at a critical moment of his job application. He failed to reach his aim despite his strengths.

More from Emre Soyer, Ph.D., and Robin M. Hogarth, Ph.D.
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