Playing to Win

Don't let the fears of decision biases and errors paralyze you.

Posted Mar 18, 2015

In order to be successful—and this is true of organizations as well as individuals—we need to do two things. We need to cut down on our mistakes. We also need to increase our insights. My previous pieces have diagrammed these activities as two arrows.

Gary Klein
Source: Gary Klein

The down arrow shows the reduction in mistakes. And we know a number of methods to cut down on errors.  We can use procedures to list all the steps so that we won’t forget any, and so that we can monitor other people to make sure they’re doing the task correctly. We can provide checklists. We can describe clear standards for accomplishing the entire task, and standards for each steps. We can call for critical thinking activities to identify assumptions, flag areas of uncertainty, and establish criteria for drawing logical inferences and conclusions.

Most organizations place their heaviest emphasis on the down arrow, on reducing mistakes, because managers can readily apply the methods that are already available. Besides, mistakes are visible, which makes it easier to manage them and also makes it easier to blame the managers if mistakes persist. Some organizations have adopted highly rigorous methods such as Six Sigma to improve quality and keep mistakes at a minimum.

Leading social science researchers have encouraged us to pursue the down arrow. In books such as Decision Traps (Russo and Shoemaker, 1989), Predictably Irrational (Ariely, 2008) and Everyday irrationality (Dawes, 2001), they have described decision biases that are lurking everywhere unless we kick in our critical thinking to spot blunders.

No one can argue with the importance of cutting down mistakes. But we can argue with the amount of energy and scrutiny that goes into the down arrow, because when hunting down mistakes dominates an individual or an organization, there is little room left for gaining insights. The effort to reduce mistakes can distract us, getting in the way of spotting new patterns and making new connections. It can make us passive, viewing our goal as avoiding errors; we come to believe that our job is to follow the procedures and steps carefully.

This perspective doesn’t seem very satisfying. Few of us would want to come home and explain to family and friends that it had been a great day at work because we hadn’t made any mistakes. I think we would want something more, such as describing what we achieved, what obstacles we overcame, what discoveries we had made. And that’s where the up arrow comes in.

The down arrow, the fixation on reducing mistakes, is a defensive strategy. It is playing not to lose.

The up arrow is playing to win.

The up arrow is about gaining insights, making discoveries, seizing opportunities, reaching for achievements and improvements and successes, making things happen. The up arrow is about excitement.

Managers don’t have the same tools for fostering the up arrow as the down arrow. They don’t know how to increase insights. And, besides, if workers fail to gain insights, no one will notice, whereas errors are public and invite blame. It is no wonder that organizations put their energy into the down arrow. It is no wonder that many individuals do the same, trying to adhere to rules and fearing the risks of innovation.

Both arrows are important. We can’t tolerate high levels of error, but I don’t think we want to define and evaluate ourselves by our skill at avoiding mistakes. Once I was invited to give a keynote talk at a healthcare conference. The group that invited me was intent on reducing erroneous medical diagnoses by cutting down on judgment and decision biases. I told them they were imbalanced. In addition to reducing erroneous diagnoses they needed to foster diagnostic successes. If they only worried about mistaken diagnoses they might adopt practices that cut down on the insights of the talented practitioners, leaving patients worse off.

And that reminds me of Winston Churchill during World War II, growing increasingly frustrated with his admirals who refused to take any action that might expose their ships to enemy attack. Why have a navy if the ships will only venture into safe waters, Churchill fumed. Individually, each caption and commander didn’t want to take any chances that might get his ship sunk. But collectively, their timidity was losing initiative and jeopardizing the United Kingdom.

On the optimistic side, I have been having some productive conversations with corporate leaders who do appreciate the need to properly balance the arrows, the tradeoffs of errors and insights. They are enthusiastic about trying to change the culture of their organizations so that they can indeed play to win.