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Costly Mistakes?

The problem with error-phobia.

Last night on Monday night football (October 15, 2018) the Green Bay Packers beat the San Francisco 49ers with a field goal in the closing seconds, after the San Francisco quarterback C.J. Beathard threw a costly interception with 1 minute 13 seconds left in the game and the score tied 30-30.

At least, that's one of the big stories from this game. That's one of the headlines. That's a major issue in the post-game remarks by the San Francisco head coach — "Our quarterback has to learn from this." It was a tough loss and the head coach was glum and obviously disappointed by the way his quarterback had cost his team a victory.

And it is a truly stupid analysis.

Here is the situation: There is 1 minute 55 seconds to go in the game. The score is tied 30-30. San Francisco receives a kickoff and gets to their 47-yard line, 1st and 10. This is their chance to win. They just have to march downfield and get in range to kick a field goal.

Beathard completes a 7-yard pass. His next pass is incomplete. Now it is 3rd down and 3 yards to go, on the Green Bay 46 yard line. There is 1 minute and 16 seconds left in the game.

That's when Beathard, the San Francisco quarterback, throws his "costly" interception. Green Bay had mounted a strong pass rush, threatening to sack Beathard. He could have thrown the ball away for another incompletion. But instead, he gambles and tries a long pass, 35 yards. That pass is intercepted by a Green Bay defender at the Green Bay 10 yard line with just over a minute left. Thereupon the Green Bay quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, drives his team into FG range and Green Bay wins with seconds to spare.

But imagine that the San Francisco 3rd down pass was incomplete, as was likely. Imagine that Beathard plays it safe and throws the ball away. San Francisco would almost certainly have punted the ball. San Francisco would have hoped to pin Green Bay down around its own 10-yard line, right? And that's exactly what the interception accomplished. The interception was in no way a "costly" mistake. In fact, the Green Bay defender might have been better off dropping the ball, forcing San Francisco to punt.

Why am I making such a big deal about this?

I am frustrated by analyses like these because they jump on mistakes, any mistakes, costly or inconsequential, creating a mindset that the way to win is to not make mistakes. I see that attitude pervading other parts of our society. I described this mindset in my book on insights (Klein, 2013). The diagram on page 4 of that book shows two ways to improve performance: reducing errors and increasing insights, and I argued that most organizations over-emphasize the reducing errors bit. The Monday night football game demonstrates this error-phobic mindset. The San Francisco quarterback, who had played extremely well all game, threw an interception, which is statistically counted as an error, and he gets castigated as the scapegoat, the player who cost his team the game, even though the interception had no consequence on the outcome.

This is error-phobia in action. This is error-phobia on display to infect leaders with a misguided approach to managing people.


Klein, G. (2013). Seeing what others don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights. New York: PublicAffairs.