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Process vs. Outcomes – Making Decisions in an Analytic World

March 5, 2013

This past Friday and Saturday, I, along with 2699 similar nerds, attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, famously dubbed “Dorkapalooza” by ESPN’s Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. It was my third time attending and the conference is increasingly large while feeling like a world trapped inside a bubble. As the analytics movement continues to make strides in the sports world and outside of it, the tone and overall themes of the conference change from year to year. One of this year’s major themes was the need to focus on the process through which decisions are made, not the outcomes those decisions produce.

Focusing on processes is important whether the outcome is positive or negative. Say the Cleveland Browns go for it on fourth down and 2 from their opponent’s 40 yard line, down by four points in the fourth quarter two weeks in a row. One week they are successful converting the first down and the other they are not. I should be happy that the Browns have pulled their heads out of their asses and are making good decisions both weeks, even on the week they are unsuccessful. For those who have better things to do than read a statistical analysis on football, a California Berkley statistician ran an analysis to determine if football teams should go for it more on fourth down. The study concluded that teams should go for it on fourth down if there are four yards or less to go almost anywhere on the field, especially in a situation like the above example where the expected success rate is roughly 60%.

Similarly, let’s say the Cavs rush down the court to get a shot with 32 seconds left in the quarter, the analytics geek in me should delight that Kyrie Irving understands the right way to get two possessions for one at the end of the quarter, not get mad if he misses both shots. Several basketball statisticians have determined that an NBA team starting a possession with less than 40 seconds left in each quarter should try to shoot with around 30-28 seconds left on the clock, to ensure that they will have the final possession of quarter. A team who can do this several times over a game creates more offensive possessions for itself, and therefore, more chances to outscore their opponent. Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers is a master of this, if you would like to see the theory in action.

Want to work at Google? It will take no more than 4 interviews, per Prasad Setty of Google.

Want to work at Google? It will take no more than 4 interviews, per Prasad Setty of Google.

A real-world example encouraging process-oriented thinking instead of outcome-oriented that was shared during the conference comes from Google. A few years ago, they did a wide analysis on their hiring practices and best hiring practices across industries. Through their research, they found that universally little value is gained beyond a fourth interview, regardless of position. While Google was finding and hiring toptalent, they also felt that they were using too much valuable employee time conducting interviews, which was reinforced through their findings.

It is easy to fall prey to the bias of recency and get frustrated with a single outcome while losing sight of the larger process. Some fans get mad at instances like the above situations when the plays are unsuccessful and curse the coach/players/team/innocent bystanders to the point of losing their voices (what, just me?). Additionally, while analytics become more mainstream (How many people reading this have never heard of Moneyball? Exactly.), not all sports fans accept them as part of the sports world willingly. I do not begrudge anyone reading this, or any sports fan in general, for not knowing why both examples above are analytically justified decisions (notice I did not say correct); if you do not, let me know! I’ll write a future blog on these topics.

Another level of difficulty is present when making these decisions in the sports world as immediacy is always a factor in decision making. When in the midst of action, players have a second at most to make in-game strategic decisions that they make hundreds to thousands of times a game. This isn’t only present in sports; increasingly, the world around us moves at a faster place and decisions need to be made in the moment.

While process-oriented thinking can be challenging in the short-term, hearing successful people advocate for it and illustrate the value it has added to their lives convinced me that it is something we all should strive to integrate into our decision making process. So, the next time you’re feeling trapped in the weeds at your job, whether it be making that next cold call, writing another report or anything else that fills your day-to-day, be sure to take a step back and examine your process every few months. The lessons learned in an hour of examination could save you dozens of headaches and lead to overall improved productivity.


From → Sports

  1. PJ Waas permalink

    Couldn’t agree more. I talk about focusing on the process a lot with my team. The process is what we have the most control over, and it is what can PRODUCE positive outcomes on a consistent basis. Consistently analyzing and understanding WHY positive (or negative) outcomes have occurred is how you learn and move forward. If you have a positive outcome but don’t understand how you got there, it is of little value.

    This is a applicable idea to almost any area: business, sports, education, personal relationships, health, etc…

    • PJ – I think this speaks to why your team has been so successful the last few years; I wish more of my coaches had focused on processes and not outcomes.

      I did not mean to make it sound like this is a revolutionary idea, or even a new one, just something the conference made me think more about. I completely agree, process-oriented thinking can be used in almost anything, I’m hard pressed to think of something that could not be improved by it.

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