How Dare You?! Evaluating Unorthodox Decisions

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 11:27 PM EDT

Outcomes can be a lousy way to evaluate a decision. Business, like life, is full of uncertainty: people take action but the result may largely be determined by luck, nature, or the flap of a butterfly's wings. If you equate a good outcome with a good decision, you may end up promoting the fortunate incompetent over the talented strategist. Your task is even more difficult if someone below you has made an unorthodox decision that has failed. What do you do then?

The world of sports provides some good examples. In a game against the Indianapolis Colts last year, New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick made an unorthodox decision for the ages. Late in the 4th quarter and with a lead of six points, the Patriots had the ball on their own 28 yard line. Belichick could have had his team punt the ball, which would have forced the Colts to cover much more field in order to score a touchdown and win the game. Roughly 99.5 percent of current and past NFL coaches would have punted -- in fact, the orthodoxy is that there isn't even a "decision" here.
But Belichick had the Patriots go for it, leaving his offense on the field and calling a passing play to gain at least two yards and receive a new set of downs. The play failed to gain the two yards. The Colts got the ball, drove the 28 yards efficiently, scored a touchdown, and won the game.

Reaction from various stakeholders and the press was swift, vituperative, and unanimous -- Belichick was not only wrong, he was crazy and arrogant. TV announcers agreed that going for it was a terrible idea, one that would "live in infamy." Evoking death, Boston columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote that the decision was "a skull-imploding move that no doubt had Amos Alonzo Stagg rolling over in his grave." Other observers called the decision "reckless," "a moment of madness," "the most arrogant end-of-game decision I've ever seen," and said that it "smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris."

One of the first people to evaluate Belichick's decision rationally was Brian Burke, who blogs about NFL statistics. Barely an hour after the end of the game, Burke published a simple numerical analysis on his website, Advanced NFL Stats. Using historical averages from the database of games he maintains, Burke calculated that the Patriots had a 60 percent chance of making the first down and, in the 40 percent instance that they failed, their defense had a 47 percent likelihood of preventing the Colts from scoring a touchdown. Multiply that out, and Belichick's decision gave the Patriots a 79 percent chance of winning. Conversely, an average punt would have given the Colts the ball at their own 34 yard line -- from where they would have a 30 percent chance of scoring a touchdown. Hence, punting wins the game 70 percent of the time, and Belichick's choice may have increased the Patriots' chances for victory by nine percentage points. In other words, Belichick had not made a reckless decision, he had made a good decision -- exactly the kind of tough, data-driven decision most organizations want their managers to make.

Compare the coolness of the advantageous numbers with the scathing language of Belichick's offended critics. Likewise, when someone in your organization makes an unorthodox decision, despite what Malcolm Gladwell claims, your immediate thin-slice response may be the wrong one. Your strong need to rectify and chastise may blitz your mind's ability to assess the situation rationally. The defensive call here? Take a time out, commit yourself to gathering as much data as you can, and then draw up a decision tree that recreates the choices that the "heretic" considered, either implicitly or explicitly. Thinking in this disciplined way about specific decision points, diverging options, and numerical likelihoods can help reason overcome your emotion -- and can help you see whether the unorthodox decision was a sensible one.