I have a relative who graduated from an Ivy League school with an economics degree and had a choice of Wall Street firms to become an investment banker. Jeremy Lin, with an economics degree from Harvard, would have created a bidding war on Wall Street or top companies in Silicon Valley such as Apple, Google or Facebook.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Lin wanted to play basketball in the NBA, so he had to struggle like kids who come out of Tier 3 colleges who want to join Wall Street firm in their investment banking group or on a development team at Apple, Google or Facebook. Talent alone but would not have been enough for them to get a fair shot.
Lot of experts in NBA did not give Jeremy Lin a fair shot because they trusted their cognitive biases and passed on him rather than what their eyes saw. This is one of the main reason why people are so captivated with the Jeremy Lin "Linsanity" story.
For those who may not be been following this story closely, Jeremy Lin is the New York Knicks guard who has gone from being an unknown practice squad and, most recently, a bench player to become the most talked about sports story in New York City, America and Taiwan -- in one week. Some have even suggested that this is the most improbable sports story ever they can recall.
How did this happen?
Not just by turning the Knicks from losing to a winning, but how he fell through the cracks of NBA talent experts who follow basketball talent right from the time they are in their diapers.
This oversight has lot to do with human decision making, even by experts, where their cognitive biases lead them to make decisions that turn out to be totally wrong. The NBA experts probably thought they were making the right decision. This type of decision making also happens in business, schools and government so let’s take a look at what is the root cause of this decision making error.
To better understand Jeremy Lin’s story, a little background is required.
Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese American, played basketball on his high school team in Palo Alto and led them to a state championship. One would think he would be heavily recruiting by colleges, especially one next door called Stanford. Stanford passed on him. Moreover, he was not recruited by any colleges and decided to attend Harvard to earn an economics degree and play some basketball. He led Harvard to a post season tournament in his senior year.
Though he was a star at Harvard, no NBA showed any interest on draft day; however, he was later signed as a free agent by Golden State Warriors. It was a short stay as he was released due to team’s need to fit their payroll under the cap set by the NBA. There was no room for him, even though he was one of the lowest paid player in the NBA. He was then picked up by the Houston Rockets, but same thing happened there.
Finally he was picked up by the New York Knicks on a 10-day contract on their practice squad and was not expected to make it on their regular squad. He was eventually going to be released when the injured players returned from their injuries. It was a long shot for him to even make it at the end of the bench with the regular team.
Call it luck or destiny, but due to Knicks losing and player injuries, the coach of the Knicks had to put Lin in the game against the NJ Nets. To everyone’s surprise he performed way beyond anyone’s expectation (scored over 20 points) and led the team to a win. Remarkably, he did this without their top two star players not playing.
He was immediately put in the starting lineup and led the team to four straight wins, including a 38 point effort against the star studded Los Angles Lakers on February 10th in Madison Square Garden in front of over 19,000 fans.
When asked Kobe Bryant, Lakers super star, to comment on the sudden rise of Jeremy Lin from nowhere, he said, "players don't usually come out of nowhere. If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. But no one ever noticed."
The reason no one noticed is because, let’s face it, how many Asian American Harvard graduates are playing in the NBA? I mean playing basketball, not being with the team taking care of business, legal or medical matters.
Jeremy Lin would have been a no brain hire on Wall Street or top companies in Silicon Valley, but was easy to overlook by NBA talent scouts and GMs. No talent scout or a GM is going to take a chance on an Asian American Harvard educated basket ball player. It only happens in movies. We don’t need to wait for this movie; we are seeing it in real life.
This type of decision making has to do with cognitive biases that we have formed over the years where we don’t make rational decisions no matter how intelligent we are. We make short cuts decisions that serve us well most of the time; they save us lot of time. Just look at how much time a Wall Street hiring manager would have saved by taking a chance on Lin? How much time was supposedly saved by NBA GMs by not drafting Lon or releasing Lin?
We do this too all the time, but it doesn’t blow up in our face like the way Jeremy Lin's situation has with NBA talent experts in such a public and embarrassing way.
Jeremy Lin rise shows that even experts make errors trusting their cognitive biases rather than their own eyes. Will we learn much from Jeremy Lin to prevent this from happening to us? I doubt it since we are easily prone to cognitive biases.
We have seen some major catastrophic failures in the last few years such as the levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukashima nuclear plant disaster in Japan after the Tsunami.
Right after these incidents, there is a blame game that follows and investigations are conducted to get to the cause of these failures and changes are recommended to mitigate or prevent future failures. This is a normal course of action we have now seen often.
The one thing that the media rarely focuses on, or even tries to explain: Are catastrophic failures preventable as our environment keeps getting more complex through technology? They usually attribute failures to some decision making in the chain --- on workers, operators, engineers, etc. They become an easy scapegoats.
Can human decision making prevent catastrophic failures from occurring? The simple answer is No, if it is caused by the structure of how organization operates.
To answer this question definitively, Chares Perrow, a noted Sociologist, studied the cause of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in great detail. This accident changed the way people in United States view nuclear power and, even with numerous safety measures that have been added, no nuclear plant has been built in the US for over 30 years.
What Perrow discovered in his study is that there was no One cause of error that led to the catastrophic failure; it was due to number of small errors --- equipment malfunction, design flaws and human mistakes --- that cascaded through a chain which ultimately led to the failure.
He concluded that certain organizations have structure, design and systems that are so complex and risky that no matter how careful humans are in preventing failures, these organizations are still vulnerable to catastrophic failures. He called this the "Normal Accident Theory,” and documents the Three Mile Island accident and other failures in a book titled, “The Normal Accidents."
To understand the normal accident theory, he introduces two concepts: interactive complexity and tight coupling.
Interactive complexity refers to the way organizations are structured with different systems that interact in a way that are unexpected in advance; hence, they don’t follow a predictable path that can be seen by humans to prevent failures.
Tightly coupled refers to the way systems are interdependent that one small error in one system can easily cascade down the chain resulting in a failure.
Even though precautions can be built in to anticipate errors, it is highly unlikely that catastrophic failures can be prevented. Based on what we have seen recently, we are likely to see increase in these catastrophic failures due to high-risk, high-ambiguity and complexity in our environment.
We are advancing rapidly with technology and with it comes the risk of interactions of many systems, subsystems and human that are closely linked such that things can easily go out of control with one small error in one part of the system that is not anticipated or visible. Before a small error can be detected, it could quickly cascade down the chain to prevent a catastrophic failure. This is usually wha
We can take all the safeguards to mitigate and prevent catastrophic failures, but we also have to live with the fact that this is the price we have to pay for complexity in a high risk/high ambiguity environment.
Sources for this Blog:
The Great Courses’ “The Art of Critical Decision Making,” from the Teaching Company; Taught by Professor Michael Roberto
Michael Roberto’s Blog: Musings about Leadership, Decision Making, and Competitive Strategy
Perrow Charles, “Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies,” 1999, Princeton University Press.
Most people would agree that the Super Bowl game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots played in 2012 was one of the most exciting super bowl game ever played. Both teams were evenly matched and it came down to how had the ball last with enough time left to score and win.
Most people have moved on to the current season, but there was a valuable lesson one can learn from the New York Giants’ victory run in Super Bowl XLVI. The main lesson we can all take from their amazing playoff run is that you can beat competition that is better than you on paper to win the "big" prize: The Lombardi Trophy. We all run into this in our business trying to beat competition that should beat us on paper. Just like football, sales deals are no longer won on paper. You have to earn it.
Often we go into sales situation defeated before we even play the game. We believe that our competitors are so much better than us that we better quit or go through the motion of competing.
The New York Giants showed that once you get into the playoffs, it is a whole new game. You have the same shot to win as any of your competitors. The New York Giants believed that they could beat any team no matter whom they played and where they played.
Based on the regular season, the Giants were not the best team. Most experts had ruled their journey as next to impossible to even get into the playoffs and news papers in New York were already speculating on replacement of their coach Tom Coughlin. Things did not look good for them.
In fact, the New York Giants had to win their last game against the Dallas Cowboys just to make it into the playoffs, and not much was expected of them in the playoffs.
However, once they were in the playoffs (similar to being in front of a customer), they had the same shot to win as anyone. They had to do be mentally tough, develop a good game plan, execute flawlessly, and with few breaks (here and there) they could beat any team, even on their opponent's turf.
The New York Giants accomplished this feat by beating both the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco Forty Niners, and earned their ticket to the Super Bowl (similar to making the final selection in sales) against a very strong team in the New England Patriots. This team has everything: great owner, great coach and a great quarterback.
Many called it lucky that Giants got into the Super Bowl, to which I say that luck comes your way if you put yourself in a position. Now it was time to prepare and win the the Super Bowl (win the sales deal).
In Super Bowl, the Giants played their game (tough defense, excellent ball control and no mistakes), got some breaks -- part of any game whether in life or sales -- and won it from coming from behind. At the end, they had the ball and a chance to win. They had to make clutch plays in their last drive and score before time ran out. This is all you one can do in any sales situation.
It was a close, hard fought game. Their opponent (New England Patriots) were ahead and should have won if they could have controlled the ball better in the fourth quarter. The New England threw a "hail mary" ( a miracle long pass in the end zone to score a touchdown) on the last play of the game, but it was not to be. Just like in sales, there can only be one winner. Giants won 21 - 17.
So as we get ready to visit a customer today (or in the next few days), our company can be “Giants” in winning against formidable competitors. They might be better on paper, may have gotten off to a great start, but at this point we are in the game and it is what we do that will make the difference and win the Lombardi Trophy (the sales deal).
One of the hallmark of an outstanding leader, whether you are in sales, politics or management, is reaching an agreement with people with strong personalities who hold differing viewpoints. The leader must be skillful in building commitment and shared understanding so that a decision is executed in a timely and efficient manner. One of the ways that leaders have used to reach consensus is a small wins strategy. The basic idea of this is to break a complex decision into multiple small, but still significant, decisions to manage the overall complexity and gradually build momentum through small wins.
The small wins strategy is where a leader takes a step-by-step approach in reaching a common ground through a process of divergence and convergence amidst differences.
Divergence refers to giving others an opportunity to air their differing views so they feel they have been treated fairly to influence decisions. Convergence refers to coming to an agreement after debating an issue where everyone had an opportunity to make their point. If the group can not collectively reach an agreement, then the leader has to make a decision to come back to it later or make the call on the decison under consideration.
There are potential pitfalls that the leader has to guard against. If a leader is not careful, others could converge quickly resulting in groupthink where people reach an agreement without any real debate on alternatives. If the leader is not focused on reaching an agreement, there is a risk of divergence where endless debate follows without any decision being made.
One of the great example of a leader using small wins strategy was Dwight Eisenhower. He knew how to work with strong personalities of his day, align them, build consensus and reach a final agreement for the D-Day invasion. Eisenhower was adept at bringing people together and reaching a common ground and gloss over differences that existed. He listened to everybody objectively so they felt that they were heard and had an opportunity to influence decisions. He then made the call. He was fair to the process, yet decisive in reaching an agreement.
To understand why small wins strategy is effective, Karl Weick, an American Organizational Theorist, offers the following explanation:
“By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of small wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results. … Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. “
A small wins strategy has proven to be a very effective in reaching agreements on difficult and politically charged issues. For this strategy to work, it is incumbent upon a leader to establish trust and formulate ground rules at the outset.
Undoubtedly, there will be occasions when people will have to trust the leader on his objectivity and take a leap of faith with his ability to make the final call. This is a mark of leadership that has to be developed through learning and practice, since each situation is likely to be different and a good leadership can make a difference in reaching an agreement. Sources for more information:
The Great Courses' “The Art of Critical Decision Making,” from The Teaching Company; Taught by Professor Michael Roberto, Lecture 16.Michael Roberto's Blogs: Musings about Leadership, Decision Making, and Competitive Strategy