Decisions in Sport

When I interviewed British Olympic Association Chairman Lord Moynihan for my book Decide, he told me a story about the Athens Olympics – the Games before he took over: ”I’ve got pillowcases with ‘0.545’ written on them. At Athens Kelly Holmes won gold medals at both 800 and 1500 metres. The men’s 4×100 got a gold. Chris Hoy won his first gold, which was the 1km time trial. Our coxless four nearly always delivers, and they got a gold. So we had five gold medals. Their collected time if you add all their finals together was 12 minutes and six seconds. But the aggregate difference between them and the silver medallists was just 0.545 seconds.”

Our cycling supremo Dave Brailsford did numerous interviews after the stunning triumphs of Team GB in the Velodrome. How did this success come about? It was the aggregation of marginal increments, said Brailsford.

There’s a lesson here – beyond cycling, and beyond the Olympic Games. When we set ourselves goals and make big decisions, we tend to have blue sky ambitions and big picture visions. Yet so often real progress comes from small changes and relatively modest improvements, that are still significant enough to give us competitive advantage.

Thinking small – but positively – can pay big dividends.

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It often suits us to delay decisions. What we sometimes do is pick a landmark in the calendar (Christmas, Summer Holidays, Labor Day in the US), and agree to make the big decision after that.

The London Olympics make a classic watershed. For the whole of the UK, and Londoners in particular, London 2012 has been for years a distant beacon. Now it is somewhere between an all-enveloping news event and a national celebration to which the world has been invited. It’s full-on, it’s immeasurably exciting……and it will soon be over.

For athletes, officials, the media and indeed Danny Boyle and his team, London 2012 has been the focus of incredibly hard work, planning and training. As the medals roll in, national doubt and cynicism seems to have been replaced by something close to euphoria.

But it is all going to end on Sunday 12th August (give or take two weeks of the Paralympics). What then? For the medal winners, their coaches and families, time to celebrate success, or live with not quite having made it. For the army of games makers and volunteers, time to take a well-earned rest. For the media, time to get over the laryngitis, and to find something else to write and talk about.

For those of us who have been putting off big decisions, Monday 13th August will be a big day. Time to decide, yes. However that’s not where we start. Every decision is a journey – not a single step. I believe it is absolutely essential to avoid ‘early decisions’ at all costs, and use a methodical process.

But ‘methodical’ doesn’t mean that it is all about logic. Academics have made great progress over recent years in understanding how our brains work. Our conscious mind can only cope with a tiny fraction of what we see and experience. Smart decision making is a mixture of good thinking and harnessing the power of the subconscious brain.

For me the process goes like this:

• What is my goal? What am I really trying to achieve?
• What is my main opportunity? How can I realise it?
• If there is a problem, how can I set about solving it?
• Look at the options. It is not just a matter of looking at the most attractive upside. I also need to avoid disastrous downsides
• Choose the most viable option – and make the decision on a balance of reason and gut feel
• As well as making the decision, I also have to ensure that we can sell it up, down or across. My decision will only work if I can communicate it and make it stick…
• …which is all about implementation. Nor is the world going to obligingly stand still and allow me to pass. Carrying out my decision may take some time, and throughout I have to stay alert and flexible. Competitors or enemies won’t make it easy, and I am always going to have to deal with outside factors, slings and arrows – and our fickle old friend, Lady Luck.

As you look forward to making a decision after the Games are over, you might be tempted to think it’s going to be a straightforward business. I don’t want to alarm you, but it could turn out to be a bit more complicated than you might imagine!

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On Saturday the ghastly Trenton Oldfield was fished out of the tideway by the “elitist” Boat Race organisers he sought to humiliate.

The humiliation was all one way, but not the way Oldfield envisaged. Certainly he ruined the Boat Race. Certainly he permanently scarred the lives of the oarsmen in both crews who had trained beyond dedication for 7th April 2012. Certainly he achieved an ill-deserved translation from obscurity to the front pages of the Sundays.

But this wretch has earned far greater opprobrium than Feltham magistrates can possibly bestow on him. He has a blog site called “Elitism leads to tyranny”. Try it out on Here’s a sample: “If you clean the bathroom of someone that considers themselves elite or is an elite sympathiser, like a right wing professor, can you never put loo paper in their bathroom?” Yes, it’s pathetic. Read on, it’s illiterate. It’s small-minded leftist rubbish.

Who is this person? He’s Australian. He was privately educated. He studied at the LSE, where he studied “Contemporary Urbanism”. He is entitled to put FRSA behind his name. In his manifesto, he said he was targeting the boat race because of its elitist nature – saying it went past Fulham Palace, a former royal residence, St Paul’s, the leading public school, and the London home of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who he attacked for being educated at public school.

Fulham Palace is where the Bishop of London hangs out. St Paul’s School is indeed on the river – but so is Fulham FC’s ground and Budweiser’s brewery. Nick Clegg doesn’t live on the river – but if he did, why not? Nick Clegg went to Westminster School, which is in Victoria.

The dreadful Oldfield went to Shore in Sydney (which is what we would call a public school), and then to Bradfield College, which is one. What a hypocrite!

Why should we take his drivel seriously? None of this would matter if he hadn’t wrecked one of our traditional spectaculars, and the big day of some outstanding athletes. He apparently reveres Emily Davidson (he quaintly calls her ‘Davison’ in his blog). What would happen to a Brit who stopped the Melbourne Cup or the Australian Rules Grand Final? They’d rip him limb from limb.

I wouldn’t suggest for one minute that activists should turn up at Feltham Magistrates Court when his case comes up later this month, and attempt something similar. But now that he has suggested sabotaging the Olympics (because the stadium is located in upmarket Stratford?), you might want to give him a few verbals.

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In my last post I made some excuses for what I called “mistaken mini-decisions” that can happen during a sequence of events, but without the whole project ending in disaster.

On the other hand, most books on decision making feature a catalogue of nightmares that belong in the Chamber of Horrors. Obvious examples might include:

• Barbarossa – Hitler’s invasion of Russia that cost him the war. Main Decision Trap – Condemned to Repeat the Experiences (failure to learn from Napoleon’s equally catastrophic campaign)
• The Bay of Pigs – Kennedy’s fiasco in Cuba. Decision Trap – Group Failure (refusal to accept that a group of seriously bright people can all be wrong)
• The collapse of Enron. Decision Trap – Delusion (Lay and Skilling convincing themselves they wouldn’t be found out)
• The Brown Government’s management of the country’s finances. I have only room for a few Decision Traps:

o Undue Optimism – Optimistic about outcomes and blind to potential disaster
o Downside Delusion – Underestimating risks, and assuming too much control over future events
o ‘What if’ Wearout – Not being rigorous enough in looking at possible scenarios
o Outcome Blindness – Failure to accept bad news when it is staring you in the face
o Policy Pride – Sticking to a policy when it had obviously failed

These were celebrated BAD decisions.

I also worry about questionable decisions that can make bad situations worse. This very morning, and within minutes, Chris Huehne has had to resign from the Government, and John Terry has been stripped of the England Football Captaincy. I am not writing about any bad decisions Huehne or Terry might or might not have made.

What links these two high profile characters – apart from the awkward fact that neither is particularly popular or loved? Both have been charged with a criminal offence. But their cases haven’t come up yet– and they have absolutely not been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

We used to have the presumption of innocence until found guilty. When did we lose that principle? And why?

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What happened during the World Cup was bad enough for those of us who are keen England rugby supporters. The constant flow of leaked stories since the team returned from New Zealand hasn’t made it better, but yesterday’s spectacular in The Times makes everything much worse. You have to ask if transparency is all it is cracked up to be.

The whole world now knows that the RFU was completely unable to organise our participation in the World Cup, and that the RFU Council, the Director of Elite Rugby, the Manager, the Coaches and Players, all in their different ways, let down their supporters, their backers, and most of all themselves.

Who could possibly have had access to all three reports (the RFU’s own, and those commissioned by the Rugby Players’ Association and the Aviva Premiership Clubs)?

What was the motivation for not just leaking them, but handing them over wholesale?

What has been achieved with the Six Nations just over two months away?

As a study of organisational decision making it makes both the Charge of the Light Brigade and corporate governance at Enron look like textbook case histories for MBA students.

It is hard to know where to start in terms of analysing which decision traps were particularly disastrous. Here are my starters for ten:

1. Any commercial organisation (and just because the RFU is the governing body of a sport, it doesn’t make it immune from working to business world rules) needs a viable structure, with defined areas of responsibility and accountability. The RFU’s management structure is totally ineffectual, and the team itself on the field (think factory for a manufacturer or store for a retailer) was out of control
2. The golden rule in decision making is to consider options before making any big decision, and in doing so to eliminate all options with a dangerous downside, however attractive the upside. The RFU, and its individual managers, clearly don’t even know the basics of risk assessment. Any decision maker has to ask “how is this going to look if it goes wrong?”
3. ‘Group failure’ is when experienced, qualified people convince each other that black is white
4. As noted here last week ‘Condemned to repeat the experience’ is the refusal to learn from mistakes
5. ‘Outcome blindness’ is the failure to accept bad news when you see it
6. ‘Delusion’ is convincing yourself you won’t be found out

But on top of everything else, the decision to commission three instant reports on what is already acknowledged to be an unmitigated disaster, while you are looking for new managers and coaches, and renegotiating sponsorships defies belief. Did whoever decided this (singular or plural) believe it would stay tight? Did they really imagine that interviewees and respondents to questionnaires (many of whom are already discarded and bitter) would keep it to themselves?

Any sensible organisation (let’s say one with a Chairman, a CEO, a Board with NEDs, and a management structure) would have written off World Cup 2011 as a failure, made swift management changes, picked a new squad and moved on.

After this nightmare, played out in public and in the most unsavoury way, moving on is going to be difficult. I also have news for the baying pack of journalists: firing Rob Andrew might be seen by his detractors as justice, but by itself it will achieve nothing.

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So we have a deal to solve the Eurozone crisis. The experts say it has at least bought time, and I see that European
stock markets have reacted positively, and that the Euro has strengthened markedly.

But the agreement was signed at 4am this morning. This is an important detail, as it breaks my invariable rule of never
making any important decision after midnight.

To be fair to the 17 Eurozone member countries, the EU officials and institutions, IMF, the bankers and all the
involved parties, they had no practical choice beyond talking till everyone was prepared to agree terms, or giving up and risking a descent into the abyss.

Maybe everyone at the talks in Brussels last night had heard Wolves Manager Mick McCarthy’s description of Manchester City’s
5-2 defeat of his team in the Carling Cup as “an abject lesson in finishing”, and been inspired to emulate Roberto Mancini (surely the obvious choice to fill Mr Berlusconi’s size 8s).

Let’s hope President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel, Herman van Rompuy and the others don’t in the end have cause to rue
their late night accord and join Mick in saying (as he did recently) “I feel as sick as the proverbial donkey”.



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For weeks now I have mainly been writing about decisions in business, politics and sport. It is high time to return to the area of decision making that has been the focus of my working life for over 40 years – how the consumer decides, and what influences those decisions. 

On Friday last week I had the opportunity of an interview that did a great deal to get me back inside the consumer’s head. I spent a riveting two hours with the Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. Charles Spence is one of the world’s leading experts in the science of neuromarketing. Unsurprisingly he is in as much demand from marketers, as from his students and research assistants. 

I am sure that in his private and family life, Charles has a healthy supply of common sense. But when it comes to the application of his academic training as a psychologist and neuroscientist to understanding and stimulating his fellow humans as citizens, patients and consumers, he is truly the master of uncommon sense. 

During the course of sessions in his spectacularly untidy office and the Aladdin’s cave beneath that is his laboratory, I learned an extraordinary amount about how we experience products, brands and marketing communications through our senses, and how marketers and others can influence consumer behaviour by simultaneously impacting on more than one sense at the same time. 

Importantly, I also learned how much I don’t know. 

We are dealing here with the principles of synaesthesia: the interconnection between stimuli to our five senses: vision, smell, taste, touch and hearing.

For instance: 

  • We are well aware that appreciation of the taste of wine is enhanced by its smell – or ‘nose’. But as we look for inspiration in Majestic, how consciously are we influenced by the colour of the bottle, and its shape and weight? Do we realise the impact of the shape of the label?
  • How susceptible are we to the smell as well as the feel of a garment treated by a fabric softener…
  • …or to the noisiness of a packet of crisps, which ‘says’ crispness just as much as the contents deliver the taste we expect?
  • Does strawberry jam taste better out of a jar with a red label?
  • Has the sound coming out of an iPod been as important as the taste of the ingredients in turning ‘Sound of the Sea’ into Heston Blumenthal’s signature dish at the Fat Duck? [A Charles Spence project.] 

This week I will be exploring more aspects of how consumer decision making and behaviour can be influenced by communicating with the senses as opposed to just using reason and emotion. I have a hunch that neuromarketing might throw even more light on Behavioural Economics in the ‘Nudge’ or Rory Sutherland sense, and give us some powerful new examples of ingenious and hyper-effective ideas. 

Next week I want to move on to see if considered or macro-decision making in the corporate or institutional context is also capable of being enhanced by appealing to the senses. We already know how important the evidence of the different senses is to people in the armed forces, emergency services, A&E, on the flight deck, and even referees and umpires – who are all tasked with making decisions in very short order. 

Could it be that we are just touching the surface by only applying reason and logic to big decisions in business and public life? Maybe we should be factoring in seeing, smelling, hearing and tasting, as well as touching!

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Over the weekend I was driving from my home in Reading to play in a golf match nearly 40 miles away in Surrey. As I sped down the M4 I realised I had left behind my sports bag, containing a change of clothing. I thought quickly, “hot day like this, I will really need a shower and a clean shirt for the prizegiving”. So I decided to turn tail at the next junction, and go back home. The false start cost me 20 minutes or so. But it was worth it. I still arrived on time, and, boy, did that shower feel good after four hours in the baking sun. 

“Sitting on the fence” doesn’t get a good press in traditional decision theory. Neither does going back. But why? We all take decisions (complicated ones, simple ones) on the basis of having worked out a series of options, and gone for the best balance between positive upside and negative downside. When I left home on that golf trip, I hadn’t factored in the downside that I might have forgotten my bag. But once it was in the equation – time to recalibrate. 

So often things change between making a decision and implementing it. If the new set of circumstances is not so favourable, by all means go back on the decision. Widely differing groups, like businessmen, football managers and politicians recognise the truth of this. 

In business, strategists and marketers frequently make assumptions about competitive action (or lack of it). But if the competition launch a new product or slash prices, there’s no point relentlessly sticking to a plan, when to change tack would be more advantageous. 

A starting line up at the 3pm kick off may have looked the strongest available, but an injury to a key player or two early goals by the opposition may completely change the scenario. Go back, and try something different.

In September when 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was discovered in the shale fields under Lancashire, you might think it was the moment for an Energy Secretary to recant on a statement like, “we must halt the dash for gas, because it might prevent us meeting our commitment to cut our CO2 emissions by 2051”. 

But then Mr Huhne is also Climate Change Secretary, and he obviously sees seeking a legacy in 40 years time as a higher priority than ensuring cheap and plentiful power in a much shorter time frame. No one – except perhaps global warming zealots – would grudge him a change of heart in the light of new and unpredictable events. In the face of an economic crisis and inflation fuelled (to coin a phrase) by higher energy costs, one might hope that Mr Huhne the energy chap might feel able to tell Mr Huhne the climate guardian to back off a bit in the circumstances. 

But that’s how it sometimes is with politicians. Losing face – and going back on a decision – can become undoable. Which is why, unless his boss the Prime Minister gives him and unmissable instruction or gets rid of him, he will carry on scarring the British landscape with hopeless wind turbines, while the shale remains undisturbed under Lancashire. And isn’t that the county that has suffered most from BAE’s cutbacks? New employment prospects in a new industry might not actually be a bad idea – quite apart from all those extra Joules and Watts.

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Google it, and you will find stuff about the need to inhale before a big physical effort (eg serving), and then exhale as soon as you’ve hit the ball. Interestingly Connors and Agassi were big grunters. But nowadays it is mainly the women, with the Belarussian Victoria Azarenka shrieking so loudly at Wimbledon this year that you could hear her at Queen’s! There is even a book on the subject by Professor Alison McConnell of Brunel University 

Some have credited famous coach Nick Bollettieri with encouraging the grunt – for tactical as well as physiological reasons. But I believe that we owe this noisy accompaniment to tennis, indirectly at least, to another of my heroes – Tim Gallwey (now 73), author in 1975 of “The Inner Game of Tennis”. 

The scientific answer according to Gallwey would have been because Self 1 is using the grunt to tell Self 2 to get in the zone! What is all this about? 

Gallwey was a good enough tennis player to captain the Harvard team. He went on to become a professional, and later a coach. He studied under Guru Maharaj Ji, and became fascinated with the psychology of tennis. He wanted to understand why the greatest players could make stupid mistakes despite having immaculate technique and being super fit. Also why coaching for beginners and club players was often so ineffective. The player knew what he or she was supposed to do, but failed on court. 

His discovery was that we have “two selves”. Self 1 is the thinker and teller. Self 2 is the listener and doer. Self 1 knows what to do, and can’t understand why Self 2 is so inept. Trouble is, Self 2 would be fine, left to his/her own devices, but freezes when Self 1 says “break point” just as Self 2 goes for a cunning drop shot! 

Gallwey’s Inner Game is what sports commentators and psychologists now call the “zone” – the state of concentrating hard and shutting out the external influences and thoughts which can distract the player from peak performance and faultless decision making. 

He was a true pioneer, and wrote subsequent books about golf, music and skiing. Unsurprisingly sports-mad businessmen then clamoured for his motivational services, and Gallwey wrote “The Inner Game of Business” as a focus for his burgeoning consulting and executive coaching business. 

Having studied considered decision making, and been puzzled at how teams of competent and intelligent people can use such poor process, I am constantly impressed by the efficiency of short-order decision makers, who usually have only seconds to decide. I am talking about such disparate performers as soldiers, pilots, firefighters, police officers, triage nurses and referees. But it applies to us as well, as we drive our cars and walk the pavements well enough to avoid collisions. It has to be down to training and experience. 

All of them (and us) must have Inner Games and well-trained Self 2’s. When I hear you grunting at the wheel or walking down Regent Street. I’ll know for sure.

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For a massive undertaking like the Olympic Games in London next year, there must have been hundreds if not thousands of decisions. There will be thousands more up to and beyond the Opening Ceremony. 

The key decisions (decision scientists call them metadecisions) for the IOC were:

  • How many cities were capable of putting on a Games to match the recent spectaculars in Beijing, Athens and Sydney?
  • Which of the short list had the best case? 

For the London bid team:

  • Can we win?
  • How can we win?
  • What’s it going to take in resource, capability and of course direct and indirect cost?

Going back to our process, how would these decisions have stood up to this massive challenge?

  1. Clarity on your goal
  2. Best data and intelligence – and keep looking for more
  3. Frame – and if necessary keep on framing till the problem is well and truly defined
  4. Structure the most viable options for solving the problem
  5. Identify upsides and downsides in each option
  6. Reward / risk analysis, ensuring that you are not swayed too much by the attractiveness of an option if it has a dangerous downside
  7. Carefully weigh reward and risk, and then make the decision

From what we know now, both the IOC’s metadecisions still look pretty good, although the August riots must have caused some real worries. Their decision making looks inspired by comparison with FIFA’s efforts in choosing venues for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. 

The London bid team’s process also looks sound apart from a gross underestimate of cost. But the overall upside of leaving a really valuable legacy by regenerating the East End was good judgement.

If the process works in retrospect, it certainly commands our support going forward.

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