If you're a frequent reader of this blog, you might have noticed that I'm an avid soccer fan who doesn't let an opportunity pass to draw analogies between the "beautiful game" and the other big game: business. As such I was riveted by Clive Thompson's "Goalkeeper Science" piece in last week's New York Times Magazine's "Year in Ideas" issue. Based on research examining the behavior of soccer goalkeepers facing penalty kicks, Thompson concludes that "inaction may be the biggest form of action" (Jerry Brown).
The study, published by a team of Israeli scientists in the Journal of Economic Psychology earlier this year, analyzed 286 penalty kicks and found that 94 percent of the time the goalies dived to the right or the left, even though the chances of stopping the ball were highest when the goalie stayed in the center. "If that's true, why do goalies almost always dive off to one side?," Thompson wonders and provides the answer himself: "Because () the goalies are afraid of looking as if they're doing nothing and then missing the ball. Diving to one side, even if it decreases the chance of them catching the ball, makes them appear decisive."
At first sight, this finding seems to present an interesting lesson for business leaders who are confronted with the urge to make decisions amidst ambiguity and an overwhelming amount of (often contradictory) information. "Not moving" or sticking to the principles and the plan in place may be interpreted as indecision and thus drive them into an "action bias" that causes more harm than good. Thompson: "The same goes, of course, for presidents and politicians, who face enormous pressure to 'fix' the economy even if they haven't got a clue what to do. Perhaps our current economic crisis has been driven by precisely this dynamic: a global financial system that jumped the wrong way for the ball."
So far, so convincing. But then I read Brian Phillips' rebuttal in which he cites numerous methodological shortcomings to back his claim that the economists' theory may be "more Malcolm Gladwell-ish than originally thought." And that, just to be clear, is not meant as a compliment. Aside from the valid doubt over anything economists, of all people, assert these days (after being so dreadfully wrong on, well, the economy), Malcom Gladwell, the author of the bestselling Tipping Point, Blink, and most recently Outliers, is a delightful master of over-simplification, a populist who masters the art of translating science into a reader's digest franchise of easy "how to's" for business class readers. Not that that is despicable by any means, it may just be wrong. I saw Gladwell present the main thesis of his new book at this year's Pop!Tech conference. I left with the dizzying feeling of a lot of hot air in my stomach and the thought that explaining science via pop may be as dissatisfying as explaining pop via science.
In the case of the goalkeeping study, Phillips contends that "there's some basis for hypothesizing that the aim here is to concoct a metaphor that can be franchised out across a variety of media topics rather than to advance our understanding of soccer or the human mind. Maybe that's too cynical, but that's such a common move in the sciences these days that I thought I'd jump at it, even if I'd be better off staying still." Kudos to Phillips. Action - and no goal!