I am an avid reader and I recently completed “Think Like a Freak” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner. As you begin to set your goals and budgets for 2016 or if you are looking for ways to overcome a challenge, I recommend taking the time to read this book.
This story sets the stage:
“Imagine you are a professional soccer player and you’ve led your nation to the brink of a World Cup championship. All you must do now is make a single penalty kick. The odds are in your favor: roughly 75% of penalty kicks at the elite level are successful. Once the ball rockets off your foot, it will travel 80 miles an hour. At that speed, the goalie simply can’t wait and see where you kick the ball; he must take a guess and fling his body in that direction. If he guesses wrong, your odds rise to about 90%.
If you are a right-footed kicker, as most players are, going left is your strong side. That translates to more power and accuracy – but of course the keeper knows this too. That’s why keepers jump toward the kicker’s left corner 57% of the time and to the right only 41%.
So there you stand, preparing to take this life-changing kick. The crowd is roaring; your heart is throbbing. The eyes of the world are upon you. If the ball goes in, your name will forever be spoken in the tone reserved for the most beloved saints. If you fail…..that will not be the case.
The chance of becoming a hero is 75%, which isn’t bad. But wouldn’t it be nice to jack up that number? Might there be a better way to think about this problem? What if you could outfox your opponent by thinking beyond the obvious? You know the keeper is trying to decide whether to jump left or jump right. But what if you kick neither left nor right? What if you do the silliest thing imaginable and kick into the dead center of the goal? Remember what the data says; left 57%, right 41%, which means the goalie stays in the middle only 2 times out of a 100.
The facts: a kick toward center, as risky as it may appear, is 7% more likely to be successful than a kick to the corner. Are you willing to take the chance? Let’s say you are. You trot toward the ball, plant your left foot, load up the right, and let it fly. You are instantaneously gripped by a bone shaking roar – GOOOOOOOOAL!!!!!!!! The crowd erupts as you are buried beneath a mountain of teammates. This moment will last forever! Congratulations!
Ok – it’s a little long, but it helps illustrate the challenges we face each and every day.
If a penalty kick to the center is significantly more likely to succeed, then why are only 17% aimed there?
At first glance, aiming center, kicking the ball directly to the keeper, looks like a terrible idea. It seems unnatural; an obvious violation of common sense, but then so did the idea of preventing a disease by injecting people with the very microbes that cause it. Furthermore, one advantage the kicker has on a penalty kick is mystery: the keeper doesn’t know where they will aim. If kickers did the same thing every time, their success rate would plummet; if they started going to the center more often, the keepers would adapt. But, there is a third reason why more kickers don’t aim center, especially on high stakes settings like the World Cup: the fear of shame.
Let’s go back to the soccer game and the penalty kick; you have just mentally committed to aiming for the center. But what if the goal keeper doesn’t dive? The keeper becomes the hero and you will look pathetic. If you kick to the corner, your efforts will seem more valiant even if the keeper stops the ball.
As leaders it is important that we remember that protecting our own reputation by not doing something that could make us look potentially silly, is selfish. If we try to win the game even though we risk looking personally foolish, we will kick towards the center.
Sometimes in life, going straight up the middle and not worrying about what other people think or where it is going to get you, is the boldest move of all.
The primary lesson of the book is that when we approach a problem or a challenge or an obstacle, we need to think more productively, more creatively and more rationally, even if it feels or appears risky. We need to think from different angles, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations.
As you and your teams think about 2016, don’t be afraid to kick the ball to the center. In this ever-changing industry we must Think beyond the obvious, Think without fear. Perhaps even, Think like a freak.
I hope your year is finishing safe and strong. As always I look forward to hearing from you, firstname.lastname@example.org