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There are many ways to split people into two groups. Young and old. Rich and poor. Us and them. The 98% who can do arithmetic and the 3% who cannot. Those who split people into two groups and those who don’t.
Then there’s the people who make good competitive-strategy decisions, and those who don’t.
It’s not easy to split people into the good/bad strategy decision-makers. Track records are useful but they’re not unambiguous, and those getting started have no track records at all. General intelligence and business degrees seem to be good signs, but smart people with business degrees don’t agree on what works in strategy. Veterans with specific industry expertise look promising, but so do outsiders with new ideas.
What about mindset? We know
Imagine that we can record decision-makers’ solutions to a competitive-strategy problem. We also ask how confident they feel that they’ve found a good answer and how long it took them to find it. We can categorize them, then, like this:
I’ve got such a database of people, those who have entered the
Dozens of Tournament entrants said they were very confident in their strategies after making a fast decision, dozens said they were very confident after a slow decision, and so on. The phrases in the boxes are how I interpret the mindsets of the people in those boxes. In the analysis below I’ll leave out the respondents in the “I guessed” box because they seem unrepresentative of what happens in real life, where strategists work at strategy decisions until they’re confident in their answers or they’ve worked long enough to conclude they’re not going to make further progress.
In general, the I-already-knows, confident in their snap judgments, and the Now-I-knows, confident after pondering, tend to be older males. Male business students are also represented in the I-already-knows. The I-don’t-knows, unsure of their thoughtful decisions, tend to be somewhat younger. And females make up well over half of the I-don’t-knows, a much higher percentage than in the other mindsets.
Make your prediction: which of the three styles selected the best-performing Tournament strategies?
The best-performing group: the I-don’t-knows.
Perhaps it’s about age: we gain confidence over time, but maybe not skill. Perhaps it’s about gender: rather than the conventional wisdom that females don’t have enough confidence, maybe males have too much. I don’t have enough data yet to assess those hypotheses. And perhaps the results will change as the sample sizes grow.
Still, the I-don’t-knows’ success fits my business war-gaming experience.
In one case, the new vice president of a troubled business brought together about thirty managers, each with decades in the business. The managers considered the war game an amusing waste of time. They all knew the answer already, they said, and no other options were possible. Then, role-playing their business and its competitors, they discovered that their already-known answer simply would not work. The managers suddenly found new options. We war-gamed one, and it worked, and they rolled it out in real life, and it worked. The new VP got promoted.
It’s not that the managers didn’t care or were incompetent; it’s that they were overconfident. When you think you know the answer, you sincerely believe it’s a waste of time to keep looking for it. It feels like continuing to search for your keys after you’ve found them.
I think the essential lesson for competitive-strategy decision-makers is not so fast, in both senses of the phrase: take your time and don’t be so sure. That’s the mindset used by the new VP and the I-don’t-knows.
The willingness to apply that mindset is what separates the good decision-makers from the bad.
Author note: I’d like to expand the Tournament database. I offer use of the Tournament in confidence and at no charge to faculty in business schools and executive-education programs, and to facilitators at corporate universities and management-development programs. Please contact me at
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It's not easy to split people into the good/bad strategy decision-makers.
Imagine recording decision-makers' solutions to a competitive-strategy problem using four categories:
The Now-I-know and the I-already-know are very confident while I-do don't-know and the I-guessed are unsure. The Now-I-know and the I-don't-know are slow in making a strategy-decision while the I-already-know and the I-guessed are fast at making a decision.
A database of business executives, consultants, professors, and students was given the same unfamiliar pricing-strategy problem.
When the overconfident think they already know the answer, they may believe it's a waste of time to keep looking for answers. But in deciding on a strategy, overconfidence may not lead to a workable option.
An essential lesson for competitive-strategy decision-makers is not to be so fast. Take your time and don't be so sure.
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