The outside view
In the brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman recalls a time when he assembled an expert team to write a textbook designed to teach judgement and decision making in high schools.
As part of the process, Kahneman asked everyone in the team to write down an estimate of how long it would take them to submit a finished draft of the textbook to the Ministry of Education. To mitigate the perils of social proofing, Kahneman confidentially collected each team member’s prediction. The team were broadly aligned in their prediction; the low end prediction was one and a half years, the high end two and a half years.
The discussion didn’t end there. An adapted version of the conversation follows:
Kahneman: Can you think of other teams similar to ours that had developed a curriculum from scratch?
Seymour [the main curriculum expert on the team]: Yes, I can think of quite a few
Kahneman: From the teams who had made as progress as we have, how long – from that point onwards – did it take them to finish their project?
Seymour [now blushing]: You know, I never realised it before, but… a substantial proportion – maybe 40% – of the teams failed to finish the job.
Kahneman: Ok. Those who finished; how long did it take them?
Seymour: I cannot think of any group that finished in less than seven years, nor any that took more than ten.
Kahneman: When you compare our skills and resources to the other groups, how would you rank us?
Seymour: We’re below average, but not by much.
In turns out that making accurate predictions and setting realistic targets is tough. Kahneman’s group had adopted what he called an ‘inside view’. That is: even when you estimate independently and aggregate the uninfluenced predictions, teams tend to optimistically or irrationally envisage best-case scenarios rather than a realistic evaluation.
In football it’s even harder to predict the likelihood of future events, given the “known unknowns” (such as player injuries) and, moreover, the fact that success is often dictated by the performance of others given the interdependent nature of football leagues (hence why it makes more sense to set targets and expectations for the season based on a points tally rather than a league position).
As we approach the new season, we can learn from Kahneman’s experience that it is important to take an outside view when making future forecasts. That is: football clubs should set realistic expectations for the season by establishing the prevailing circumstances at the club and using benchmark information from similar past incidences. Historically, clubs assumed that wages determine league table position, but 21st Club have since challenged this simplified notion by demonstrating that money doesn’t always buy you success.
So as we look ahead to the new European season, we can extend the question from: what similar cases can we use to establish goals for this season? to: what can we do differently to outthink other teams who are in a similar position to us?