by H. James Wilson
After exiting the crowded auditorium where Colts quarterback Andrew Luck publicly wished that the NFL would develop “a football equivalent of pitch count” to reduce injury at his position, I headed left toward a series of large posters mounted on display easels in the hallway.
Each display showed complex statistical formulas, data visualizations, and excerpts from research papers presented at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Groups of three or four attendees clustered around each poster as if at an art gallery, nodding appreciatively to convey understanding or pointing to ask, “What does this mean?”
This year, more than 300 papers were submitted by researchers from the world’s leading academic institutions and corporate R&D groups, but only 13 were accepted for the conference. I’ve studied the posters and scanned the papers and am struck by how temporally exacting the leading edge of sports analytics has become. Thanks to new wearable technology and video analytics techniques, each minute (or less) of a game offers researchers increasingly precise modes of analysis and insight.
This new world also offers fresh ideas for managers in non-sports businesses. Here are four challenges analytics can help solve, each with a 60-second drill. There’s a lot to be learned in minute.
Spot faulty decision-making patterns. You might think you are fairly reliable when making spur-of-the-moment decisions during meetings or sales calls. But is it possible that your decisions are consistently off-base compared to routine decisions made by others in your organization or profession?
Using video of nearly every game over the last two NBA seasons, this paper analyzes the split-second call tendencies of referees. It found that many refs call violations at rates significantly higher or lower than the professional average; thus, understanding a decisions-maker’s tendencies can be “leveraged” as an advantage.
60-Second Drill: Conduct a data-gathering exercise of your own personal inclinations during your next meeting. Track a few key suggestions and who made them. Look at your tracking notes later on, asking yourself whether you have default feelings about the types of solutions mentioned (“I can’t stand new technology”) or who made them (“I really like this guy!”). Are these defaults resulting in predictably off-kilter decisions?
Recognize and quantify bias in new ways. Situational biases, like the fear of failure in some moments more than others, change how routine decisions get made. For instance, are you more likely to feel pressure to veto the standard 5% increase to the R&D budget just after your stock price took a hit?
By analyzing more than 1 million pitches from 2009-2011, this paper uncovers each MLB umpire’s aversions to miscalling strikes in certain situations. It found that for more pressure-packed decisions, such as calling a third strike, an umpire needs to be 64% sure it’s actually a strike half the time. By comparison, “if an umpire is unbiased, he would only need to be 50% sure that a pitch is a strike in order to call a strike half the time.”
60-Second Drill: Before your next decision, ask yourself whether and how an increased sense of pressure might bias the way you see a given situation; look carefully at your judgment of the facts, for example, or the data at hand.
Deconstruct a skill. Let’s say your boss just asked you to lead a critical new initiative, requesting a shortlist of people you’d like on the team. To assess needs and skills, you might be inclined to think in terms of generic notions of expertise. You might put a “coder” or “marketer” on your list, for example.
But imagine that you could get a totally new kind of granular insight on skills, grounded in data drawn from real-life practice rather than conventional categories. In basketball, for instance, generic skills are now being deconstructed in real time, allowing for more effective analysis of skills and assessment of performance. For instance, using tracking technology, researchers in this paper determined that the generic skill of rebounding in basketball is actually three distinctive skills: positioning, hustle, and conversion.
60-Second Drill: Identify your number one skill, the one you’re known for. Are there hidden or tacit sub-skills that underlie its successful application and outcomes? Jot down ways you could market these newly uncovered sub-skills to clients.
Track decisions in real time. During an important meeting, you and your colleagues might make dozens of small decisions that culminate in one big decision, like taking a shot at entering a new market with an existing product.
Imagine if you could quantify the contribution that each decision makes to the final outcome. Using optical tracking data to identify every small decision players make during a game — “whether it is to pass, dribble, or shoot” — this paper describes how real-time analysis of decisions can allow us to assess the value of an individual’s contribution in fundamentally new ways.
60-Second Drill: After your next meeting, identify a small decision that was made toward the beginning. Reflect on the ways it might have influenced later decisions, created value, and influenced the final outcome.