Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How to Get Back on Track

The Ducati motorcycle racing team, Ducati Corse, decided to compete in a motorcycle racing circuit, the MotoGP, for the first time in 2003. The team had accumulated years of experience and success in other motorcycle racing circuits, but the MotoGP had different rules and required a different type of motorcycle. Consequently, team members approached their first MotoGP as a season of learning – their goal was not to win, but to gain as much knowledge about the race for future years as possible.

The plan of action was clear, and the team tried to set everything up so that implementation would follow smoothly. For instance, the team’s racing bikes were fitted with sensors to capture performance data, and Ducati Corse engineers held debriefings with the riders after each race to gather feedback on the bike’s handling.

Unfortunately, however, the team’s outcome bore little resemblance to its initial plan. During the 2003 MotoGP season, the team experienced unexpected success, finishing among the top three in nine races and second overall for the season. Instead of focusing on learning from all the data they were gathering, team members focused on celebrating. The unexpected success also increased the engineers’ confidence in their ability to design high-performing racing bikes. As a result, the team decided to radically redesign its bike for the MotoGP 2004 season, adding more than 60% new components. But the new racing bike did not perform as well as expected in the first few races of the 2004 MotoGP season. As the team members themselves recognized, their confidence sidetracked them from their goal.

The business press often reports stories of CEOs, managers, and their companies setting out to accomplish specific goals and ending up with very different outcomes. In our own professional lives, similar experiences cause us to question our fundamental ability to make effective decisions that are consistent with our initial plans. In my own study of various organizations, I have observed several circumstances in which decision makers are likely to get sidetracked. Experienced managers may plan carefully for their negotiations but end up with very different deals after being caught up “in the heat of the moment.” Thoughtful executives may introduce new incentive schemes to motivate their employees but discover that the new systems triggered cheating. Similarly, team leaders may plan to spur success by using a participative approach to problem solving but fail due to their difficulty putting themselves in their team members’ shoes.

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