The Dropped Ball Series: Escaping the Outcome Trap

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The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment

40,000 fans in attendance plus millions watching from their couch or local pub collectively groan. The commentators lament the score that might have been. Their team has dropped the ball.




Meanwhile, the coach is busy considering two questions: What was the failure? What feedback should they give to their player(s)?


The coach must choose a lens to evaluates the event. This choice fundamentally shapes his answer to these questions.




The Outcome-Focused Lens

The coach looks at the outcome of the pass from Blue 10 to Blue 3. Blue 3 dropped the ball.


Given an Outcome Focused approach, what was the failure? Blue 3 dropped the ball. Now they must decide what feedback to give to the player.


The Outcome Focused analysis provides limited information and constrains the coach’s feedback. Blue 3 had two possible outcomes: drop or catch the ball. The coach – desiring the positive outcome in the future – shouts from the sideline, “Blue 3, Catch the ball!”


What are the consequences of this feedback? Has the coach empowered Blue 3 to catch the next pass? Probably not. The feedback implies that the athlete decides while the ball is in the air whether or not to catch it: on this occasion Blue 3 chose to drop but with this feedback, he will decide to catch the ball the next time. In reality, very few people choose to drop the ball. “Catch the ball!” provides no new information to help him figure out why he dropped the ball and how to improve in the future. Because he does not have adequate information to make corrections, Blue 3 is likely to repeat the negative outcome later in the game.

As Blue 3 repeatedly drops passes, he becomes increasingly frustrated. Frustration diminishes his focus. A minor issue – that initially plagued only one of his skills – now festers and brings down his entire game.


This unproductive feedback can have team-level consequences as well. “Catch the ball!” implies that Blue 3 decided to hurt his team and his peers by dropping the ball. It implies ill will on his part. It makes Blue 3 feel untrusted. Over time, people who feel they are not trusted tend to distrust others. They become hostile and negatively impact team culture.


The Process-Driven Lens

The Process Driven coach reviews the moments preceding the drop. They search for Process failures. They come to a frame that perfectly illustrates two such failures.


Process Failures


“Blue 3, Let’s get our hands up and extended towards the passer. Blue 10, make sure we’re following through to a point in front of our target.”


Does this empower the players to make improvements going forward? Most certainly. The coach's feedback informs them why the pass was dropped and given them specific fixes to prevent future drops. The likelihood of frustration decreases because they know the cause of their failure. This one mistake is now less likely to fester and negatively affect the players throughout the rest of the game.


The Process Driven coach has also seen into a blind spot of their Outcome Focused counterpart. The Outcome Focused coach had tunnel vision on the negative outcome – the dropped ball – and failed to see the poor pass. The Process Driven coach sees the full picture while the Outcome Focused coach is only capable of addressing pieces of a larger issue.


How does Process Driven feedback affect the team’s culture and cohesion? The feedback implies trust. It assumes both players want to positively contribute to the team and offers tools to do so. By eliminating blind spots, this feedback also improves across-the-board accountability in the team. Blue 3’s morale benefits from not being singled out. Threats to cohesion – like a perception of favoritism towards Blue 10 – are avoided. Empowered by specific knowledge of how to improve, both players are now capable of addressing their deficiencies. Their teammates see their specific efforts to overcome their weaknesses. This will positively impact team culture.


The Decision

The moment someone drops the ball, their leaders, colleagues, friends, and family make a split-second decision to be Outcome Focused or Process Driven. The Dropped Ball Thought Experiment suggests choosing the latter should be a no brainer. Yet intelligent, rational people regularly choose the Outcome Focused lens. Why does this happen? In short, outcomes are seductive honeypots. Proactive measures are necessary to avoid their trap.


Over this series of essays, we will examine the barriers to choosing the Process Driven lens and suggest workarounds. Look for an article on the first obstacle - the relative visibility of Outcomes and Process - in a few weeks time.


In the meantime, I would love to hear your experience with the Process-Outcome decision. Whether you are a process pro or struggle not to succumb to the outcome seductress (we've all been there!), please give me a shout on LinkedIn and share your experience!


I will also be presenting a webinar on a new staff training method grounded in a Process-Driven philosophy on 11 August as part of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce Business Seminar Success Series. Visit the Chamber Website to learn more and sign up!

Joseph Rasmus

Joseph Rasmus is a Project Consultant with the L M Thomas Group.

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[email protected]

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[email protected]