Mckinsey Quarterly on Behavioral Strategy Spring 2010

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On the cover

Seeing through biases in strategic decisions

Artwork by Paul Wearing

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The case for behavioral strategy
Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony

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How we do it: Three executives reflect on strategic decision making WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell Kleiner Perkins’ Randy Komisar Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy

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When can you trust your gut?
A conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein

Also in this package:

44 68

A language to discuss biases Taking the bias out of meetings

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The case for behavioral strategy
Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony

Left unchecked, subconscious biases will undermine strategic decision making. Here’s how to counter them and improve corporate performance. Once heretical, behavioral economics is now mainstream. Money managers employ its insights about the limits of rationality in understanding investor behavior and exploiting stock-pricing anomalies. Policy makers use behavioral principles to boost participation in retirement-savings plans. Marketers now understand why some promotions entice consumers and others don’t. Yet very few corporate strategists making important decisions consciously take into account the cognitive biases—systematic tendencies to deviate from rational calculations—revealed by behavioral economics. It’s easy to see why: unlike in fields such as finance and marketing, where executives can use psychology to make the most

Dan Lovallo is a professor at the University of Sydney, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Business Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adviser to McKinsey; Olivier Sibony is a director in McKinsey’s Brussels office.

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2010 Number 2

of the biases residing in others, in strategic decision making leaders need to recognize their own biases. So despite growing awareness of behavioral economics and numerous efforts by management writers, including ourselves, to make the case for its application, most executives have a justifiably difficult time knowing how to harness its power.1 This is not to say that executives think their strategic decisions are perfect. In a recent McKinsey Quarterly survey of 2,207 executives, only 28 percent said that the quality of strategic decisions in their companies was generally good, 60 percent thought that bad decisions were about as frequent as good ones, and the remaining 12 percent thought good decisions were altogether infrequent.2 Our candid conversations with senior executives behind closed doors reveal a similar unease with the quality of decision making and confirm the significant body of research indicating that cognitive biases affect the most important strategic decisions made by the smartest managers in the best companies. Mergers routinely fail to deliver the expected synergies.3 Strategic plans often ignore competitive responses.4 And large investment projects are over budget and over time—over and over again.5 In this article, we share the results of new research quantifying the financial benefits of processes that “debias” strategic decisions. The size of this prize makes a strong case for practicing behavioral strategy—a style of strategic decision making that incorporates the lessons of psychology. It starts with the recognition that even if we try, like Baron Münchhausen, to escape the swamp of biases by pulling ourselves up by our own hair, we are unlikely to succeed. Instead, we need new norms for activities such as managing meetings (for more on running unbiased meetings, see pp. 68–69), gathering data, discussing analogies, and stimulating debate that together can diminish the impact of cognitive biases on critical decisions. To support those new norms, we also need a simple language for recognizing and discussing biases, one that is grounded in the reality of corporate life, as opposed to the sometimes-arcane language of academia. All this represents a significant commitment and, in some organizations, a profound...
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