The Planning Fallacy explains why human beings, including basketball coaches, are terrible at estimating how long something will take.
In my work counseling coaches, my clients often ask how long I think it will take their teams to learn an offense, defense or engrain some fundamental habit.
There is no way I can accurately answer that question. I have my experiences as a coach to draw from, but I am not privy to that coach’s players and their skill level, ability to learn and their motivation to learn. I am not privy to the coach’s teaching ability and practice organization skills either.
There are other factors I am unaware of such as future injuries or other future setbacks and interruptions that will occur.
Therefore, I am always hesitant to give an exact answer (i.e. “It’ll take ten practices.”) for I just cannot be certain the answer will be close to accurate.
One answer I can give that is likely to be accurate: “Longer than you think.”
This answer reflects an awareness of the planning fallacy and my motive is to help the coach set a realistic timeline.
What is the planning fallacy?
The planning fallacy is an example of a cognitive bias. It describes our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. Whether that task is teaching your team a new offense, helping a player learn to shoot or cutting down on turnovers it will probably take longer than you think.
The planning fallacy can cause coaches to plan poorly, have unrealistic timelines and experience frustration. Coaches often set timelines for “perfect world” or “best case scenario” situations and those rarely occur. As coaches we start to downplay the likelihood of these setbacks all while over-estimating our own abilities.
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Why does the planning fallacy creep in?
We prefer to focus on the positive — to be optimistic. And we tend to be more optimistic where our own abilities are concerned. As a species we prefer positivity. Coaches want to believe that there will be no setbacks (“my best players will all stay healthy and eligible”) along the way and that their teaching abilities will speed up the timeline.
As coaches we often hear testimony from another coach about how long it took their team to accomplish the thing we want to accomplish and dismiss it. We believe it won’t take us that long and we plan accordingly.
I believe there is some “speaking it into existence” involved here. No one wants to voice anything pessimistic like “this will take longer than we think” so outwardly we say things that we hope to come true. Saying something like “our guys will pick up these principles in our first week” needs to be based in something other that our hopes.
Has there been demonstrated ability to pick up other things quickly? If so, you may have reason for your optimistic timeline. If not, what are you basing that claim on?
Who on your coaching staff are you listening to? What are your mentors saying? Planning fallacy can creep in when we listen to only the most optimistic voices. No one wants to be the “downer” on the staff so your advisors may be giving you overly optimistic estimates of timelines. This leads to an organization that then incentivizes bright side thinking and paints too rosy of a picture.
How do we avoid planning fallacy?
Using more than just your own hunches or beliefs is a good way to avoid planning fallacy. You may have your belief on how long it will take your team to learn an offense or go from last to first in your conference, but there are others out there who have done something similar. You can get an estimation from their timelines and experiences. Do not ignore this information. Their timelines can serve as a proxy for yours. Too often we believe we can do it faster.
Setting “micro-goals” along the way can help with planning fallacy as well. Research suggest we are better at estimating the time it takes to do a little thing than a big thing.
It is better to allow too much time for something than not enough and we have to be nimble enough to adjust the timeline of our plan when it becomes clear we were wrong about the time costs.
So how long will it take for your team to go from last to first in your conference?
How long will it take for us to raise our three-point shooting ability?
How long will it take for my players to learn the complete Princeton Offense?
How long until our footwork improves in games?
I really don’t know, but safe to say it’s longer than you think. Plan accordingly.
Continue the conversation:
Note: This article originally appeared at Radius Athletics XTRA. It is reposted here with permission.
Further reading: The Decision Lab
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