The problem with “Ghost Victories” and what they hide about our success

I just read a tremendous chapter from Dan Heath’s best-selling book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems before they Happen. In chapter 9, Dan detailed three examples of “ghost victories” that give us a false sense of success.

The third one was the most powerful, in my opinion.

He said: “There is also a third kind of ghost victory that’s essentially a special case of the second (when short term measures don’t align with the long term mission).

“It occurs when measures become the mission.”

This thought has two very practical applications to coaches.

  • Making practice the game

At Bridge the Gap 2020, Pelotero CEO Bobby Tewksbary warned of the “Crossfitification” of baseball: Practices have become the objective, not the games themselves.

This, in essence, is what Heath was talking about. Having goals & objectives to train towards is important, but they are not THE goal. The goal is game performance. If you’re selling out for training objectives at the expense of game performance, your interests are misaligned.

Naval Ravikant said it best: “When you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.”

The best way to not win stupid prizes is to not play stupid games. 

  • Doctoring data

In the book, Heath talked about a specific situation with NYPD where “CompStat” was introduced in the 1994. The software was designed to improve data collection on specific crimes across the city so resources could be better allocated.

The intention was good. The actual execution was anything but.

Instead of tracking crime better, officers manipulated the data so they would look better. Crimes in certain areas were not reported. Other crimes were re-worded so they didn’t fall under specific categories (e.g. re-writing a rape case as “theft of service”). The data looked better, but it wasn’t an accurate representation of what was actually going on. It was flawed.

Heath said it best: “When people’s well-being depends on hitting certain numbers, they get very interested in tilting the odds in their favor.

Coaches should resonate with this statement on a lot of different levels. I know I did.

Data is awesome, but it’s very easy to manipulate. You can pick and choose stats, fail to record others, and only present the ones that confirm what you believe. This is a problem. If there’s no integrity behind what we collect – or don’t collect – we’re falling victim to confirmation bias.

Don’t search for what you want to believe is true. Look at what is actually true.

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