Book Review – Left Brain, Right Stuff, by Phil Rosenzweig

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Here’s the transcript from our podcast episode where we discuss the five lessons Ken took from Phil Rosenzweig’s book ‘Left Brain, Right Stuff: How leaders make winning decisions’. This is the second of our ‘Five Lessons’ episodes, in which we discuss a book that we’ve read (or listened to) that we think offers useful insights to help us improve our decision making.

FIVE LESSONS – reflections on ‘Left Brain, Right Stuff’ by Phil Rosenzweig

Tessa: Hi there. This is How to Choose, the show that helps you make better decisions and improve your judgment. Thanks for joining us. I’m Tessa.

Ken: And I’m Ken. As regular listeners would probably realise, Tessa and I are avid readers and we decided that it might be helpful for you if we started sharing some of the specific things that we’re learning from the books that we’re reading.

Tessa: So in our Five Lessons episodes, we take a look at an interesting book and reflect on five things that we’ve learned when reading or listening to it. What’s the book for today, Ken?

Ken: Well, today we’re taking a look at a book by Phil Rosenzweig called ‘Left Brain, Right Stuff: How leaders make winning decisions’. Rosenzweig is professor emeritus of strategy and international management at a Swiss educational institute called IMD. I spent some time, Tess, trying to work out what IMD stands for with no success. I think that is the name which unfortunately doesn’t communicate anything to people who are hearing it for the first time. But I gather it serves a similar function to Harvard Business School as they provide training for managers and executives. And Rosenzweig himself was formerly a professor at Harvard. Left Brain, Right Stuff is an interesting book. Essentially, Rosenzweig challenges the way that a number of authors have taken the discoveries of behavioural economists and assumed that they can be directly applied to a management context. Now, by this we’re talking about the discovery of researchers such as Daniel Kahneman. The Nobel Prize winning author of thinking fast and slow, very sadly passed away just a couple of weeks ago.

Tessa: Rest in peace, Kahneman.

Ken: Yeah, and he demonstrated that humans aren’t as rational as we think we are, that our rationality is bounded. Our brains have evolved to make quick judgments and decisions in complex and dangerous environments. And as a result, we simplify reality. We apply heuristics or mental shortcuts when making decisions, and we succumb to a range of cognitive biases.

Tessa: Now, just as a little refresher, feel free to try and guess the bias before Ken does  listener. So we’ll pause after each one. So this will be a test of how much of season three you’ve absorbed for those who’ve listened to that one on heuristics and biases. So we tend to prefer information that supports what we already believe and discount information that challenges our beliefs.

Ken: Confirmation bias.

Tessa: Ding ding. We tend to give more weight to readily available memories than we really should.

Ken: Availability bias.

Tessa: We often see ourselves as exceptional and ignore data that could give us a more objective view of our chances of being successful.

Ken: Ouch. Yeah, that one hurts, doesn’t it? Base rate neglect.

Tessa: And we’re quick to project our own view of the world onto others, expecting that if others are behaving rationally, they will make the same judgments and decisions.

Ken: That would be mirror imaging. And we succumb to many other biases as well. But although Rosenzweig doesn’t deny that humans are susceptible to these thinking problems, he says that we need to be really careful how we try and apply these discoveries to the workplace. To quote the author, he writes, we should be careful not to take findings that make sense in one domain and apply them to another. At least not without asking whether the circumstances are the same. The book was thought provoking, but it was fairly easy to read and it was peppered with interesting stories and examples. Some of the points he makes are more subtle than they are groundbreaking, but I think it’s a worthwhile read. So with no further ado, Tess, shall we have a look at five lessons that I took from the book?

Tessa: Yeah, I’m really keen. I haven’t actually read the book, so I’m interested to see if I should make the time.

Ken: Yep. All right. Keen to hear what you conclude. The first one is when you are making a decision, you need to understand how much control you have over the outcome. So let’s explain that with an example. If you are deciding which player to bet on in a tennis match, and we don’t support betting, or neither are we sponsored by any betting agencies, you have zero control over the outcome, unless somehow you’re involved in match fixing. If you are the coach of one of the players and you are devising a strategy to help your player to win, then you have some level of control. If you are the player, then you have a much higher level of control. But even then, your performance is impacted by how your opponent plays and by external conditions such as the weather. Now, if we change the sport to darts, then you have even greater control because your opponent is a passive observer when you are throwing your darts.

Tessa: That makes sense, Ken. And I think it actually reminds me a bit of Stephen Covey’s circle of influence and circle of concern idea: just throw it into Google to get the visual. But we need to be working in that influence circle and not waste our time and worry about things that we can’t influence. So if we consider the insights discovered by behavioural economists, we might conclude, as Rosenzweig points out, that humans are often overly optimistic about their chance of success. And this is referred to as optimism bias. So Rosenzweig is saying that rather than fixating on the idea that humans are always too optimistic, the more useful thing is to become better at understanding how much control or influence we have over the outcome.

Ken: Yes. And so this leads us to the second lesson that I took out. You’ll find that a lot of these lessons are very closely interrelated as we go through them. Rosenzweig demonstrates that in some contexts, optimism actually improves our chances of succeeding. Interestingly so, a golfer who believes a putt is easy to sink may actually have more success when putting than a hyper-rational golfer who purely judges their chances of success based on some statistical analysis. And there is a test that they performed, which I found fascinating, to demonstrate that this is the case. The tests were performed to see if perception would impact how accurately subjects could putt a golf ball into a hole. Some subjects saw the hole surrounded by a series of circles that were bigger than the hole, and others saw the hole surrounded by a series of circles smaller than the hole.

Tessa: And what impact did this have?

Ken: Well, it impacts how big the hole appears to the player. If you think of all those optical illusion tests that you’ve seen, they found that if you are putting into a hole that looks larger, so a hole that’s surrounded by smaller holes tends to look larger, then you are more accurate than if you are putting into a hole that looks smaller because it is surrounded by larger circles.

Tessa: Look, intuitively, that makes a lot of sense. But I do find it a little bit ironic that, you know, his book is about not applying behavioural economics willy nilly to business. But then he goes and uses a sports example to demonstrate this point about optimism. Did he have any other more workplace specific examples or evidence?

Ken: I think that’s a very insightful observation there, Tessa. He doesn’t. And it does make me wonder, actually, listening to your point, I wonder what kind of test you could create that could replicate optimism in the workplace. Maybe that’s something we can throw out to listeners to have a think about, because it isn’t necessarily transferable, is it?

Tessa: No. That’s a motor skill and it’s a very psychological thing as well. And it’s tricky in the workplace because we all have natural tendencies, don’t we, towards optimism or pessimism? So how could we override that? Maybe if there’s some academics who are good at study designs, they can email us.

Ken: Yeah, because really, what we’re talking about there is the way that your visual perception is impacting your sense of how likely you are to succeed. So, yeah, I don’t quite know if it’s transferable.

Tessa: Now. I know you said Rosenzweig goes a little bit further than this too, though, doesn’t he?

Ken: Yeah. So what he says is that he believes it’s a fallacy that humans are consistently over optimistic. Theory suggests that humans are consistently inaccurate when estimating the amount of control they have in a situation. Some of the research conducted shows that people underestimate how much control they have. Rosenzweig rightly points out that we need to consider in different situations whether it is better to risk being wrong, to err on the side of courage, or whether it is better for us to be cautious because the risk is too great. So sometimes it’s good to take a risk and fail, but sometimes is so costly that it is better not to take the risk.

Tessa: And that would be just very contextually based. You’d have to make that judgment.

Ken: Exactly.

Tessa: More broadly, it does remind me of the observed placebo effect, where people who believe a medicine is going to help them do actually get better and experience some degree of benefit just from being optimistic about it.

Ken: Yeah, that’s very interesting, isn’t it? There is certainly a point at which optimism can have a very big impact on our wellbeing. And there’s a lot of studies that have demonstrated that. 

The third lesson that I took from Rosenzweig is that we might have overrated the contribution that deliberate practice makes to great success. Now, this is. It may be controversial, Tess, so we’re going to see what your thoughts are about this. Rosenzweig certainly acknowledges that in many fields, deliberate, persistent practice is critical for success. He references some of the groundbreaking work that was undertaken by Benjamin Bloom. And Bloom conducted research to test the idea that exceptional achievers were blessed with native talent or genius. Bloom’s conclusion from observations was that exceptional performance was mostly the result of intensive practice guided by committed teachers and supportive family members. In other words, the key contributor was environment rather than genetics. So we come back to that, the eternal debate over nature versus nurture. Rosenzweig concedes that many skills can be mastered or at least significantly improved through lots of practice. Juggling. Do you juggle, Tess?

Tessa: I actually do, Ken. I was in a circus in primary school.

Ken: That’s so cool. I think you’ve mentioned the circus before. We need video footage.

Tessa: Story for another day.

Ken: A story for another day. Presumably you practiced your juggling?

Tessa: I did.

Ken: In the said circus, yeah. Yes. So they didn’t just push you out in front of a crowd?

Tessa: No. Deliberate practice, for sure.

Ken: Excellent. Well, golf, he suggests, is another activity we can get better at through practice. But he notes the huge variability of shots that you might have to play in golf. And he says golfers don’t just play round of golf, but what they do is that they’ll get to a point in the course where they realise, here’s a shot that I need to practise. So they might practice multiple shots from the same position. But he challenges the conclusion of books such as Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell that he says seem to suggest that success will come if you just put in the time. He becomes quite irate when he talks about Gladwell. He says Gladwell cherry-picks exceptional examples to make his case, such as the Beatles and Bill Gates. But this overlooks all those who practice faithfully but don’t find great success.

Tessa: Look, this is a controversial one, Ken, and I’m going to come to Gladwell’s defense because I feel like Rosenzweig is maybe cherry-picking examples from Gladwell. You know, my understanding of Outliers is, yeah, sure, he talks about the deliberate practice point, but also it’s a lot about circumstance and context. So Bill Gates happened to go to the one school whose parent committee invested in a computer and he got all this extra time on computers. So it wasn’t just the deliberate practice, but it was also the circumstances that had led to his success. And I know there’s another example in there about ice hockey players, and again, it wasn’t just about them deliberately practising, which is what made them professionals, but it was about the circumstances of when they were born. Those who were born just before the cut-off date to qualify for a particular age group team were more likely to become professionals because they were physically bigger. So I think, again, Gladwell was making a more complex argument than just practice equals success. He was talking about lots of different things. He was exploring what does make people outliers. So just a little bit a defense there that maybe he’s taken a simplistic view of Gladwell’s arguments in that book.

Ken: Yeah. So he may be guilty of the exact thing that he’s criticising Gladwell of. It did make me think, as I was reading the book, though, that, you know, we’ve got a neighbour who plays the drums a lot.

Tessa: What a blessing, Ken.

Ken: Yes, it is a great blessing Tess. Although, thankfully, he lives two houses down, not directly next door. I’m not getting the full blessing of the drums, but I was chatting with another neighbour who’s lived in the area for many years. He said, this guy’s been practising since he was a kid and he never seems to get any better, which just made me laugh. Now, that neighbour may be being a bit harsh, but clearly our drumming neighbour is no Dave Grohl or Keith Moon – despite all his thousands of hours of practice. And Rosenzweig, coming back to his point, highlights that there is growing evidence that talent matters a great deal. He cites research by Vanderbilt University that found that children who perform very well on intelligence tests at an early age, presumably at an age before environment has had too much impact, had a significant edge over the others in later accomplishment. And he also points out some tasks and activities lend themselves really well to deliberate practice. So those are tasks that are of short duration, where there’s a clear sequence of actions and the feedback is immediate, such as throwing darts at a dartboard or shooting a basketball. You can make quick adjustments based on the feedback that you’re getting, translating that to a business context, he said, look, if you’re selling products door to door, that might be another example. You follow a similar pattern of actions, a similar script each time, and you can perhaps adjust things slightly to get a better outcome. But he contrasts that with a more complex business situation. If your company is trying to sell a complex software package to government departments or large companies, the process is long and you might be approaching several clients consecutively. You might never quite know why your approach succeeded or failed, given that there are so many complex factors involved in making that decision.

Tessa: I’m still not quite convinced. Ken. So his counterexample is that smart kids have an edge, but how do we know that this isn’t because they deliberately practice a lot? Did he have much evidence to back up this point? And I watched the last dance with Michael Jordan, and obviously he’s someone who’s very naturally talented, but you also see how deliberately and hard he practises, and I think he’d get really offended if you just attributed his success to talent. So I feel like the truth probably lies in the middle somewhere, that deliberate practice is essential for success, but talent obviously helps a lot and gives you a leg up.

Ken: Yeah, fair point. And I think you could argue that even those more complex tasks probably have many sub components that you can practice and improve. So if you’re part of a team that’s trying to win a contract and sell a complex software package, then members of the team will have practised and honed their ability to, say, deliver a sales pitch, including by getting feedback from others. So you might say, well, that’s not deliberate practice in the way that Rosenzweig is defining it, but it is experience and it’s knowledge gained over time rather than just innate talent. In short, the reasons for success or failure are complex and multifaceted, which I think is what Rosenzweig is trying to argue. All right, well, let’s take a look at the fourth lesson. He says, and this is interesting, don’t overvalue persistence in leaders. The ability to change and adapt is also important. Rosenzweig describes an interesting experiment. I’m really curious to hear your thoughts about this one, Tess. Leaders are expected, I’m quoting from the book, 

“…leaders are expected to have a clear sense of direction and to be steadfast in the pursuit of associated goals. In a remarkable experiment, Barry Storr and Jerry Ross asked four groups to read a description of a leader’s actions in a business setting. Each group was given a different reading. One was about a leader who stuck to a policy despite repeated failure and was never successful. The second persisted and eventually succeeded. The third kept changing the policy but never succeeded, and the fourth kept changing and ultimately succeeded. After reading, participants were asked to evaluate the leader’s actions. The leader who received the highest evaluation was the one who followed a consistent policy and ultimately succeeded. They were credited for eventual success and also lauded for their steadfast behaviour, for persevering even in the face of initial failure. As for the leader who changed policies and eventually succeeded, they were rated lower for clarity of vision and strength of character. In fact, because they changed course, eventual success was sometimes ascribed to chance. Far from praising their adaptability and flexibility, they were questioned for a lack of consistency. The implication for leaders is profound. Being perceived as consistent and steadfast was as important as the eventual outcome and sometimes more so.”

Tessa: I find this really sad, Ken. It’s terrible that changing your mind is often viewed as a negative and not the sign of someone who has an open mind and wants to evolve as circumstances change. I often think about this critique with our politicians because they get criticised for flip flopping when they change a policy, where actually this should be lauded. As long as the decision was based on evidence and careful reflection, we should actually be congratulating and encouraging people who are publicly changing their mind. So we assign credit and blame too often to outcomes without actually considering what was just due to chance.

Ken: It is quite fascinating, isn’t it? We can be really quick to link two things without having clear evidence that one has caused the other. If we highly value persistence, then we see a persistent person succeeding and we say, oh well, it’s because they were persistent and because they refused to change their strategy. Maybe it was or maybe it was luck. Maybe their strategy only worked because something else changed, and maybe they succeeded despite their persistence. And I think all of this reminds me, Tess, in our last season, we were talking about the characteristics of good decision makers, and one of those was being reflective. And it’s great to be reflective, but we just need to be really discerning when we’re reflecting because when we are reflecting, we can jump to completely incorrect conclusions about our successes or failures.

Tessa: Yeah, there’s so much research on this, Ken, that if it’s our own actions, then we generally attribute our success to our own deliberate action. But our failures we attribute to outside forces or just plain bad luck. So we do need to be really careful to assess what was actually causal versus just chance.

Ken: And I know, I’ve known friends over the years who’ve been very down on themselves. And when they succeed, they say the opposite. They say, oh, it’s just luck, or it was someone else did it, you know, that refusal to be able to take credit for their successes as well. So I think that’s where getting people in our lives who are insightful and discerning and can be honest with us and give us feedback and say, look, you did a great job, Tess. Or, Tess, you know, I think you were lucky in that situation. You know, we are often very blind, aren’t we.

Tessa: Yes, to our own performance, for sure.

Ken: All right, the final lesson is be cautious about blaming your poor performance on overconfidence. It’s a nice segue from what we were just talking about. Being confident is important, as we’ve just heard. But Rosenzweig points out that if that confidence doesn’t produce results, then we can be quick to criticise the person for being overconfident. And I’d say, particularly in Australian culture, we don’t appreciate or value overconfidence. We talk about the tall poppy syndrome, the tendency we have to look for people who are exceptional and, by our criticism, cut them down to size so that they’re the same as everyone else. If a person is successful, sometimes we can see that the confidence is well placed. And again, quoting from the book,:

‘Take any success and we can find reasons to explain it as the result of healthy confidence. We nod approvingly, ‘Oh, they were confident. That’s why they did so well.’ Take any failure and we shake our heads ‘They were overconfident. That’s why they did poorly. If they hadn’t been so sure of themselves, they might have done better.’ There’s an appealing syllogism at work. Things turned out badly, so someone must have made a mistake. Errors are due to overconfidence, therefore, bad outcomes are due to overconfidence. Unfortunately, each of those statements is flawed. Firstly, not everything that turns out badly is due to an error. We live in a world of uncertainty in which there’s an imperfect link between action and outcomes.’ 

And listen to this next sentence from his book, Tess. I think this will resonate. ‘Even good decisions sometimes turn out badly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone made an error.’

Tessa: It’s a really important point, Ken. You know, you make something turns out badly, you don’t have to change your approach. Maybe your approach was fine, it was just bad luck.

Ken: Yes, and secondly, not every error is the result of overconfidence. There’s many kinds of errors, errors of calculation, errors of memory, simple motor errors, tactical errors, and so forth. Not all due to overconfidence.

Tessa: This actually feels closely related to the previous lesson, and I think it’s a really important reason to focus on reflection and dissecting outcomes, whether they’re good or bad. A good outcome could still have had many flawed processes, and the inverse is certainly true.

Ken: Yeah, and I’d say that’s a recurring point throughout the book. It’s don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions to explain successes or failures.

Tessa: Look, Ken, just reflecting on all of them, I think they’re all good lessons, but they are worth taking with a grain of salt. Some of the criticisms he had of other people’s arguments and studies could also be made about the lessons he’s presenting in this book. But overall, the broad point that you’ve just made about not jumping to conclusions is really key. Reflecting and dissecting are so important.

Ken: Yeah, and I think Rosenzweig does that well. He is clearly reacting to the way that some writers have oversimplified cognitive biases and have carelessly assumed that they can apply the findings of the Harvard laboratory to the real world. Rosenzweig instead has considered the potential contribution of different cognitive biases to our success or failure in the workplace, and he’s explored evidence that challenges the consensus view. And it’s always good to hear from someone who is willing to challenge the consensus and make us think twice.

Tessa: Agree.

Ken: Well, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please make sure to subscribe to How to Choose so you don’t miss our next one.

Tessa: And tell your friends about us. We’d love to meet them too. And we know that sharing what we’re learning is an awesome way to reinforce those lessons. So maybe pick one of these five and go out and teach your buddy or your family. Bye for now!

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