How to navigate the accuracy-precision dilemma


Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Karate Girl. She’s not a kid. She’s a girl. Who does karate.

In the same way that there is an objective answer to the worst two hours of TV ever (Star Wars Holiday Special, 1978), there is a correct conclusion regarding the worst death scene in film history. [1]

The victim’s performance defines over the top. I wonder, is this movie the antidote to the glorification of gun violence?

For a girl named after a martial art, Karate Girl does surprisingly little karate in the clip above. Her shooting technique is of the cartoonish Shooter McGavin mode. Yet her apparent effectiveness with a gun is impressive for a girl so skilled in hand-to-hand combat that she has to register her hands as deadly weapons with the local sheriff.

The Accuracy-Precision Dilemma

A fundamental shooting lesson is the difference between precision and accuracy. Accuracy is how close your shots are to the target. Precision is how close your shots are to each other.

In marksmanship, it is usually better to be precise. The precise shooter whose shots are off-target is usually doing one fundamental thing consistently wrong. [2] However, the rest of his technique is solid. Taking care of that one thing will have a drastic impact on the shooter’s proficiency. Meanwhile, a more accurate shooter who is less precise may have a lot of variability in his technique, which is significantly harder to improve.

However, organizational ideation and decision-making are different. Better to have high variability and spread out your organization’s ideas.

If your business goals are akin to paper targets, then your ideas and decisions are like bullets in seek of the bullseye. If you add more people to a real firing line, the chances of hitting the target undoubtedly go up.

You would think it would be the same in business. Have a tough decision? Just add more people, right?

Variability Improves Accuracy

To be fair, abundant research shows that decisions improve when additional stakeholders are added to the process. [3] These gains come from three main sources:

1. Increased variety of ideas

2. Improved cost-benefit assessment

3. Post-decision alignment

What matters most in business is hitting the target, in other words accuracy. In creative endeavors and growing businesses this is actually a two-fold problem. You obviously need to figure out how to hit the target. But often you need to define what the target is. [4] So having more, fresher, and better ideas becomes even more important.

But under the natural forces of groupthink, ideas become fewer, more incremental, and, worst of all, more similar (precise). Further, group ROI assessments suffer from company-wide biases that go unmentioned. The result is reduced accuracy, though the group will feel really good about their post-decision alignment.

Never mind the fact that the value of the decision was diminished by the glacial pace of the process.

Get Dialed In

You’re not Karate Girl. You need ways to ensure accuracy. Try these:

  1. Demand at least three ideas for big decisions. Each should be starkly different from the others.
  2. Use processes for idea generation and vetting. Having a meeting is not a process. Group brainstorming is fun. But it’s probably worthless. So try something else.
  3. Hire creative people — even for roles where creativity isn’t the core function.
  4. Encourage backbone and big thinking. It’s no coincidence these are both Amazon Leadership Principles.
  5. Name the enemy: Make avoiding groupthink an explicit priority in your team.
  6. Recognize the herd instinct in yourself: We have a tendency to believe our own thoughts our impervious to influence, as if we wore a sort of mental chastity belt.

What other ways are there?

I know — let’s brainstorm!



Side note: Carrie Fisher was incredibly high during the show. (link)

[2] In more advanced shooters this usually indicates an issue with how the weapon is “sighted in” as opposed to some problem with the shooter’s technique.

[3] I argue that the benefits of involving more people in the process of ideation and decision-making are short-lived and that groups pay an increasing price over time, sacrificing accuracy and speed as a direct consequence of precision gains.

Further, I suggest that the conventional wisdom in this area overgeneralizes conclusions that are best reserved for the average case.

[4] Variability allows for a greater chance of hitting the “right” answer even if it is hidden or ever-changing. Of course, there might be multiple distinct right answers, and only wide-ranging exploration mitigates the risk of settling on a local maximum.