The ref, the TMO and the RWC - when data becomes too much of a good thing

Sports fans and business leaders alike are quickly discovering that too much data actually makes things harder for decision makers, writes Mike Lee.

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OPINION: I’m probably as guilty as every other fan of the All Blacks, piling on our criticism of Wayne Barnes during the 2023 Rugby World Cup final. At the time, during the heat of battle, his calls seemed, at the very least, over reliant on the Television Match Official (TMO); and at the very worse, inconsistent. But now that the dust has settled, I feel a little sorry for rugby’s most capped referee of all time.

I teach strategic decision making for leaders, and I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between decision making in a high stakes sports setting, and decision making in the C-Suite.

My conclusion? The system was stacked against Barnes from the beginning. There is no version of reality where Barnes’ calls would have been lauded. In fact, the 2023 RWC was not the first time where sport’s reliance on the TMO system has been criticised. Put yourself in Wayne Barnes’ shoes.

Your job is to ‘make a call’ based on the data you have at your disposal. And here-in lies the curse of too much data. In a high stakes setting where every decision will be picked apart by media, fans, and critics afterwards; and where a TMO is at your disposal with access to data from multiple zoomed-in perspectives, in high definition, and slow motion; of course Barnes ‘had to’ rely on the TMO.

Imagine the backlash had Barnes made a call only to find out afterwards that the TMO had data that would have revealed the ‘right’ call? So, the question is not whether the TMO data was right or wrong (it is always going to be objectively more correct), the question is ‘to what extent’ and ‘under what circumstances’ should the decision maker (the referee in this case) access such extensive data?

In an ideal world, such data would be at the decision maker’s fingertips, but a live sports games (like many business situations) is less than ideal. And like in business, decisions need to be made quickly, on the fly, and in a way that enables the players (employees/colleagues) to get on with their work, maintain momentum, and achieve a state of flow.

We may embrace ‘data driven decision making’ as the holy grail of good decisions, but in the age of big data and technologically mediated decision making, sports fans and business leaders alike are quickly discovering that too much data actually makes things harder for the decision maker.

Associate Professor Mike Lee is the director of the University of Auckland’s MBA programme
Associate Professor Mike Lee is the director of the University of Auckland’s MBA programme and teaches strategic decision making for C-suite leaders.

In my executive course on decision making, I ask the question: “Will technology enhance human decision making, or amplify human biases?”

If humans are already concerned about making the ‘wrong call’ imagine what the ability to revisit a decision (from multiple angels AND in high-definition) would do to a decision maker’s confidence?

In the old days, a ref’s call was final, and yes, mistakes were made, and some outcomes were ‘unfair’. But as international sporting associations attempt to eliminate mistakes, and to pursue the ‘perfect decision’, they risk introducing ‘paralysis by analysis’ and ‘decision by committee’. Two phenomena that business leaders already know will frustrate workers, introduce apprehension in employees, and cause people on the ‘front line’ to question every move they make.

If the intention is to pursue high quality and fair decisions most of the time, then the TMO is the only person for the job. In these cases, I see a bleak future for sports. Instead of ‘live contests’, any sports that require ‘decision making’ from judges (like diving and gymnastics), would just involve video recordings of athletes’ best performances sent to a panel of AI assisted judges, who would then quantify the ‘best performance’ based on objective data, rather than ‘performance on the day’. Results would then be uploaded to a website and spectators could watch each video.

Contests like Formula 1, could also be raced individually, so as to ascertain the ‘fastest’ team under the ‘fairest’ conditions, rather than the best competitor on the day. But surely, the thrill of sports lies in those grey areas, which true players can turn to their advantage? After all, we call them ‘players’ and not ‘rule followers’.

So, on the other hand, if the intention is to prioritise the players’ state of flow, without compromising safety, then the referee is the best person to make that call. In this scenario the TMO should only be monitoring for the most obvious signs of foul play and dangerous behaviour.

When these occur they would request an immediate stop of play, this is something that already occurs and this does not need to change. BUT for anything less than dangerous, there should be an incentive to prioritise game flow. Therefore, there needs to be a statute of limitations that covers the TMO, so incidents that do not warrant an immediate stop cannot be revisited any more than five seconds after the play has continued. Such a protocol would prevent the TMO from feeling the need to run a post-mortem during the game, which from their perspective, is their job.

I can only imagine the world of the TMO, in a box, surrounded by high-definition monitors revealing data from multiple angles. It must be, nay, is deliberately designed to be, quite removed from the world of the player and referee at the front line. The TMO is like the safety and compliance officer who believes their role is to analyse every possible risk.

This singular focus can take on a life of its own. Leaders of the sporting and business world need to remind the risk officer/TMO that their job is to provide a safety net enabling frontline staff to achieve a state of flow, so they can perform at their peak and deliver value, knowing that IF anything dangerous does happen, there will be a post-mortem and people will be held accountable.

The TMOs job is not to interrupt the decision maker nor the front-line staff during stressful moments when they are already trying their best. But to unstack the system, both the referee and the TMO need permission/a mandate to prioritise the flow of the game, rather than the perfect decision.

This was first published by Stuff.

Associate Professor Mike Lee is the director of the University of Auckland’s MBA programme and teaches strategic decision making for C-suite leaders.

The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.

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