Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Unforced Errors & Competiive Rivalry

Source: PGA
31 year old Rory McIlroy is a four-time winner of a golf major, and one of only three men to win four majors by the age of 25.   He was #1 in the world in the fall of 2015.  However, he hasn't won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship. Brook Koepka overtook him at the top of the golf world, coming on strong to win four majors from 2017-2019.  The rivalry has been intriguing. In the 2019, Koepka said, "I'm not looking at anyone behind me. I’m No. 1 in the world. I’ve got an open road in front of me – I’m not looking in the rearview mirror.”  However, in February 2020, McIlroy reclaimed the #1 spot in the golf rankings.  However, Koepka notes that McIroy still hasn't won a major since 2014.   What can we learn from these types of intense rivalries in sports, and how can they help us understand competitive dynamics in the world of business?

Niro Sivanathan, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, recently wrote an article in the South China Morning Post about his research on "unforced errors."  He argues that this research may explain, in part, the type of actions taken at Boeing leading up to the Boeing 737 MAX crisis.   Sivanathan has studied tennis and chess players, and he's found something quite interesting about how competition affects their behavior.  Here's an excerpt from his article:

In a recent study of more than 117,000 professional tennis matches, we found professional tennis players, such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, perform worse and commit more unforced errors when they compete against players who have recently risen in their rankings, compared to those with similar rankings but who lack the same momentum.  When we abandoned tennis courts and analysed more than 5 million games from online amateur chess platforms, we found that when competitors are evenly matched, chess players perform worse against opponents they know have been climbing in the rankings.

Drawing on this research, Sivanathan asks the question about the Boeing-Airbus rivalry: "Is this a classic case of a younger rival intimidating an older, better established competitor, resulting in the established player making mistakes and, in this particular instance, losing a long-held leadership position?"  Of course, there's much more to the Boeing story than this type of unforced error effect, but it is an interesting causal factor.   I'll have more to say about the Boeing case soon, as I have a new case study about the 737 MAX crisis under review at the moment.  Stay tuned. 

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