Ego and Random Chance

In a prior post (Skill and Random Chance) we first looked at the analysis of the NFL draft by Cade Massey. Here I’d like to pursue the implications of his findings a bit further. Writes Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl:

In each of the seven draft rounds, the teams that were the least successful during the previous season pick first, while teams that were most successful pick last. The NFL structured the draft in this manner to encourage league parity.

So after a losing season, most NFL fans find solace in the fact that they get one of the high picks in the upcoming draft. Their assumption: A talented player will improve the team more so than the less talented players chosen later in the draft. However, as Massey and Thaler dug into NFL performance data, they were surprised. “Even though performance is best at the top of the draft,” Massey says, “the cost is so much higher that it doesn’t end up being a valuable pick…the ‘loser’s curse’ is because of how expensive those early players are, the first pick is the least valuable pick in the first round.”

But it’s not just the fans that are mistaken. Some NFL general managers still use The Chart (see below) to determine the values of their draft picks. The Chart is a document developed prior to the salary-cap era and it defines the value of each slot in the draft using previous trades as benchmarks. For example, the Chart suggests that the first pick is worth three times the value of the 16th pick.

nfl value chart1

But Massey found that the prices on the chart don’t accurately reflect the right values of the players. In fact, a player’s performance value relative to his salary actually increases as you progress through the first round. In other words, the most valuable picks in the draft are the ones at the end of the first round — where the already successful teams make their selections! Of the early picks, Massey says, “you’re actually saddling those teams with the most expensive picks relative to their value.”

How can leaders make the most of their opportunities?

Avoid Overconfidence

With all of their experience evaluating talent, why do NFL executives continue to make the same mistakes, year after year? Massey says that, as a rule, “we’re overconfident in what we think is going to happen.” NFL talent evaluators are overconfident in their ability to distinguish the good players from the great players. Yes, draft order is related to performance, and it does take skill to rank players. But, as Massey states, “when it comes down to picking between the next two running backs, or defensive ends, the odds of picking the best one is 52 percent.”  In other words, they might as well flip a coin.

Avoid Group-Think

But there are ways for decision-makers to protect themselves from the proverbial coin-toss. First, says Massey, it’s important to get empirical support. “If you pay attention, demand evidence, push for better evidence, as opposed to believing what you’ve seen in the past will continue,” Massey suggests, “you’re not going to fall prey often.”

Additionally, Massey says that one of the most powerful tools that leaders, in the NFL and otherwise, have at their disposal is their ability to invite dissent. “You’ve got to be able to tolerate conflicting opinions.” Because many leaders receive less dissent the higher they climb in an organization, it may be necessary to be creative. Aside from simply asking for differing opinions, a leader may need to leave the room, have one-on-one conversations, or assign someone to play contrarian.