A Placemaking Journal

The Chorus of “No Planning, Please” is Making My Head Hurt

In his July 10 New York Times column, David Brooks noodled about in a Brooksian sort of way with the notion of what is and what is not within the realm of predictability. Using Brazil’s loss in the World Cup as a hook, he argues that soccer — unlike baseball, which has been reimagined by math nerds — turns out to be too complex a game to bow easily to predictive modeling.

“Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities,” Brooks writes. “Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game.”

Soccer, says Brooks, is a different sort of game, because it’s about understanding and influencing subtleties of context, including context imposed by where all the other players happen to be at any one time. “Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse,” says Brooks. “They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space.”

Among the conclusions, Brooks wants to draw from his soccer/baseball analogy are these: “First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.”

Okay, but focusing exclusively on feeling and perceiving separate from doing, from testing perceptions in action, seems to duck the question we most care about: How to apply “feeling where the flow of events is going” – which, after all, is the key component of a predictive model — to doing something likely to achieve outcomes we want?

With his second conclusion, Brooks seems to suggest that maybe we just can’t go there. Bottom line, he says: “Predictive models will be less useful” in a world more like playing soccer than in one like baseball.

“Baseball,” Brooks says, “is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify.”

Let’s grant “harder” while, at the same time, remembering that every human choice, tough or otherwise, requires us to take a run at a model for predicting outcomes. We can’t know the future, but we have to guess. So we do some research or ask a buddy or flip a coin, which are all models for guessing what to do.

Brooks is stretching things by imagining there are group activities that are only “accumulations of individual activities.” Every enterprise I can think of involving more than a couple people generates outcomes that are both sums of individual acts and combinations of interactivity.

For the sake of drama, we can isolate baseball action in sets of one-on-one duels between hitters and pitchers or between fielders and runners. But for every at bat, success for either the defensive players in the field or the offensive players at the plate or on the base paths requires not only the sort of “landscape awareness” Brooks prizes, but also coordinated adaptations to a changing landscape made possible by that awareness.

For the offense, it’s all about moving players into scoring position, then home. For the defense, it’s about limiting opportunities for advancing runners. So, as in soccer, success in baseball has a lot to do with controlling space, whether it’s the strike zone at the plate or the area in the infield or outfield where a ball becomes a hit or an out.

With each pitch, the catcher, the pitcher, the fielders, the hitter, the base runners are all adjusting strategies in anticipation of opportunities for outs or runs. And all of those strategies are informed by predictive models that players, coaches and managers work out ahead of time and continually fine tune for every situation they can imagine.

All that modeling and strategizing are means to an end, not the end in itself. In sports, the end game is about winning and only winning. It’s about scoring more points on that day in that place with those players. Every choice is tested against the goal to achieve a success that is, for that moment, complete and undeniable.

That kind of clarity, decisively separating winners from losers, is a big reason we invent games. It’s so hard to come by we have to proscribe limits and rules impossible to apply in life outside the games. We give sports physical boundaries and time limits. We evolve rules about who and how many can play. We station officials with powerful oversight latitude in the midst of everything. And we make it all public, so that everyone can see how every strategy works out — or doesn’t — in real time.

To preserve clarity, sports try to drain everything from reality except what can be demonstrated through intrinsic talent and game preparation. And even more importantly, to preserve the goal of fair competition, sports must limit the advantages of victory.

Winning teams can’t be allowed to add more players, play by different rules or expand the physical boundaries or time limits when they face their next opponent. Next game, they start all over. Level playing field.

How does that match up with your experience in business or government affairs?

Winners in games of life often get to play with more resources, more allies and more say in the rules. They can expand boundaries to the ends of the earth and game time to infinity. All of which makes for a confusing environment in which to compete, made all the more so by a lack of a commonly agreed-upon understanding of what constitutes winning.

In sports, all you have to do to identify success and failure is to look at the scoreboard when time runs out. But when overtime stretches into years and scores are calibrated according to everything from dollars to job numbers to insured citizens, how do you know what’s winning, when and why?

Because in life there’s often a ton of space and time between committing to some action and getting clarity about success, there are all kinds of opportunities to confuse means and ends. Companies, governments, families and individuals have to keep reminding themselves what they’re trying to accomplish and why that’s important. And that’s before they get to the part about choosing and testing strategies to achieve goals.

One of the few lessons we can draw from sports and apply to life is this: Stuff happens whether you plan for it or not. You can define your goals and get a plan for the future, acknowledging the complexity and the need to adapt as new data rolls in; or you can resign yourself to having a future imposed on you.

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The trouble we’re having with planning as a nation, as regions and as communities is that too many of us deny the need to make a choice, figuring that if we do nothing, nothing will happen. It’s an option off the table in sports, where refusing to choose a strategy is tantamount to forfeiting the game. But in the broader reality, complicated by unclarified goals and untested strategies for an uncertain future, we can maintain the delusion — at least temporarily — that we can preserve our options without affecting the consequences of indecision.

The prime example, of course, is climate change. More and more data buttress theories derived from predictive models suggesting dramatic sea level rise and other potentially catastrophic changes in the environment. Yet many in positions of power and influence want to focus on the potential imperfections of the models instead of the potential calamity should predictions prove accurate. In both Washington and state capitals, legislators are opting for denial, withholding research funding from models they mistrust and blocking action aimed at reducing impacts of changes the models predict.

We’re seeing the same revolt against complexity when it comes to the inequality debate (here’s an entertaining interlude on this topic from John Oliver); immigration reform; infrastructure funding (See Chuck Marohn expose surprising patterns of denial on this subject); economic development; American foreign policy; and, of course, health care.

That’s at the national level. Increasingly, those of us working in cities and regions are watching local elected officials in near paralysis in the face of tough choices about how and where to invest limited resources and whom to anger as the result.

In the heat of arguments over all this, we tend to retreat into our corners and blame the other side for the paralysis. But a certain amount of reality denial is built into our human coping systems, especially when facing reality means giving up on some of most cherished delusions.

Brooks’ New York Times column reprises one of the songs we sing to ourselves to block the noise of a reality more demanding than our enthusiasm for dealing with it. When reality persists, however, we can’t recruit enough voices to compete with the sound of the approaching future. Even if we contort what we think we hear from sports to imagine a chorus in support.

It’s plan or get planned.

Ben Brown

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