By Bradley R. Staats, June 12, 2018, Author of Never Stop Learning


Recently, at a baseball game, my eldest son came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out against a hard-throwing but wild pitcher. Most of the team was either striking out or walking. He ripped a pitch, but unfortunately it went straight to the shortstop, who fielded it on one hop and, given how hard it was hit, easily turned a double play from second base to first base.

My son’s response was not one of grudging acceptance that he had done everything right but gotten unlucky. Rather, it was “Dad, even a weakly hit ground ball would have scored a run.”

Of course, no coach would send a player up for an at bat and tell him to mishit the ball in an attempt to get lucky. But after seeing what happened, that is exactly what my son was wishing for. All three of my sons, when evaluating their performance in a game, react this way. They tend to view how well they hit the ball as a function of whether they got on base (the outcome), not of how hard and where they hit it (more accurate measures of the process). Unfortunately, their tendency is not uncommon. Most of the time, even though we know that learning requires evaluating the process we used to get to an outcome, we focus on the outcome instead.

Why learning requires focusing on the process, not the outcome

Why is a process focus so central for learning? At its core, learning involves understanding what (and how) inputs affect important outputs— building a model of the way things work.

When you take time to learn the process, you recognize that it often involves more inputs than you first imagined. Focusing on the output rather than the process shrouds the details, and your model of the process will be incomplete.

In some learning scenarios, this process is straightforward. For example, in the game of blackjack, the objective is to get closer to twenty-one than the dealer does without going over. (Each card is worth the number it shows except face cards, which are worth ten, and aces, which are worth one or eleven.) Players make a number of choices (and some additional moves include splitting cards or doubling down). But with careful study, it is possible to completely characterize blackjack— that is, to come up with the optimal strategy for every situation in the game. You can decide whether hitting or staying has the best probability of winning.

If only real life were so neat and complete. When I teach operations to my MBA students, I start with a process focus— something we call process analysis. The same was true when I was an MBA student at Harvard Business School. On the first day of class, Professor Frances Frei began unpacking the wonders that were Benihana— the Japanese-style hibachi restaurant. We spent the class helping her draw a diagram of every step that Benihana followed, from when customers walked into the restaurant until they left (called a “ process- flow diagram”).

By understanding the process, we could see that Benihana had learned enough to create an entirely new type of dining: each step in the process built on the previous one, from the bar that served as a holding pen for batching customers at tables of eight, thus improving capacity utilization, to the order in which food was served— beginning with cheap vegetables and rice and giving very small portions of the expensive meat (although customers remembered being fed an enormous amount)—to eventually cleaning the grill with ammonia so that customers wouldn’t linger and the next group could come in.

Frei brought alive for us the fact that a deep process understanding had led to a better and continually improving model. As learners focus on the process, they can see through the noise that surrounds the valuable signal.

Not only does a process focus help identify relationships but it can reveal causal ones. We frequently hear “Correlation does not imply causation.” It captures the point that although a and b may be related, a doesn’t necessarily cause b. Tyler Vigen, of the Spurious Correlations project, has gone to great lengths to document absurd relationships that are correlational but clearly not causal. For example, per capita cheese consumption in the United States showed a 94.7% correlation with the number of people who died by becoming entangled in their bedsheets from 2000 to 2009, while the marriage rate in Kentucky showed a 95.% correlation with the number of people who drowned after falling out of a fishing boat from 1999 to 2010.

Fortunately, neither people who enjoy eating cheese nor Kentuckians getting married need fear for their lives. As one might imagine, these are spurious relationships.

If we focus solely on outcomes, we may believe that items are related when in reality, the relationship is due to random variation or even a third factor. By carefully studying the process you wish to learn, you increase your knowledge of the causal relationships.

Finally, a process focus helps build discipline in your learning objectives, even when you encounter numerous other demands on your time. John Steinbeck kept a diary while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath; reflecting on the writing process, he said, “In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently, there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, ‘I’ll do it if I feel like it.’” A focus on the process— particularly when combined with a specific learning goal—will help you build productive habits for learning.

This article had been excerpted from the book Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive. It has been reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press.