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The Value of Should: A 2nd Look at “Deflategate” Charges

A key benefit of following rational, clear thinking processes is being able to avoid being dragged into a tailspin of groupthink, particularly when that group is in panic mode.

When “Deflategate” – the charges that the New England Patriots cheated in a very cold AFC Championship game by illegally deflating the footballs – first hit the news, the rush to judgment was as quick as it was chaotic. Because of the emotional baggage, and the sketchy history of the team’s pushing boundaries, the court of public opinion took no time to deliberate, and judged the Patriots guilty of sins incalculable.

The actual deliberation of the case, by the League’s commissioner, soon found quarterback Tom Brady guilty – not of cheating, but of not cooperating. The punishment was based on a damning assessment of the situation – summed up in “the Wells Report”.

That report, however, had the air let out of it in last week’s New York Times’ Sunday Review.

Researchers Kevin Hassett and Stan A. Veuger called into question every level of detail in the report – including the very deviation itself. Initial press coverage focused on the difference in air pressure in the footballs, as measured at halftime and compared to the start of the game. The media, and later Wells, took it for granted that, because the Patriots’ balls measured a lower average pressure than their opponents’, that was a problem.

“Situation Appraisal” tells us that, before we can determine whether or not we have a problem, we must first know that we have a deviation. That is, “Actual” and “Should” must be different. Hassett and Veuger challenge the NFL’s finding with what should be a perfectly normal question: Essentially, what’s the deviation?

The deviation was not that the Patriots’ footballs’ measures were lower than an expected value – it was that they were lower than the Indianapolis Colts’ footballs. In other words, the NFL was comparing two Actuals against each other, without comparing to a Should.

People often roll their eyes when we tell them the first question, before even beginning Problem Analysis, is “Is there a deviation?” Of course there’s a deviation, they say, or we wouldn’t be here. There’s two pieces of information we need, though, to determine if a deviation exists – “Should” and “Actual”.

“Actual” seems simple enough – but it’s not always easy to determine. Flaws in testing can lead to strange results. On the one hand, Actual could be tested by taking a census or by taking a sample – and different methods can lead to different results. (As an example, all of the Patriots’ footballs were tested immediately after coming off of a cold field; only one-third of the Colts’ footballs were tested, and after warming up in a locker room).

If, as troubleshooters, we don’t know (or don’t understand) the methods for determining Actual, we can easily go down a wrong path.

Likewise, to know if there’s a deviation, we need to know “Should”. That is, what is actually, truly, physically supposed to be happening. Not “what would we like to be happening”, but what is achievable. We work with clients who have never proven that Should can be accomplished, trying to find the root cause of their deficiencies; others base Should on what they want to happen, and then try to use Problem Analysis to figure out what’s wrong.

In the Deflategate case, an even greater error appears to have happened – Should was ignored entirely. The experts suggested that the deviation was not in fact that New England’s footballs had a lower-than-expected pressure at halftime, but rather Indianapolis’ had a higher-than-expected reading.

For whatever reason – perhaps because it’s so damn easy to hate the Patriots – the Should value was not used in the analysis.

Yes, Problem Analysis tells us it’s important to compare and contrast different factors – that’s the rationale behind IS and IS NOT, after all – but not in the absence of any other data.

So the next time you’re in a meeting, and the conversation is in a tailspin about why one performer is doing well/poorly and another is doing the opposite – stop and think for a moment: Do we even know what is supposed to be happening (“Should”)? And do we have data to tell us where these performers actually are relative to Should?

If the Wells Report had stopped to ask those questions, we could have avoided a lot of drama – and perhaps avoided branding a future Hall of Fame quarterback as a cheater.

Tom Brady appealed his suspension on Tuesday. The ten-hour session was closed to the media, so we may never know if he used his blue Situation Appraisal card to explain his innocence or not.

Clearly, we think he should have.


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