Breaking Free from Results-Oriented Thinking

As a strategy game enthusiast, I have a particular affinity for card games that involve chance and require strategic thinking. One such game that has occupied countless hours of my leisure time is Magic: The Gathering. The game's core mechanics revolve around players taking turns to play their cards in a variety of sequences, with the ultimate goal of achieving win conditions that will bring the game to a close.

During a period of time when I became more invested in playing Magic, I frequently encountered the phrase "results-oriented." The idea being that if a particular action led to a positive outcome, it should be repeated in the future, thereby orienting future actions around prior results. However, this mental model is deeply flawed and adopting it more broadly will result in long-term underperformance.1

It's not uncommon for Magic players to get lucky with a play and even win a match when the odds are stacked against them. This can lead a beginner to conclude that they made a good play when in reality it was simply luck.2 Over time, the odds will eventually catch up, revealing a fundamental flaw with results-oriented thinking. It is far too easy to succumb to our own biases and fail to comprehend the broader context that contributed to a particular outcome.

Making "Correct" Plays

Interestingly, there is notable overlap between professional Magic players and poker players. This overlap is not just a coincidence, as both games share various similarities, including being card games that involve chance, hidden information, and probabilities.

Likewise in both games, there's often an optimal or "correct" way to play in a given situation based on probabilities and their relation to strategy. For instance in Texas hold 'em poker, playing aggressively with pocket aces is generally a smart move, while 7-2 offsuit should usually result in folding. Nonetheless, it's important to point out that optimal play doesn't guarantee a positive outcome.

This is where the concept of results-orientation can be misleading or even downright wrong. As an example, suppose you're dealt pocket aces, a strong hand, and you raise and re-raise, only to lose to a straight. It's unfortunate, but it happens. Later on, you're dealt pocket aces again, and once more, you lose the hand. This time, you go on tilt, and you make poor decisions the rest of the night.

Consider a different example, where a novice player is rewarded for betting on a weak hand; they accidentally make a hero call.3 As a novice, they continue by making similar plays and go on a winning streak. Chalk it up to beginner's luck. However as a beginner, there's a serious danger they misclassify their good fortune as skill.

Although we may understand rationally that pocket aces are likely to lead to more winning hands than losing ones or that beating the odds with a bad hand a few times is the exception not the rule, we can still fail to internalize this when it matters most. The antidote here is to prioritize correct play, even when we aren't immediately rewarded for it.

Strategy Over Tactics

Human psychology has a tendency towards results-oriented thinking, a cognitive bias that can have far-reaching consequences, not just in the realm of games such as Magic or poker, but also in the world of business.

Consider product decisions, for instance. When a business is faced with the challenge of building features for continued growth, it might be tempting to take a myopic view and prioritize short-term gains.4 This could lead to a disjointed collection of features that lack a coherent vision or direction. In hindsight, such a strategy can seem like a mistake, leaving us to ponder, "What went wrong?"

A better approach is to adopt a holistic, big-picture view of the destination we want to reach, and then work our way backwards to identify the smaller steps that will get us there. This requires the formulation of a solid strategy that can be broken down into smaller, manageable pieces and executed accordingly. It's important to note, however, that even the best strategy will at times yield intermediary results that are less than stellar. This is normal and expected.5

The key to avoiding the pitfalls of results-oriented thinking is to shift our focus from the outcomes of individual steps to the overall direction of the strategy. By doing so, we can create products that are not only successful in the short term but also coherent and sustainable over the long term.

In essence, businesses must prioritize strategy over tactics. Only by doing so can they avoid the dangers of a myopic outlook and build products that are truly transformative.

Don't Be Fooled

In the world of Magic, the best players know better than to dwell on any one particular outcome. Instead, they obsess over refining their strategic framework, recognizing that this is the key to winning events. The same holds true for professional poker players.

Business strategy can benefit from lessons learned from games like Magic and poker. In these games, players are prone to making the blunder of biasing their play on results regardless of long-term strategy, which can lead to flawed decision-making based on mirages of skillful play. Similarly, in the business world, a results-oriented mindset can be seductive, causing companies to chase short-term wins at the expense of a coherent, sustainable vision.

Short-term success can be misleading and even dangerous if it's not aligned with a company's overall strategy; it can fool us and indeed, misguide us entirely.6 Instead, businesses should adopt a balanced approach that considers both immediate concerns and long-term goals. A strategic focus should be emphasized, with a culture that encourages critical thinking and the ability to identify and address short-sighted decisions in real-time.

To achieve this, companies must develop processes that foster strategic thinking and decision-making. This can involve evaluating current practices and identifying areas where results-oriented thinking may be prevalent. Additionally, it is crucial to foster collaboration and transparency throughout the organization, ensuring that everyone is aligned with the company's vision and goals. Doing so creates a backdrop against which near-term divergence is more deeply contrasted, making it easier to identify and avoid.

By taking a holistic approach to business strategy, companies can sidestep the perils of results-oriented thinking and build a solid foundation for sustainable success. As leaders, it's our responsibility to prioritize strategic thinking by cultivating a culture that engenders a long-term view of success.


  1. In fact shifting away from this mindset is key to becoming a better Magic player.

  2. Understanding when to attribute something to luck versus skill is a strong marker for overall maturity with games like Magic.

  3. This might be cause for other players going on tilt especially at the professional-level, where you might be accused of cheating.

  4. Be especially skeptical of how metrics can guide towards this kind of myopia.

  5. But it might not be intuitive and this is where good leadership can help stay the course.

    In the real world, it's unusual for a path to be perfectly straight and indeed it will often twist and turn in sometimes surprising ways. What can be harder to see is the way these discursions account for things like geographic features of the landscape, ones that would be otherwise quite costly to tackle head-on.

    For example, California is laying the track high-speed rail. One specious criticism of this project is it appears to take a less efficient, longer-than-necessary, route. However, this is due to the fact that a more direct path would require an astronomic increase in cost in order to create tunnels through mountainous regions of the state.

  6. This is exceptionally pernicious! Failing outright would be favorable since at least then we aren't tricked into a false sense of success.

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