The blindness of bias.

Or, thinking I'll play better tennis by using the same racquet as Nick Kyrgios.

Hanging on the wall of the Blackbird Melbourne office boardroom is Buster Benson’s infographic of all the cognitive biases that afflict humans making decisions.

I’ve had two profound experiences recently, one testing out tennis racquets, the other hiring new team members, that have revealed the impact of bias, and the value of tools that help you work around it.

Recently, I visited the Tennis Lab at the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne to find, quantifiably, the best tennis racquet for me.

The Tennis Lab is a full-sized tennis court, surrounded by six Hawkeye cameras tuned to track your ball speed, spin and accuracy. You can see a quick background to the Tennis Lab here.

I hit with ten different racquets, all (crucially) painted black so that I couldn’t associate them with a particular brand, colour or player.

Using a ball machine for consistency, I hit 20 identical crosscourt forehands, crosscourt backhands, off-forehands, and twenty serves. A technician gave me a racquet at random for each test. Simultaneously, I rated each racquet subjectively.

At the end, a report was generated that recorded for each stroke, and each racquet, my power, spin and accuracy, that looked like this:

Across all the testing, the Wilson Clash 100 emerged both objectively, and subjectively, as the best racquet for me.

Related: After getting this recommendation, I thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into the story behind the Clash 100.

The background to this is that earlier this year, I switched to the Nick Kyrgios’ endorsed Yonex DR-98.

As I scan my memory for why I made the switch, my reasoning was:

- An affinity to seeing Kyrgios play with the racquet.
- A thought that I might replicate Stan Wrawrinka’s Yonex-enabled, bullet-like one-handed backhand (even though he uses a different Yonex model).
- The blue colour.
- The square head.
- The recall of playing surprisingly well with it once earlier in the year.

It’s fair to say that none of these were objectively related to optimising my performance.

In a blind test at the Tennis Lab, my own Yonex was subjectively one of my least favourites, and less accurate, less powerful, and less spin-friendly than at least five other racquets I tested (out of ten).

And the racquet that both the data, and my subjective assessment judged the best for me was a racquet I would have ignored for the fact its head size was 100 square inches, that I didn’t see myself as ‘a Wilson guy’, and because I’m not a huge fan of red.

I think we make decisions in our lives on an equally flawed basis more often than we like to admit.

My experience at the Tennis Lab was a visceral reminder of power of blinding in making decisions, and a reinforcement of the power of the hiring platform Applied. (Disclosure: Applied is a Blackbird portfolio company, and I sit on the board).

Applied was founded by the Australian-born, London-based, Harvard Kennedy School of Government-educated CEO Kate Glazebrook and helps companies find the best person for every role, by removing bias from the hiring process.

Applied’s platform does this by blinding, randomly assigning, and chunking the assessment of candidate applications, so that the only thing the reviewer sees is an answer to a question. And the only thing the reviewer assesses is the quality of that answer on a scale of 1-5, without knowing:

- the candidate’s name, age, LinkedIn profile, twitter feed, photo, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity… or any other factor that inevitably influences how they are assessed.
- how the candidate answered previous questions.
- how other people perceived the candidate, or the candidate’s answer.

As a team at Blackbird, we’ve used Applied to find our way to Mason, Tip, Sascha, Daniel, two cohorts of the Startmate Fellowship, and our new General Counsel.

We all voted blind on the quality of applicant answers, and generated a stack-ranked list of the top candidates applying to each role.

In every case, one of the top three ranked applicants in the assessment process ended up getting the role. And in every case, after the voting, I was surprised to see who didn’t make the cut. Often, better credentialed folks ranked much lower than they would have if we were just judging them from LinkedIn.

You can read about the origins of Applied in this fascinating post.

The more you look for bias in decision-making, the more you find it.

The goal isn’t to remove it. The goal is to identify it, and correct for it where it results in impairment.

I think experiences like the Tennis Lab and Applied are just the beginning of our understanding of how to improve this part of the human psyche, and I’m fascinated to find more.

“I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.”

― E.B. White

Quick Links:

Roger Federer as Religious Experience by David Foster-Wallace & Strokes of Genius (about the Nadal-Federer rivalry).

Nick Kyrgios: talent to burn & this mind-blowing-for-its-honesty podcast with Kyrgios from earlier this year.

Crisis on Infinite Courts: On Novak Djokovic’s confounding marathon win against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.

Andre Agassi - Open (One of the greatest ever sports biographies).

Levels of the Game - John McPhee

The Inner Game of Tennis (if you don’t already own this, buy it now).