The ‘Anticipation Error’ Is Turning Decisions Into Costly Disasters. There’s an Easy Way to Avoid It

In late 2019, The Harvard Business Review published an article on decision-making — slow decision-making. It cited a stat from research company McKinsey & Company, which noted 74% of new leaders say they’re unprepared for their new role. In many cases, argues the article’s author, Constance Dierickx, this is because of hasty judgment calls and snap decisions.

Part of this is fueled by the “Anticipation Error.” If you’ve ever spent any time in a newspaper’s bullpen, you know this well. It boils down to this: “Anticipation Error” is communicating so quickly that your mind latches onto something similar and inserts it in place of what you really meant to say or write.

One well-circulated example: the Fox News gaffe that announced “Obama Bin Laden Dead.” Oops.

It seems to me this can be instructive for up-and-coming leaders who are keen to stay on course and impress with speed, “act fast to avoid hindering progress” being the unspoken strategy.

However, when you work too quickly, you can accidentally suggest the wrong thing.

Here’s an example: A newly-minted CEO takes the helm during negotiations with a promising new customer. The circumstances are very similar to earlier negotiations held with another company, resulting in an impressive (and lucrative) deal. In fact, that deal has become legend — often seen as one of the reasons for early company growth.

The difference? The first company bought 20,000 copiers. The second wants 500 printers. But, as internal discussions about the current deal constantly hearken back to the original negotiation as an example to follow, the CEO transposes numbers. Anticipating a deal that closes just like the old one, he sends a quote to the prospect for 20,000 printers — not 500. Oops.

This may seem like a silly error — one easily fixed. And it may be. But as CEOs lean on past successes as models for future strategy, it’s easy to “copy and paste” the wrong information into decisions that require new thinking, new details, new strategy. While some of these mistakes may be innocent, others could cost a company profitable relationships.

Here’s my point: It’s fine to use the past as a guidepost for the future. But let it be a guidepost, not the blueprint you use for everything moving forward. Yes, it may simplify decision-making, but it also ignores relationship and circumstantial nuance.

Oh, and another point (which HBR made better than I): Slow down. Success is not a race, it’s a journey. If you want to grow — and make that growth sustainable — your mark must be unique, your approach innovative, and your vision strong. None of that can be established quickly, however hurriedly you make your decisions.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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