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If score's close, losing teams go for it

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The Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rogers points as he calls out signals at the line of scrimmage during the NFC Championship Game against the Chicago Bears on Jan. 23. The Packers defeated the Bears to advance to the Super Bowl.

Assuming the score is remotely close, expect the losing team to go for it on a fourth down, as time runs out in the Super Bowl on Sunday, according to new research.

For football fans, the finding isn't too surprising. With plenty of time left on the clock, a punt is clearly the safer play. The riskier fourth-down conversion only begins to make sense when a losing team needs to shake things up to put points on the board. But the research may provide business managers insight on motivating their workers.

Researchers studied 22,603 fourth-down decisions over five NFL seasons to understand when teams are more likely to risk making a fourth-down conversion. Though an option throughout the game, "teams only use it seriously towards the end," Ranga Ramanujam, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University, told me today. 

Motivating underpeformers
Ramanujam and colleague David Lehman at the University of Singapore looked to the football field to understand when an underperforming organization is more likely to take risks in order to meet targets, such as analysts' earnings estimates.

"Our data suggest they would start doing it at the end of the quarter," Ramanujam said, noting that a business decision to take a risk often involves input from several people. This is similar to a football game where the offensive coordinator, head coach and quarterback may each have a say.

While the researchers' data show football teams are unlikely to go for it earlier in the game, their findings may be of use to managers looking to motivate their workers.

"Organizations in general have a tendency towards inertia. They just do the same thing over and over again," Ramanujam said. That's like a football team always punting on fourth down until the end of the game is near. "So, when you want to push people towards trying something different, deadlines seem to help."

The take-home lesson for business managers is to use firm deadlines to spur a team to try something different, such as design a new product. Of course, Ramanujam cautioned, deadlines can cause people to cut corners, which often happens in the construction trade, for example.

"Poor performance and deadlines can act together to make organizations deviate," he noted. "Sometimes that deviation leads to innovation. And sometimes the outcomes can be adverse."

Saving face
At some point, in business as on the football field, a team can fall so far behind that taking a risk becomes a less desirable option than simply trying to save face. In football, that happens when the losing team is more than three touchdowns behind.

"At some point in time I say, 'You know what? I've fallen so far behind I don't really want to do anything that is going to make it worse,'" he said.

The research has been accepted for publication in the journal Organization Science.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).