A Bad Strategy is Better Than None

A couple of weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of spending a Saturday playing paintball. Just in case you’ve never heard of it, paintball involves running around in a forest shooting small pellets filled with paint at each other. The day was divided up into a number of distinct games (i.e. capturing the other team’s flag whilst defending our own) and, after finding out the rules to a particular game, each team of 13 players had no more than a minute to decide how they would play.

Before our first game my team did not come up with any strategy at all and the result was that we just about managed to hold out for a draw. However for our second game we came up with some very basic tactics. I’m not sure our tactics were any good but at least for that game we had some idea of what we were going to do. It turned out that was enough to enable us to win.

The key lesson for me was that having a strategy, no matter how bad, was better than nothing. The two benefits that we gained were:

  • Everyone had an idea of what they were meant to do and how they could contribute to a successful outcome
  • After each game we could evaluate our strategy and improve it for the next game

Another thing that became apparent as the day progressed was that for a strategy to be useful the whole team had to buy in to it. Sometimes that meant some fairly rapid compromises had to be made. I might have felt that only two people needed to defend our flag but five people actually wanted to do it. There wasn’t time to argue and ultimately a strategy that everyone was behind was what we needed more than the one that was “best”. This put me in mind of what Sir John Harvey-Jones said when interviewed about team leadership in David Hemery’s book Sporting Excellence:

If the direction everyone else wants is not where I thought we should go, I’ll go…once the thing is rolling, you can always change direction anyway. I may see they were right or they may realise it isn’t the right place to be and head towards my preferred course, or we may both come to realise that we would rather be in a third alternative. In industry, you can only move with the hearts and minds.

In this quote Sir John doesn’t only highlight the benefit of having people on board but also touches on the notion of momentum when he says “once the thing is rolling”. In my experience all successful projects have a feeling of momentum, things happening and people getting things done. To maintain this kind of momentum you absolutely have to minimise the time spent making and waiting for decisions. In his post How to Burn $6,540 a Week: Indecision and Software Development Rob Walling works through an example and concludes by saying:

If we decide not to make any decisions we lose 10 times $822, for a total of $8,220 per week. Let me say that again: blanket indecision loses $8,220 per week; making decisions (including bad ones) loses $1,680 per week. That’s a difference of $6,540 per week.

Rob’s compelling argument is that making decisions (even wrong ones) typically costs less than not making them. But the true cost of indecision doesn’t just come down to wasted time. Indecision is a powerful demotivator as well. Over at MindSpring a post entitled Is There a Cost to Indecision? cites two examples of senior executives resigning because their bosses were indecisive. It goes on to say:

Now if indecision at the top can demotivate a CEO and Director to the point they quit, can you imagine the impact of indecision within an organization onto the general workforce?

So, next time you need to make a decision, do it quickly. Remember that it doesn’t matter too much if you get it wrong because not making one at all will probably be worse. Finally, if you need one last anecdote to reinforce this point, then take a look at this Guardian article which claims that the direct cost to the labour party of Gordon Brown failing to decide whether or not to hold an election was a cool £1 million.


3 comments so far

  1. Jay Sorenson on

    What about subprime loans?

    If mortgage companies hadn’t made loans to individuals of questionable ability to repay the loans.

    If the loans didn’t have teaser rate that reset after a relatively short period of time.

    If the banks had’nt packaged these loans as securites and sold them to investors

    If the bond insurers hadn’t insured these securities.

    It seems that a bad decision in this case much worse than no decision (i.e. not getting into the subprime business).

  2. daviddaly on

    Hi Jay,

    Firstly thanks for your comment, I always appreciate what other people have to say about my posts! I must preface my response with an admission that I know very little about world economics but I’m not going to let my lack of knowledge stop me discussing with you!

    You provide a good example of a bad decision. If different decisions had been made the result may have been better. Or perhaps a few institutions would have gone bankrupt in a very competitive market and the overall result would have been similar. We will probably never know.

    Indecision, however, is something else. In your example any organisation that did not pursue a deliberate strategy to be different may well have ended up mimicking what other lenders were doing (and probably wouldn’t have been as good at it). Therefore I do not think it is true that indecision would have had any benefit in this scenario.

  3. daviddaly on

    I recently saw an interesting post on a similar theme over at Construx Conversations entitled Keeping Too Many Options Open which links to an article in the New York Times on The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors.

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