Seeking massive upside can lead you to inaction. Watch out for “asymmetry driven inaction” in your strategic plans.
Sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince.
In the lexicon of strategy and strategic plans, the word asymmetry is a useful one. But, it’s a dangerous one.
There is information asymmetry in negotiations.
There is asymmetry of outcomes for a strategic decision.
There is asymmetry of allocations: talent, resources, mindsets, and any other “resource” that can be allocated.
Asymmetry is everywhere. It’s the real world. We can engineer symmetry through repetition and reduction of variability, but reality is filled with imbalance, particularly in the land of business strategy.
Business strategists rarely have the luxury of making the same decision over, and over, and over, and over again. They usually have a few big decisions to make, and they have to guard them very closely. Why? Because the world is finite. There are only so many customers you can piss off when trying to get your sales approach right. There are only so many acquisitions targets you can approach with the wrong pitch before you run out of them.
True strategists face a series of one-shot games. They can learn from their shots, but each game is different. Each deal has a different flavor. In fact, if you sit in a position where you face only a continuous series of outcomes vs. a discontinuous one, you are probably not a strategist. You are a portfolio or risk manager. Those are not the same thing. A true strategist has to account for everything before taking one shot.
And, this accounting is where the real danger of taking popular and business press too literally comes into play.
The popular press likes anecdotes, and can lead you to try to mimic anecdotes that simply don’t fit your model. And, in search of an easy “positive asymmetry,” you read an anecdote about how company X has created massive value via acquisitions. You then go to mimic the actions of company X without understanding the strategic context or capability sets company X had to its advantage.
The academic press isn’t much better. You read an academic study about how, on average, business transformation efforts fail. This leads you to pooh-pooh the notion of driving big change in your organization. “There’s too much downside.” And, yet, the academics have only generalized from a broad set of companies without outlining the real strategic and organizational contexts at play.
So, the popular press can lead you to seek only those moments that “look” like the founding of Facebook; and the academic press can convince you that management initiative has too much downside. You bog yourself down in “inaction” by taking both anecdotes and statistics too literally.
We all want more upside than downside. We all want massive “positive asymmetry.” It’s a natural desire. It’s analytically comfortable. We all want certainty. But what happens when our search for massive upside leads us to sit out the game? What happens when we choose to do nothing as a rule vs. as a strategy?
We waste time and resources. That’s what.
I once knew a senior business leader who was given a beautiful portfolio of opportunities and the sponsorship to do whatever he wanted. The problem? The guy couldn’t get out of the spreadsheet. He couldn’t place moderate size bets that might pay off because he kept looking for bets that would only pay off.
He, therefore, did nothing. He destroyed value by stripping away valuable assets and capabilities to meet earnings targets, but never really got off the dime when it came to making possible bets.
He squandered a beautiful opportunity to grow and inspire.
Doing nothing–whether it be with your career, your business unit, or your corporation’s resources–has a cost. It has downside.
And, an easy way to do nothing is to only look for sure things–massive “positive asymmetry” in the bets you place. In my experience, massive positive asymmetry only exists ex post. It exists before hand only in some popular press anecdote. The strategist who achieved it usually knows there was a struggle to get there.
They know what frog lips taste like. Go, kiss a few frogs.
What do you think?