Always Pre-check your Strategy

Good things happen when strategists learn to leave some stuff alone

For weeks, an eternity in Covid-parent-time, the two teeny tiny pearly whites held on by the roots to her bottom gums. My defiant 6-year-old was losing her first two baby teeth and wouldn’t let anyone pluck them out.

My wife and I worried about a loose tooth falling into her throat. So, strategy being an orientation towards success, my first approach was The Candy Man. I offered ice cream. I offered treats. 

Over time and after failure, the carrots hardened into sticks. I removed television. I removed toys. I removed playtime. I brought it up constantly, and with hindsight, I went over-the-top. 

Then one day I came home from a morning run and they were just gone. They simply came out. And nothing, Nothing, NOTHING I had done contributed to that outcome. If anything, my efforts pushed her to be more obstinate. In the end, both those teeth just came out.

I now recognize the error of my ways. I’d failed to observe what should be #1 in the Strategist’s Rule Book: First, pre-check your strategy. 

* * * * * * * * * * 

That tooth was always going to fall out. Nearly all parenting problems are like this. Give it a week, a month, a year—and kid issues usually resolves themselves. 

As a parent, or in life more generally, we should never interrupt a self-solving problem. There are plenty of other problems out there that require focus and energy. 

When I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder—how much time have I been wasting on problems like this?

* * * * * * * * * * 

Always start with a simple test question: How likely is it that this issue will resolve itself in a preferred way?

It’s a technique that balances out Gary Klein’s pre-mortem exercise. A pre-mortem envisions your efforts went forward and everything failed. A pre-check envisions what might happen if you did nothing at all. Both early-step actions force you to think through the potential consequences of your approach. The pre-mortem is a negative-future, while the pre-check is the null hypothesis of strategy. It’s recognizing the baseline, the trajectory, and it can uncover the luxury of a current problem that requires no action for solution. 

Pre-checking strategy is the strategist’s Serenity Prayer—the “wisdom to know the difference” between the things that require energy to change and those that don’t. 

History focuses on vigorous actions, but sometimes lauds the art of deliberate inaction. President Abraham Lincoln’s practice of writing angry letters that he wouldn’t actually send is one. Another might be George Kennan’s insight on containment as a long-term Cold War strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union. His brilliance was in recognizing that the grand challenge would resolve itself, given some guardrails and enough time.  

Pre-checking should remind you that your strategies must be tightly connected to the challenge at hand. If you try to engage too large a problem, or if it’s too loose as to attack problems that will resolve of their own accord, then you’re just taxing and sapping yourself of precious energy. 

And that’s when you realize you were just spinning your wheels. 

That tooth was always going to fall out anyways. 

* * * * * * * * * * 

*Afterthought: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” (Anonymous; often misattributed to Sun Tzu)

*Editor’s Note:  Readers, thanks for your feedback! As you can see, I’ve started to dive head-first into the pre-check topic, which I’ll continue to write about this Monday. Next week I’ll start working on meaningful risk versus calculated risk.

And, as always, what do you think about today’s topic? Please let me know with a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward Strategy Notes on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this community’s continued growth. 

All the very best & see you next week, Matt