Being Roughly Right... When to Act

Being roughly rightis a key characteristic of the high performerswe’ve worked with over the past 20 years. They’ve made the conscious trade-off between having all the information to reduce risk versus being roughly right with a decision which is made sooner, and then using the time gained to refine the decision through a continuous improvement process.

Let’s look at information and time. At the beginning you have a little information, not enough to act. As the discovery process moves forward, you learn more about the problem, still not enough to act though.

At some point you have enough information to act, not all the information, but enough. Colin Powelltalked about acting when he had 40% of the information, since lives were at stake if he waited while more data was collected. He had to learn to be “roughly right” or people could die. We’ve seen similar behavior patterns in a corporate environment with high performers. We call this “knowing the action space.”

When you pass this point of optimal decision time you enter a period of diminishing returns. The longer you wait or spend time churning through more information, you’ve lost the window of opportunity. This is particularly true when cycle-time is a driver. When time-to-action is critical for success, one needs to be able to function with incomplete information — to be a macro rather than a micro thinker. The good ones can do this and move to leadership positions, others who can’t, remain.

It is better to be roughly right, than exactly wrong. The trade-off for delay in order to get it right, in many cases, is trumped by the need to act now and then refine. Acting early and then continuously adjusting is a key characteristic of the high performers with whom we’ve had the pleasure to work. But it requires macro, not micro thinking and the ability to deal with imperfect information. But the payoff is huge in speed.

Counter intuitively, risk is actually reduced when you gain the advantage of time.