Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 9, 2020
“Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations, this has been a terrific meeting, and we now have a plan. And as you well know, there is damn little chance that we will stick to it.”
I began to wonder about why it is so hard to stay on course, and for guidance, I turned to an old book by Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School, and author of “Sidetracked.”
She tells a simple story about a trip to the old part of Dubai with her husband, Greg. They made a plan to wander the old city and buy something authentic to remind them of their experience when they returned home. That was the agreed plan.
When they got back to the hotel, Greg had bought a fake Panerai Luminor Power Reserve men’s watch for $100 from a street vendor, knowing full well that it was a fake. Gino says, “Greg thought a fancy watch would make him look and feel good.” This was the exact opposite of their plan for an authentic souvenir.
In the entrepreneur business, we make plans, and then we pivot and make more plans. But did we pivot too soon? Should we have stuck to the first plan a little longer? As I have mentioned in the past, I race sailboats. Before the starting gun, the tactician looks at the wind, we pick a side, and the crew all agree. Then the horn sounds, and sometimes within 90 seconds, our plan is gone, and we are at the back of the fleet. How did we get sidetracked so quickly? Let’s remember Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Gino says that when the outcome of your behavior bears little resemblance to your initial goal, “the results can be discouraging, demoralizing and baffling.” We start with the best intentions, but we often quickly veer off course.
Gino talks about “experienced managers preparing for a negotiation” and then the Mike Tyson mantra shows up and “in the heat of the moment” they forget all the planning that they did on the whiteboard, all the Excel spreadsheet revenue that was anticipated — and they get their brains handed to them. Why?
Gino lays out three diff
erent sets of forces that influence our decision-making process — forces from within, forces from relationships with others and forces from the outside world.
The forces from within are the most powerful in my opinion. I have a rule in my book, “More money is lost through neurotic behavior than through bad business decisions.” I spend most of my time now coaching and one of my “suggestions” is that every CEO should have at least two years of psychoanalysis. Admittedly, this is a bit tongue in cheek, but I see stupid behavior in my clients that is not a result of misunderstanding the financials or the market, but rather is the result of ego, power, money and simple irrational, misplaced goals and desires. At some level we are often our own worst enemy. “I’ll show you, you can’t do that to me, over my dead body, pal” and so forth.
Forces from our relationships. These can be ones we have or ones we want. It is no secret that our decision-making is deeply influenced by a desire to please, or by someone who has leverage over us. You need look no further than this thing called government — local or national. That is why they are called special interests. They also call it favoritism — and a few other “isms.”
And finally, Gino focuses on “outside factors.” These can be enormous, like a Black Swan event, or COVID, but they can also be very subtle. What I mean here is that each time you make a minor miscalculation or misperception, they compound. You start out headed for El Cajon and before you know it, you end up in Phoenix. Outside factors intervened, the roads were flooded and the detours were not marked on the map.
Sometimes getting sidetracked is thrilling, you find something new and wonderful and amazing. And sometimes, you get lost and miss the last bus back home.
Rule No. 684
The map said turn left at the next light.