How to Shift the Odds in Your Favor in the Best of Times and the Worst of Times
- Nov 30, 2007
You miss 100% of the shots you never take.
Hundreds of years ago, in medieval Austria, a small but determined army was trying desperately to hold on to its fortress against tremendous odds. For more than six months, the defenders had been surrounded by a hostile army. With no way to contact outside help to replenish their stocks, supplies had dwindled to a desperate level. Only one cow and two bags of grain were left.
The fortress soldiers, wracked with fatigue and hunger, turned to their commander for guidance.
Expecting their leader to say the expected, “Ration the food for as long as we can hold out,” they were astonished and perturbed when they received a different, radical reply.
“Kill the cow, stuff it with all the grain we have, and toss it over the walls when the next wave of attacks ensues.”
This seemed illogical, foolhardy, and dangerous. During the next attack, they followed the unexpected order and heaved the grain-stuffed cow over the wall. Without a doubt, they anticipated a slow, anguished death by starvation. To this day we don’t know why the soldiers complied.
But the commander had foreseen something that no one else had.
Confused by the bovine assault, several of the attackers took the cow back to their officer’s tent. The attacking officer saw it for what it was—a signal of defiance from the fortress commander, as well as a message that his soldiers had the will to fight on. If they could afford to throw a cow stuffed with excess grain over the wall, he reasoned, they must have vast stores of supplies, enough to last the entire winter. He ordered an immediate retreat.1
Uncommon Good Sense: Doing the Strategic Math
How, you might ask, does medieval cow tossing relate to twenty-first-century business? Although the average corporate suite or management office might bear little resemblance to a stone fortress under siege, the strategy of shifting focus to produce novel solutions is directly applicable to business leadership and advantage-making.
Was the fortress commander a fool who just got lucky? Was the attacking army officer incompetent? Was this just a one-time tactical maneuver, or can it illustrate a dimension of action that is overlooked?
If we faced the same situation as our Austrian commander, convention and common sense would have compelled most of us to use a strategy of persistence. Reasonably, we would have rationed the supplies to maintain our position as long as we could. That thought process, however, would do little to actually remove us from the situation or to improve it. After a week or two had passed, we would slowly succumb to hunger and thirst, and we would still be stuck in the fortress.
The shift from “ration the food” to “throw the food at the enemy” was exceptional. It didn’t conform to the general rule or pattern.
The commander did what might be called the “strategic math” on the situation. He projected the consequences of rationing the food. In two weeks, they would still be under siege, but now without food—no better off, and facing an even worse crisis.
Shifting his vantage point 180°, he realized that instead of helping, rationing the food would only prolong the inevitable. Proceeding along this line of thought, he considered how the lack of food could move from a problem for the defenders to a problem for the attackers. Food was no longer a resource for satisfying hunger; instead, it could be used to send a message. It became a persuasion weapon, the resource to change the dynamics of the situation. Although the fortress commander was driven by desperation, he sent a counterintuitive, resoundingly clear message: “We have plenty of supplies; prepare for a long battle.”
This example clearly demonstrates a leader down to his last few resources who outmaneuvers his superior opponent. Military metaphors have their uses and limits for business; what matters here is the illustration of strategic shifting to create advantages.
Most managers are of sound mind, but their behavior sometimes falls prey to a definition of insanity: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done and expect a different result.” Although it sounds comically simple, it is surprising how rarely people follow this principle: If what you are doing is not working, do something different.
It is easy to say, “Do something different,” yet few people know how this actually works—and fewer still know how to actually do something substantively different. Today’s right answer can produce tomorrow’s failure. As the landscape changes, leaders must adapt beyond their own plan for success. In the current demanding environments in which leaders must do more with less, they would be well advised to expand their dimensions of action. This book illustrates how exceptional leaders develop profitable courses of action in the face of constraints—and how you can, too.
The fortress commander stepped outside the logic of the battle and delivered an unexpected message. Clearly, he was able to see opportunities, solutions, and strategies others didn’t even know existed.
Whether your battle is finding new business opportunities, handling people issues, or creating solutions to problems, it is crucial to step outside the logic of that battle and consistently create superior outcomes.
The fortress commander’s competition didn’t know he was up against an Advantage-Maker. You saw how that battle turned out.
If you are not an Advantage-Maker, odds are you will likely lose to a leader who is.
For 23 years, I’ve been working with extraordinary leaders. I’ve noticed that some leaders almost always find the right path. They turn situations to their best advantage by seeing possibilities that others don’t see.
I call these rare leaders Advantage-Makers.
Advantage-Makers are pathfinders who anticipate patterns, advance their organizations, and get the most out of everything they have. They learn more, learn more quickly, and develop breakaway strategies. Their healthy skepticism helps them spot difficulties that they transform into opportunities. Most of all, they have the heart of a lion when facing adversity.
These attributes are not accidental. They are hard-won skills. I’ve discovered over decades that they are teachable and learnable. In fact, successful people have many of them already—they just need to amplify them. The more successful the person, the more leveraged the improvement.
Advantage-Makers’ skill, advantage-making, consistently creates superior outcomes in the face of constraints. Resources are leveraged in simple, timely solutions that might not have been initially obvious. If you are not an Advantage-Maker, you likely will be outmaneuvered by someone who is.