It’s the third day of my annual whitewater canoe trip with five buddies. We are on the Dumoine River in Quebec. The set of rapids they call “The Examination” is coming up fast. We can see the boiling water; we can hear the roar. We know these rapids are tricky. Our canoe is loaded with gear. Tipping would not be fun. We are running late. We have only a little bit of daylight left to make camp and get set up before dark.
It’s a classic dilemma in decision-making, just like the ones we face every day in business. How much time should I take to make this decision? There is, of course, no perfect answer. No matter what you do, someone (maybe even you) will think you spent either way too much time or way too little.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. So, here are some lessons from the river to help you find the right balance.
The options I had on the Dumoine were the same ones business owners have:
Risk avoidance. In this case, it would mean getting out and portaging around the rapids. This would remove the risk of tipping altogether, but would increase the risk of making camp in the dark. This is the risk-aversion policy adopted by banks when they give out mortgages. After all, they lend money at 4% and pay depositors 2%. It doesn’t take too many “tipped canoes” — bad loans — to wipe out that 2% margin. That is why banks remove the risk as much as possible by taking the house as security and getting your personal guarantee as well.
Such extreme risk avoidance is rarely an option for entrepreneurs, but we apply it as needed. On the river, there is a 20-foot waterfall at Grand Chute on the second day. We portaged.
Gather lots of information to reduce the risk greatly. On the Dumoine, this would have meant getting out and doing a full “recon” of the rapids — picking out our line and even our rock-by-rock tactics.
Big businesses and governments do this all the time. They do extensive market research, develop options, have strategic-planning sessions and create massive five-year business plans, often down to the finest detail. Frequently, this serves them very well, and when they don’t do it, they get hammered.
We stopped at a number of rapids on the Dumoine to scout them out. The risk of doing it too much in business is that the process becomes an end in itself — paralysis by analysis. This is a big part of what happened to the North American car companies. As a guiding principle, I like the advice that eventual U.S. president Andrew Jackson gave to his field commanders at the1815 Battle of New Orleans, which he won hands down: “Always take all the time that circumstances permit. But when the time for action has come, stop thinking and act.”
Take a little time to reduce the risk significantly. On the water, this would mean pausing in the middle of the river, checking the map for any clues it can give, standing up as you approach the whitewater to see if you can pick a line and agree on it with your bowman. You would also identify a few points where you can “eddy in” to some quiet water, catch your breath and recheck the rapids from this new vantage point. Many of the entrepreneurial firms I know employ this model in their business planning. Its three key elements are:
Acquiring lots of cheap but good information all year long by staying close to customers. In most businesses, this entails the chief exec making regular sales calls, both with and without his salespeople. This way, you are ready when it comes time for¦
Conducting an annual planning meeting at which management reviews the past year and sets basic strategy and a toolkit of tactics for the upcoming year.
Holding at least quarterly reviews, whereby you pause in some quiet water for even just a few hours and check the strategy, toolkit and goal (which might have moved) to see what changes are needed.
Just go for it. When my stepson Jon comes to me for advice on his new business, his eyes glaze over if my response takes more than two minutes. He has a huge BFA: bias for action. He has had great success with this approach, as have many great entrepreneurs — Ted Rogers being a prime Canadian example.
On the river, this would mean, as U.S. Admiral David Farragut famously ordered during one battle of the American Civil War: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Different strokes for different folks and different situations. Sometimes, however, you only get seconds to decide.
My bowman Mully and I converse for about 15 seconds. It’s Option 3. We want to get to camp and set up. We are tired and hungry. It’s worth the risk.
He backpaddles while I stand up gingerly in the canoe: “I see an opening to the left. We’ll just follow that tongue. Then there is a flat area to the right — we will have to back-ferry like crazy to get over to it — and after that I can’t see. It will be up to you to call the tactics from the bow. Wanna go?” We do.
The first part works perfectly. We decide not to pause before the second set but plunge right in. Mully uses “bow rudder” and “draws” to pull us this way and that to avoid the major rocks. We bounce off a few but make it through high and dry. Our basic strategy worked, and our toolkit of tactics did the job.
With good luck and the right amount of planning, your strategy and tactics are more likely to work for you, too. If they don’t work, “eddy in” if you can — or “bail out” if you must, and start again