5.0.0 Minimizing Mistakes

The five general keys to minimizing mistakes in advancing a position.

Art of War Quote: 

"Make good use of war.
Make the enemy's troops surrender.
You can do this fighting only minor battles."

Sun Tzu's The Art of War 3:3:1-3


"Never mistake motion for action."  Ernest Hemingway

General Principle: 

Our choice of action must minimize potential mistakes.


This article begins a new section of The Play Book dealing with selecting the best way to pursue opportunities. Strategic moves are experiments. Our goal is to experiment safely. No matter how good our information and analysis, competitive environments are always uncertain and potentially treacherous. While we train to pick high-probability opportunities, we cannot delude ourselves about knowing those opportunities before exploring them directly. We must judge probabilities from surface appearances. We cannot understand the nature of an opportunity until we get into it. In using Sun Tzu's Rules, nothing is as dangerous as investing too much in what seems like a certain opportunity.


In choosing how to act to take advantage of opportunities, our first concern must be how we can minimize mistakes. Strategy requires both action and non-action. We must know when to act and when action is not only unnecessary but unwise. When we act, we must know how to increase the likely success of those actions while still minimizing the cost of our failures.

Key Methods: 

The general keys to making successful moves to advance our position are:

  1. Successful actions serve our goals instead of simply responding to events and discoveries. This principle balances the prior one. While we must react to what we discover exploring opportunities rather that follow our plans, those reactions must be guided by our goals, taking us in a consistent direction. In exploring opportunities, we are going to make discoveries and encounter events that do not take us in the direction that we desire. Not all of these events and discoveries require or deserve a response. Not all discoveries demand exploration. Events that don't demand a reaction are merely distractions (5.1 Mission Priorities).
  2. Successful actions explore opportunities instead of simply following plans. We must go where our opportunities lead us, not where we planned for them to lead us. It is easy for individuals and especially organizations to waste time and effort on executing campaign plans that are no longer relevant as more is learned about a given opportunity. Plans can take on a life of their own if we let them. Plans start as a series of steps toward a goal, but the goal can move but the series of steps remains, offering us a seductive if unproductive path for our effort. Each move to take advantage of an opportunity must be thought of as an experiment. The key is to learn to experiment safely (5.2 Opportunity Exploration).
  3. Successful actions are fast feedback loops adjusting our course of action. Successful actions are quickly chosen, quickly executed, and quickly adjusted. Competitive environments are highly dynamic. We must respond to situations quickly before those situations are outmoded by new developments. These quick adjustments also minimize opposition. Action usually generates resistance. The easiest way to minimize resistance from others is to change direction or reach our goals before opposition forms, fait accompli. The faster we are able to move, the harder it is for opponents to get a fix on our position because the only information they have is outdated information (5.3 Reaction Time).
  4. Successful actions eliminate waste. They use as few resources as possible to accomplish the desired goal. The best strategy is doing less, not more. Choose actions that simplify or minimize current activities rather than making them larger and more complicated (5.4 Minimizing Action).
  5. Successful actions focus limited resources in a small space and time. Smaller, shorter, and quicker moves are always more successful more often than larger, longer, and slower moves. Small investments should prove themselves before investing more. The bigger the investment, the more difficult it is to admit failure. We attempt small, quick steps forward rather than large, long leaps. By choosing small, quick steps, we can sometimes end up making large leaps by getting ourselves positioned to use the force of the environment (5.5 Focused Power).
  6. Successful actions know when to advance and when to defend. Even while we are exploring new opportunities, we must protect our current position. We advance our position on the basis of our strengths, but we must act to defend our position on the basis of our weaknesses. The result is a balancing act balancing our resources between defense and advance (5.6 Defense and Advance).


The most frequent advance that more people make is getting a promotion at work so let us use that to illustrate these ideas.

  1. Successful actions serve our goals instead of responding to events. Just because a new position opens up that is a promotion, we do not have to take it if it doesn't lead to the type of job we want.
  2. Successful actions explore opportunities instead of simply following plans. We might have a certain career path in our heads, but that is not the path our career will follow. When we get out of school and join a company, we may imagine a certain promotion path, but most of our opportunities will not lie on that path.  
  3. Successful actions are fast feedback loops adjusting our course of action. Instead of thinking in formal job titles and predefined roles, think of a job in terms of responsibilities that can be added quickly to make others, including those over you, more dependent on your knowledge and skills.
  4. Successful actions eliminate waste. One of the easiest ways to get recognition and promotion is by saving time, money, and effort by identifying resources that are currently being wasted by the organization. 
  5. Successful actions focus limited resources in a small space and time. The responsibilities don't have to be big ones, but little ones that accumulate over time. The best jobs are those that we define for ourselves over time by doing what is needed where our skills allow us to add the most value. 
  6. Successful actions know when to advance and when to defend. We must not let our expansions on our job get in the way of the core of what people expect from us. Over time, we must have our new responsibilities formally recognized and get compensated for them. 

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