Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Winning by eliminating mistakes

In some settings, winning by eliminating mistakes is the best strategy

Image from wikimedia commons
Wimbledon fortnight has started in the UK - the two weeks of the year when the TV schedules are taken over by professional tennis. This reminded me of a post from the excellent Farnham Street blog, entitled "Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance".

This post is based on a book called Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players, by Simon Ramo, a scientist and statistician, who argues that professionals win points whereas amateurs lose them. In professional tennis each player plays a nearly perfect game until one player hits an un-returnable ball. In amateur tennis, sooner or later someone makes a mistake and the point is lost. 

In professional tennis, therefore, about 80 per cent of the points are won; in amateur tennis, about 80 per cent of the points are lost.  The strategy to be a winner in amateur tennis is therefore to make no mistakes - to play a conservative game until the other person errs.

The lesson from the book is - if you are in an amatuer game, don't play to win, play not to lose. Eliminate your mistakes, and victory will follow. You see the same in rugby, where the team that makes the fewest unforced errors often wins,

The Farnham street blog extrapolates from tennis to business and quotes billionaire Charlie Munger as follows;

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent".

One focus of Knowledge Management could easily be the avoidance of repeat mistakes, particularly in a competitive environment, and even more particularly if your organization is prone to unforced errors.

If Knowledge Management can aim at avoiding organisational stupidity, rather than aiming at organisational brilliance, then there may be considerable long term advantage to be gained. It may in some contexts be easier and more profitable to gain long term advantage, like Charlie Munger did, by eliminating stupidity rather than innovating your way to brilliance.

Avoid repeat mistakes - that is a simple vision for KM, and in all but the highest professional games, may be enough to make you a winner.


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