“The Other Side Gets a Vote”

Ballot_boxI learned this memorable saying from Lt Col. Ivan Yardley of the British Army. In military circles, it acts as a reminder of the danger of a plan based on assumptions about what the other party will do, and as a reminder to plan to be agile, not hide-bound by a rigid sequence. It’s all-to-easy fall into the trap of: “We’ll do this, then they’ll do that’ then We’ll do this etc…” as if the world of human interaction was like a snooker table. Clearly, it’s not.

Treating markets and organizations as if they worked like snooker tables leads to most of the unintended consequences that fill the newspapers. A clever engineer can, given knowledge of the positions and masses of the balls, the coefficients of friction of their surfaces and the surface of the tables, and various other measurements of cushions, cues and so on, tell you where everything on a snooker table will end up given a certain impact from the cue.

But as the great anthropologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson pointed out, replace the second ball in the chain with an animal of the same mass, a frog say, and there is no known system of calculation that will tell you where it will end up. Why? Because the animal has its own additional source of energy, and its own decision processes for directing that energy – the details of which are not available for analysis. The frog has its own objectives and ‘values’, and it gets a vote. You can’t say “I’ll hit the cue ball, then the cue ball will hit the frog, then the frog will travel 50 cms at an angle of 20 degrees.”

A lot of management complaints boil down to wondering why people – be they employees, customers, suppliers, investors, analysts – won’t JFDI (Just ‘flipping’ do it), whatever the relevant ‘it’ is supposed to be. And many management approaches reinforce the snooker table view. Instead, like the best military commanders (and incidentally, the best negotiators, sales-people, leaders and even psychotherapists), what if we put more effort into 1) understanding the likely voting intentions of the other side (which means understanding their points-of-view and values, and those of their ‘constituents’) and 2) planning to be flexible, rather than planning based on what we expect, hope or fear the other side’s vote to be?

© 2011. Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.