Restricting Choice

5 minute read

I’m in a book club at work and the current book we’re reading is Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. It is an examination of strategy mostly as it relates to the business world. Most books of this type are barely more than self-help books so one might wonder what makes this book particularly special. Five chapters in, my initial take on that question is that it highlights and enforces the idea that choice and the narrowing of choice is critical to success in almost all endeavors.

So much of strategy work in the world results in grand plans of goals, visions, dreamy ideas of success, and imagining yourself as successful. But none of these things are really strategy. None of them aid you in moving forward in coherent ways towards an end game. You have to establish what constraints you are trying to solve for, define some policies that act as guard rails for action and then begin to act within that structure. This necessarily restricts your actions in the problem space. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You must choose a direction and then act on it in order to improve. Of course, there is no guarantee that you will choose correctly and therefore you may not actually improve. But without that choice and the constriction of the problem space, you are guaranteed not to succeed.

This relates directly to my post on managing inertia. Inertia is the embodiment of inaction. Worse, it is the impedance of action because it is resisting, actively and passively, the effects of action on the body you are trying to move. Whether you are trying to push a car to a gas station or change how your organization writes software or get your four year old to clean up her room, the current movement of the body through space tends towards the same direction that has always been acting on the body in question. As these bodies grow in an organization, so does the complexity and the difficulty for change. As that complexity changes and grows, so does the problem space and the possible actions for the solution. Many times in an organization, without the difficult strategy work of restricting the problem space and thus the opportunities for action, nothing changes because either actions work in direct conflict with each other or are not coherent and contribute to different goals.

For example, you might want to migrate or reclaim some software or maybe improve some part of your engineering department. You grandly say “Go forth and do this”. Then, 5 months later, you find out that while lots of people have been talking about lots of actions, nothing has really happened. But why? You told people to go fix this thing. Unfortunately, no actual constraints were placed on the actions of teams and because there were competing goals that you explicitly or implicitly endorsed (like continue to make money and add features to said software), nothing meaningful happened.

To fix situations like this, policies must be written and then enforced that constrain the actions of teams down to the classes of behavior that solely support the goal. In the example above, a policy would need to be put in place that no new work will be done on the existing software other than bug fixes and critical patches. You know that you have written a good policy when you can read it and see that it will cause pain, perhaps for yourself. It will make some people upset or annoyed or worried because something they are used to doing (probably because you told them to in the past) is being eliminated. Without this feeling of pain through the restriction of choice, success will continue to be out of reach.

Much of this seems applicable to the personal as well. I struggle with making progress on almost everything because I never sit down and restrict the availability of choice. I want to learn the guitar and Spanish and do some writing and read more books and be a better woodworker and be a better father. In the end, the multitude of choices overwhelms each other. Even if I act on all of these in a given week, barely any progress is achieved because there is no focused effort on a singular goal. A better strategy would be to restrict choice to a single activity or set of actions until the desired level of mastery is achieved. This actually should be easier at a personal level because there are no competing organizations or groups all with their own inertia. The guiding policy wouldn’t be nearly as complex. “In my available free time for the next quarter, I will practice the guitar.” At first, it is very limiting. But it is also quite freeing. I don’t have to think about learning Spanish or woodworking (though being a better father is sort of just an overarching thing worth working on at all times).

Success only comes from the combination of decision and action. Constantly wanting the best of everything will necessarily result in wish-washy results whether personally or in business. This is the hard part of strategy work and involves difficult choices that most people prefer to avoid because of their implications. I may not learn Spanish if I only practice my guitar which depresses me so instead I never commit and therefore always have the potential to succeed at both. I may have to stop making as much money in my business if I commit to improving technical processes and outcomes which will make me sad and so I’ll just hope that I can do both and that it will all magically work out. This is what makes management so frustratingly hard. It’s something I’m coming to terms with through experience. The restriction of action space is the only way to truly succeed and that often will result in difficult conversations and directions even if only with the voice in my head. But without this restriction of action, the natural tendency is to keep doing the same things because of inertia and as they say, if you think you’ll get different results doing that, there’s a place at the asylum reserved.