The noise before defeat

Why we need a strategy before we can act

I tend to work fast.

I get an idea in my head, or a burst of inspiration, and I work until I crack the problem or complete the task.

It’s helped me accomplish a lot—but it also holds me back.

As one military commander once eloquently put it, “The bold move is the right move, except when it’s the wrong move.”

Tackling a difficult problem with enthusiasm is only a benefit when you’re tackling the right problem in the right way.

Speed kills when you’re heading in the wrong direction.

So how do you know when it’s time to dive in, to get to work, and to take action? And how do you know when it’s time to stop and think?

That’s what a strategy is. It’s the answer to whether it’s time to charge ahead, or time to step back and regroup.

Because strategy is structure—the structure to work efficiently, in the right direction, toward what you truly want.

So before you act, ask yourself: Do I have the structure in place to work efficiently? And do I know I’m headed in the right direction?

When we don’t have that structure in place—like an accounting of who we’re speaking to, what they need to know, how we’re uniquely able to help them, when we need to reach them, and how best to allocate our resources—we’ll find ourselves with plenty of work to do, but with little to show for our efforts.

“Strategy without tactics,” Sun Tzu said, “is the slowest route to victory.” We know that we must, eventually, take action.

But, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

If we never stop, if we never pause to create a structure for our efforts, we’re just hoping to stumble upon the right answer. We’re hoping to succeed accidentally—with all the odds against us.

But we don’t want to wait. We want to know the answers now. We want to act before we’re ready, and we want to charge ahead before we know where we’re going.

It’s natural, it’s normal, and it’s dangerous.

“Don’t make a hundred decisions when one will do,” management legend Peter Drucker once said. Don’t try everything, over and over again, with increasing panic, when doing one thing is all we need: Making a strategy. Creating a structure. Planning ahead.

I need to actively hold myself back from charging forward before it’s time, and you might need to, too. If you have a bias for action, remember that it is a bias—it is a fixed perspective that we need to work to make flexible.

The world tells us we need to be fast. We need to move. And we can’t stop to consider before we take action.

But notice how rarely you hear those words from people who seem fulfilled with their work and in it for the long haul.

Instead, you hear “faster, faster, now, now!” only from those in a panic, in a whirlwind of energy, trying to tread water fast enough to stay above it.

We must act, of course. We can’t stay consumed in thought forever. But that action must be representative of a plan, and it must originate in strategy. And it must be seen as an experiment, not as the only path forward, and not as the only possible route toward eventual success.

“Whatever you do, do it humbly,” the systems thinking pioneer Donella Meadows wrote. “Do it not as immutable policy, but as experiment. Use your action, whatever it is, to learn.”

Create a strategy. Make a plan. And make sure you know where you’re going before you go full steam ahead.

My tendency to act fast doesn’t speed me up, it slows me down. I can go off in the wrong directions, too far, too fast, and have to re-do work or reconsider whole projects.

Instead, I need to slow down. Think things through. And take action carefully. As the expression goes, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Doing something is easy—there’s no skill in rash and hasty action, the flailing of anxiety.

Doing the right thing is hard, it takes effort, and it takes patience.

But so does anything worth having.

Taking action without thinking isn’t a skill, and it’s not something to imitate or admire.

It’s merely the noise before defeat.