A couple of follow-up notes that I couldn’t fit into the piece.
Despite agreeing to watch the government agency carefully, we still failed. The grant cancellation caught us flatfooted and resulted us executing our first layoffs — two months before I left the company. This was the story that I told in Prioritise The Highest Order Bit; you now have the context. “The one silver lining here,” my boss said, grimly, “Is that our competitors will almost certainly not see this coming, and will respond too late.” This was true: some of them got out of the business within a year.
‘Understand the shape of the game you’re playing’ is something that I think about a lot, and that I’ve applied to just about every other business I’ve been involved in since. Unfortunately, it is hard to write about. When I use it in conversation, it is mostly with people whom I’ve shared some business experiences with, and who know what it’s like to ‘understand the shape of the game’ because we’ve lived through it. I may try to write about it in a future post, but it’s going to be a mess.
One thing that I’ve grown to really appreciate, ever since writing Commoncog: some of the best business stories, with the richest lessons, can really only be told over a few beers because they are either too inconvenient to be written down, or demand you put up with an extremely long setup. I waited five years to tell these two stories. I had to allude to them in all the other Commoncog essays I’ve written in those five years. There are other stories now that I want to tell, that I can’t, because they involve live situations. I have renewed appreciation for the amount of biography reading Buffett and Munger do — in lieu of a great network / good scuttlebutt hunting skills, sometimes you just need time to pass to get at the good, rich, stories.
I wonder if it would be helpful to introduce that idea through some more well established examples? For instance, there are lots of sports examples of teams that played to the actual rules of the game, rather than the intent, and used that to get a tremendous advantage: UCLA’s full court press in basketball, the three point revolution in the NBA, etc.). If I recall correctly, Gladwell’s book David and Goliath has a ton of additional examples.
I’m trying to describe it in business, though, where the issue is often you don’t even know the shape of the game you’re playing, and that’s kinda ok — you’re making profits and are able to have some growth, but you can’t come up with a strategy because you don’t really know the reality around you.
This problem doesn’t really happen in sports, for obvious reasons