Your Activity = Ax x Bx x Cx…

For any activity you undertake in life, from selling a horse, to arriving at work on time, to planning a vacation, to cooking dinner, certain variables interact with each other to determine the outcome. For centuries, many business and government leaders have known this to be the case. Today many more are catching on. Others, however, can hardly keep up with what they’re doing to understand how it affects an outcome. The most skilled keenly manipulate their inputs to achieve a specific output.

First, just take a look at that equation again on its own. If you change the value of any one variable on the right (forgetting to add salt to your dough), then you necessarily affect the value of your outcome on the left (runaway bread that never stops rising). But change the value of any of the inputs, and you will then necessarily change the value of the output.

If you already know the specific value your desired outcome, then you must figure out how to make the values of the variables on the right side of the equation (your inputs) work together to equal what you want to achieve on the left. Merely discovering all the causal variables is tremendously difficult. Putting them together in a sufficient combination with the right values is where you earn your keep.

But be careful with your time. At some point, searching for more variables that have little or no causal power to your desired outcome is a waste of your time. So you have to balance finding the main causal or input variables, which is worth all the time it takes, against finding every last variable. This is a key leadership decision as it involves risk.

This is a decision you have to think carefully about. some great decisions are never made because the leaders wait forever for every last bit of information long after they had enough to make a critical decision. Others go into an abyss without knowing what all the variables are because of some misplaced desire for speedy decision-making when more time was available for research.

Some variables are necessary. Others are sufficient. You need to know the difference and how it impacts the outcome. For example, there may be 10 variables which causally impact your desired outcome. You may find 2 that are necessary when paired with any two others, which would then be sufficient for your level of desired outcome. Flour is a necessary component in making bread. It is not sufficient on its own. The kind of flour (changing the value in the equation) changes the outcome when you bake a loaf. Yeast is neither necessary nor sufficient, but adds to the outcome. Water could be substituted for milk, etc. The key is that you know your necessary and sufficient inputs to achieve an outcome.

If you are doing any kind of planning, do not assume away any of your variables. It is critical to list all your known variables, the aggressively challenge how you know their values and validate them all. If you are the boss making the decision, insist on seeing the work behind your planning team’s assumptions on variables.

You can try this out in a simple thought experiment by pondering what would happen if you left something out of one of your processes, or changed the value of some item. On the other hand, you could start with a desired outcome, and figure out how many different combinations of variables are possible to achieve that outcome. Sometimes it might only be one specific set of variables and values, but other times it might be any number of possible combinations. Finding the right one for your activity is the key to leadership where thinking meets doing.

Keep thinking…


By | 2016-10-24T21:51:05+00:00 April 30th, 2015|Blog|0 Comments

About the Author:

Tom Ruby

Tom Ruby is a retired Air Force Colonel who served 26 years on active duty in positions from Squadron Intelligence Officer, to Chief of Doctrine for the AF ISR Enterprise, to Chief of Special Programs for the Air Force Materiel Command. He was Associate Dean of the Air Command and Staff College where he developed exchange programs with the NATO School, the French École Militaire, the German General Staff College and Poland’s National Defense University. He served on General Petraeus’ Joint Strategic Assessment Team as well as in three combat deployments. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Kentucky, and actively mentors graduate students through the American Political Science Association. He is widely published and speaks globally on topics from critical thinking, to leadership, to strategy, to morality in warfare. He is currently CEO of Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions, a business and defense consulting firm.

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