The Boydian Lowball

John Boyd had a rule that whenever he was using data as support for an argument, he’d deflate the numbers to understate his case. The idea was use lower number while making a strong case; when he was challenged and fact checked, it’d always be worse when the new calculations came in. A lot of people confuse this with managing expectation, but it’s a philosophically different way to think about strategy. Generally, he figured, that when people have a big stick they use it. To not use it, to keep it hidden, the mark of a different breed of person.

Here it is in a common form: You’re criticizing the moves of a program that you’re trying to restructure to the person responsible for making the change. The program keeps most of their information hidden because they’re upside down and don’t want to admit it. You’re certain they’re spending X and end up being wrong – it’s over. You say they’re spending X (on the high end of your spectrum) and end up being right – the reward is small and the risk was significant. Simply being right, you’ll find, is not as rewarding as it should be. So instead, you make the case with the lowest X you can justify and cede the verification to the person you’re pushing for change- the results turn the passive observer into an active participant. Since they were involved in the discovery, it’s their torch to carry now.

But that’s hard. You want to use the stick when you have it. You want to go for the win now because you want the credit, you want to be right, you don’t want another participant – you don’t like pretense when you have a sure thing. But think of it like being leveraged in a market position, it’s great until you blow up. And it only takes one time.

Using conservative inputs gives way to conservative outputs. A good operating plan leaves as many options on the table as possible. Conservative outputs give you space to move. Assumptions about data can be thought about the same way. Restraint is the mark of good strategy, even when you’re being aggressive. Round down your numbers, tone your bio, leave the hyperbole to someone else. Keep the stick hidden and think about the next move.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.