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.
Ryan – another post that is right on. I make the mistake of unloading both barrels all the time, and more often than not the results are less than spectacular.
I did some consulting a while back and had a client in a pizza shop swear up and down that he got a 2.5% response on door to door fliers, but could only get out 100 an hour (the industry average is 250). Either way if you pay a guy to put them out it is a money making proposition. Doing the math, it makes a lot of sense to hire another driver for the week nights, and use that labor to put out fliers when they aren’t busy delivering. I put down he numbers on paper in my proposal and showed them to him.
He could only say it doesn’t work that way and tried to save the $7 an hour in labor cost while throwing away the extra revenue that the marketing would have generated, so I gave up on the thread. It is no use convincing someone of a point, no matter how correct, if they aren’t interested in being convinced.
Ryan, I agree with your main points but I think relying on this too often runs the risk of creating a reputation for yourself as a lowballer.
The first example I thought of was when I was improving quickly as a rock climber and found that I was having trouble gauging how difficult certain routes were. I’d lowball to avoid bolstering my accomplishments and for a while my recommendations of climbing grades were completely useless to me and others–accurate data was in this case more important than conservative data.
In that same vein, lowballing your own data can come across as arrogant.
Ryan, may i ask what you think of Jack Kerouac and his work, assuming you’ve read a biography or some portion of his collection?
To be more specific.
He is lauded as being one of the greatest authors of our era. However, I find his writing style particularly fragmented and difficult to comprehend.
This was an excellent post and something that is not done enough. As nice as it might feel to go in and knock the shit out of someone’s inadequate argument, structure, or whatever, its often way better to be conservative in presenting the basis to prove your point. It ends up being more powerful and convincing anyway, and may remove some of the possibility that the person you’re criticizing will take it personally.
Wasn’t it Dale Carnegie who said something to the effect of “when you want someone to go along with your ideas, make them believe that the idea was theirs.”
Kerouac couldn’t write well, but he had a vision for everything he proposed. His style seems unorganized until the end of each chapter when you go, “Aha! I see it now, too.” For most guys reading Dharma Bums is about like eating curry for the first time and not understanding why anyone would like such a thing until that last bite reveals the art behind the mess.
Ryan, I know nothing of Boyd besides what you’ve written on him. Is the lesson simply that when you have an idea to propose, one option available is that you have the potential to reap more rewards than plainly being correct by lowballing your numbers? I see the distinction between plainly lying about an experience like Ilan’s example and showing a conservative estimation, but what do you do when your idea isn’t accepted and your audience refuses to factcheck? It seems then that you run a high risk of appearing incompetent either by letting things slide without your idea being taken up or insisting the facts be checked and them yielding different results than your proposition. If this is the case then I may be underestimating the power of boldness. Or is the whole thing about leaving yourself more options; speaking softer than the size of your stick mandates you can?
Excellent point on conservative inputs. If the aim is to alter another’s course in one’s desired direction, then Boydian Lowball is a justifiable tactic.
However, if the aim is to reinforce an opponent’s current course or tendencies, then hitting them with “both barrels” is probably the more effective tactic.
Most people simply will not adjust course in the face of direct, harsh criticism out of simple pride.
If you’re opponent is headed toward a cliff, a “direct” shove just might expedite the fall.
I think you should do the Seth Godin internship. At least send in an application and then see if you still want to do it in a month or so.
(Saw it on the delicious feed.)
On Kerouac http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2007/10/kerouacs_on_the_road.html
After reading your article, it occurred to me that what you were describing seems like a parenting strategy…such that you give your child enough rope or hints or whatever so they make the discovery about something on their own.
Obviously not where you were headed with the article of course, but the parallel was, to me, interesting.
Thanks for taking the time to write your blog, Ryan. It’s been very interesting reading.