Do You Know When to Take Chances? Sometimes, the riskier play for entrepreneurs is the safer play in the long run.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Many great busienss and life lessons are learned on the playing fields of competitive sports. I learned about playing as a team vs. playing as an individual when I played basketball and soccer in school. On the golf course today, I get gems of life lessons. Did you know that the easier you swing your club the farther the ball goes? Sometimes it takes a feather, not a sledgehammer.
Here is a great lesson for every entrepreneur that comes from one play of a football game. You'll understand the lesson even if you don't understand all the rules of professional football.
New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts
It's Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009, and the New England Patriots are playing the Indianapolis Colts. The score is New England 34, Indianapolis 28. There are approximately three minutes left in the game. New England has the ball on its own 30-yard line. It is fourth down with two yards to go to make a first down.
What does all this mean? The Patriots have one important decision to make. Since it is fourth down, they only have one play left. If they go for the first down, they have to move the ball forward two yards. If they succeed, they keep possession of the ball and can probably hold onto it until time runs out, and they'll win the game. The other option is to punt the ball away and let Indianapolis take possession. New England's defense then has to keep the Colts from scoring. If they score, Indianapolis could win the game. The tricky part of this decision is the Patriots' position on the field. They are on their own 30-yard line, which means they have about 70 yards to go to score a touchdown. More important, if they go for the first down and don't make it, Indianapolis gets possession of the ball with only 30 yards to go to score a touchdown. Indianapolis' quarterback is Peyton Manning, one of the best in professional football. The odds of Indianapolis scoring from that position are pretty good. With so little time left, if the Colts score, they will likely win the game.
New England Coach Bill Belichick has a crucial decision to make. The punt seems to be the safer bet. What does Belichick do? He goes for the first down.
This play will make or break the game for New England. The ball is snapped. The pass is thrown. One of the Patriots catches the ball but comes up short of the first down. Indianapolis takes possession of the ball. Within a few plays Indianapolis scores a touchdown. The score is now Indianapolis 35, New England 34. Time runs out before the Patriots can score, and the Colts win the game.
What Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know
Belichick took a lot of flack for his decision. Critics said it was a foolish call to make. "Why did Belichick take such a risk?" they asked. Had the Patriots made the two yards, he would have been a hero. The question to ask is--did Belichick really go with the risky play . . . or not?
Here is an excerpt from an article in The Wall Street Journal about Belichick's decision:
(Coach Belichick's) decision went against the natural instincts of all human beings when they're forced to make high-stakes decisions. In a recent study, researchers from Duke and UCLA found that when faced with a decision in a competitive environment, people have an overwhelming tendency to make the supposedly safe choice--to err on the side of caution--even though doing so may lead to worse results.
By studying thousands of hands of blackjack played by random people, the researchers found that when they strayed from the "book" or the optimal strategy, those players who did something aggressive were more successful that those who did something defensive.
In fact, the subjects made four times as many passive mistakes as they did aggressive ones. And the passive mistakes--holding on a 16 when the dealer has a king showing, for example--were more costly: They cost $2 for every $1 won, vs. $1.50 for every $1 won on aggressive mistakes.
Why do people embrace caution? "It's because of the regret that people face when they take an action and it doesn't turn out well for them," says Bruce Carlin, a professor of financeat UCLA's Anderson School of Management, who worked on the study.
At issue, it seems, is the very idea of what constitutes gambling. If going for it gave the Patriots a statistically better chance of winning--and if aggressive deviations are often better than passive ones --then the gamble would have been to punt, even though that was the seemingly safe play.
So what does all of this mean to you, the entrepreneur?
When faced with a tough decision, what seems like the safe choice may not, in fact, be.
As entrepreneurs, we like to win. The bottom line is that it's difficult to win from a defensive position. In the game of chess you cannot win by being on the defensive. To achieve checkmate, you have to be the aggressor. When you're on the defensive, who is in control? The person on the offensive, because you are reacting to his moves on the board. The offense takes charge and the defense follows.
How do you feel when you take a defensive role? How do you feel when you're on offense? I feel much more alive, in control and confident when I'm on offense. When I choose to play it safe I feel uninspired and somewhat like a coward. I do not get ahead or grow by playing it safe; I simply endure.
Robert and I faced a business problem recently that we deduced would be best solved by another party. So we took the passive approach and waited . . . and waited. The problem didn't go away; it only got worse. The more we waited, the more frustrated we became. The moment we changed strategies, went on the offensive and took charge of the situation, not only did the problem begin to unravel but we also felt stronger, more creative and immediately saw that other options were available. We were excited.
I believe that is why we are entrepreneurs. We don't want to play it safe. The job of an entrepreneur is to seek out problems that need to be solved and figure out how to solve them. Entrepreneurs, by nature, enjoy being on the offensive.
So next time you're faced with a high-stakes decision, think of Coach Belichick at fourth down with two yards to go.