In business and in life there’s a short game and a long game; never confuse the two!
You make dozens of decision every day. Some are quick and nearly irrelevant to your success. Others are crucial to it. So, how do you decide which is which and what do you use as a compass setting to pull off those crucial decisions?
In building my own businesses and in working with hundreds of entrepreneurs who have built theirs, one question is always foremost in my mind, how to determine which decisions are critical to the long game versus the short game.
A short game decision is one that impacts only the immediate future. It rarely, if ever, has implications that will carry forward beyond a few days, weeks, or months. Perhaps you’re deciding on the terms for a relatively small customer engagement, bringing on board a staff member, or even the color of the walls in your new office space. You can obsess over these but in the end you know that whatever you decide it’s not going to make much difference in the long run. In these cases even the worst decision is one that can be brushed aside.
“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.” – Mohammad Ali
The advice on short game decisions is easy, don’t waste time on them. Every minute you spend debating the color scheme of the lunch room is a minute you could spend on things that are much more important. But it can get a lot worse! If you start to focus too much on the short game you will not only undermine but potential derail your long game. Mohammad Ali once said, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.” In my experience, leaders who are not effective and rifling through the short game, and who are easily distracted by it, don’t stand a change with reaching the mountains in the next category–the long game decisions.
A long game decision is one that either supports your long term ambition and vision or potentially can sink it. But here’s the rub. In order to make a long game decision you need to have a “long game.” And it’s amazing how many people I talk to do not!
They get wrapped up in the short game, in fact obsessed with it, while ignoring the long game. It would be like deciding on the flower arrangements, bridal party, and menu for your wedding before you’ve decided who you want to marry! What? Did I cut it too close to home with that one? But you get the picture, right?
“If you’re willing to settle for what you’ve got just keep doing what you’ve been doing!”
Of course, that’s not you. You know your long game, right? So, try answering this simple question. What constitutes success for you and your business? Sum it up it in a sentence. Can you do that? If you’re having trouble then use these three criteria:
1. It needs to line up with your ambitions.
For example, if you are set on building a company that can be acquired then every long game decision needs to support that goal. You’re gong for escape velocity, which means investing in momentum and revenue growth. On the other hand if you want a lifestyle company, that will pay you dividends for decades to come, then you need to align your long game decisions with that goal and focus on sustainable margins.
2. The long game is a bet on uncertainty.
Most people won’t get it. If they did it would have already been done. What you’re doing won’t make sense, even to those closest to you. They may support you, but they won’t get you. So your answer has to describe a new vision of the future, not just a modified version of the past.
3. The long game has a definitive payback.
This may be quantitative or qualitative, or both. But you need to know what that payback is because you’ll be taking on significant risk to realize it and you will need to describe it to others who come along for the ride.
This all sounds incredibly easy, doesn’t it?
Then why do so few entrepreneurs do it?
Would you be surprised if I told you that roughly 10% of the people I talk to have a well-defined long game? The rest just sort of muddle through without it. Why? Because long games involve an abundance of risk. They are terrifying. You’re unlikely to get much agreement that your long game is a worthwhile venture from colleagues, friends, and even family. And long games require a deep commitment to not letting yourself off the hook for significant short term pain and sacrifice. Simply put, the long game is full of uncertainty that nobody in their right mind likes to venture into. But, and let’s face it, if you were of the “right mind” you would never have taken the gamble in the first place.
That’s why in most conventional small business situations playing the short game is entirely appropriate. In fact, trying to play a long game in an established business with a rigid set of parameters is the last thing you want to do since it can easily disrupt the business to the point of fatal distraction. That’s why so many entrepreneurs I talk to confuse the importance of the short game with a good long game. They believe that by mitigating all near term risk they are also laying the foundation for long term success. Yes, but only if your objective is to maintain the status quo of your business. If you’re willing to settle for what you’ve got just keep doing what you’ve been doing!
“You are not shooting for the moon, you are shooting for the stars!”
The risk of entrepreneurship is embraced only by a unique breed of individual whose ambitions and vision go far beyond sustaining the status quo of an established business. You are not shooting for the moon, you are shooting for the stars! Or to be blunt, go big or go home.
So, have you figured out the most important decision yet? It’s deciding in every choice that you make if you are playing a short or long game. The surest path to failure and unhappiness is to get those two confused. I don’t care if it’s your business or your life, knowing the difference between those things that are just distractions from those that are core to your success and happiness, and then being mindful of how your choices support your own long game, is simply the most important decision you can ever make.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.