In a recent book review of Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman, the Economist quoted former boxer Mike Tyson. It's not often that you'd find a boxer quoted in a weekly magazine of news and international affairs. And I'm pretty sure I haven't uttered his name in this blog. So why mention him here?
"Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth," Mr. Tyson was quoted as saying. Though most boxers have a strategy to win each time they step in the ring, that strategy has to change with each blow because the other boxer also has a strategy to win.
You don't have a strategy to win unless you have a Plan B: it's a path to success – not a set of excuses or spin control or admission of defeat. Plan B is a change of direction in the face of changing circumstances or unexpected setbacks, a new tack to satisfy the requirements. Plan B is vital. Failing to have or realize the need for a Plan B is a folly of arrogance.
You've probably noticed that President Obama is getting beaten up about the shortcomings of HealthCare.gov and the unintended consequences of the policies contained in the Affordable Care Act (ACA); that should not surprise us or the President. Many opponents of ACA thrive on the failure of others. Nor should it surprise us that a complex system – be it computer or human – fails when it's rolled out all at once. Nor should it surprise us that people are cautious when using a new system or buying a complex financial instrument like insurance. What is stunning is that all these seemed to surprise the President.
ACA became law in March 2010. Only now is the public – along with some naive and inattentive lawmakers – becoming aware of the breadth of its provisions. As I suggested during my 2012 campaign for Congress, the 900-page law needed revision before it took full effect: its complexity made success less likely. While I don't agree with all of ACA's provisions or mechanisms, I want to see our government succeed.
The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration considers HealthCare.gov a success if 80 percent of users can buy health-care plans online; it expects that the unsuccessful 20 percent will be people whose circumstances are too complex for the website to determine eligibility for subsidies, those uncomfortable buying insurance online, and those encountering website problems. A solution that satisfies 80 percent of needs 100 percent of the time is a success; an attempt to solve all needs only 80 percent of the time is a failure.
Sir Lawrence argues that in politics and business:
Initial success is hardly ever decisive ... If you win power, you still have all the problems of trying to govern; if you have a run of success with some great products or an innovative business model, it does not mean you will stay on top for ever. Strategy, it turns out, is really about trying to work out in a sensible way how to get from one stage to the next. With each stage a new set of problems has to be negotiated before you move beyond it. There is no end point ...Edward Luce, in a recent op-ed, mused about the President's predicament: "If three years is ample time to learn say Mandarin, or train to be a teacher, it ought to be enough to learn how to govern better." Learning to govern is an absolute; understanding its importance is a prerequisite. Governing takes a nimble, cogent strategy.
Learn to adjust, or get punched in the mouth.