Are You Losing Enough Battles?

Portrait of McClellan. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

General George B. McClellan was a brilliant planner, but his overly cautious style may have tacked years onto the U.S. civil war. Lincoln became frustrated, commenting with devastating wit that “McClellan is always almost ready to fight.” Eventually McClellan’s risk aversion forced Linoln to relieve him of command, after sending a telegram that read, “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”

Contrast Colin Powell, who recommends: “Once information is in the 40% to 70% [certainty] range, go with your gut.”

I don’t recommend that you take stupid risks, that you make no effort to gather data, or that you spend your political capital carelessly. But I do recommend that you follow Powell’s example, not McClellan’s. To quote Powell again, “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”

Thomas Edison tried 1000 times to invent a light bulb before he succeeded. Why do we expect in software to get our designs right on the first attempt? I submit that if you aren’t losing a battle now and then–if you don’t make any failed experiments–you are not working smart enough or courageously enough.

If you don’t lose the occasional battle, you will never win the war.

Losing an occasional battle keeps us humble. It means we’re grounded in reality rather than ivory tower imagination. It means we value balance and pragmatism over theoretical perfection, and it helps build a healthy regard for the needs of other people.

Go try. A lost battle of the sort we fight with software is never an Antietam or Gettysburg.

“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Joseph Chilton Pearce.

9 thoughts on “Are You Losing Enough Battles?

  1. It comes as a great surprise to some people that doing nothing is as much an action as doing something. As long as there is more than one actor in the world, there is no stasis.

    • I wrote this post because I caught myself hanging back. I was concerned that some ideas that I had might not stand up to thorough testing, so I didn’t propose them at all. What I’ve realized is that it’s fine if my ideas don’t stand up, but it’s not fine to not do the experiment. I needed a little shot of courage! :-)

      Thanks for the reminder that inaction is also a choice.

  2. dougbert says:

    spot on. I have learned to gather enough information up front to know the following: a) it is doable with the resources we have, even if we don’t know all of what we need – we will learn. b) We know the general direction we need to go, c) we know mostly WHAT we will have, so we know when we are done.


  3. Julie says:

    [In my words] You aren’t going to invent/create anything really new and interesting in one try. The faster and more often you fail – the sooner you can succeed!

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