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One of the more helpful frameworks that I’ve found in my career has been to aggressively avoid unforced errors in management. In tennis, unforced errors are cases where a player missed a shot due to their own mistake, rather than due to their opponent. In management, unforced errors are problems where the source is you, rather than an objective business need or external circumstance.
I define unforced errors as problems caused by taking action, when doing absolutely nothing would have worked just fine: cases when you mess with something that wasn’t broken in the first place. In addition to being annoying, unforced errors distract from existing priorities and open up new fronts in any battles that you’re currently engaged in. And since the solution is so easy – just do nothing – learning how to identify them can pay dividends.
Common Types of Unforced Errors
Unforced errors generally come in a few easy to identify forms.
The most common is deciding to “fix” a problem that doesn’t matter, or that doesn’t exist at all. One of the prototypical examples is the decision to migrate to a new technology stack because it seems cool, or because your current technology choice is no longer in vogue. Maybe you’re running Ruby or PHP but really want to try out Rust, despite the fact that your product is otherwise working fine and you’re not having trouble finding and retaining engineers. This invention of a problem can lead to Tech Debt Science Projects in which your team rebuilds otherwise working technology. If anything breaks (it likely will), you’ve caused an unforced error.
Another class of unforced errors comes from deciding to standardize or regulate a system that’s working fine. For example, imagine a case where your engineering teams are all running agile processes differently. Some teams aren’t disciplined about retrospectives, some teams are highly regimented about story sizing while others wing it, and some teams occasionally insert “break” weeks in between sprints so that schedules never quite align. To a certain kind of person, this type of inconsistency feels deeply wrong – like a house in which all of the walls were a very slightly different color.
But your business doesn’t require consistency for aesthetic purposes, or for its own sake. In some situations, you can tolerate somewhat haphazard team processes for a surprisingly long time – dodging the upfront effort of standardization, the ongoing effort of maintaining it, and the overall risk of standardizing on a system that doesn’t actually help everyone on balance. (of course, if there are real upsides to enforcing consistency then you should go for it)
Catching Unforced Errors Before They Happen
In my experience unforced errors often stem from a yearning for control. When times are tough it can be tempting to latch onto areas where you already have mastery and look for ways to optimize them, and this optimization feels like productive work. Ironically, this means that you’re more likely to cause unforced errors, as these familiar domains are areas where you’re probably doing well – focus is needed in the areas of the business that you rarely think about, where your existing decisions are the least battle-tested.
The general solution to unforced errors is to ruthlessly prioritize. Focus on the problems that are truly existential threats to your business and team, or represent transformational opportunities.
My simple heuristic for avoiding unforced errors is to always imagine the worst thing that can happen if you just skip a new project – what would happen if you had never thought about this initiative at all? This is especially true when you’re talking about changing something rather than doing something new. If the worst that happens is that you miss a chance for a 5-10% optimization of a non-essential part of your business, alarm bells should be gently ringing.
Unforced errors are a pain – not only do they distract, but the optics can be pretty bad when a lot of hard work backfires. By avoiding these hiccups, you can keep your team happier and focus on getting the wins that are most important to your business.