When Stealing is Good

When Stealing is Good

(Hang on, we'll get to the application of this principle to Legal Project Management in a while.)

To paraphrase Gordon Gecko, stealing, for want of a better word, is good... in baseball.

Or so I've been trying to teach my son.

"But what if I get thrown out?" he asks.

At age 10, he's probably not ready for a deep statistical analysis. But he's begun to understand that if you're never out, you're missing opportunities.

If you try to take the extra base only when you're sure you can make it, you'll make it 100% of the time. However, think of all those other opportunities when you probably would have made it; you've gotten zero benefit from them.

In baseball, the cost of an out, as highlighted in Moneyball, is significant. So you should steal when you're sure you can make it, and when you're pretty sure you can make it, but perhaps not when you're only fairly sure you can make it.

In my son's Little League games, of course, you can make it almost all of the time because the odds are small that there will be in succession a good catch, a good throw, another good catch, and a good tag. I'm trying to help him overcome his fear of failure, recognize the value in taking reasonable risks rather than waiting for a sure thing.

Or take contract bridge. Here it's possible to calculate the costs of failure and the value of success exactly - not the exact likelihood of failure on a particular hand wherein you see only your own 13 cards, but the points awarded for success or failure. Most bridge players understand that if they don't fail at about one-third of the hands they bid, they're missing opportunities and not maximizing their results over time.1

A quarterback who never throws the football will never suffer the ignominy of an interception... but is likely to give way to the punter far more often than the coach would like.

The prosecutor with a 100% in-court success record may be passing on the tough cases, or plea-bargaining them. That's good for his record and public perception, but it might not be in the best interests of society as a whole.

Project managers, too, must take occasional risks.

I often ask at my classes, "What's a project manager's job - to succeed or to not-fail?" (I sometimes add, "You're not allowed to answer, 'It depends.' ") Attorneys are notoriously risk-averse, but as project managers they need to think more broadly about risk. In the context of this question, they realize that there is a difference between succeeding and not failing. Not surprisingly, given the competition in law school and thereafter, most, restricted to these choices, vote for "succeed."

I think that's good. Projects are tough enough without the level of fear that not-fail attitudes imply. Sure, sometimes you get thrown out at third, but most of the time, in striving for success, you find ways to make good things happen.

And success, for want of a better word, is good.

Read more on the Lexician Blog


1It's interesting that the one-third target applies to both good and bad players, since the points for winning and losing are the same. Clearly a better player will be more successful against a given set of opponents than a lesser player and so will bid more aggressively... until she reaches the point of failing a third of the time.