The 70 Percent Solution: Perspectives of Time Management

Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader. Don’t fall victim to what I call the ready-aim-aim-aim-aim syndrome. You must be willing to fire. — T. Boone Pickens

I am quick to point out that while leadership and management are inextricably entwined, leadership is a universal art whereas management is industry specific. Alright then, it’s time I put some weight behind that statement. Let’s talk time management from multiple industry perspectives – corporate, academic, and martial.

Corporate Time Management

Whether its time to plan, decide, or produce, the corporate world looks at the bottom line, profit. Thank God they do. We wouldn’t want it any other way. And because of this, business innovates quickly in order to remain competitive with other businesses.

To explore this point further, we have to ask ourselves, “How late is acceptable?” For a business meeting, or for a product deadline the answer to that question is pretty much the same. How much can the profit margin tolerate?

Don’t misunderstand my point here. Speed is identified as one of the three great values in business. As they say, you can have it cheap, good or fast. So speed is a concrete value, but only so much as the profit line is involved.

There is some room to fudge here then. If we cannot have it fast, but we manage to produce our product or perform our service cheap and good, then the profit margin will do well. So in terms of speed, the corporate world balances this requirement with other considerations. Yet ultimately the bottom line is profit.

Academic Time Management

In contrast to the corporate perspective on time, the academic world see little value to speedy process or decision. Instead, academia places value on being correct.

The academic process might be simplified in terms of hypothesis, experiment and assessment. We only accept a hypothesis as “fact” once it has gone through this academic process exhaustively and multiple scholars come to the same conclusion. And nowhere in this process is speed discussed as a value.

Understandably, academia innovates very slowly – the same as other institutions of government and religion. Being correct is valuable. And if it takes considerable time to find the correct solution or conclusion, so be it.

How late is acceptable in academia? It’s hard to say. Anecdotally the professor sometimes fails to show up for class. But that’s okay, we’ll catch up on the lesson later in the week. And our thesis might take an extra semester, but what’s one more semester after four years of work?

The bottom line here is that our work better be correct. This requires the 100 percent solution.

Military Time Management

How late is acceptable in the military? I can answer that question succinctly with another question. “What’s ‘late’?”

There is no such thing as “late” in the military. The military will not detain or delay a flight, a ship, or a convoy for late military personnel. Those Soldiers, Marines, Sailors or Airmen simply missed movement, to use the military vernacular. That offense is punishable by law.

Military subordinates are not late for the commander’s meeting. They simply missed the meeting. There is an armed NCO assigned to lock the door once the meeting begins. No one is allowed to enter the commander’s meeting after it has begun. And trying to force the tent flap open to get inside is a good way to get your arm broken by one seriously angry NCO!

Let me put this another way. It is said throughout the military, “If you are not 10 minutes early, you ARE late.”

Martial discipline is not concerned with being 100 percent correct. Neither is it concerned with profit. Instead, the military is concerned with understanding first, deciding first, and acting first.

Unlike other government institutions, the military must innovate quickly within the battlespace – albeit not so quickly within the military institution itself. That means the educational institution of the military slowly evolves, but rarely experiences revolutionary change. However, on the field of battle it is quite another matter.

A 70 percent solution today is far more valuable than the 100 percent solution tomorrow. Tomorrow is too late. The battle will be lost or won by then.

Furthermore and perhaps more pertinently still, a 100 percent solution is useless and potentially dangerous. Humans invest their pride in a 100 percent solution. They become married to that idea until it succeeds or fails. That can be fatal on the battlefield.

By contrast, a 70 percent solution presumes changes and additions to the plan will be required. After all, the enemy gets a vote, too. So does Mother Nature.

The enemy has no interest in seeing our beautiful plan become successful, regardless of whether our plan has been established at 70 percent or 100 percent. The enemy is intent on upsetting our best laid plans!

Our plan cannot control the weather or terrain or daylight. The universe expands and changes in predictable randomness.

Given that the enemy and Mother Nature both get a say in our plan, there is zero benefit for us to ever finalize the plan. Once a leader estimates his or her plan to about the 70 percent mark, it is time to put the plan into action.

“Understand First” means to gain situational awareness. “Decide First” means to establish a plan at about the 70 percent solution. “Act First” means to seek the initiative and disrupt the enemy’s actions and decision-making.

In the martial industry, he who gets to the 70 percent solution first – acts first. And more often than not, that translates into battlefield victory.

This article was originally published on (Olive Drab: the journal of tactics) and has been transferred here with permission.