Do you play to win?

Professional tennis players are all very, very good. They play to win by manoeuvring their opponent around the court until they can put the ball out of his or her reach. It’s a game of tiny margins and great accuracy.

Or lose?

Amateurs – same rules, same court, same equipment. But amateur players play to lose. They aren’t very good. Mistakes are frequent.

To win, a player just has to be better at not losing than their opponent. The winner gets a higher score simply because the other player loses more points.

How do amateurs win?

So, if you are not very good at something, how do you win, either in tennis, or in business? Assuming most of your competitors are similarly handicapped, you win by making fewer mistakes – avoiding stupidity.

In tennis, the strategy is to keep the ball in play and wait for your opponent to make a bad shot and win you the point. Years ago, I used to play tennis (badly) with my equally bad friend. I always won, even though our lack of ability was similar. At any time I was under pressure I knew if I hit the ball straight at him (not hard!) he’d freeze and his shot would go out.

Business is similar. Don’t bother trying to be clever. Avoid mistakes – keep the ball in play. Your competitors, in trying too hard, may well slip up.

Take the quiz

This quiz was given to Warren Buffet and his friends by his mentor Ben Graham.

Graham gave them 20 questions which could be answered true or false. He told Buffet that 10 were true and 10 were false. Most people got less than 10 right. Think through how you would deal with it before you look at the answer at the bottom.

The point Graham was making was that most of us try to play with professionals, but we are nearly all amateurs. If you play with the pros, you are playing with someone cleverer than you – you’re playing in a rigged game. You need an edge.

Give yourself the edge – Invert the problem

We need to give ourselves a better chance if we assume (usually rightly) we are the amateur. We can do this by inverting the problem. It’s a way of changing thinking away from our habitual thought processes, which can limit our opportunities of finding new ways of dealing with an issue.

Inversion comes from a German mathematician, Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, who proposed that many hard problems are best solved if they are addressed backwards. This forces you to uncover hidden facets of the problem that you would otherwise not see. You need to address these issues forwards and backwards.

How to invert – an example

Innovation is vital to an organisation, mostly dealt with by finding all the ways innovation can be achieved. Instead, invert this and look for all the ways innovation is discouraged in your organisation. Eliminating these bad shots might allow innovation to flourish much more readily.

Thinking forward increase our chances of doing harm, whilst thinking backwards reduces it. It’s your avoiding stupidity tool.

Quiz – The answer

The answer to do better than Buffet and his friends is to mark all the questions either all true or all false. That way you would at least get 10 right. That’s better than most of the very clever Buffet group.

Three steps solution

The moral of this tale is:

Assume you are an amateur

Keep the ball in play – don’t be too clever

Invert problems to aid decisions

And just maybe this will improve your tennis as well.