Choosing Between Idiocy, Arrogance, Risk, and Paralysis


“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

General Patton

How much information do we need?

In his still timely paper ‘The importance of good consumer information’, David Cowan reminded us of the centrality of the intelligence function to how the military organizes and conducts itself. 

“In a Corps.. The group planning the battle would be the corps commander together with his three divisional commanders, and they would be supported by artillery and supplies. In addition - and for us highly significantly - intelligence! This structure would be replicated both up and down the line. For example, a meeting of the general staff to plan the Gulf campaign would be attended by the head of military intelligence; he would be a Lt-General - an officer of very high rank. Down the line, there would be an intelligence officer of battalion level or 700 men.”

Cowan’s argument was that the intelligence function needed to become far more central to how businesses were organized. 

But how much information do we need to be able to make decisions?

Colin Powell had a rule of thumb about making tough decisions.

He said that every time you face a tough decision you should have no less than 40% and no more than 70% of the information you need to make the decision. 

The zone of idiocy and arrogance

The first question the UK’s Royal Marines ask in their planning process is “What Is the situation on the ground, and how does it affect me?”  Similarly, Stephen's King’s ‘Planning Cycle’ begins with asking “Where are we and why are we there”?

Obviously if you can’t answer that sort of a question whether you’re in a combat situation or a business one, you’re very probably going to be more than a little screwed. As Sun Tzu put it, “Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat”

So if you’re making decisions with less than 40% of the information, you’re operating out of ignorance. Or arrogance. Or both. 

You might get lucky with a leap into the dark. But you’re highly unlikely to pull it off consistently.

The zone of paralysis

If you’re striving to acquire more than 70% of the information before making any decisions, then you’re wasting time, energy, and resources. 

You are certainly not being diligent, prudent, rigorous, or even careful.  You’re not even managing risk appropriately.

You’re riding the downward curve of diminishing returns.

And in doing so, you’re committing the organization to paralysis. And to missing out on opportunities as they pass you by.

You will never have 100% of the information. You will never have total certainty. And you cannot eliminate risk. Because risk is an inherent, inescapable part of participating in any marketplace.

The zone of informed risk

Between these two zones lies the zone of informed risk taking.

If you’re operating in this zone you will have acquired enough information to have some sense of your environment, the competition, your strengths and weaknesses, the nature of your objective, and the possible routes of action open to you, and their potential for success.

It’s instructive that Colin Powell’s rule of thumb encourages decision-making to start once you have as little as 40% of the information, not wait until you have 70%.

This is decision-making in the full and certain knowledge that information gaps exist. Indeed you will be missing anywhere between 30% and 60% of the information.

Decision-making in this zone demands and accepts that intuition and judgement are vital inputs. 

I suspect that this is one of the reasons we enjoy pitches. We invariably have only a partial view of the client’s business. The opportunity to become paralyzed by the quest for perfect vision doesn’t exist with the pitch deadline rushing towards us all too quickly. However thorough the pitch briefing may have been, we cannot hope to have all the available information.  But we usually have enough to make some informed decisions.

So which zone are you operating in?

Those of us operating in the Zone of Idiocy or Arrogance need to get out of it as fast as possible (or start working with more sane people) before disaster strikes.

Those of us operating in the Zone of Paralysis trying to get to 100% of the information would be well-advised to wake up to the futility of the quest, and redirect precious resources and time to the brilliant execution of a decision.

A parting thought

Brands and people that feel the need to remove all risk and collect all the information before making decisions are born followers. 

They will never lead people, organizations or markets, because the exercise of judgement, and decisiveness of action in the face of only partial information is one of the hallmarks of effective leaders.

Just saying.


David Cowan, ‘The importance of good consumer information’,  Admap, July 1995