Act Now, or Forever Wonder What If

Leonard Schlesinger, Charles Kiefer and Paul B. Brown suggest that we shouldn't try to predict the future; just start.
March 27, 2012

Mark Twain once pointed out, “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so." I could make a pretty good case for the thought behind his quote being the basis of why so many startups fail.

The problem is that we simply cannot predict every possible future, yet we behave as if we can. And according to the authors of Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, that mindset is all wrong for the startup. Leonard Schlesinger, Charles Kiefer and Paul B. Brown have teamed up to produce a book every entrepreneur and startup needs on their shelf. Schlesinger is the former CEO of Limited Brands and president of Babson College, the leading school for entrepreneurs; Kiefer is president of Innovation Associates; and Brown is a long-time contributor to The New York Times.

The trio accurately describes the two prevailing approaches in business. The first is "prediction." The steps of prediction are well-known, old-school and clear: You forecast the future, you construct a plan for achieving it, gather the resources you need and march off to make your plan a reality. Basically, plan the work and work the plan. All well and good…IF the world is predictable. But it increasingly isn't. It's just the opposite. In fact, in the current economic environment, it's almost entirely uncertain.

The other approach is, as the authors describe it, "creaction." It's a term they coin from "create" and "action," and I quite like it because it's how successful entrepreneurs view the world. "Creaction boils down to this," they write. "The future may or may not be like the past, but you don't have to spend a lot of time wondering how it will play out if you plan to shape (i.e., create) it."

Makes sense to me. When you're heading into unknown, virgin territory, isn't the only way to really discover what's out there—what's really real and to make things known—to go and find out? As the authors point out, what we need to do is take a small, smart step and find out. "Thinking and creating endless 'what if' scenarios doesn't help you," they write. "You can 'what if' yourself to death. The only way to know for sure is to act, reflect on what you have learned and act some more to gain more learning."

To be fair, prediction and creaction aren't mutually exclusive; they "frequently work in tandem, and each works better in certain situations," they write. "You could take an egg out of the refrigerator, hold it out at arm’s length, and, to find out what will happen if you drop it, take action by letting go. But there is little reason for doing so...The laws of gravity are well known. You can predict the fact that the egg will break with near certainty."

"Similarly, you could go out and start a transportation company tomorrow and learn as you go how many cars you can sell in a given year, then sort those numbers by categories, and chart sales during good economic times and bad," the authors write. "But there is no reason to go through all that effort and risk. Those numbers are readily available, and you can estimate future transportation sales with reasonable confidence."

Their conclusion is straightforward enough: When the results of thinking would lead to actions that are predictable (such as, “I wonder how many high-end sports cars I could sell in a year during an economic slump,” they explain), let prediction dominate, supplementing it with creaction as necessary.

In a certain world, you can expect prediction to give you a solid result, that is, you know the uncooked egg will crack when it hits the floor, and you can come up with numbers that will project fairly accurately how many specific types of cars you are likely to sell in a given period.

But in the face of unknowability—what is the market for things that don’t yet exist?—you can’t do a lot of learning in advance. In this case, the fastest, easiest, most effective and often only way to get that learning is by acting.

Just Start gives us 10 solid reasons why action, the cornerstone of creaction, trumps prediction when the future can't be known with much certainty.

  1. If you act, you will find out what works and what doesn't.
  2. If you never act, you will never know what is possible and what is not. You may think you know, but you won’t be able to point to anything concrete to prove you are right.
  3. If you act, you will find out if you like it or not…with “it” being whatever the new action is.
  4. Acting leads to a market reaction, which could point you in another direction. (You want to open a restaurant. Taking a small step toward that goal, you cater a community event to try out your recipes and discover firsthand what the food service business is like. People rave about your food. But you discover you like the cooking part and hate all the rest: talking to people, dealing with the details of planning and organization. Your action caused a market reaction, and has convinced you to go into exclusive catering and hire someone to deal with the clients and logistics.)
  5. As you act, you can find people to come along with you. (You click with the person handling your account at the food wholesaler, and she is now your partner and runs the day-to-day operations of your catering business.)
  6. As you act, you can find ways to do things faster, cheaper, better. (You discover you can prepare the chicken parmesan everyone loves in six steps instead of twelve.)
  7. If you act, you won't spend the rest of your life thinking, l wonder what would have happened if____.
  8. If all you do is think, you may end up being less interesting as a person. Who would you rather sit next to on a plane, someone who started a successful rock-climbing store (or even an unsuccessful one) or someone who only thought about it?
  9. If all you ever do is think about stuff, you can gain tons of theoretical knowledge, but none of it from the real world. "You become like that woman in the fable who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. In other words, if all you ever do is think…all you do is think," the authors write.
  10. Action always leads to evidence, facts upon which you can make a decision. You act, therefore something changes, and in observing that reaction, you gain knowledge. Thinking doesn’t lead to proof. It just leads to more thinking.

And as Just Start rightly points out, "If you act, you know what is real. You always want to know what's real."

For all these reasons, action trumps everything when the future is highly uncertain. So whatever you're thinking about, stop. Act now, or forever wonder, what if.

Photo credit: Courtesy subjects