Recently, I mentioned the concept of tracer rounds in a LinkedIn post. I received a surprising handful of emails asking to flesh that out a bit, so abra-cadabra, here we are. I think the concept of tracer rounds fits today’s decision-making model perfectly.

Ready, aim, fire!

Even though it was used in the movie Ben Hur (along with that other period gaffe, the red sports car), the phrase Ready, Aim, Fire! was probably made popular in the 18th century sometime to help infantrymen with musket practice and dueling colleagues to be civil with their killing..

Think about it… “Get ready,” means just that – assume posture and preparedness; “Aim” is to align the weapon’s barrel with the target; and “Fire!” means to set fire to the musket powder, sending a musket ball downrange toward the intended target.

Of course, it was also used in those unsavory firing squads, but the original principal held true. Get ready, take aim, and fire.

And in all fairness, this was a practical analogy for business decision-making for decades. Get ready (identify the problem); Aim (use available information to make a decision); Fire (execute the decision).

Makes perfect sense. Except we would usually screw up the order of things.

  • Sometimes it was “Ready, aim, aim, aim…” as we kicked the can down the road with cowardly stalling tactics, always “fixin’ to do something (Texas vernacular), irritating every competent employee within shooting distance. Too often, NO decision became THE decision.
  • Other times it was “Ready, fire, fire, fire…” as we made rapidly successive decisions void of any appreciable thought, knee-jerking our way to abysmal failure and more frustrated employees who had to clean up our collective messes.
  • Then, there was “Ready, fire, aim…” This one got an unwarranted bad rap. Too often it was considered the impulsive act of a manager not needing (or wanting) input from anyone else; s/he had all the information needed to do whatever s/he wanted. I think it was wrongly placed since likely, that manager never did take aim. At least not with any appreciable thought.

Ready, fire, aim actually works pretty well, as long as we use a feedback loop to keep it going. Something like Ready, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire… where each successive “Fire!” acts a decision-maker’s tracer rounds (tracers). Used in machine guns, tracers allowed gunners to see the ending point of the fired round, and adjust their future shooting based on that new information.

So, my knee-jerk friends or subscribers are doing high-fives, my thoughtful cerebral buddies are muttering “he’s a nut job” or something similar. Hear me out – there’s room for all in this thinking.

Think about it:

  • Ready, aim, fire was great with static targets, allowing simple information additions to increase likelihood of successful decision-making. More information = better decisions. The problem today is that those damned problems just won’t sit still; they move all over the place.
  • Moving targets are different. Information valuable when target is sitting at one place may be totally irrelevant when the target moves to a new location. We need a better way to utilize existing information to hit a moving target. Decision-making super-fast, yes, but armed with additional, valuable information.
  • Enter Tracer Rounds. Tracer decisions allow us to decide quickly, using existing information to zero in as best as possible with current information and target coordinates. Then, after we fire (make an initial decision), we can adjust based on the windage and elevation (success or failure) of that first decision. A little higher, to the left, a few yards further, etc. Rinse and repeat.

Modern problems require modern solutions. “Ready, aim, fire…” or it’s decision-making cousin, “Think, decide, act…” assumes that decisions once made stay made. Correctly and without the need for deviation. The problem is, it’s 2020, and that just ain’t so anymore.

The challenges leaders face today are seldom static – in fact, even the phrase “moving target” doesn’t always do them justice. Given our targets are moving, it seems our decision-making should be equally fluid and dynamic.

Many decisions are only “good” for an instant – a snapshot in time – before we need to make another decision. It doesn’t mean our first decision was necessarily wrong, only that its shelf-life for success had expired.

Think tracer rounds.

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