Steer, Ready, Fire

by Venkat on January 19, 2012

I like various permutations and adaptations of the phrase ready, aim, fire to think about decision-making between the extremes of pure contemplation and pure action. Playing around with this phrase led me to this 2×2 (I seem to be thinking a lot in 2×2 form these days). I’ll connect the dots in a minute.

 

Aiming versus Feedback

The apparently logical sequence, ready, aim, fire describes a feedforward model. You get your mind in the right place, then you figure out how to be effective (aim can map to waterfall planning at any level), then you take action.

The phrase ready, fire, aim, preferred by the action-oriented in uncertain and dynamic environments, is a response to the analysis-paralysis that can happen if you try to get to ideal starting conditions and perfect information before starting to act.

The absurdity of aiming after firing can only be resolved via appeal to the logic of iteration and feedback. You converge on the successful course of action through feedback from failed actions. This works well as a motto for startup types and others who believe in the release early and often, and fail fast approach to projects.

Then there is the phrase, ready, fire, steer. I am not sure who came up with that one, but I’ve heard it attributed to Paul Saffo.  This replacement of aim with steer suggests that real-time feedback and control can be continuous. It is the logical limit of iterating faster and faster. Heat-seeking or radar-guided missiles are perfect examples.

The Role of “Fire”

The variant ready, fire, steer made me wonder about why fire is even necessary. Within your basic firearm metaphor, firing gives you all your momentum (kinetic energy) in one big dose. Of course, you also have whatever positional advantages (potential energy) you possess.  It maps well to situations like getting investment in a startup, coming into a trust fund, or using a rocket to launch satellites.

But there are also cars and airplanes, with more continuous energy-generation models. There are also renewable energy models like sail ships, and models that create a net surplus of energy, like a solar car with more energy than it needs.

These don’t need a fire step. You could do with just ready, steer thinking (or ready, start, steer if you insist). A lot of bootstrapped business models would qualify, as you use tiny or zero cash investments to get started, and nurture cash flows slowly to get where you want. You may be accumulating a surplus of cash or attention that you can conserve for later use.

It takes a lot more foresight to work without the boost of a fire stage, but in return you get more control and efficient use of resources, in cases where the fire represents borrowed energy, provided on terms that you don’t like.

In fact, you can often dispense with ready as well. The idea that you need a ready, independent of information preparedness is more psychological fiction than reality. While you are contemplating doing anything, your readiness level changes over time, even before you adopt any sort of intention. As you process relevant information, your situation awareness may increase or degrade in quality, and you may become more or less oriented.

Ready really only matters in situations where there are decisive go/no-go thresholds defined by irreversible (or very expensive to reverse) actions, such as quitting your job or getting married, but ready as an internal state doesn’t really capture that. You’ll never be really ready. But as a continuously-changing state, your readiness may cross a minimum threshold associated with a given irreversible decision.  That threshold is set by external conditions.

This means that you start steering the moment even a tiny amount of readiness bubbles up into your consciousness. After that, the feedback process that is steer automatically moves your readiness level along.

So steer is really at the heart of it all. Continuous feedback control of energy, using information.

Ready is useful to add in where there is an important, unavoidable and irreversible decision inside the decision process.

Creating an Opening

Fire can actually come at the end as well, and this is the case that interests me the most these days .

In cases where you maneuver for an opening starting from unfavorable conditions (ready, steer), you could be accumulating a surplus capacity for action while waiting for a good opportunity to use it.

This could be a purely passive wait, or you could be actively trying to engineer an opening through “set up” moves.

This accumulating surplus might be money, information, a slowly-grown marketing asset like a blog, or going to night school to get a degree. Or it might simply involve waiting and watching for environmental conditions, trending in a certain direction, to hit a threshold.

Within a large corporation, this could be a matter of making specific allies and accumulating a strong position around a currently unattractive business asset (such as a dog of a product that people think cannot do well in the future, or a sales region that nobody wants) and waiting for, or engineering, a way to work it.

For example, there was an optimal window of time for streaming video businesses to be launched, based on falling bandwidth costs. If you were in that business, you’d have been wise to adopt a ready, steer hold-and-accumulate strategy, waiting for your moment to fire.

Today, the emerging sector of 3D printing is in the wait zone for many people: once the technology becomes sufficiently cheap and some basic technology to exploit it has emerged (such as stable, cheap and easy to use software for generating designs), a lot of people are going to jump in.

Bootstrapping to Big

Since ready has to do with crossing externally-determined irreversibility thresholds more than being in some mystic state of perfect readiness, the steer, ready, fire sequence is great for maneuvering to create an opening, and then triggering an irreversible action that requires a burst of informed energy. This is what is typically referred to as a go-big-or-go-home moment.

One application of steer-ready-fire thinking is bootstrapped businesses that intend to grow big at the right time. These days, we’ve somehow bought into the illusion that bootstrapping is for lifestyle businesses and that you need professional investors to go big.

This is obviously false. If you steer to ready with sufficient foresight, carefully build cash-flow assets, and  wait for or create the right opening, you can bootstrap and go big. Many big businesses before the 1940s were grown in precisely this fashion. Before investment banking  became a big business in its own right in the 1870s in America (and later, the sub-sector of venture capital in the post World War II era), big fortunes — including those of the two biggest Robber Barons, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller — were built through this sort of bootstrapped, leveraged model. There were times when Rockefeller in fact had more capacity to move the markets from the outside, than his famous finance contemporary, J. P. Morgan, had on the inside.

Stepping back a bit, what’s common to all these approaches to thinking about decision processes is the interplay of energy and information in some abstract sense (where energy can be money or marketing potential for instance, in our running startup sector example). Acting with either too much or too little information, given your energy levels, is inefficient.  Having neither information nor energy is of course a stable situation.

Mindfulness is when energy and information dance together well. Note that you don’t necessarily have to keep them balanced at a specific moment. You can store both. So you might wait for energy to catch up with information, or vice-versa. Or you can accumulate both and unleash a ferocious burst of mindful action driven by a store of heavily-informed energy.

Sudden Actions, Entropy and OODA

That last part (accumulating both energy and information to enable sudden movements) took me a while to get to. For a long time, I was unable to reconcile sudden, high-power movements with the idea of mindfulness because I was fixated on the thought that mindful actions are necessarily smooth actions. They needn’t be. Jerky movements have a role to play in our world.

But there is a deeper level at which “slow” and “smooth” matter. This is where an abstract notion of entropy is relevant. Slow, smooth actions cause low increases in entropy. Quick, jerky actions cause high increases in entropy. Unfortunately, you cannot always work with low-entropy behavior because there is a lot of messiness in the outside world — the world that you don’t completely control. The smaller and more closed your world, the more you can approach the idea of working purely with slow, low-entropy actions.

This is why readiness is best thought of in relationship to irreversible-action thresholds determined by external conditions. In thermodynamics, isentropic processes (those that don’t increase energy) are reversible. Entropic processes are not.

When you unleash a sudden action, entropy will increase. In decision-making terms, it means you’ll trigger action that is so fast that you cannot process the information being generated by feedback, so it will effectively act as noise. But there are situations where you know enough to know that this chaos you are unleashing will mostly favor you. This is reflected in the attitude that “I think it will all work itself out.” Eventually, when the dust settles, you will be able to get back to a more mindful engagement with the situation.

And of course, there will always be net entropy increases even after the dust settles. Being mindful about this realization is the same as accepting the inevitability of death.

Of course, this extended thermodynamic metaphor needs to be carefully applied in abstract situations, but I believe the correspondence is a very close one. This thermodynamic metaphor, and the interplay of ready, fire, aim and steer in various permutations and combinations, is one approach to understanding how Boyd’s OODA model really works.

Smart Money and Dumb Money

You can extrapolate this sort of thinking to larger groups and organizations, and think about how energy (usually money in the human world) and information are distributed within a organization and the environment it operates in.  You can talk about whether energy drives information or vice-versa.

In larger systems of people, power distributions often emerge out of the interplay of energy and information. Smart money represents information in control of energy. Dumb money represents the converse situation.

In the world of dumb money, entrepreneurs must chase investors. In the world of smart money, investors court entrepreneurs. Why?

In entrepreneurship, smart money is often used to refer to investment from people who can also provide information and advice. This is actually not particularly smart money. If an investor holds all the cards — money and information — what exactly does the entrepreneur bring to the table besides talent? That sort of relationship defines employment, not investment. Truly valuable information comes from unlikely places. Information from well-known sources, such as seasoned investors or former entrepreneurs, is unlikely to be particularly special or exclusive.  It is in fact likely to be common knowledge — it will help you lower costs of doing business, but not provide a competitive advantage.

A collaboration between a party with too much energy, and one with too much information, is fraught with tension. It is very hard to merge the two in mindful ways. One party is impatient and the other party is frustrated. Meetings between parties with unbalanced and complementary assets, who are also mindful about what they have and what they need, are quite rare.

The result is that power dynamics are triggered while things are sorting themselves out. This is one reason I advocate a slightly evil philosophy. Engaging the world outside your personal control means dealing with all this. Trying to be purely good is like trying to work with just smooth, slow, isentropic actions. It is just not workable when there are transient openings and irreversibility thresholds in the environment.

So it isn’t just individuals who have to gradually become more mindful decision-makers, gradually lowering the amount of sloth, impatience and frustration in their thinking. Organizations have to do it too. I can think of many frustrated, slothful or impatient organizations and groups, ranging in size from married couples to Fortune 500 companies and entire nations.

 

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Cameron Schaefer January 19, 2012 at 10:48 pm

A Hellfire missile launch profile may be a more accurate methaphor than that of a bullet being fired from a gun when it comes to startups and fits many of the thought processes that you’re discussing above. Depending on the platform, the time between missile launch (fire) and impact can be anywhere from seconds to close to a minute, during which time it is being guided to the target by a laser (steer).

Before the missile is launched it must first be powered up, tested, launch parameters updated, checklists, etc. Several steps must be taken just to get to the (ready) phase where the missile can be launched…even in this ready state one must wait for the environmental/target conditions to be just right (similar to the discussion of market timing with things like 3d printing).

Once the ready steps have been accomplished and the target environment is deemed acceptable (never a certainty) only then can the pilot make the go-big-or-go-home decision to fire the missile…but even in the time from the missile leaving the rail to impact there are chances during the steer phases to make small corrections based on the instantaneous feedback loops happening between the target environment and the pilot’s brain, even to the point of intentionally steering the missile away should the target environment cross a no-go threshold like a kid strolling up out of nowhere. Compare this to a pivot decision just after a startup launches a product, but before it runs out of cash (potential energy).

Of course the big breakdown in the metaphor is that failure has vastly different consequences in each case…firing a hellfire to do nothing more than get validated learning will probably make it so you never get to fire another hellfire again :)

Venkat January 20, 2012 at 11:10 am

Yes, missiles are a better metaphor for today for startups, but a little too idealized perhaps. The feedback loop for startups still isn’t that tight, even for daily-build projects.

Your last point isn’t as different as you might think in other contexts. There is always a cost to experimentation. “Validated learning” in product launches sounds like it is a de-risking strategy, but if you design a good enough experiment to get real information, failure may kill that marketing asset so you can’t use it again. If you have a permission marketing list and ask people to give you feedback on a beta, if the beta is bad, it may lower the response rate on the list badly, both through direct annoyance and because it signals intentions that may not go over well.

Part of the problem is that we think of cash as the main kind of potential energy in entrepreneurship. Marketing assets are actually the main kind, and can be “used up” as well. Running out of marketing leverage is worse than running out of cash in my experience.

Cheap sources of validated learning (in terms of downside consequences, not upfront costs) are rare than people think.

Cameron Schaefer January 20, 2012 at 8:28 pm

@Venkat,

Interesting thought on marketing assets being the main kind of potential energy…the more I think about it you’re likely right since cash can always be found somewhere, but customer engagement/attention is perishable. Would you consider customer engagement/attention the primary marketing asset?

Two questions: 1) what are some ways that startups can tighten up their feedback loops 2) would you consider pre-launch Google Adwords or site-specific advertising tests a cheap source of validated learning?

Venkat January 23, 2012 at 11:18 am

Seth Godin once said that the right time to start marketing a book is 3 years before you release it. It’s the smartest thing he ever said and I repeat this line often. A marketing asset is not marketing intelligence. Yes, it’s perishable/renewable, so “asset” in some ways is the wrong word since it suggests stocks. A marketing asset is generally a flow, not a stock.

Validated learning is a concept I don’t use much because I’ve noticed that the richest learnings come from rich events (i.e. not one-dimensional “experiments” driven by a specific hypothesis). Rich events seem to yield lessons endlessly as you reflect. Katrina is an example. You could call it a huge learning event for the disaster preparedness world, and the data is very rich and deep. Each time you take a look at it, you learn something. I try to look for/engineer such rich events in my marketing approach. Provoke complicated responses from the marketplace.

When I first learned of lean startup ideas, I back-mapped my own Gervais Principle Slashdotting events as my PMF/validated learning events. But now, in retrospect, that doesn’t fit. They were not designed experiments. There was no hypothesis. Yet the yield of marketing insights was incredibly rich and deep. It was my Katrina. The levees broke, my strengths and weaknesses were thoroughly exposed (apologies if that metaphor offends anyone).

The things you do to trigger such marketing “rich events” big and small tend to be different from the things you do to test specific hypotheses. Both are useful. The difference is that the former helps you build companies, while the latter helps you fix features.

On tightening feedback loops: due to the learning curve in software usage, you cannot actually put the product into a very fast feedback loop (you can try your daily builds and daily feature enhancements etc., but only a tiny minority of non-core users will keep up; the rest will change behaviors only occasionally). So the fast feedback loop is necessarily a pure marketing activity via blogs etc. Combining it with the spiky “rich event” dynamic, it also means more chances at triggering spikes.

Think of marketing as an activity on a certain tempo (daily, weekly). The returns are either weak or rich feedback floods. If you are doing your job right, you should be generating spikes of all sizes.

Another way to think of this is that marketing is about both known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Designed, validated learning experiments can generate the former, but the latter only by accident. Unknown-unknown knowledge generation feels more like just stirring up trouble. The job of the marketer is to stir up the right kind of trouble, even if it might overwhelm the levees.

Isaac Lewis January 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Heh, I had another metaphor in mind for startups, though not as conceptually accurate as the above.

Funded startups are like rocket ships: take millions in investment, take years of engineer time, big launch, then either reach the moon (exit) or crash into the siberian tunguska and annoy some Russian peasants.

Bootstrapped startups are like the Wright brothers, two scrappy guys pushing their cobbled together biplane into the air by sheer effort and hoping it somehow manages to stay airborne.I

The best metaphor I can find for your bootstrap-then-investment startups is a submarine: lie patiently in wait deep under the arctic ocean, with a reliable source of power that’ll let you bide your time until the right moment to launch the rockets appears.

It doesn’t quite work as submarines don’t fly. Ah well, I still think the image of a “submarine startup” helps distinguish the idea from the quite different “stealth startup” (submarines need a reliable source of power to be able to wait for the time to strike). I was actually thinking of this model a few weeks ago, though there didn’t seem to be a name for the concept. I referred to it as the “games studio” model, since unlike one-shot valley startups they often do a few years work-for-hire before developing their own ideas. Good to know I’m not alone in thinking it’s a more sensible way to do things.

Venkat January 23, 2012 at 11:21 am

You’re exactly right. The submarine (strategic nuclear subs at least) example is great, because it is a weapon designed to win long-drawn out wars, rather than battles. You plan for windows of opportunity that might be no more than a few minutes in 30 years. Very different mindset that leads to a culture of readiness rather than a culture of immediate action.

The analogy to the work of individual technologists is that they should be optimizing over their careers, not the immediate startup idea. This is not the best for investors of course: they’d rather you didn’t hedge and burn yourself up in a valiant do or die attempt on just the current project.

RG January 21, 2012 at 2:41 am

“You’ll never be really ready. But as a continuously-changing state, your readiness may cross a minimum threshold associated with a given irreversible decision.”

This is something I have intuitively felt. And found it annoying when others keep asking, “Are you ready now?” With some decisions, the answer is always “Not completely” but the listener cannot guess the decision/action based on the answer.

That mindful actions need not necessarily be smooth actions is another energizing information (concept) for me.

Venkat January 23, 2012 at 11:22 am

Yes, the “need not be smooth” was a big aha moment for me. I think the monks who first explored mindfulness didn’t emphasize it because the “need not be smooth” primarily arises in relation to the external world.

Larry Dunbar February 5, 2012 at 1:49 pm

“Seth Godin once said that the right time to start marketing a book is 3 years before you release it.”
Or to put it into the context of your book, the “Cheap Trick” can be below the line towards “no information” as well as “above” the line. That is an interesting thesis.

So, the “valley” of the Double Freytag Triangle ” lets the deep story travel with very little knowledge (other than the “Cheap Trick” it was created with), and you can expect a “spike” in the other direction during the “Heavy Lift”?

In other words, you believe the “Heavy Lift” will happen before sloth and impatient take over. What “applications” do you feel inoculate against sloth and impatients. Do you think social media helps to overcome both? What happens when science destroys the “Cheap Trick” and thus the chance for the Separation Event to form, and before sloth and impatients has a chance to?

Josh W February 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Perhaps readiness involves preparing yourself for this sudden outburst of energy; soldiers are the only ones not surprised by their own sudden gunfire. And then with the disruption bridged by preparation, you can get on with the smooth steering process.

Another way to think about it is that your decision may generate noise, if you know roughly the procedure by which it will do it, you can filter it out more effectively. This may give you a starting advantage while revealing what you are doing, that you can then maintain once everyone else has worked out what is going on.

Sean Murphy May 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm

I blogged about ready fire steer in 2007 in http://www.skmurphy.com/blog/2007/01/09/paul-saffo-best-strategy-is-ready-fire-steer/ which cited a comment by Saffo in a 2006 interview with Ricard Edelman at http://www.edelman.com/speak_up/blog/archives/2006/07/how_to_mobilize.html He also used the phrase in a 2006 interview talking about the transformation in modern warfare from a chess paradigm to a Go paradigm see http://saffo.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/collaborativetech.pdf

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