The lesson of rigorous preparation has been taught throughout history.
In the 5th Century BC, Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, denounced lack of preparation as the most heinous of crimes, and celebrated good preparation as the greatest of virtues. In the 1st Century, Seneca defined luck as something that happens when preparation meets opportunity. Michelangelo grumbled that if people knew how hard he had to prepare to gain his mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all. In Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3, Shakespeare has the King giving the most famous pep talk in history to his overwhelmed army as they prepared for the unlikely English victory at Agincourt in 1415, explaining that “all things are ready if our minds be so”.
President Lincoln is often credited with the remark that if he had eight hours to cut down a tree, he would spend the first six sharpening his ax, though the comment has more plausibly been traced to an Appalachian lumberjack in 1956. Napoleon admitted that it was not innate genius that suddenly and secretly enabled him to decide what he should do in unexpected circumstances, but thought and planning.
In 1946, the first President of the International Standards Organization, Howard Coonley, accurately predicted that business leaders would in future be rated on their ability to anticipate problems rather than to meet them as they come. A stream of legendary American Football coaches, among them Michigan’s Fielding Yost and Alabama’s Bear Bryant, have perpetuated the pre-game mantra that “the will to win is worthless without the will to prepare“. And decorators the world over, when asked to name the ultimate secret behind a beautiful paint job, are certain to reply: “preparation, preparation, preparation“.
This increasingly busy world leaves most of us with less, or even no, prep time. We suffer from task saturation. Normality, in this constant state of un-readiness, is forcing us to rely on assumptions, instinct, hearsay, gossip and guesswork to get through the day. Negotiators who claim an intricate familiarity with the industry, subject matter or past experience, will often use this knowledge to compensate for a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the esoteric situation at hand. They may be deluding themselves.
I learned the importance of preparation through embarrassment. Almost 45 years ago, about three months into my job as a junior counsel with Gillette, the GC decided I should gain familiarity with the business. One assignment was to spend a few days with a wholesaler’s sales manager visiting retail stores. We went from one to another, discussing planned stock levels for different products, point-of-sale materials, upcoming advertising campaigns and credit terms.
On the afternoon of the second day, the sales manager suggested that as I had now witnessed how things are done, I should take the lead with the last customer on our visit list. It was a local chain of convenience stores and our appointment was with the owner in person. The sales manager had given 120 days credit terms for a limited period to help the stores through a difficult time, but now wanted to bring this down to 60 days. He asked me to take the lead. I had a weak grasp of the customer’s sales levels of our products, no real understanding of their business model and did not spare a thought for their situation. I should have asked the sales manager these questions as we traveled to the meeting. But in the over-confidence of youth, I thought I could do it spontaneously, as the sales manager had appeared to do with the previous customers.
It turned into a humiliating experience. The owner of the stores, who thought I was a management trainee, took full advantage of the rookie that I was, agreeing to tighter credit but in return pr