Picking Your Battles in Business

Recently, I had a client make a few unreasonable requests with respect to some services that we provide them.  They weren’t outrageous to the point where it was foolish to even suggest it, but they could be classified more as “stretching the friendship” type requests – we could do them, but it wasn’t what we agreed and it was a bit cheeky to even ask.

I stewed on the request for a couple days and like all things, when you allow it to bounce around in your mind, you have a tendency to make the situation worse than it really is.  I finally found myself sitting on a bus, re-reading the email with the request for what seemed like the ninth time when I realised I just needed to get past it.

I quickly wrote a response saying that this time we’d do as requested, but in future, we’d have to amend our fee arrangement to compensate for the change in deliverables.

I simply made the decision to pick my battles better.  That request simply wasn’t the hill I was prepared to die on in that business relationship.

What reminded me of this as I sat down to write this email was a story I read on the internet one time – like many of these things that enter the zeitgeist, I’m sure there’s a grain of truth, but it’s been exaggerated for effect.

I’ll share the story with you anyway because it’s quite funny.

An American aircraft carrier group is sailing towards the Persian Gulf after recently refuelling in Spain.  A storm blows in off the coast and visibility is very poor.

Without warning, the US carrier receives a request from a Spanish radio operator to adjust course 15 degrees south as the carrier is heading straight for them.

The carrier responds that as the bigger vessel, it has right of way and demands that the Spanish change direction 15 degrees north to avoid a collision.

The Spanish radio officer responds, insisting that the American vessel alters its course 15 degrees to the south.

The Admiral of the American Carrier Group gets on the radio, “This is Admiral X, Commanding officer of this US carrier and the entire battlegroup.  Our carrier is the second largest in the US fleet and we have 2 battleships, 6 destroyers, 5 frigates, 2 submarines and an assortment of support vessels in our group.  I am not suggesting you alter course, I am ordering you to alter course or else I will be forced to take action to protect my ships.”

After a short pause, the Spanish radio operator responds, “Nice to meet you, Admiral, my name is Juan Pallovar Jimenez, I am the operator of lighthouse A-385 and I have no idea where this lighthouse ranks in terms of size of Spanish lighthouses.  I’m here supported my friend Pablo, his dog Chichi and we have a few beers.  I don’t think it will be possible for us to manoeuvre our lighthouse in any direction, so I suggest you change direction, 15 degrees south or you may have some explaining to do to your superior officers.”

Again, another slightly drawn out pause, “Acknowledged, US carrier group altering course 15 degrees south, have a good evening.”

That story always makes me laugh when I read it.

One of the biggest lessons I have to keep relearning all the time in life and in business is that sometimes you need to dig your heels in and sometimes you just have to let things go through to the keeper.  Some of the best decisions I’ve ever made in business were the ones where I decided not to complain about something or chose to fight again another day.

I often refer to this as “keeping my powder dry”.  The best way to explain this is with people that are new to business.  They get started and then they rush out doing twenty different things at the same time.  To continue the war analogy, they open up wars on multiple fronts and they don’t have the means to successfully prosecute them.

My philosophy is to do one thing really well before moving on to something else and before I get all crazy and start arguing some minor detail with a client that could potentially spoil a relationship, I think about what the best possible outcome might be and what the worst possible outcome might be realistically, then I make a call.

Effectively, I pick my battles to give myself the best chance at winning.

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