The Lotto Strategy and Shiny Object Syndrome

When stopping to fill up the truck with fuel, I can’t help but notice the lotto signs around the gas station. The bigger the numbers, the more the Pavlovian dog response kicks in. $65 Million Jackpot or $60 Million jackpots sure sound nice. Who is kidding, a $2 Million jackpot sounds pretty darn great, too. But the bigger numbers get the wheels spinning. Wouldn’t it be nice? What if I had that kind of money? What problems would I be able to get rid of? How much easier would life be?

If you’re heading out for a long drive, these kinds of thought experiments can be kind of fun. Sure, thinking about how you would spend the windfall gives you something to do to occupy the time behind the wheel. It’s fun to think about what peace and serenity you could soak in after clearing up all debt. Then it’s exciting to enthuse about a few key purchases, the dream house, a vacation spot, that beautiful boat. Close on the heels of this wish list of goodies could be some contributions to those you care about. Perhaps, a head start for your kids. Maybe something for parents or siblings. If there’s anything left over, we can start wondering of what cause we’d be keen to support. If we keep at it long enough we start to second guess ourselves and worry about who we would be spoiling by giving things to. We may wonder and worry about who from our past would crawl out of the woodwork with all kinds of heart wrenching requests for help. We begin to think of some of the headaches that may come from a windfall.

Morgan Housel’s recently released book, The Psychology of Money, offers a startling statistic: “People spend more on lottery tickets than movies, video games, music, sporting events, and books combined.” This sounds, if true, terrifying. Blind hope is to what too many of us are entrusting our futures. It’s even worse when we consider that some folk intent on purchasing lottery tickets insist on having a “strategy” for their efforts. Comedian, Adam Corolla, in his latest book I’m Your Emotional Support Animal makes fun of what he calls the “Lottery “System” Guy. Corolla defines him as “The lottery is, by its nature, random. You can’t systematize something that is not systematizable. They’re like, “First I take Bob Crane’s birthday—he was born 7-13-28—then I add my current weight…” You understand this is not a system, right? Those are just random numbers. And how’s it going? Is this a theory you put together while living in your Chevette? You’re chain-smoking at Binion’s and arguing with a cocktail waitress over a two-for-one coupon. You have the same “system” for betting college football, but you’re down nine hundred dollars for the year. The system you should really be working on is one to reestablish communication with your estranged adult daughter.” Corolla’s sarcasm pointedly pokes holes in our efforts to take hopeless shortcuts while avoiding taking difficult but more meaningful action.

The sad reality is as hopelessly impossible as the odds of winning are, even the winners don’t win much. Their time with their windfall is temporary. Their problems don’t go away. Whatever financial woes they had resurface soon enough. These kinds of wins aren’t wins. They don’t fix flaws. At best, they might cover them up for a while. As, or more likely, they reveal the flaws that exist. It’s not just driving by gas stations when we succumb to this kind of thinking. It can occur in our business lives as well. When we look to the heavens for help to our problems, we’re employing a lotto strategy. We’re looking to some external event, a windfall, a helping hand, somebody, somewhere to free us from responsibility of managing our own problems. If you’re a Western Canadian, you’ve likely seen bumper stickers which have been around since the early 80s reflecting something like “Please God, Grant us One Last Oil Boom, We Promise Not to Mess it Up This Time.” By looking out for help, we avoid looking in at ourselves and our own flawed operation. Too often we think that what separates us from what we want are our circumstances and not our own actions.

If you’ve ever thought something along the lines of, “If only we had the latest, greatest BMS software, we’d be so much more efficient, but it’s just unaffordable right now, sigh.” Or, “If only we could attract a few producers with experience in selling Cyber insurance, their credibility would polish our image and we’d be able to get in the door and sell so much more of what’s hot right now.” Then you may have experienced the lull of the Lotto Strategy. Marketers love it when we’re in this mode as it makes us most susceptible to persuasion. We’re looking to be sold. Marketers are happy to accentuate the gaps in where we are and how only their solution is able to fill the void in our operation. A close cousin of the Lotto Strategy is Shiny Object Syndrome. With the Shiny Object Syndrome we struggle to commit to a given direction or initiative. Victims of this syndrome present with two different sets of symptoms. We’re either languishing in paralysis by analysis and incapable of making a decision because we’re constantly in a state of reviewing available options. Or, alternatively, we’re making a decision in favor of the latest and greatest tool just to give up before we have implemented it in order to pursue the next. No initiative holds our attention long enough for us to fully engage.

When we choose busy work over being productive, we’re showcasing symptoms. When our go to activity is to check our emails, texts, or voicemails instead of turning off distractions and doing the difficult work of crafting a new sales presentation, we’re showcasing symptoms. It’s fun, easy, and feels good to do some of these things. They’re tempting. It’s like the difference between ideas and execution. Ideas are exciting. It’s fun to be part of discussions involving new direction. Execution is boring. Execution is slogging through the muddy unknown. It’s rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. It’s more fun to visit gyms and check out their schedule for classes instead of huffing and puffing our way through a difficult H.I.I.T. workout. It’s more fun, still, to shop for a new workout outfit on line than it is to drop to the floor and bang out twenty push ups. It’s more fun and easier to read an internet article about different types of meditating than it is to use the same amount of time just focusing on your own breath. It’s easier to sit through demos of new software than it is to document, modify, and implement workflows to incorporate a new approach. We’d rather shop for new linens than make our existing bed. We’d rather grocery shop than cook a meal with what we have in our pantry. We’d rather investigate new software options than invest in housing our business data at a more reliable data center.

Martin Meadows in his book, 365 Days With Self-Discipline, writes, “The shiny object syndrome is the inability to maintain focus on one thing, mistakenly believing that the grass is greener on the other side.” Meadows continues, “What you fail to realize, though, is that by constantly “upgrading,” you never get to build something that lasts, so you fail to achieve your long-term goals.” Both the Lotto Strategy and Shiny Object Syndrome are similar in that they reflect calls for help. They are a S.O.S. signal we’re sending which reflects that we are unclear about what’s important. We don’t know our direction or what we value. Shiny Object Syndrome is like a dog chasing squirrels. We’re after things just because they move, not because they’re purposeful. We’re looking for shortcuts. The next, great, technology, technique, or tactic. Anything. Please. Rescue me. Shiny Object Syndrome is a S.O.S. call for help. We’re looking outside to be rescued instead of looking internally to become responsible for our own organization. We’re looking to be distracted because we’re not confident in ourselves or our direction. Meadows writes, “If you constantly jump from one thing to another, perhaps you don’t care about your goals enough to stay loyal to them. Ask yourself if that’s the case.”

In an earlier article, The Right Way, we noted there is no right way to a particular outcome. There may be any number of perfectly acceptable paths. Instead of spending time evaluating each individual path, our time is better spent taking concrete action on any of the available routes. There’s a big difference between spinning our wheels in soft sand versus speeding down a highway making progress toward our desired destination. Though the engine and wheels are doing the same thing in either case, the latter gets us where we want to go. James Clear describes the difference between motion and action as, “Motion feels like progress. Action is progress.” When we know what we hold dear, our path is crystal clear. If we’re a bit groggy, the road appears foggy. Change is constant even in the chaos of COVID. We’re always looking for a better way. Trying to improve is a good thing. We want to focus on getting better. However, if our search for the latest and greatest, new, whiz bang business approach takes our focus away from our efforts today, then we’re going backwards. The search for the next new thing is a distraction. The distraction is welcomed as we embrace the busy activity of searching over the hard work of recognizing our current reality and working directly on it.  These are natural and easy tendencies or traps to fall into. We’ve all done it. All we can try to do is keep these ideas near our awareness so we are more likely to catch ourselves before we go down these pointless paths. If we can keep the ideas of a Lotto Strategy and Shiny Object Syndrome front of mind, we can work to develop awareness about our actions and conversations around strategy. Are we doing things because they are moving us forward? If so, in what way are we progressing? We need clarity on our direction in order to both evaluate our efforts as well as to determine where our efforts should be spent. The first question we need answered is “Where are we going?” Until we know this as an organization and with respect to our role within it, we’re likely to be sending S.O.S. signals using either the Lotto Strategy or Shiny Object Syndrome.