Go back if you have to

Over the weekend I was driving from my home in Reading to play in a golf match nearly 40 miles away in Surrey. As I sped down the M4 I realised I had left behind my sports bag, containing a change of clothing. I thought quickly, “hot day like this, I will really need a shower and a clean shirt for the prizegiving”. So I decided to turn tail at the next junction, and go back home. The false start cost me 20 minutes or so. But it was worth it. I still arrived on time, and, boy, did that shower feel good after four hours in the baking sun. 

“Sitting on the fence” doesn’t get a good press in traditional decision theory. Neither does going back. But why? We all take decisions (complicated ones, simple ones) on the basis of having worked out a series of options, and gone for the best balance between positive upside and negative downside. When I left home on that golf trip, I hadn’t factored in the downside that I might have forgotten my bag. But once it was in the equation – time to recalibrate. 

So often things change between making a decision and implementing it. If the new set of circumstances is not so favourable, by all means go back on the decision. Widely differing groups, like businessmen, football managers and politicians recognise the truth of this. 

In business, strategists and marketers frequently make assumptions about competitive action (or lack of it). But if the competition launch a new product or slash prices, there’s no point relentlessly sticking to a plan, when to change tack would be more advantageous. 

A starting line up at the 3pm kick off may have looked the strongest available, but an injury to a key player or two early goals by the opposition may completely change the scenario. Go back, and try something different.

In September when 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was discovered in the shale fields under Lancashire, you might think it was the moment for an Energy Secretary to recant on a statement like, “we must halt the dash for gas, because it might prevent us meeting our commitment to cut our CO2 emissions by 2051”. 

But then Mr Huhne is also Climate Change Secretary, and he obviously sees seeking a legacy in 40 years time as a higher priority than ensuring cheap and plentiful power in a much shorter time frame. No one – except perhaps global warming zealots – would grudge him a change of heart in the light of new and unpredictable events. In the face of an economic crisis and inflation fuelled (to coin a phrase) by higher energy costs, one might hope that Mr Huhne the energy chap might feel able to tell Mr Huhne the climate guardian to back off a bit in the circumstances. 

But that’s how it sometimes is with politicians. Losing face – and going back on a decision – can become undoable. Which is why, unless his boss the Prime Minister gives him and unmissable instruction or gets rid of him, he will carry on scarring the British landscape with hopeless wind turbines, while the shale remains undisturbed under Lancashire. And isn’t that the county that has suffered most from BAE’s cutbacks? New employment prospects in a new industry might not actually be a bad idea – quite apart from all those extra Joules and Watts.