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Do you really want to get on that bus? A true story about the potential long-term cost of short-term wins

I recently had occasion to tell a client about a Navy colleague who made a choice that gave him a short-term benefit — and in the process obliterated his long-term career plan. More on this after the jump.

By way of background: All U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers are powered by nuclear reactors that are overseen by specially-trained engineering officers and crew. Any officer who applies for nuclear propulsion training must first undergo a personal interview with the head of the “nuke” program. (Back in the day, that was the legendary Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy.)

“Joe,” one of my classmates at nuclear power school (not his real name), hadn’t wanted to be a nuke. His plan had been to go to flight school. He intended to spend his career in the wild blue yonder. He had no interest in babysitting nuclear reactors in often-cramped submarine engineering compartments. He was an excellent student, so he had a great shot at being selected for flight school.

But during his senior year at the U.S. Naval Academy, Joe signed up to go to Washington for the nuke-school interviews. It was maybe a 45-minute bus trip each way. A lot of his friends were doing it. It’d be a day off from class; what could go wrong?

Interview Day came to an end. To Joe’s shock, he was informed that he’d been accepted for the nuclear program.

Joe said thanks, but no thanks; he was going to flight school.

The Navy responded: Sorry, Joe, but you’re going to nuke school; you made your choice when you got on the bus for the interview.

Joe and I didn’t keep in touch after nuke school. So far as I know, he spent his Navy career in submarines, not flying airplanes. He’d succeeded in getting a day off from class with his friends. The cost of that day off was to have his entire career plan blown to rags.

* * *

Business executives sometimes face similar dilemmas: We’ve got an opportunity here to take a shot at a nice near-term win. If we did get the win, though, we’d be committed to it — and we’d have to divert major resources from our long-term strategic plan. What should we do?

Sometimes it can make sense to put your long-term plans on hold to chase a short-term win, if the long-term opportunity cost isn’t too high and you won’t be locked into doing something you’d really rather not do.

As Joe learned the hard way, though, sometimes it’s best not even to take that first step that could lead to unwanted lock-in.

In other words, there are times you don’t even want to get on the bus.

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