Always Fix Your Weaknesses

On the Wharton Moneyball podcast the trio of Eric, Adi, and Cade talked about betting lines for the upcoming weekend in sports and they brought up a good point: Liebig’s Barrel.

The idea is that a barrel can only hold as much water as the shortest slat. In the context of Wharton Moneyball the trio discussed if Jimmy Garoppolo was an elite quarterback. Adi said he might be “mediocre,” to which Cade replied, “No, they’ve got a great coach and a great system, and a great defense. They’ve got enough quarterback.” Eric added, “If both teams play to their abilities I think the 49ers win the game.”

From the sounds of it, the ‘quarterback’ slat of the barrel is about as tall as the others, and tall enough to win the game.

‘What to do’ is an allocation challenge. Good capital allocators tend to succeed. It’s amazing how much the leaders in William Thorndike’s book overlap with leaders in any successful organization. He writes, “As a group they were, at their core, rational and pragmatic, agnostic and clear eyed.”

What do you do? Improve strengths or weaknesses. It depends, but not in football.

In football the impact of any one player is small, though the quarterback has increased in importance. The football ‘barrel’ has many narrow slats: offense, defense, coaching, training, analytics, and so on. So fix weaknesses first.

But wait, there’s more! Both randomness, situation, and skill mean that teams don’t know who great players are. Talent evaluation, commentators joke, is having a generational talent every three years. So if it’s difficult who’s the best, fix weaknesses first.

And if all that weren’t enough there’s the idea of diminishing returns. It costs more to make a seven an eight than a four a five. So fix weaknesses first.

In any capital allocation decision it often makes sense to avoid paralysis by analysis. One way to do that is find a weakness and make it better. Then, find another.

8 thoughts on “Always Fix Your Weaknesses”

  1. Interesting idea, but it leaves out an important point anyone who’s played competitive sports will understand. There’s a difference between losing and winning. Leibig’s Barrel may tell you where you’ll lose. I.e. if there’s a weakness an opponent can exploit to beat you, that is the shortest slat. However, that doesn’t tell you how to win. It’s your strengths that get you the win. If your strengths are strong enough, they’ll overcome weaknesses.

    Just like investing, minimizing your weakest trades minimizes your loses, but it’s your winning trades that make you money.


    1. This is a good point. So good I didn’t know how to address it. My thought is that once someone ‘fixes’ weaknesses as best they can then they’re just selecting from many good options.


  2. […] Meat substitutes. Meh. This stuff is kinda expensive and doesn’t really taste great. It might. But it doesn’t. At the moment I’d much rather have the real thing once a month than the substitute once a week. However we love beans and eggs which moved from the bench to the starting lineup in our dietary team. See also : Fix weaknesses first. […]


  3. […] A competitor must consider how they could compete. Of course it would be very good to be very good at each section, but a slip in the head end is much more costly than a slip at the tail due to the multiplicative nature of the scoring. An initial score of 2x5x8=80 improves by fixing the middle score to 2x4x8=64 whereas a weakest leg fix yields 2x5x7=70. This may not be a case to fix weaknesses first. […]


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