Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Make Big--No, Change That--Tiny Decisions

It, Lao-Tzu's proverb, has been overused: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." But it is apropos for business and team development. Another saying also works: "When's the best time to plant a tree? Twenty-five years ago. The second best time? Today." I was reminded of these recently when coaching people about their goals. People who dramatically change their lives and accomplish great things are popular and popularized. They are put on the pedestal.

Rarely are people applauded for consistency and persistence. We are not often called to do great things, but we are called to do small things with greatness. Oh, I think Mother Teresa said something like that.

Likewise, Fried and Hansson of 37Signals in Rework exhort us to make tiny decisions. Certainly, you want to have big ideas and big goals (hark, I hear BHAG from Collins' work). But they claim that big decisions lead to errors and incorrect judgments. Like the emperor with no clothes, once you've made the big decision, you're committed to that path and often your ego, credibility, peer pressure and a whole army of other rationalizations will not let you change it.

This is what can get a church in trouble when they build a cathedral. It takes a lot to support a cathedral and might drain resources from the mission. If you've committed to a big development project, performance appraisal system, factory, excess inventory--you might be stuck while you feed more capital and time or energy to it before you can be rid of it. I saw one company that did this twice when they developed products outside their core competencies. They made the big decisions. They eventually ended up with 'million dollar machines' in value after you include all development costs related to the number of units actually sold.

Polar explorers, one which Fried and Hansson quote and another than Collins uses in Great By Choice, often just plug along trying to get to the bit of ice a few yards away, or just getting the next 20 miles without worrying about the several thousand miles they will eventually cross.

Making tiny decisions are satisfying too. They keep us going because the sense of accomplishment is present. And if a tiny decision takes us in the wrong direction, away from our BHAG, it's easy to correct. The one company that developed two projects of 'million dollar machines' could have benefited from making tiny decisions. If they hadn't committed to the big decision, they could have made the tiny decisions of market research, product feasibility, manufacturing process research, etc. and pulled the plug any time with the next tiny decision that had a strong indication the answer should be 'no'. Instead, they had to keep throwing money at the projects to somehow salvage them.

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