“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” as Chinese philosopher Laozi said. In corporate jargon, this translates to think big, start small, scale fast.
Making quick progress / establishing a positive foundation is important
There is a strong case for not striving for perfection from the onset of a problem but, rather, building a “victory inertia” early on. My IMD colleague Michael Watkins argues that quick wins can help build your credibility and create momentum. Nobel laureate Medawar agrees: “it is psychologically most important to get results, even if they are not original.”
Examples of this indirect approach to an ultimate vision abound. For instance Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, arguably always had as an ultimate goal to stream movies straight into people’s living rooms but used mailing DVDs as a stepping stone towards that goal.
Or consider the case, a few years ago, when the Peace Corps were seeking a chess coordinator to work in the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia. The idea was to curb large social problems—unemployment, crime, under-education—by helping children acquire more self-discipline, strategic thinking, and self esteem through learning and practicing chess.
Choose whether to scale on victories or on failures
In some settings, designing and using such an indirect approach can be challenging. At times, you can identify small victories along the way and build on those, as NASA did with the Apollo program to go to the moon. NASA chose to start with relatively simple missions and build on their successful completion to bring in more complexity. This included flying to the moon (Apollo 8) and conducting a dress rehearsal for lunar landing (10) before eventually landing on the moon (11).
In other settings, you may be better off building on failures. Building on failures was instrumental for engineer Paul McCready to design the Gossamer Albatross, the first human-powered aircraft to fly over the English Channel in 1979 and win McCready the Collier Trophy, the most prestigious prize in American aviation.
In 1959, industrialist Henry Kremer had offered a series of prizes to support the advancement of human-powered flight, but nobody had been able to claim them. Fast forward to the ’70s, and McCready decided to give it a go. He noted that other teams working on the project would take a year or longer to design a prototype before rolling it out. As a result of the long gestation period, they collected little empirical results to guide their further work on the design.
Instead, McCready adopted a different approach. Noting that failure in one of his prototypes was acceptable (because they were flying at such low altitude and speed), he reasoned that he would benefit more from learning from various generations of prototypes. So, he focused on designing a plane that could be built and rebuilt in hours, not months, which enabled him to iterate quickly and, eventually, design a successful plane.
Think big, start small, (scale fast)?
So, think big, start small, and scale fast. But not all three components need to be present in all projects. At times, what matters is to start small and scale fast—with not big thinking required. At other times, it might be the scaling that doesn’t need to go quickly.
Be it as it may, the point remains: facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, you may be well inspired to look for quick wins and build on those.
Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press
Medawar, P. B. (1979). Advice to a young scientist, Basic Books.
Watkins, M. (2004). “Strategy for the critical first 90 days of leadership.” Strategy & Leadership 32(1): 15-20.
About Netflix: Your Innovation Strategy, MIT Technology Review, February 2, 2011.
About chess to develop early habits: An Unusual Job Opportunity, The New York Times, July 13, 2010.
Photo credit: NASA.