Think big, start small, act fast

🚀My newsletter is THE EXPONENTIAL VIEW. Sign-up for the it here.

How do you build something that matters? Anything, it almost doesn’t matter what it’s going to be: a product, a company, a hobby, a new job? Here is a mantra which I think can help anyone build something that matters:

Think big, start small, act fast.

I first read this seven years ago in a Sequoia Capital guide to pitching. It has now made its way into more common parlance. As a product-entrepreneur (and coach and investor) I’ve found it a very valuable

Think big, start small, act fast is a really effective mantra.

The obvious reasons: big things are worthwhile but can seem daunting. Small things may seem trivial and without an organising purpose may also seem aimless.

Think big

“Results from a review of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting on performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development.

(From Locke et al, Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 90(1), Jul 1981, 125–152. As only the abstract is freely available here, I recommend a later Locke paper: Motivation through conscious goal setting. It is only three pages long and well worth it.)

Think about the most frequently cited mega-tech companies and you’ll find companies who are thinking big: Google (organising the world’s information), Uber (rethinking logistics), AirBNB (changing leisure and business stays), Amazon (the everything store).

Thinking big can make the mundane interesting. Uber is, after all, just a set of local taxi firms and Amazon a warehouse-based catalogue store. But by setting a lofty goal, these organisations can better harness the effort and direct the attention of their employees and cohorts of supporters.

The bigger your goal, the more you can motivate yourself to achieve it. Or as someone told me, aim for a Gold medal you might just get a Silver. Aim for a Bronze and you’ll be lucky to finish.

Make your BHAG communicable

Some people call these things BHAGS (“big hairy audacious goals”). But it isn’t sufficient for it to be a BHAG. It needs to also be communicable. It needs to have, what is called in the movie trade, a high-concept. Recognise these audacious films from their high-concept:

  • A maverick rookie pilot trying to live beyond his dad’s shadow
  • A rough Detroit cop follows a crime to pristine Beverley Hills. Hilarity ensues
  • The forty-year old virgin
  • Capture Berlin by summer (not a film, a goal during world war 2)
Guess the movie

High concepts matter because they summarise your BHAG into something anyone can digest.

Start small

Big things take time and require plans. But as the Great Prussian military strategist, von Moltke observed :

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle.
Von Moltke and his spiky helmey

Or rather, plans never survive contact with reality, so you need to chunk the big thing into smaller things; while reminding yourself that these tedious smaller things are the path to the big thing.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had this figured out as well, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” which I’ve interpreted to mean that it is the nature of the world that anything you seek to achieve needs to start with a single positive action in the correct direction of travel. (Which is why it is important to know where you are going.)

In the age of business planning courses, the pseudo-accuracy of the Excel spreadsheet and matrix-organisations where we ‘circle back round’ it’s easy to make plans; and complex ones at that. Anyone can make a complex plan.

But complexity is hard to manage. It is daunting. It is hard to keep in your head. Harder even than an 11 digit phone number.

In fact the system’s theorists, whose entire discipline is understanding the holistic workings of a large system, understand the nature of that complexity.

Here is Gall’s Law (named after John Gall)

Of course, to get to your BHAG, you’ll almost certainly need to deal with complexity in your business.

Your sales organisation will need regional and global structures. How will they report? Your product teams will need to localise for different markets. Your employment regulations will vary from country to country. Your teams will run into hurdles and opportunities that take them off course.

But if you think about that when you start, you’ll drown in a beautifully produced plan — a wonderful Gantt chart, systems diagram or Excel — that will never see the light of day.

The lesson from the lean startup movement is that at each stage you need to do the minimum to prove and validate that stage (and ultimately get to a decision). This approach is grounded in the 500-year old principle of the scientific method — test one thing at a time so you can understand root causes.

As a product entrepreneur, starting small gives you a visceral understanding of the business: its operational flow or its value chain (as a consultant might call it). Doing things in a small, low cost way, because they happened to be in arms reach, can validate your high concept and move you forward with more confidence.

Those initial models may not ‘scale’. Google Books started with Larry Page scanning a handful of pages himself. Jeff Bezos used to pack Amazon deliveries. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that you got started.

Act fast

Faster you act, faster you learn. Since you really don’t know what you have set-out to do entails, you are going to have to make it up. But remember you are taking small steps, small quick steps, and after each step you’re seeing what worked and what didn’t work.

Acting fast allows you to have a faster OODA loop. The OODA loop was developed by another military strategist, John Boyd, and is also part of the backbone of modern lean product management.

I think of it as ‘in flight’ optimisation, or as John Maynard Keynes said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”

There is a second benefit to acting fast. That is the challenge is steeper for you, you have less time to prepare and you need to apply the skills you have (and are learning). Amazingly that makes you smarter, and forces you to create new strategies.

This isn’t to say be hasty. Nor does it mean doing things for the sake of it. Or shaking the chess board to see how pieces land, something I consider the Rumsfeld strategy, perhaps best illustrated by this memo.

Acting fast is to act quickly and actively with awareness of what you are doing. And acting fast may actually mean doing nothing. But a deliberate type of doing nothing, as distinct to doing nothing because of procrastination or analysis paralysis.

Failure modes

I’ve seen (and have failed myself) on many occasions. Here are the three main failure modes:

  • Planning too far ahead just because you can. You become the Chess master who never moves and ultimately runs out of time.
  • Doing stuff well without knowing why. Organisations can become exceptionally good at executing without a clear understand the war they are fighting.
  • Acting too fast and responding too quickly. It’s a judgement call. I’ve heard it called “lurch management” and you often see it in the startup whose focus changes weekly (are we B2B or B2C, being a clear example).

The conclusion

I use Think big, start small, act fast often. Nearly every day, in fact. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you apply it wrongly. Sometimes the rest of the group doesn’t want to hear.

It’s hard. It requires reframing problems. Rather than think immediately about what is in front of you, it forces you to step up to remind yourself of the journey and then drill back down to work out what to do next. The discipline of acting fast (knowing you may throw away your work) can also be a novel one. Thing big, start small act fast is a way of dealing with uncertainties and a world that you have to create. Most people are more comfortable with certainties and a world created for them.

Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile discipline. So to say it once more:

Thing big: Make it meaningful to yourself and to others

Start small: Make it digestible, tangible and practical. Build only what you need to get to the next step once you know where you are going.

Act fast: Create momentum and take lots of little steps quickly.

🚀My newsletter is THE EXPONENTIAL VIEW. Sign-up for the it here.

— —

Background photo credit: ThePatternLibrary

More by azeem

Topics of interest

More Related Stories