Start Small to Win Big (or Fail Quietly)…

green shootsI don’t know about the rest of you, but I have had to learn to avoid making some goals virtually unachievable from the get go. Lose 20 pounds! Improve efficiency by 35% in your area! Grow your business by (ridiculously large) percent!

The chasm between where you are and where the dream might put you can seem really wide. Some folks are great at ignoring obstacles and blindly plowing ahead, sustained by some mix of endless optimism or ignorance. Most people I know can’t do that, nor do I think they should. One person’s dream is another person’s fool’s errand.

So how do I have big dreams or goals, make progress and NOT kill myself, my colleagues or those around me? Start small!

The idea of starting small is to consciously try a number of things in a manageable way, make progress, build on successes, prune failures all while testing your own (or the organization’s) interest and commitment. It creates opportunities to scale up or down based on tangible experience and evidence.

It’s great to have aspirational goals. I would never argue against them. But I find people are often unrealistic about the process of achieving them. So let’s dig into achieving outcomes that please you and are achieved without either killing you, your team or everyone in your orbit.

In my experience, I see many common problems with big dreams. Here are a subset:

  • Lack of clarity on the goal. “I want to change the world, but how exactly?” Muddy thinking comes in several varieties; unclear vision, unrealistic expectations, lack of buy in or consensus from the group etc.
  • Surge & crash. “This is going to be so awesome!” You start with zeal but run out of power, time, money etc. The reality is that what is sustainable for you personally or your team organizationally often won’t start with a “bang”.
  • Unrealistic expectations. “I can’t believe it didn’t work out perfectly and in a linear fashion…” Rarely does anything go exactly as expected. So betting everything on a heavily planned process that will bump up against highly uncertain conditions doesn’t always work well. It takes a lot of time and wastes opportunities to be learning more rapidly

My point is that starting small, while having an idea of what direction you’re headed solves many of these issues in a systematic, organic way by:

  • Minimizing personal or organizational risk by “testing” in a variety of ways.
  • Gauging interest (both yours’ and others’) through small, representative experiments.
  • Minimizing up front investment (and thus financial risk). “paper pilots”, limited tests, “night work” all reduce cost and thus risk.
  • Rapidly iterating. Learning fast and changing course nimbly.
  • Measuring progress and being honest with yourself about it…or the lack of it.
  • Letting things “fail” privately or on a small scale. I love the idea of failing “off off Broadway” and learning rather than starting with a Broadway premier that fairs poorly.
  • Building momentum through early wins creates confidence and energy, justifying a deeper commitment from you and others.

So don’t “boil the ocean”. Figure out what is achievable in the next day/week/month and then evaluate progress and adjust.

Here are a few examples where people struggle and a few places to go for deeper exploration.

  • Personal changes, like New Year’s resolutions. (Typical failure mode: Surge and Crash.) I wrote a long piece on my weight loss journey several years ago. Keys to this effort that relate to starting small include: understanding it to be a long journey, having a clear and measurable target but not expecting to achieve it in a day, creating a solid tracking and accountability system. More detail than you probably want here: 
  • Making a career change. (Typical failure mode: Lack of Clarity) I have written thousands of words on this topic and won’t re-write them here. But it is worth calling out that many transitions, particularly significant ones are bred from purposeful networking and experimentation. A series of posts starts here:
  • Getting a startup off the ground. (Typical failure mode: Unrealistic Expectations.) The Lean Start Up does a better job than I will ever do on the power of purposefully small, experimental efforts on a rapidly iterating learning journey.

So to break this down, the common steps to starting small might be:

  1. Define an achievable short term goal, recognizing if it’s tied to a larger one.
  2. Write down a limited set of goals, both quantitative (e.g., work out 3 times a week) and qualitative (e.g., “determine whether I enjoy doing xx”).
  3. Develop a clear tracking system. Whatever works. I am a bib excel spreadsheet builder.
  4. Engage the support you need, relevant to the scale of your efforts. For exercise this might be an “accountability coach” to keep you honest. For a work effort it might be building a “virtual team” to collaborate.
  5. Do the work.
  6. Evaluate progress and learning.
  7. Adjust.
  8. Repeat or stop…based on learning and motivation.

It’s that simple. Really. As I often say, “don’t turn this into a physics problem.”

For those who work on large and/or complex things, I am NOT arguing against the need to plan or have detailed processes for major efforts that involve health, safety or other activities with high risk outcomes for individuals or society. Nor am I arguing against major initiatives. Rather, I am suggesting that many big changes start with small antecedents. Rarely do things spring forth fully conceived. Smart folks can apply judgment as to their context.

So start small to win big.

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