‘I am convinced that a well thought out “small wins approach” is the premier path to effective strategy implementation, and therefore to long-term organizational capability building’, Tom Peters, Guru of Gurus said in 1998.
And it kept me wondering whether this perfectly legitimate advice would still be valid 21 years later. Tom Peters was then referring to a new book by Bob Schaffer entitled ‘The Breakthrough Strategy: Using Short-term Success to Build the High Performance Organization’. The book and approach is based upon ‘“locating and starting at once with the gains that can be achieved quickly and then using these first successes as stepping stones to increasingly ambitious gains.”
Things have changed a lot in 21 years; the environment is a quantum leap different. The principles behind Schaffer’s work were very solid then (and he went on to fund a non-profit arm of his company to help the developing world; he was very determined to creating long-term impact). How much of the ‘small stuff leading to big stuff’ is valid today?
Not many people would disagree with the rationale: small steps, ‘baby steps, ‘one step at a time’, don’t put ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘a thousand steps’, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’, etc. Incrementalism is in our mind. Is it because this is how our brain works, and how sensible things need to happen, or because we don’t know how to make big steps, adult steps, many things at a time?
I am not against the incrementalism rationale per se, which is logical and rational. But we need to ask ourselves how far we can go with it.
Can we do a step at time if your major competitors does 10 steps at a time? Can you afford small wins if you need to prove a big output in five years? Does the step-by-step theory apply to a company growing fast, at pretty much any cost? When is small-win-leads-to-big-win strategy legitimate and when is it a suicidal note?
At the very least, I ask my clients to play contrarian and imagine that they have no time for baby steps and small wins. What would they do? What if they all needed to accelerate by 50, 60, 100%?
For all the merits of incrementalism, and there are many, our present times are against that rationale. Perhaps it’s not all or nothing. Some things need the increment, others the big leap. Question is, do we always know which ones are which?