Mar 012012

I recently reviewed the book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. While written about making businesses great, I believe they have perhaps inadvertently written one of the best books on improving oneself. I am taking the next few posts to lay the case of how we can ourselves be Great By Choice.

Imagine being on an sailing ship with a hostile enemy bearing down on you. You only have enough powder for one cannon shot. After taking careful aim, you fire… and miss. Certain destruction. However, what if instead, you fire several rifle shots, each coming closer to the enemy hull. Once the range and attitude are known, the cannon can be fired with accuracy and save the day.

This is the concept behind Collins and Hansen’s next credo: Fire bullets, then cannonballs. Successful companies test the waters before sinking massive funds into a product or project. They do small, test projects to determine if they are on the mark. This can lead to being slower to market than competitors, but they are rewarded in the end because their product will be finely tuned to deliver exactly what the waiting masses want.

So how does this apply to us personally? Before we sink massive amounts of time or money into a personal project, we can apply the Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs methodology. Last Fall, I decided I needed to replace a car. I was gaga over a shiny, feature-ridden, leather, latest advertised, cool vehicle. Fortunately, I stopped short and did some testing. I fired a few bullets to see if that car was what I really wanted. I researched online several articles and professional evaluations of this model. I talked to a few owners in parking lots, enlisting their opinions on what they liked and disliked. I sat down and charted what I needed in a vehicle. I decided how many years I would need to keep this car and tried to anticipate my needs during those years. I then looked for alternatives and the associated costs.

In the end, I decided I did not really want a big, fancy new truck. Yes, I will need to haul dirt, rocks, trees and plants for upcoming landscaping projects. There are perhaps two dozen times in the next three years I will need to haul large amounts of material. I can rent a truck for a few hours from Home Depot or a rental agency for much less than the extra cost of buying a new truck. The clincher, though, was looking at what else I would use the truck for: commuting. I drive to the office every day, making a 36 mile round trip. The cost of driving a big truck vs. a small car designed for commuting is huge. The savings in gas alone would pay for those rentals over the next five years. By firing a few bullets, I saved myself from a lot of regret and expense down the road.

How does Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs work in the area of self improvement? Here is an example I have shared with my children who are starting college. They are about to make big, long term decisions for the first time in their lives. What should they study? What career should they choose? Should they go to college at all? I encourage them to fire a few bullets: talk to people who are already in those industries that interest them. Spend some time asking them their story on how they got there, what they like about it and what they would have done differently. Taking the opportunity to learn how others achieved their role can save a lot of time and money.

Take a look at some of the big goals in your life. Is there a way to first a few bullets to learn more about the journey before embarking? Does the end of the road really look like what you thought it would? Does the opportunity cost (things we have to give up) and the real cost (actual dollars spent) justify the goal? A lot can be learned by gathering a little more input and information prior to taking the plunge. Fire bullets, then cannonballs.

Great By Choice Personal Improvement Series

Great By Choice: Personal Success In Reach
Great By Choice: The 20 Mile March
Great By Choice: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Great By Choice: Leading Above the Death Line
Great By Choice: SMaC

Great By Choice: Return On Luck