Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs

Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
February 19, 2013

I want to share what I think is one of the most important ideas that entrepreneurs and leaders (and artists, and producers, and...) need to understand.

In his book "Great by Choice", Jim Collins (Good to Great, Built to Last) talks about how the most successful companies are usually not the most innovative. The most successful leaders are not the ones who take the "all-in" risks or bet everything on a single idea. The most successful are those who use the  "fire bullets, then cannonballs" approach.

A bullet is an empirical test aimed at learning what works and that meets three criteria: 1. A bullet is low cost. Note: the size of a bullet grows as the enterprise grows; a cannonball for a $1 million enterprise might be a bullet for a $1 billion enterprise. 2. A bullet is low risk. Note: low risk doesn’t mean high probability of success; low risk means that there are minimal consequences if the bullet goes awry or hits nothing. 3. A bullet is low distraction. Note: this means low distraction for theoverall enterprise; it might be very high distraction for one or a few individuals. Collins, Jim (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (Kindle Location 1343). HarperBusiness. Kindle Edition.
Especially for creatives, it is easy to get excited about a new idea and immediately throw all you have into it. It is tempting to risk a lot of money, time and energy on a new idea, but I urge you to take another approach. Take the approach that super-successful people take. Fire bullets, then cannonballs.

Instead of writing all those songs, recording them, and releasing them as soon as you finish. Test them out first. Share them with your peers. Tweak them. Rewrite them. You might find that of those 10 songs you wrote, you really should only release five of them. Save your gunpowder.

Instead of spending a huge amount of money on an order of merch (an item you've never had before), do a short run first, even though the cost per unit might be higher. And before that, poll your Facebook friends. See how many "likes" you get when you post a photo of your new t-shirt idea. Save your gunpowder.

Whatever the idea, test it first. Don't just jump blindly into it. I know you think your widget is just about the most amazing thing anyone has ever thought of, ever, but give it some time. Give it some thought. Share it with a trusted friend and listen to what they have to say about it. Save your gunpowder by firing bullets to see what works. Then, when you hit a sweet spot, load up that cannonball and blast away.

A good way to destroy your career is to guess and use all your gunpowder and your only cannonball on a target that you think you might hit.

Innovation is important. Very important. But, so is (oh no, here comes the D word) discipline. You can still be creative and innovative while practicing discipline. In fact, you might see an increase in creativity when you add structure to your life and your business.

What are your thoughts? How can you test your ideas? Feel free to share your opinion about the "fire bullets, then cannonballs" approach.