10: Baby steps often lead to big leaps

When operating in the realm of the blank sheet of paper, where assumptions about how things might work outstrip the things you know will work, baby steps are a way to learn your way to success.  Granted, a big leap can also get you to your end goal, and will do so very quickly if you're lucky, but a leap into the darkness is very likely get you hurt.  Smaller steps allow you to assess the best path forward as you move forward, recognizing that for trailblazers, the path is of your own design. 

Baby steps are appropriate at the start, middle, and end of things.  This applies equally to individuals, teams, and entire organizations.

As obvious as it may seem, starting something is essential to its completion.  But often times people can't accept the challenge in front of them, and so they find myriad ways to avoid doing something:  budget reviews, scoping meetings, taking sick time, eating pizzas, buffing that feature on your last project, surfing Facebook… all fine ways to delay dealing with reality.  By taking a huge problem statement and breaking it in to smaller chunks, baby steps make it easier to get going.  If you're stuck in foggy, uncharted waters, you can spend a lot of time trying to to shoot the stars to chart a course, or you can raise the sail and move a bit, then reassess and move a bit more.  Baby steps help you get going, fast.

In the messy middle of an innovation initiative, baby steps allow you to quickly explore multiple directions in parallel, rather slaving to polish one idea before you know it is The One, or even The Best One We Have Now.  Big leaps make for expensive bets. Baby steps, on the other hand, are by their nature cheaper to pull off, so you end up spending less money per unit of learning, and that learning comes sooner.  And it's easier to kill off ideas when they're expressed as baby steps, because there's no huge sunk investment tempting you to spend more time and money in order to save the project or your career.  Most important of all, per Boyle's Law, baby steps increase the frequency of feedback you receive, because you can bring  a lot of baby step prototypes to quick meetings.  You learn a lot this way.

Many "overnight" innovation successes are actually the result of years of baby steps which added up to a big leap.  That  E Ink screen in your Kindle is the result of years of incremental innovations in the marketplace that took the technology from something best suited to department store signage to its current form, which is a truly remarkable breakthough. Those years of patient baby stepping at E Ink allowed them to accumulate a huge amount of explicit and tacit knowledge about how to design and make these displays; the more they learn, the harder it will be for others to duplicate their efforts with one big leap.  Baby steps can also lead to capability growth.  If you look at the product launch history of a firm like Honda, you see a steady beat of incremental product launches scheduled with presidential election regularity.  Every time Honda launches a new Accord, they not only put a better product in the market, but their people and systems evolve as well.  Stack all those launches up, and you can see why car companies that default to a "big leap" strategy are not doing so well.  Finally, baby steps can open up unforeseen opportunity streams in the guise of real options.  The folks behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band didn't set out to create the world's biggest ever living room music entertainment system — they were just MIT guys interested in making the music performance experience more accessible to all.  Via fourteen years of patient experimentation and baby stepping, they got there, big. 

Baby steps often lead to big leaps. This is the tenth of 21 principles.  Your feedback, comments, and ideas are most welcome.