Some personal observations on doing big things…

Dan Creswell
Feb 9 · 3 min read

It’s a team game

This might be the toughest thing to grok for highly motivated or driven folks. Beyond a certain scale of challenge, we can’t take it on alone. There’s lots of historical narrative to the contrary with nice linear paths to victory and point decisions made by one key person. Not surprising because it’s very hard for each of us to be aware of what others were doing alongside us at any point in time or track how their interactions contributed or didn’t (which is also true of our own). It’s well known that the act of recollection can actually create new (and false) memories that replace the closest thing we have to a truthful representation.

A capable individual contributor with a history of success must move from managing themselves to finding a way to create an orchestrated performance with others. This is likely at odds with their current skillset requiring empathy, influencing, careful use of language and emotion etc.

Control

There isn’t any. Actually, that’s not true, you can change yourself and shape your actions but those of others? Nope. They are their own person with a set of individual needs and purposes. Attempting to compel, manipulate or otherwise constrain others won’t yield a good outcome. Some folks know nothing else but these tools and will not change, steer clear of them.

So, no control of others and as it turns out, it’s the same for much else. The doing of big things creates complexity of interaction that one cannot adequately predict and plan for. There are some tools for coping with this reality such as risk management, limting downside and sunk cost etc. Few spend much time here, many organisations largely eschew such things in favour of faux certainty.

We must let go.

It’s all grey

Hindsight is a precise science and allows for all our biases to come out and play. In the moment of doing, choices are made with less than perfect information, outcomes are uncertain, the behaviour of things outside our awareness cannot be accounted for.

There are very few things we can know to be correct and many decisions represent tradeoffs amongst a whole bunch of variables we can generally only approximate (and often crudely) at best. Particularly for techies used to the world of code where binary rules and it’s either right or wrong, this is a hard thing to accept. More broadly, the education system conditions us to believe there is always one true answer available and we’re failing if we don’t get it. It’s important to realise that our performance is being measured in a highly structured environment with contained, well understood problems. The mindset we acquire in such a place has little applicability for big challenges that are inherently unconstrained.

Time To Impact

In a society where instant gratification is increasingly prevalent we’re losing the ability to manage for long periods without positive feedback. Given ”Success is 99 percent failure.” (Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda Motor Company) it’s important to accept that good things can be a long time coming.

The bigger the challenge, the longer that time coming will be and the greater the distance between any action we might have taken and the outcome.

Comfort

The process of pursuing a vision is a journey of self-discovery. Many folks shy away from holding up the mirror and taking the opportunities for better. They’d rather hide away and create a bubble of safety or comfort, avoiding what scares them. Some indulge in a form of misdirection, taking on seemingly scary things which, in fact, are attempts to hide from what genuinely frightens them. If you cannot admit to weakness, you are stuck. If you are unwilling to address it, you aren’t much better off.

One principle I apply often is to look for a single good thing in the bad. If we’re dealing in challenging things, there will be problems but they represent chances for progress. Mistakes are inevitable, recognising them for what they are in turn opening us up to improvement is necessary growth.

This is not about being endlessly tough and failing to look after oneself, there are going to be moments of vulnerability. The journey to something big requires we take breathers and diversions equally if it’s all gravy, it can’t be a genuine challenge can it?

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