“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.”
– CREIGHTON ABRAMS
It’s a fact we are all bad at solving big problems.
Those big challenges in our personal lives and workplaces somehow never get solved. We convince ourselves that change is only meaningful if there is some large, visible outcome associated with it. Whether it is rebuilding the entire website or getting that six pack; we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering changes that surely will get us noticed.
The solve everything at once mentality permeates our personal lives and many a boardroom, often setting us up for failure before we start and even worse clouding our view of what really needs to be solved.
I’ve realized that we are all far better at solving smaller problems. Making smaller, better decisions on a daily basis is a strength. Improving by just 1 percent isn’t often noteworthy (sometimes it isn’t even noticeable). But in the long run a few 1 percent improvements create a major force for change. As time goes on, small improvements compound and you suddenly find yourselves having taken a very big step towards solving the problem.
Marginal gains are like compound interest for projects, over time its the most powerful force for growth.
Even though we know that making marginal gains works, we don’t naturally embrace the idea or make it part of how we solve challenges individually or on collaborative projects.
Here are some thoughts why I don’t think we embrace marginal gains when trying to solve technology problems and what to do about it.
The spec and the budget
A spec document is often held up as the silver bullet, the piece of paper that makes everyone feel involved and happy to spend the budget. It’s what finance uses to approve the spend, it’s what managers use to hold everyone to account and it’s ultimately a “solve everything” way of thinking.
“Functional specs force you to make the most important decisions when you have the least information. You know the least about something when you begin to build it. The more you build it, the more you use it, the more you know it. That’s when you should be making decisions.”
– GETTING REAL BY 37 SIGNALS
At Next we don’t work to highly detailed Functional Spec’s rather we use discovery sessions, prototyping and actual users to form what we build. We hold onto our agile principles tightly and our opinions very loosely.
Trust and the invisible super hero
Marginal gains often aren’t visible in the short term, you need to wait to see results. The problem is we hate waiting!
So instead of trusting the principles we write spec documents or buy off the shelf solutions in an attempt to give everyone on the project that warm and fuzzy feeling that it’s all going to be ok. Creating Locked-in specs or using off the shelf technology often forces you to make big decisions too early in the problem solving process, too often leaving projects and products in tatters 6 months in. You have to trust the invisible super hero of incremental change.
At Next we work hard to get our clients to trust us and to trust the principle of marginal gains. It’s not easy and we don’t always succeed but moving fast and making things better little by little affords us and our clients the space and budget to make mistakes, to test assumptions and to ultimately make a product that actually solves the problem instead of meeting the spec.