Why The Lesson of the Three Little Pigs is Wrong

(And You Should Cut Corners and Save Time Whenever Possible)

Once again its time to ‘forget everything you thought you knew’ about something. This time though its the myth that ‘hard work and dedication pay off.’ Sometimes it does, but mostly it doesn’t — especially if, under the influence of these and other tales, you’ve become fixated upon building something for the ages. Life is a game of chances and you’ll have only a finite number of chips and fixed amount of time at the table.

If (like the good little pig in the nursery tale) you determine to build your house out of bricks, with a little luck and a lot of work you’ll one day find yourself without any time or chips left in a beautiful, enduring ‘house’ that was exactly what you hoped it would be when you started some long time ago — a house that is now in the wrong neighborhood and completely ill suited to the current requirements of a rapidly changed world.

So if you’re building a business, consider how long can you expect the market conditions upon which your business model is predicated to last? If it is only three to five years and you spend 18 months in development you’ll have missed out on 30 to 50% of your potential profitable operations. In addition, you’ll need to amortize your sunk costs over this shortened operating horizon.* It’s time to start thinking of building with sticks, if (and only if) like most people you need some ‘baby steps’ before you graduate to building everything out of straw — which is what I ultimately recommend.

*(Side note: in this regard, innovative start-ups have an implicit advantage if their proposed market does not yet exist, because free market forces have not yet begun to 1) tighten margins or 2) produce subsequent disruptive innovations.)

OK, that was basically about organization building. So what about personal productivity? Whether you’re a solo act building the next big thing or part of an organization just trying to do your best, you will have multiple accountabilities, and being as productive as possible in all your areas is always a challenge. We’ve all read about the tips & tricks floating around out there: email tips, more productive meetings, communication skills, etc.. They’re all great and maybe you’ll even take up a few of them, but if you’re going to learn to do one thing — do this. Don’t build anything out of bricks. Learn to say to yourself, “That’s good enough — for now.” This is not about becoming a ‘slacker’, it’s a serious change of attitude that will allow you to be in more places at one time, and then only to the extent that it really matters.

Maybe you’ve already heard about the 80/20 rule, more properly known as the Pareto Principle, which states that “ for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”* I was introduced to it in ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ by Tim Ferris. Let’s be clear, 80% of a bridge is not of any use to anyone — but most of us aren’t building bridges either literally or figuratively. Most of our work is cumulative, meaning something is better than nothing. For example, a rough draft of a paper might take an hour while ‘finishing’ the paper ‘properly’ might take another four.

*Source http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/03/business/03juran.html

For most of us, 20% of our effort will produce 80% of the results. 20% is a house made out of straw. It keeps out the wind and the rain (80% results) and the risk of the metaphorical wolf (which you would have spent 80% of your time protecting against) has to measured against guaranteed loss of 80% results in up to four other areas of accountability (i.e. 5 x 20% = 100% of your time.)

(Side note: In my world, the two wolves of being wrong and being late are reverse complimentary evils in the sense that ensuring that your right almost guarantees being late; while not being late (i.e being early) opens up a higher probability of being wrong. Of the two though, being late is worse than being wrong. The wolf you need to guard against most is being late. Build your houses out of straw.)

Consider this: would you rather have one employee who completes 100% of their assigned tasks or five employees who only complete 80%? (Hint: 1 x 1.0 = 1 whereas 5 x 0.8 = 4 and in my world more is better.) I’ll use the example of the small business owner/operator and you can use your imagination to adapt it to your situation. You probably already know that you need to work on your business more than you work in your business. If not, be sure to check out ‘The E-Myth Revisited’ by Michael Gerber. What follows is consistent with what’s presented in that work.

It’s very natural to want to be competent at what we do, and our way of improving is to be a little better at what we do every day. This inevitably leads to building with bricks instead of sticks or even the straw with which we started our careers. Gerber calls this person ‘the technician’. To be a successful entrepreneur you need to give up spending 100% of your time being a competent technician (probably doing what you love best) and practice being a generalist — spending 20% of your time being marginally competent in up to at least five areas. You can’t do it if you insist on building houses of bricks. To close, I’ll leave you with this graphic.

Additional Resources:

On twitter, I try to be funny — if you’re into that sort of thing.