All At Once!

I’m an avowed incrementalist—even if the aim is stratospherically high. That is, get going ASAP—and quickly experiment your way toward/to success.

But this spring-summer has been different at our house. We had a Grand Idea for a landscaping project that would change the look and feel of the Farm here in Tinmouth VT.

And we decided, more or less, to do it all at once.

There has been pain—from biting off more than one can readily chew—but the story to this point has the mark of a real success far beyond our initial imaginings.

The power of “getting going on everything at once” with but a sliver of a master plan (a couple of sketches) was that we could see (see, the real deal) from the outset what was sort of going to end up more or less happening—and then we could adjust like crazy, improvise constantly, destroy and create using the entire palette, and dramatically reshape the overall work, and even the overall concept, as we went along. Which, of course, means we didn’t really reject my beloved Rapid Experimentation Method—we just did it on and amidst a grand platform called “everything is in motion and up for grabs.”

To be more specific, we essentially started by blowing everything up—sticking in a roughed out new road that changed the entire dynamics (look, feel, flow) of the Farm. From there a dozen supporting projects began, or were also roughed out, at once. (In the space of a couple of weeks.) While we didn’t look as devastated as our poor neighbors in Iowa do this morning, the place was a disheveled inchoate mess (“that only a mother could love”) from stem to stern, north to south, and east to west.

And then the real “serious play” (book with this title by Michael Schrage is an inspiration) began. To stick to the Basic Texts of Life, we were following the master economic growth process labeled “spontaneous discovery” by Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek.

I’m not sure I’d do things, big things, this way in every instance, but I do think there are times when such an “all at once” approach is merited—when you have a Big Idea but need to be living “in the middle of it,” with all ends loose ends, to figure out what it means. You might say that this is the approach, in his case on a monster scale, that HRH Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has taken in Dubai over the last two decades.

Further confirmation of this idea—and how gutsy-nutsy it is!—has come from, coincidentally, reading Wendy Kopp’s (One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way. I think Ms Kopp’s story is one of the most amazing sagas—ever. From a Princeton dorm room, in 1988, she hatched a scheme that has arguably become the most profound educational and public service experiment-success in America in many a year or decade.

The point in the context of this Post is that then 20-ish Ms Kopp rejected from the start the advice from the Captains of Industry and other Great Ones who intended to support her—namely, she decided that even though she really didn’t know what she was up to tactically, she would mount an enormous program launch to demonstrate to the world the power of her idea. Test it with a handful of young untutored teachers in an out of the way place—off off off off Broadway, if you will—was the advice she got again and again and again and without exception. But she was adamant that if she was going to attract great recent graduates to give up two years of their lives teaching in depressed areas she had to create a Wave of World-rattling Momentum on Day One.

Of course we now know she pulled it off … Big Time. But the close calls and pratfalls occupy most of the 193-page book. Everything that could go wrong—and then some—did go wrong. Not just tiny miscues, but enormous boo-boos—again and again and again. Her tiny staff fumbled and bumbled their way to survival, then eventually success, holding on only to the Dream and Ms Kopp’s staggering intensity and energy.

As I read the book I came to the conclusion that she had been right—that the only way to go in her case had been the Big Way from Day One. One needed the energy of youth and the spirit of youthful naiveté to bite off such an enormous, often contentious (“20 year old ‘girl’ tackles teachers unions in Manhattan, etc., etc.”) notion.

(I also had the chance to think about “all this” on my recent trip to Korea. The Korean approach to many humongous opportunities is to eschew the master plan, or much of any plan—and just get the hell going, firing full bore on a thousand thousand cylinders at once. I witnessed one Act of their show a couple of decades ago, when they leapt, from ground zero, into electronics. From that cold start they built, à la Dubai, enormous production facilities—and learned on the fly how to make it all work and effectively compete with the best. Their individual and collective success, and the speed thereof, was mind-boggling in aim and accomplishment alike.)

Between my little project and Wendy Kopp’s Richter 8.0 project, and Dubai and Korea, I am pondering the circumstances when “do it all at once and figure out what ‘it’ is and how to do it on the fly” is the right answer. There is no doubt that such conditions exist—though the key, beyond the compelling dream, is the raw talent and energy and enthusiasm and obsession and resilience of the participants. It is 99.99% (or more) a matter of raw emotion—not a matter of analytically identifying a big opportunity, assigning “good people,” and then proceeding based on state-of-the-art project management software.

Tom Peters posted this on June 18, 2008, in Strategies.
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