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"Think big, start small, move fast": please ignore this terrible advice

AUG 17, 2020 | Matt Hatton
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There are certain spectacularly banal phrases that are frequently used by technology market commentators. The most obvious is probably “people buy solutions not technologies” but recently vying for popularity has been “the real challenge with deploying <insert name of technology> is in the commercial and operational changes, not in the technology”. This will not be news to anyone, and characterises a perspective from the ‘wrong end’ of the telescope. If you are ever faced with anyone who says either of these things as if they are imparting a pearl of wisdom you should run a mile. Anyone with any experience of trying to introduce IoT, AI, or any other major transformation will know that it’s infinitely harder to effect change in internal operational issues than to buy a new technology. And the overall aim of any digital transformation should be to effect organisational change, not to implement a technology.

There is another common cliché that is used a lot in relation to the disruptive technologies that we cover. It’s the ever-popular statement: “think big, start small, move fast”. Nonsense. “Think big” is fine, if somewhat redundant. Anyone can do strategizing, that’s not where the battle is won. Coming up with ideas is easy, delivering on them is hard. Move fast is also rather unnecessary. What would the alternative be? Move slow?

Don't do it just because it's small

Often when making recommendations in reports I think about what the counter recommendation might be. If no meaningful opposite exists then it’s a good candidate to be jettisoned. For example, recommending a reader “consider x” is generally useless because its opposite is “don’t consider x”. Advising someone to not even consider something is rarely going to be good advice. Of course, I am quietly confident that somewhere in reports I have written there are plenty of recommendations that break that rule, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

The problem is with “start small”. If your house were ablaze would you start by hosing down the dog kennel, or lobbing a couple of buckets of water on first to see what happens. Certainly not. To look at things another way, the advice to start small is specifically encouraging the reader to consider size, or lack of it, as a positive gating factor for picking projects. The things to consider instead are strategic fit, impact, criticality and immediacy of need, and other related factors.

The advice to start small risks companies selecting and pursuing a project simply because it meets the criteria of being small. It may be, of course, that the quick win projects are small. If so, fine. But they shouldn’t be selected just because they’re small.

Your competitors will start big

The other big issue with starting small is that you will likely lose a competitive advantage to a rival which has decided to start big. All the more reason to do your horizon scanning effectively, as outlined earlier. That will tell you what you need to do, whereas the logic behind starting small is to do what you can, rather than necessarily what you need to do.

Not only that, but ‘starting small’ can lead to subsequent problems with implementing an overall strategy. Deploying a range of small-scale point solutions that ‘seem like a good place to start’ in isolation can lead to all sorts of legacy technology issues, and complicates the process of aligning to an overall technical and organisational strategy that has implicitly now been hoofed into the long grass.

Project prioritisation is more complex

In our recent webinar ‘7 ways to harness AI, IoT and other disruptive technologies for competitive advantage’ we have some quite substantial advice about project prioritisation and implementation. Simplifying it as ‘think big, start small, move fast’ does a disservice to the complexity of decision-making that should prevail.

Instead we would offer the following based on doing extensive horizon scanning, meticulous project prioritisation and constantly revising plans based on ongoing success and alignment with a defined strategy: scan widely, prioritise carefully, deploy consistently, iterate often. Not quite as catchy, but definitely a better approach.

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