Jim Collins on Bullets before Cannonballs
“Shoot bullets before cannon balls.” Jim Collins
Foolish leaders rely on cannonballs. Wise leaders shoot bullets first.
During difficult times foolish leaders look for big solutions, giant leaps, and dramatic success.
Wise leaders take small steps before making giant leaps.
Bullets are miniature cannonballs. They’re inexpensive, easy to make, and easy to shoot. Outcomes are obvious.
Test your assumptions by shooting bullets.
Difficult times motivate desperate leaders to act on untested assumptions. Wise leaders test idea and assumptions in low risk, low cost way.
Try something in a small way and brutally evaluate when it’s over.
- What worked?
- What fell short?
- What cost too much, even if it worked?
After testing, evaluation, and adaptation, load the cannon and take your best shot with your best resources. Reach for the greatest result but only after shooting bullets.
How can leaders effectively shoot bullets?
What questions help leaders evaluate the bullet they shoot.
I love this idea. In fact, I just left a strategic planning meeting of an organization in which I participate. People were trying to fire cannonballs, when bullets were called for.
Thank you Dan.
I suspect that trying to fire cannonballs too soon becomes paralyzing. Take a few small steps toward great success!
I like how Dan writes and I like how Jim thinks. But this one clanged for me.
Guess the “bullets” thing is more a case of bad timing as much as anything else, given what is happening in the world these days like Aurora and Wisconsin. I think that there are some better ways of presenting the concept metaphorically and I will share why in just a second.
Maybe it should be pebbles and rocks… Or snowflakes and avalanches or raindrops and flash floods or something…
I had a slide I always used when talking about how to motivate people. I used it to set the stage for a better discussion and what it showed was a fist full of money on the left and a gun in a hand on the right.
How we generally motivate people, A and B.
NOT that I believe either of those were actually correct, but they were common thinking. I was always about engagement and involvement and ownership, even back to the late 70s.
But I delivered a session for a Savings and Loan on the West Coast and there was this stunned silence from the room when I showed that. A very unusual and surprising reaction, based on 100 or so previous presentations of the same concept.
I understood clearly after the end of the session when one of the organizers told me about the robbery and shooting they had had a month earlier. No one thought to mention it to me, but the one slide essentially froze the whole presentation in the minds of the participants.
So, I guess I have not shown that image in a long time — 15 years?
And I carefully avoid that metaphor of guns and bullets when trying to make a good point. One never knows the mind of the audience…
Thank you Dr. Scott.
One thing I love about blogging is instant feedback. YOu have my respect and appreciation for your thoughtful contribution.
Excellent metaphor and fits well with ready, fire, aim…repeat.
Also, cannons are much more expensive, the prep time is much lengthy, and general resource allocation much more labor and cost intensive.
Leaders need to endorse shooting the bullets to gain the range which involves missing the mark, so endorsing perceived failure, but also endorsing learning from it. Adjust the sights, make sure you are on target and then jump in with either more guns or the cannons.
Is what you are aiming toward aligned with where we want to be? If you fell short what caused that? Crosswinds, distractions, wrong gun, equipment malfunction, training? (It is often training) 😉
Thank you Doc.
I thought of this quote that you often share while I was putting this together after Jim’s presentation… I’m glad you tossed it out again!
I hear you on the training issue. Leadership includes preparing/equipping people just before the point of need. Too early they forget…too late and frustration rules.
Tracer bullets before bullets. Visual before tracers. Radar before visual. You need AWACs. You need people you trust to take soundings. Or you need to use your 5 senses and your memory; but for a large organisation the former can be most important. Of course you could go for the “Prince and the Pauper” technique if you’re unsure. These days, before sending in a missile (much better than a canon ball) there are even teams on the ground positioned to place laser sights on the absolute target. Minimising “collateral damage” is vital. Then, of course, there is the exit strategy: for you (if the decision proves to be wrong); for your teams on the ground (should you wish to retain their loyalty and that of those who know or see what you’ve done and how you’ve treated them).
Thank you Ben.
You’ve totally expanded and advanced this topic with your illustration.
I especially enjoyed the exit strategy component. You’re making me think.
Tracer bullets before bullets. Visual before tracers. Radar before visual. You need AWACs. You need people you trust to take soundings. Or you need to use your 5 senses and your memory; but for a large organisation the AWACS approach can be most important. Of course you could go for the “Prince and the Pauper” technique if you’re unsure. These days, before sending in a guided missile (much better than a canon ball!) there placing teams on the ground to place laser sights on the absolute target can be a wise plan. Minimising “collateral damage” is vital – and such covert teams can help with that. Then, of course, there is the “exit strategy”: for you (if the decision proves to be wrong); more importantly, for your teams (covert or otherwise) on the ground (should you wish to retain their loyalty and the loyalty of those who know or see what you’ve done with them and how you’ve treated them subsequently). What do you ask your people before launching the missile? “How will people you care about, and who care about you, look back on this decision in one, two, three, ten (and where relevant, one hundred) years’ time?”: their memories are part of the “ends” that you must be sufficiently confident will justify your means. !?!
Thank you Ben.
I”m delighted to see you returning to Leadership Freak on a regular basis. YOu took us to new places by expanding and illustrating this concept. It sounds like you have military background. Thanks again.
Disciplined escalation in measured stages is wise. Industrially (vendor customer) it is the best course to preserve the relationship.
The challenge is keeping a measured response when the oppostion starts with a cannonball.
“A soft answer turns away wrath.”
Thank you Ken.
So true…responding to adversity and opposition tests us. I’ll add that success and opportunity tests us too. Fanatic discipline may be most tested by learning to not push too hard when things are going well, for example.
After all the aforementioned testing, experience says that if you fire the cannon (missile / unmanned drone / nuclear weapon) make sure you kill not wound the target.
Thank you Larry.
When you’re are ready…aim to win BIG! 🙂 Love it.
A similar analogy is one I was given by a successful oldtimer when I began a sales career 20 years ago. He said everyone tries to hit the home run. People don’t realize that the best batters are the ones who hit singles and doubles. It’s true even today. Barry Bonds has the major league baseball record for home runs, but he’s 229th on the lifetime batting average list. Singles and doubles are easier to hit, they are hit more often, and they add up to more runs. The same approach applies to leadership (and sales, and innovation).
Thank you Scott.
Your contribution is more food for thought on measured response, goal setting, planning, and execution. I hadn’t thought about the baseball illustration but it makes great sense. When I played baseball I always aimed for the fence…my unwise thought is if you aren’t going to try and hit a home rum, why swing… There are many reasons not to swing for the fence…what’s best for the team, for example.
This reminds me of my own mistakes. I have tried shooting cannon balls because I just had to get it all done now! I found myself spinning wheels not achieving a darn thing while missing important steps. Slower is definitely much better.
In the company I work for we call them Ferraris. So many executives want the perfect, fully polished Ferrari. Sometimes they speak about MVPs (minimum viable product) or pilots, but if you look at the end of the project, its a Ferrari disguised as a small bullet.