Bill Murray was in my mind recently. In particular the movie, “What About Bob?”
“Baby steps” was a recurring idea there.
For many things in life, baby steps are a good idea. A way to learn without much risk. A way to experiment. In manufacturing, it is customary to build prototypes before committing to full on manufacturing. Perhaps a mold that will cost a few thousand dollars to make fifty pieces before committing to hundreds of thousands of dollars for tools that will last forever.
Baby steps can become ingrained though, and sometimes they are not the right way.
It is a matter of certainty that you cannot traverse a wide ditch with two small leaps. Sometimes you must be braver than baby steps permit. Sometimes the key element in a new project or method is the courage to try it. Notice that you cannot simulate or model all of the possibilities, all of the time.
The key to deciding is to think through the question of incremental change. Will baby steps take you where you want to be with available resources and within the necessary time frame? Maybe there must be a leap of faith.
Voltaire has pointed out that better is the enemy of good. How much better must a bad situation become before you can safely ignore it. That point is usually considerably before good. Certainly before excellent. Good enough is a trap and is usually reached with baby steps.
By the same reasoning Voltaire pointed out that perfect is the enemy of good. If you wait for the perfect answer, the bad answer will remain. There is no Nirvana. You are well served if you have a good answer sooner instead of a near perfect answer someday.
As one of my accounting firm partners used to say, “Clients want answers sooner more than they want answers righter.”
Some observations are:
- Some answers can be achieved with baby steps but few quickly and none where the solution is other than iterative.
- Some opportunities require a leap of faith. Creating a Plan B is helpful. Some short run failures are fatal, so try to anticipate and avoid those.
- Learn from the experience of others. Sometimes the steps they took are instructive. Harvard’s MBA program uses case studies extensively because learning from others is the adult way to acquire experience.
- Avoid perfection. Perfection leads to procrastination which leads to paralysis. Maybe you need to organize your life so small mistakes happen. Economist George Stigler suggests that if you never miss a plane, you are spending too much time in airports. Avoiding all mistakes is itself a mistake.
Some people seem naturally to be good decision makers. While some people seem intuitive, everyone can get better. Education is the formal way to acquire the experience of others. Do not overlook it.
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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.