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January 21, 2020

Advance, Assess, Repeat.

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64,000 tickets per minute. That is the rate at which Mega Millions tickets were being sold leading up to the historic $1.6 billion in October 2018.  

Why? Why did so many of us rush out to purchase a ticket for something that we had a 1 in 175,000,000 chance of winning? The average American spends over $220/year on lottery tickets. (And oh by the way, according to this New York Times article that is roughly the same chance you have of getting hit by lightning…on your birthday)

I don’t think it is because we are stupid, or lazy, or even greedy. I think it is because we are inherently drawn to the idea of a singular action that will set everything right.  It is why we love home runs in baseball and anything that begins with ‘1 easy step to…’

It is why authors want to write the one book that will make them the next Hemingway or Dickens. It is why directors want to create the one movie that will make them a household name like Coppola or Scorsese. Likewise, it is why business men and women want to make that one deal, develop that one product, or devise that one strategy that cements their legacy and that of their organization. 

The Long Slow March of Advancement

Guess what? For most of us, that one thing isn’t coming. In fact, it probably doesn’t even exist. Most of our projects, relationships, and businesses will be long methodical efforts. Like most baseball games, we will win or lose with base hits and patience, not home runs and trick plays. Like a chess game, we will clear away pieces and inch our way toward victory or defeat.

Jim Collins has captured this truth, noting that most successful companies undertake a ‘20 Mile March’ of methodical steps toward their goal, not a sprint to the finish line.

Business scholar John Cotter came to similar conclusions after examining more than one hundred companies trying to adapt to increasingly challenging competition. He noted, “The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result.”

Don’t Worry, This is Good for You

My point in all this is that, as much as we would like to think there is a silver bullet in strategy, there really isn’t. One genius move won’t give you success. You have to get there one step at a time.

This is actually good news, though, since most of us aren’t geniuses anyway. Victory, it turns out, goes to the merely canny who work hard and never give up.

I wrote a book called Strategy 3.0 just a few years back and pointed out that in the modern strategic landscape you have to move fast, but you also have to expect to keep moving. You move fast again and again. This means that, along with agility and adaptability, you need some old-fashioned virtues like patience, discipline, and determination.

Of course, not all moves in organizational leadership are equal. Some are more important than others. I am not saying that a single insight can’t lift a company above others or force a new trajectory. I am saying that to take one insight all the way to its fully leveraged end might involve dozens of moves, not just one.

If this is the case, you need to build that muscle into your organization. Model perseverance and a savvy, slippery go-get-’em attitude. Don’t get too excited about any good outcome or too discouraged about any bad result. Sure, there are incredible things to celebrate and serious setbacks to overcome, but don’t be a leader who always tends toward one extreme or the other. Learn to live in the middle. Advance, assess, repeat.

When your organization gets to where you had hoped it would go—or maybe even someplace better—you’ll look like a genius.

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