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Success when innovating

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

One of my favourite authors is Jim Collins. He has written many books that I enjoy, but probably the most practical book he's written has been Great by Choice.

I think this is one of the best books that he has written because of its applicability to my role as a CTO. There are two areas in the book that really align with my role as a CTO. The first one is fire "bullets then cannonballs," talking about empirical innovation or creativity, and the second is the "20 Mile March".

Bullets the Cannonballs

"Bullets then cannonballs" is about being disciplined in how you innovate or when you create. It attempts to answer the question, "How do you achieve results in uncertainty?" This is done through empirical validation while innovating

I love the fact that Collins always uses analogies when he starts talking about how we do things. He creates these mental pictures. One of the mental images he makes is for empirical creativity or innovation; this hostile ship is coming to attack a country. The defenders scramble to create a colossal cannon to fire a giant cannonball; this cost a lot of money, time and resources. The defenders fire at the ship and miss; there is no time to recalibrate and fire again.

They could have built a high powered rifle, shoot and calibrate often until they hit the ship. Then, construct the cannon, fire the cannonball. Victory!

The analogy applies to innovation because the bullets are low-cost, low-risk attempts at targeting a new market or a new product at a new or current market. You are validating that investing will yield return; when you start hitting your target market, you then invest and invest big. Innovation is critical for business survival and growth, but that investment mustn't kill the business.

Another book, "The Lean Startup" by Eric Reis, also talks about this empirical validation of innovation. Reis talks about creating the minimum viable product to test the market and calibrating as you're testing. He also uses innovation accounting to track and calibrate during product development.

The 20 Mile March

The second concept that that is really valuable in Collins book is the 20 mile March. The 20 mile March is about being disciplined in your business approach, and as a CTO, being disciplined in innovation and innovation activation.

The analogy here is that you've got a destination to reach that is far away; what you do is to achieve that destination, you break that journey into segments of 20 miles that need to be met every day. To get to your destination, you need to achieve your 20 miles. If the weather is good, you do 20 miles; if the weather is terrible, you do 20 miles.

Human behaviour usually means we do more than 20 Miles on the good days and less on the bad days. This behaviour can potentially derail the achievement of the goal. Collins uses the example of Amundsen and Scott and their race to reach the South Pole. Amundsen achieved his twenty-mile march, and he was the first person to reach the pole and get back safely. On the other hand, Scott reached the pole but fell short of arriving home safely and died on the return journey. This is a vivid reminder of and being disciplined. The 20 Mile March is so important because it builds the confidence that you can perform in easy and difficult situations and that discipline reduces the likelihood of catastrophe because you are chipping away at achieving your goal. It also allows you to exert self-control when you are exploring a new environment. Referring to the "Lean Startup", Reis talks about using metrics and validated metrics when starting your business, such as Innovation Accounting.

I have found both these books instrumental in my CTO journey, and I hope you give them a read.



Collins, J. and Hansen, M.T., 2011. Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why some thrive despite them all. Random House.

Reis, E., 2011. The lean startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. New York: Crown Business, 27. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (9780307887894): Ries, Eric: Books

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