Everyone is always fascinated by that apparently sudden leap forward. Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone. The team at SpaceX crying as their multi-stage reusable boosters land back to earth in one piece.
And so, most people assume that this is how progress is made, in large leaps. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Large leaps forwards are actually years in the making. You can see Neil Armstrong land on the moon and discount away the work of 500,000 people that collaborated at NASA (and their suppliers) to make that happen in the previous ten years.
The way progress really looks like is the fixing of a small software bug, an accidental discovery on how to make something better, an insight, gleaned from years of thinking about a specific problem and trying hundreds or thousands of possible solutions.
Progress is made in iterations, taking two steps forwards and then one step back, accepting and embracing failure, and seeking to improve each and every day.
This is why we recommend that business leaders ask themselves the following question each and every morning:
How can I make things 1% better?
While 1% does not sound like a significant performance improvement, this is where the magic of compound interest come into play. Einstein called this the “eight wonder of the world” — those who understand it earn it, and those who don’t, pay it.
A 1% improvement every day for a year leads to a 37-fold level of improvement. It doesn’t matter if you are actually improving 1% a day or 1% a week; what matters is that you are always looking for opportunities to make small wins that will add up in the long term.
Forget overnight success: most entrepreneurs and accomplished individuals will tell you that their “overnight” success was actually ten years in the making. Eight of those years working in obscurity, and then everyone notices the leap forward once all the hard work has been mostly done.
The key to compounding 1% gains in organizations is to focus on things that are both urgent but will create a long-term impact, because it is impossible to compound if you focus on tasks that are only of short-term importance.
Something as menial as documenting the way a particular process is made can be counted as a 1% improvement, if you can be confident that this documentation, or a version of it, will be used and useful in five years’ time.
It’s also worth regularly taking the time to see how the organization was a few years back to notice the real tangible improvements in how things work and the results that have been achieved.
We took this approach with our own office, for instance, taking the time to invest in small but meaningful changes that compounded over time. After two years, it was barely recognizable, and visitors would be excused if they thought we had moved offices – forgetting the fact that our business address had not changed.
The key thing to realize here is that difficult things are actually on the same scale as easy things, but the actions required to accomplish the difficult things take a lot more time and a lot more repetition.
So then this forces you as a leader to define what is truly important to your organization, and then obsessively focus on these things. For instance, if you are a fast-moving startup, then having late-night working sessions and prioritizing the speed of shipping a feature may be more important than the stability and reliability of your product. Bringing more people on board may be more important than a coherent culture.
This is fine, as long as this is a conscious choice.
However, you cannot build a reliable product over time – something that gets exponentially better, or even an organization that gets exponentially better, – without taking the time to focus on these small 1% improvements that have long-term payoffs vs. the short-term hacks that are not optimized for the long term.
So if you build a product, and you believe that your customers value reliability, then you need to slow down and bake that into your culture, 1% at a time. This means sometimes missing shipping dates to ensure that things are done properly. When this happens, you should secretly celebrate inside, because it is a strong way to show that you care about what your organization values.
A leader that allows a shoddy product to ship to the world just to hit a deadline is only paying lip service to reliability.
We have noticed that, at times, focusing on 1% improvements feels really inconsequential. Going through your corporate website to ensure that images are well optimized, reviewing older projects to see if they make good case studies, changing our design software to something that is more collaborative, or watering the plants in our office.
By themselves, none of these actions change anything in the slightest. A slightly more optimized “About” page is not going to win us any more customers or make our team happier.
The reason we do this is because when you consider tens of thousands of these actions chained together over years, then the difference really begins to show, and there is never a particular moment that can be pinned down where you say, “that is when it happened.”
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins noticed that everyone in the companies he studied that went from merely good to great didn’t quite realize it was happening at the time. They were just executing away on their 1%, and by the time anyone noticed, the organization was suddenly performing significantly better.
In the end, there is a choice to be made about what you believe. You either believe that things can always be done better, and you make it happen, or you believe in the status quo, and you stagnate and watch while the world improves.
This is why we water the plants in our office.