COMMITTING WITHOUT ATTACHING
In order to execute with agility, founders must successfully deal with a paradox. Effective entrepreneurs are able to completely commit to an idea, while remaining open to changing it. This ability to commit to a path without becoming attached to it is no simple skill. In athletics, the most agile athletes operate from a base of readiness, always under control, reading the field around them and quickly responding to teammates and competitors. They come with a game plan but quickly improvise if needed to respond to unfolding events. They skillfully manage the tension between rehearsed and spontaneous movement.
A similar tension permeates every startup journey. By following your early plans, creating your first products and winning your first customers, you create a base of strength and a platform from which to move forward. But both successes and failures bring unforeseen opportunities and threats. You will need to reconsider early decisions and most likely shift your offerings and your model. This ongoing tension between your pride in what you have built and your unending desire to improve it is inherent in the process of bringing a concept to life. It is the nature of an evolving, iterating idea becoming real.
The greater our passion, the more likely it is that we will fall victim to cognitive biases that encourage us to stick with an early idea, even in the face of contradictory signals. The cognitive bias of anchoring, for example, leads us to give too much weight to our first big idea or strategy. We unconsciously filter new information so that it fits within our established view of the venture, instead of provoking us to see it in entirely new ways. Also coming into play is the sunk cost fallacy, the cognitive bias that pressures founders and investors to stick with an existing plan to avoid wasting previously invested time, money, and effort. The real mistake, however, comes in thinking that prior investments somehow justify the continuation of a losing strategy.
The ability to commit without attaching has benefits ranging far beyond the world of startups. Donald Sull, professor of management practice at the London Business School and a global expert on managing in turbulent markets, advises companies to “keep the vision fuzzy and the priorities clear,” emphasizing the value of laser-like focus and crisp execution in the short term, while recognizing that longer-term events are ultimately unpredictable. “A fuzzy vision works,” he writes, “because it provides general direction and sets aspirations without prematurely locking the company in to a specific course of action.”2
Describing his approach to the same challenge, J. C. Faulkner uses the term perch management, evoking the example of a bird flying through a forest with a clear focus on the next landing place. Each leg of your startup journey will lead to a new “perch,” from which a new vista opens up and another destination is chosen. “Long-range planning is important, but it’s always wonderfully imperfect,” he says. “So you should focus on what it takes to get to the next perch, to execute on your next logical step.”