Aug 10 2009

A Small Set of Simple Moves

I heard the phrase “a small set of simple moves” a few weeks ago from someone and it stuck in my head.  Since then I’ve been thinking about it regularly as a fundamental operating principle.

Building any company is hard, but when I look back on the success of many of the companies I’ve been involved in, it occurs to me that it is built on a small set of simple moves.  Now, these moves are rarely obvious, and are often hard to figure out, but once you nail it, you can do them over and over again all the way to greatness.

While running this morning, I was thinking about this in the context of running marathons.  I know exactly what I need to do to get in shape to run a 4:30 marathon.  Going from 4:30 to 4:00 requires a small set of simple moves.  Anyone that has run a marathon knows this, but also knows that it’s a bitch to knock 30 minutes off your time, even if you start from a base of 4:30!  The moves aren’t complicated but aren’t obvious to someone running their second marathon.  I’ve run 14 and have a coach so they’ve become pretty obvious to me.  Yet I’ve still never crossed the 4:05 mark.

The reason is that it requires conviction.  You now know the moves – now do them.  Over and over and over again.  Not so easy.  Especially when you get tired, have other things come up that get in your way, lose confidence, get distracted, or just get bored.  But – when you stick with it, execute the small set of simple moves, and then run the marathon in 4:00, it’s magic.

Just like building a company.  When I look at the great entrepreneurial CEO’s that I’ve worked with, they understood this innately.  They worked extremely hard to figure out the small set of simple moves that would work, and then just did them over and over again.  When they inevitably got distracted or bored their fundamental conviction pulled them back to the small set of simple moves.  Occasionally they introduced a new move into the mix, but only when they had conviction that it would be additive.  And – in a phrase that is trendy today – they “failed fast” on things that weren’t going anywhere.

I learned a phrase from my dad that I love – when I was a teenage he said “don’t make complicated mistakes.”  A “small set of simple moves” fits nicely with that.  If you are a CEO, have you figured out what your small set of simple moves are?