Wednesday, July 07, 2004

How to Schedule Breakthroughs

by Asim Jalis

Here are some thoughts on how to schedule predictable breakthroughs. The trouble with planning and goal-setting is that only the most mundane stuff can be planned. The most interesting and profitable insights and ideas occur unplanned serendipitously. They cannot be project-managed. So we have a dilemma. Either we let people wander around till they have these insights or we make them deliver mundane and mediocre stuff. Here is a way out of this. To schedule the miraculous stuff, schedule the mundane stuff. Set modest goals. Focus on creating daily value and on building momentum. Don't worry about the fantastic goals. Spend at least 30 minutes each day plodding towards these mundane goals. Take them seriously. Don't let anything interfere with these 30 minutes. The point is to constantly engage with the plodding and mundane work. Create daily value towards these unimaginative goals, and then patiently wait for the miraculous and yet inevitable breakthrough to occur. Here is why a breakthrough is inevitable. Each action, even action towards a mundane goal, creates side-effects, and eventually those side-effects build up into a tsunami. The goals have to be mundane because we can only make measurable progress towards mundane things that we can already see. Most things that we can already see and imagine are much less revolutionary than the things that we cannot conceive. The risk with setting revolutionary goals is that it is impossible to measure progress, or to measure daily value, or to even feel progress being made. If the big intangible goal is to master mathematics, the small tangible boring goal can be to read 2 pages of an abstract algebra book every day. If the big goal is unleash a killer app, the small goal can be to write a simple program that does something modestly useful. Modest achievable goals are uninspiring, but by definition they are achievable. In fact they are usually trivial to achieve. The big goals might be awe-inspiring but the path to their achievement is vague and unclear. Here is another analogy. Say you are seeking the Holy Grail (this is your big goal). Instead of staying in one place, and thinking feverishly where to go, start the journey. Pick a town, any town, and start walking. Each action creates its side-effects, and eventually in the eddies of these side-effects, these unintended consequences, you will find your real goal.