Gradually then suddenly

My buddy and colleague Alex wrote something that stuck with me, when reflecting on some work that they wrapped up recently:

“I've also been reminded of the amazing impact that comes from continually taking care of the little things over time”

It reminded me of the way Buffet and Munger talk about a ‘compound interest machine’. Or how James clear describes building lasting change in new habits, little by little.

But all of that only matters if you stick around. If you have the grit, graft and gift of being able to keep chipping away at something meaningful. If you do, and can, you’re on the path to exponential growth. Taking care of the little things over time has the potential to build towards that 10x growth factor that unicorn startups chase, fuelled by VC money.

It’s equally as important in the public sector though. We’re not really chasing exponential growth. But we should view that compound interest approach as a way to build resilience. As a way to maintain chipping away in incredibly tactical ways, but always within a wider strategic framework. So that we can keep showing up and providing value, even in a crisis.

It’s a bit like the military adage used to describe how paradoxically, we need a continuous sequence of disruptions in order to stay on an approximately steady trajectory.

That’s pretty much how change works. Gradually, and then suddenly. You only have to look as far as the current pandemic to see this in action. In the UK we gradually watched events unfold across the globe. The virus slowly meandering through different time zones, leaving waves of death and panic in its wake. Then suddenly, we too found ourselves in lockdown.

Although change might predictably follow this curve, as humans we have a tendency to think about the impact of it on an altogether different trajectory. We overestimate the short term, and grossly underestimate the long. We don’t take care of the little things now; sweat the details, because we underestimate the compound interest they will result in over time. Instead, we chase the shiny things. The next contract. The fast money. All traits of the magpie mavens, often disguised as leaders.

Because ultimately that’s determined as much by the strategy of leadership as it is a choice for the doers below.

“Leadership is the ability to convince people to work together in pursuit of a common goal” — Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway made this remark recently when describing Jeff Bezos’s decision to spend billions to ensure the safety of the Amazon supply chain. He talks about how this stems from a vision that’s obvious only after being crazy/genius. I don’t agree with that though. Amazon has built the resilience and reserves that allows you to make a 4 billion dollar investment like this, only by building the empire slowly over time. Investing in the small stuff that compounds. It just might look to us from the outside in retrospect that a few big bets paid off.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

— Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

I wonder if as an agency we’re built for this. Do we have the staying power to take care of the little things and affect greater change over time? Or will we just overestimate the short term and fail gradually then suddenly?

by KJ