When faced with a significantly challenging innovation project, is it worth doing the easy tasks first to get some quick wins on the board, or should you tackle the hardest part of the project?
I have been listening to some podcasts with Annie Duke recently, who has a great new book out about when it is the right time to quit.
One of the metaphors she uses is trying to teach a monkey to juggle flaming torches while standing on a pedestal.
This is apparently adapted from Astro Teller, the CEO of X, Google’s innovation hub, who talked about teaching a monkey to recite Shakespeare while standing on a pedestal. I guess the flaming torches are meant to give it some more sex appeal.
In order to make this project a success, if you really simplify it, there are two parts to succeeding at this project:
- Build a pedestal for the monkey to stand on
- Teach the monkey to juggle flaming torches
Now, obviously, one of those is comparatively simple to do.
There are plans and examples of how to successfully build a pedestal. So we know that can be done, even if the team itself has never done it.
But teaching the monkey…?
That could be tricky.
Or put another way, nearly impossible.
Yet many innovation teams will look at those two tasks, and in order to make progress, choose to start with the “quick win”. They would start down the project and begin to build the pedestal. Probably because if their manager asked for progress, they could at least show progress on the pedestal and not look like they were failing.
Once that is complete, and time, money and resources have been used up to start the project, they might finally begin with the impossible part of the project.
The issue is, this part might actually be impossible. And if it was going to be impossible anyway, they should not have wasted time and resources by building the pedestal in the first place.
Worst of all, they may continue trying to work on the project after they realise it is impossible, due to the feeling of Sunk Costs meaning they will have wasted their time and resources if they give up now. This is how you end up with undead zombie projects.
Duke and Teller argue that when starting out any project, you should instead tackle the hardest part first.
If you cannot make any progress on the hardest part, sometimes there is no point in working on the easiest part.
Tackle the monkey first.
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