[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
You want to do something meaningful. You know it will take resources — time, energy, attention, etc. You have your goals. You have a general plan. So far so good. Most people get this far.
How do you finish your project? How do you stick with it despite inevitable distractions?
Would you be amazed to find you can use those distractions in your favor?
Today’s model gives an effective way to work on something, keeping your goals in mind, avoiding getting stuck, and keeping things fresh.
(I learned it from Bill Duggan, one of my professors at Columbia Business School. He learned it from a the teachings of a samurai from centuries ago. The samurai part isn’t actually necessary, but it creates a vivid image of a samurai walking.)
Context: The Standard Model for Doing a Big Project
For context, let’s look at a common planning method, which I’ll call the Standard Model for Doing a Big Project. In this model, you first identify your goals, then you identify the steps to achieve that goal, then you do each step in order, and you achieve your goal.
For example, if you want to bring a new product to market you could identify the steps to reach that goal as: do market research to clarify the product niche and the product’s properties, do research and development to create a viable prototype, do product testing to perfect it, plan a launch, and launch it.
That’s six steps to do your project. Each step needs different resources and depends differently on the others, but you could imagine going with that plan.
You could picture the process as you identifying a spot six steps away from you and taking six steps to get there. In my seminar I demonstrate this model by walking six steps from a point I call my starting point to another point I call my goal.
Nothing wrong with that model when it works. Let’s consider what happens when it doesn’t.
What if something goes wrong? If something blows you off-course? You could lose funding, the competition could scoop you, the market could lose taste for your type of product, you might lose a key member of your team, etc.
In the Standard Model for Doing a Big Project, when you get blown off-course, you figure out how to get back on-course. In the illustration of you taking six step to your goal, if you mis-stepped, you would go back to where you wanted to step and re-continue toward your goal.
In this model, you resolutely fix on your target and get there.
Model for achieving goals: The Samurai Walk
Let’s consider a different model than the Standard Model for Doing a Big Project: The Samurai Walk.
The Samurai Walk begins the same as the Standard Model. You know your goal, you think of the steps to do it, and you take your first step.
Here the models diverge. In the Samurai Walk, you notice after you take your first step you are no longer in the same place as when you planned the rest of the steps. You’re closer to your goal, which you can now see better. Maybe what you thought seemed simple from six steps away has more structure to it when five steps away. Or maybe step two, now one step away instead of two, appears easier or harder than you expected. New things entered your horizon in the direction you moved. You might care about those things — like other competitors, other demands for your resources, and so on. Likewise, things behind you left your horizon and maybe you don’t need to worry about them — some competitors may have left the market.
In the Samurai Walk, you treat each step like a new beginning. You reevaluate each time. Do I still want to go for the same goal? Should I revise my goal? How should I change?
You can imagine a very alert samurai taking each step thoughtfully, with heightened awareness of his surroundings, how they change, how he sees them differently, and constantly readjusting his approach. Work with this model for planning and execution and you’ll be that alert, aware samurai.
If the original plan was optimal — the six steps in our example — the Standard Model and the Samurai Walk will lead to the same process which will create the same outcome.
More generally, information you learn along the way can help. In that case, the Samurai Walk will usually produce a better process and outcome.
Some people might wonder “Won’t all this changing distract you? You don’t want to change a horse midstream. Doesn’t the attention you devote to reevaluating distract you from your task?”
In my experience those would-be problems don’t occur. In both models you have to deal with new information and devote resources to handling it. The difference is in how you handle it and how prepared you are for it. In the Standard Model you force yourself back on track. It resists change. In the Samurai Walk you fluidly respond. It expects change.
Results and side benefits
A major result of the Samurai Walk is that since you are always readjusting, you tend to feel like you’re always at the beginning of a project. I feel more fresh. I feel like I’m always on the helpful end of an 80/20 rule. That is, since in so many projects the first eighty percent of the task takes twenty percent of the work, I’m constantly getting most of the work done.
You might object that I’m never finishing the project. On the contrary, I finish many what-feel-to-me-as side projects that, since they came about through a lot of work, others see as major originally intended goals. That is, you often see something great you can achieve along the way you couldn’t have seen from the start, you achieve it, and people think it was your goal all along.
The Samurai Walk in action
An example for me was an early application of my art. About ten years ago I was just trying to get started, to get into a gallery. Unrelated to my fine art direction, a friend happened to be a manager in a new club about to open called Crobar. She invited me to see it before it opened and I brought some of my artwork to the yet-to-open club.
I finagled showing the art to some other staff, who passed me to the owners, who saw the work and asked if I could install some pieces by the grand opening.
I did, and ended up one of the two artists whose work showed from the grand opening through the life of the club. While showing at Crobar didn’t advance my fine arts goals directly, I had permanent VIP access to the top club in the city for years, got to show work to thousands of people each weekend, and had them pay for my substantial expenses making the art. Many artists dream of such exposure. Many club-goers dream of such access. I got both.
You could call it simply being in the right place at the right time and having a bit of gumption and foresight to bring my art. That’s what the Samurai Walk looks like from the outside.
When I use this belief
I use this belief on every multi-step project. It keeps me flexible and always looking out for alternative paths to simpler goals.
What this belief replaces
This belief replaces the Standard Model for Doing a Big Project and the rigidity that comes with it. It often replaces the last twenty percent of a project that takes eighty percent of the work with new projects where you keep finishing eighty percent of the work with twenty percent of the resources.
In entrepreneurship, the Samurai Walk replaces the need to have The Perfect Idea before starting the project with having a Good Enough idea plus the ability to listen to the market and the flexibility to change based on what the market says.
Where this belief leads
The Samurai Walk leads to getting more done with less effort that you enjoy more.
It keeps you calm when your environment changes in ways you can’t anticipate.
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