Bullets and Cannonballs

Dating Then Marriage 

Has this ever happened to you or someone you know: Your friend meets someone that makes such a lasting impression that they immediately tell you it’s the person they’re going to marry? It seems to happen frequently enough. The next question though, is how often do those two people actually run off and get married the next day? Chances are the answer is hardly ever. 

That’s because marriage is a big commitment - a lifelong commitment - and you want to get it right. You can hardly know someone in such a short period of time. What if he leaves his underwear on the floor? What if she is farts in her sleep? To some, these could be deal breakers, and most people don’t jump into marriage if there are still so many unknowns.

Instead of jumping into a huge commitment, most people choose to go on a date. They go to dinner, and throughout the date they see how each other acts in various situations. Does he open the door or pull out her chair? Does she order the lobster? Is he polite to the waiter? Eventually it’s time for another date, and perhaps the friends come along. The friends meet the new date and give their opinions: “He was really sweet,” or “She has a great sense of humor.” In the end, people want to hear that they chose a “keeper.” Next comes introductions to the parents and family, and with that more questions, more information, and more opinions. Time passes, there are more dates, and eventually they decide to move in together. After living together for a while, they’re able to see what it would be like to be married without actually being married. 

Why do we go through such a long process instead of simply jumping right in with a gut feeling? The truth is, although you might think you might’ve been pretty sure about someone, you didn’t really know. You were probably hopeful, especially since so many of us long to meet that special person. 

Shooting Bullets, Then Cannonballs

In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins calls this process, “shooting bullets then cannonballs.” Here’s another example: imagine you are on a ship, and that there is a pirate ship heading right toward you ready to attack. You have more than enough gun powder to shoot one cannonball, but not enough to shoot two. What do you do? You have three choices:

1.    You can shoot the cannonball, but if your trajectory is off and you miss, you’ll be dead. The other ship is going to move in, shoot their cannonball and sink you.
2.    You can sit there paralyzed by indecision and do nothing at all. The other ship then moves in and sinks you. You’re still dead.
3.    You can grab your gun, use just a little gun powder and shoot a bullet. If the trajectory is off, you can try again, and once you know exactly or at least approximately how you need to aim, you can shoot your cannonball.

The right choice seems obvious.

We often hear about business owners who take big risks; they put all of their resources on a bet based on assumptions – something that could have been tested. Instead, the owner is either too arrogant or too lazy to shoot some bullets before shooting the cannonball, and miss.

As a manager, nothing frustrates me more than when an employee presents me with an opportunity that could have been easily tested to some degree. Some test so they could say, “Look, I shot these bullets, they hit the mark, and so the probability of the cannonball hitting the mark is much higher.” How many times have you screwed something up only to look back and find that had you checked it out a little more closely, had you done a little more research, had you just shot a few more bullets, you could have gotten it right.

You might be thinking, “I get it; shoot a bullet before wasting a cannonball,” and you’d be partially right - but there’s more. You can use this method to empower yourself to accomplish things you might never have done. Remember the second choice on the ship - to be paralyzed by indecision and do nothing until we are shot down? It happens all the time. You had a great idea: maybe you thought about starting a business, or perhaps there was something else big that you wanted to do, but you didn’t just because you were scared or unsure. You were afraid to waste your one cannonball.

Facebook and Google+

Mark Zuckerburg is a perfect example of what it looks like to shoot those metaphorical bullets in real life. He starts a website called, “The Facebook” out of his college dorm room. He didn’t have any investors or any fan fair. He simply sat at the computer, night after night until he had something that he could put on line. This is what it means to shoot bullets. 

As people start to use his website, Mark works to develop it further(more bullets) but still no investors. Eventually Facebook starts to get so big(more bullets) that there’s a need for better equipment. That’s when Mark fired his first cannonball, and an investor stepped up. Facebook is still just at Harvard though, not at any other school. He doesn’t make it available at another school until they are begging for it. From there, he continued (and continues) to build it, bullet after bullet, after bullet.

In the same social media realm, look at Google+, a new outlet that launched with millions of dollars of investment and huge fan fair. How often do you use Google+? It’s a perfect example of shooting a cannonball and missing the mark. Google thought they were shooting bullets by making it “invitation only” when it was first announced, but it had nowhere near the demand and popularity of Facebook.

Get Started Now

To return to the love-at-first-sight analogy, most of us keep dating until we are absolutely sure that person is the one we want to marry. You do start somewhere, though. You start by dating: a coffee one morning, a dinner on a Friday night, a movie on Saturday. It doesn’t really matter if it starts with a 25 minute coffee break or a two-hour dinner, as long as there’s that first step.

You’ll never get married if you don’t go out on a date, the same way you’ll never accomplish something really great if you don’t start shooting some bullets to make it happen. So many of us have a big idea, but we never start shooting bullets. I suggest that you stop right now and think about what big idea, or what big dream you’ve been putting off. Then, think about what you can you do today – what bullet you can shoot immediately - to get started.