How To Become Epic

This is a transcription of my ’10 minutes, no slides’ talk at Source’s 5×10 event in early 2014:

There is a mantra that is often used in the world of management consulting, and has managed to stand the test of time – this is ‘Think Big, Act Small’. We heard some brilliant examples at our 5×10 event of people who have thought big. Jeremy’s journey with DDD is a beautiful example of big thinking coupled with the small acts of hundreds of disadvantaged people. And it is an approach that I have used many times in my consulting career and at a personal level.

So, why Think Big and Act Small?

Because this is how you become epic. And I suspect a lot of people at the event are either already epic or want to become epic. Source, as a company, wants to become epic. We want to change the brand of outsourcing, and we are doing that by building a firm that lives and practices the values that we want to see across the industry.

So, how do you become epic? Now, you’ll have to excuse my language here, but you do this by having a Big Hairy-Arsed Goal (or BHAG) and then doing epic shit. And the epic shit doesn’t have to be big things – in fact it’s better if they are small acts. Rather than always doing small stuff and working like hell to build a story around it, if you have a have a good enough goal all small stuff speaks for itself.

Let me try and expand on that. (And this is where I was a little disadvantaged in not having any slides) – but, imagine, if you can, a 2×2 diagram, which we consultants love almost as much as triangles. ‘Think’ is up the vertical axis and ‘Act’ is on the horizontal axis. Bottom left quadrant is Small-Small, top right is Big-Big. Let’s explore each of these to make sure we are not missing anything important.

Think Small, Act Small is actually ok but quite limited. Many people do many acts of kindness without any need for a greater reward, or without any personal ambition. But rarely are they epic.

Think Small, Act Big is a useful tactic if you get easily over-whelmed by goals and objectives – simply ignore them by trying to split them up into little goals. This is the approach I am using for my marathon training – when it hurts like hell to run 21k, then I don’t really want to think about what it will feel like at 42k. But you still need that BHAG in the first place.

Think Big, Act Big is probably the most interesting of our other three quadrants. This is the world of audacious, bold and adventurous epic people. Think of John F Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon. Think of Martin Luther King who had his own dream of racial harmony. Think of Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev and Christopher Columbus. But this can also be manifested as arrogance, especially if the Bigness is more in the person’s head, and it can lead to some very nasty outcomes indeed. You only have to think of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.

So, I’ve explored the other three quadrants and found some interesting stuff there, but it is really Think Big, Act Small where the action is.

In the world of Consulting, as I have said, it is a sound approach to take, both with clients and with your own firm. Unless you are a pure strategy house, much of the work us consultants do is helping organisations fundamentally changing their business, by changing the way they do things. Let me give you a few examples.

When I was working for a productivity consultancy many years ago I was on a project in a winery in South Africa. Our objective was to dramatically improve the productivity of the factory, by as much as 40% – quite a BHAG. One of the areas I looked at was the quality control station for the wine bottles as they came out of the filler. An operative was sat watching as the wine bottles came past on a conveyor belt and passed in front of a light box with a wire stretched across it at the exact height at which the bottles should have been filled up to. The wire was actually at a slope, so it was impossible to tell whether the bottle had been filled correctly. But that didn’t matter at all because the operative was sound asleep in his chair. That small example became the epitome of the issues facing the factory – poor equipment and demotivated staff. Once we had put in place the necessary changes we achieved the targets.

One of the most exciting things about Source, is our own BHAG – to positively change the brand of outsourcing. That’s a mighty fine objective and not something that cannot be done overnight. Which is where the Act Small piece comes into play. We are, after all, ‘just’ a boutique consultancy – with 10s of people rather than hundreds or thousands. But that’s the way that we think we can best influence and change the industry – one step at a time.

Let’s be clear on what those small acts are

Sometimes you just need to do small stuff to make things happen – making sure the invoices are correct, filing tax returns etc. Epic people still have to fill out tax returns. But that’s not Think Big, Act Small, that’s just Act Small because you gotta.

And, of course, it’s important to relish the more pleasurable small acts. Whether it’s someone saying thank you when you held the door open for them, or some witty pun you made, or that juicy bacon sandwich you had at lunch – just make sure you appreciate that moment and take from it as much as you can.

Doing the small acts is the generally easier of the two stages (although doing epic shit everyday can be tiring). The difficult part is usually the Thinking Big. To some people this comes naturally whilst others will struggle somewhat. But there are some ways of thinking that can help put you in the mind frame of Thinking Big. By being able to take quite a few steps back will allow you to take that one step back that will give you the greater perspective you need.

Here are some examples: one from the natural world, one from the technology world and one from where technology meets the natural world.

A personal hobby of mine is astronomy. I enjoy a lot of the science about it, and the space travel (my degree is Aeronautical Engineering). But the biggest thrill, by far, is simply looking up into the sky on a clear night and seeing thousands of stars, which are just a tiny fraction of the 300 billion stars in our own galaxy, which is only one of billions of galaxies. I challenge anyone to do that and not feel belittled. Once you can grasp the scale and enormity of the universe then pretty much everything else finds its own place.

Another example of why we need to think big: the memory capacity of the human brain has been estimated at between one and ten terabytes, with a most likely value of 3 terabytes. You can already buy consumer hard drives at this size. Before the end of this decade, it is likely that micro-SD cards will exceed the storage capacity of the human brain. By 2050 – if trends continue – a device the size of a micro-SD card will have storage equivalent to three times the brain capacity of the entire human race.

And then, when you combine the technology advances with the natural world you get what is commonly termed the Singularity. It was Raymond Kurzweil who famously coined the term to mean the point at which artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent than the people who designed it. This is no distant prediction that we need not worry about. Kurzweil sets the date for the Singularity at 2025 – just 11 years from now.

But my point is not to explain a dystopian future to you, but to make the point that Thinking Big really matters. It’s all very well harping on about how smart your new phone is, but the real opportunities are working out how smart your phone could be in the future.

Some of you may know this analogy, but my digital watch, actually quite an old one from the 1990s, has more computing power than all of the technology used in the Apollo 11 spacecraft. I’d like to contrast that with a quote from Werner von Braun, the foremost rocket scientist of our time: “Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft – and the only one that can be mass-produced using unskilled labour”.

So what are people going to be saying in 2 or 3 or 5 years time about their watches or smart phones, assuming that these devices even exist at that point. And what about in 11 years time, come the Singularity, when your watch is smarter than you?

So, to conclude, Think Big, Act Small is actually pretty damned important. The small acts give us confidence and reduce risk, but only if it is part of thinking big. If we don’t Thing Big, we’re only going to get limited ambitions or missed opportunities.

And it is the Thinking Big that tends to be the most difficult part. It’s a bit like watching your kids grow up – one minute you are holding them in your arms and the next minute they are doing GCSEs. Because we live this every day, we don’t have a good enough appreciation of the changes that have come about. And, more importantly, what could be possible. As long you as you retain in yourself the ability to step back and wonder, and to contemplate what could be, then you have the ability to be Epic.

 So, my advice to you is to Think Big and do Epic Shit everyday.

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