Find Your First Domino
A simple and powerful way to create momentum for your next big idea.
This post originally appeared on Residential Systems on September 19, 2019
It’s the million-dollar question—what's your goal for the New Year? What change are you feeling inspired to make in your business? As with every year, there is no shortage of big ideas to get excited about. But the most important question you should ask yourself has little to do with the specific idea(s) you are considering. Rather, the big question is how, exactly, you plan to generate the momentum needed for your new idea to take hold?
As the adage goes, “it’s not the idea, it’s the execution.” In a vacuum, each of us could easily execute on any number of new initiatives aimed at improving our businesses. The challenge, of course, is that we don’t work in a vacuum. Far from it. Instead, our new ideas must run the gauntlet of competing priorities, scarcity of resources, and good old fashioned resistance to change.
Aware of these challenges and flush with New-Year's excitement, we hope to overcome inertia by pushing hard. Perhaps we succeed in rallying our teams to the cause, at least for a time. Then, invariably, we meet resistance. Momentum fades. Exhortations about the critical nature of this project fail to re-ignite the team. Platitudes about the importance of innovation, remaining agile, and “pushing the envelope” also fall somewhere short of providing the necessary spark.
Eventually, you too lose interest and this year’s big idea goes out to pasture with countless others from years past. According to authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in their excellent book, The ONE Thing:
“...this becomes a vicious cycle of taking on the next new thing with renewed enthusiasm, energy, natural ability, and effort, until another ceiling is hit and disappointment and resignation set in once again. And then it’s on to—you guessed it—the next greener pasture.”
This time around, consider a different tack. For inspiration, look to a surprising source—dominos. In 1983, a professor of physics at the University of British Columbia named Lorne Whitehead published an article called “Domino ‘Chain Reaction’” in the American Journal of Physics. In his research, Whitehead highlighted what he called “a simple and dramatic demonstration of exponential growth” through the use of dominos. His illustration was based on a simple premise—that one domino can knock down another that is 50% larger than itself.
Whitehead’s research on this “geometric progression” unveils some startling facts. For example, relative to the amount of energy needed to knock down domino number one, the amount of energy released by domino number 13 represents an amplification factor of about 2 billion! Additionally, domino number 32 in this progression could be as tall as the then-standing towers of the World Trade Center!
To see how this idea can apply to your business, simply reflect on some of the most successful or well-functioning components of your company today. Perhaps you have a unique sales process, highly efficient billing, excellent project management tools, or a refined client service process. Did these components of your business get to where they are overnight? Were they the result of a sudden spark of excitement followed by a period of frenzied innovation?
Perhaps they were, or at least they appear that way on the surface. But if you look deeper, you’ll probably see that the parts of your business where you are the most differentiated, the most competitive, or the most efficient are the result of just such a domino effect. Through sustained effort and constant iteration, your leverage has grown over time, exponentially, allowing you to knock down bigger and bigger dominos.
Try applying this mental model as you consider your next big business idea. Avoid the “flash in the pan” syndrome that leads to the early demise of so many initiatives. Simply focus on finding the first small domino and lining up the bigger ones for later. Set up an introductory meeting with that new vendor you are excited about. Write a one-page brief introducing your team to the new concept you’d like to implement, then call a team meeting with the sole purpose of gathering feedback and answering questions. Assign yourself and the members of your team highly-specific and bite-sized action items then create a process for ensuring regular follow-up to check in on progress.
Think big. But start small.
For those of us with an enterprising mindset, there is always plenty to be excited about. Opportunities are everywhere, all we have to do is seize them. If only it were so simple. In the real world, change is hard. The most successful businesses aren’t necessarily the ones with the best or the most ideas. They are, instead, the ones who know how to overcome inertia; how to carefully select their priorities, how to break down problems into plans of action, and how to follow through. In short, they are the ones who know how to create momentum. So, where is your first domino?