All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jim Collins is great for boiling deep truths that he’s come across with a great deal of study and research into memorable ideas.  One of my favorites is the “Fire Bullets then Cannonballs” idea.

The gist is – you make small investments (a lot of them), trying to find something that works, and then, once you’ve proved to yourself that you’ve found something, then you invest big.

There’s an underlying assumption in that, that you have any kind of an idea up-front how much your particular brand of ammunition will cost.  In software, this as we know, is false…always.

Collins’ tip of the hat to the unknown for the (ubiquitously lusted after) product-market fit is right on.  But, in software at least, the unknowns go a bit deeper.  Bullets can become cannonballs in the process of firing them. 🙂

The idea holds true though – one piece of wisdom needs to be layered on here though.  And it’s pretty straightforward.

As we are firing our bullets – we need to decide ahead of time how much a bullet costs.  And when it crosses that threshold we need to make a conscious choice to either continue firing (knowing that it has become a cannonball) or to consider ourselves to have fired a failed bullet and move on.

The options here are pretty obvious – the important bit is that we are making decisions intentionally, and not letting ourselves slide into the path of least resistance (which as we know, makes for crooked rivers and crooked men…..and I would argue, crooked organizations).

As for practical take-aways – it is of the utmost importance to make this decision as quickly as possible.  If we have month-long delivery cycles – we may find our bullet has become a cannonball early leaving us with a large bit of time wasted that we could have spent on more bullets.  Sprint cycles should be as small as you can possibly get away with – as should production release cycles.  And more importantly, both inside the business and out – we should structure the organization that there is plenty of review, so we know both the size and value of the bullets that we fire.