One miracle at a time

Technological innovation can be viewed as a network of miracles: breakthroughs that make possible something that wasn’t impossible before. Some miracles are major and others are minor.

It is the job of a technology strategist to identify miracles that will happen or will need to happen to make forward progress on the idea they have in mind. Miracles are fickle. Their appearance is not guaranteed. Something that looks like it’s just within reach can continue to stay that way for decades. Betting on a miracle is never safe – otherwise, they won’t be called miracles.

It is in this context that the tension between two forces arises.

On one side of this tension, there’s a desire to increase the likelihood of making forward progress. It usually shows up as wanting to pick the safer, more predictable next steps, and reduce the impact of the miracle not happening.

On the other side, there’s the wish to move forward faster. This is where we see the impatience and the urge to dream big, and reach for the stars – to go all in on bringing the miracle forth.

Both extremes lead to unproductive outcomes. Making safe bets means not being different from the rest of contenders, and being different is the name of the game in technological innovation. At the same time, the unhealthy disregard for the impossible is a great recipe for losing everything and gaining nothing.

To resolve this tension, I’ve learned to apply the “one miracle at a time” principle. The gist of this principle is that we pick one challenging part of the idea we’d like to realize and find ways to de-risk everything else. We minimize the number of miracles necessary for success of the one we care about.

This doesn’t mean we give up on the larger vision. A good way to think about it as finding the first stepping stone to jump to.  Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine lining up all the miracles into a series of steppings stones. Which one will we start with?

Applying this principle to practice might look like this.

1️⃣ Start with the inventory of miracles. Have a rigorous miracle count conversation. What’s loosely easy and what’s difficult? How hard are the difficult bits? Which ones feel like miracles?

2️⃣ With the miracles rounded up, find the ones that are important. There will always be the miracles that feel more like dependencies compared to those at the core of the vision. Consider taking those miracles off the table. Apply this rule of thumb: the stronger your conviction around the vision, the less you should care about the dependency miracles.

3️⃣ Pick one. Ensure that everyone has the same one miracle in mind.  Very often, especially in teams that are running ahead of the pack, we will find a large diversity of what peeps are passionate about. This diversity is great for ideation, but when we’re choosing the miracle, it can be counter-productive.

A common trend, especially among organizational cultures biased toward being agreeable,  is that there’s a whole portfolio of pet miracles being brought along with the chosen one: everyone says “okay, let’s focus on that one” and thinks “… and mine, too”. 

Choosing the next miracle is a convergent process. It requires difficult and honest conversations. In my experience, this is the hardest step.

Don’t be surprised if the chosen miracle is a minor dependency. This likely means that the vision is vague and needs further refinement – and few ways are better to do so than trying to start at the edges of the problem.

4️⃣ Once the miracle is picked, work to reduce uncertainty everywhere else. Formulate ideas in a way that are complementary to what is currently possible. Replace all those dependency miracles with withered tech – something that’s well-established and known to be reliable. Align with projects and priorities that are already on everyone’s mind.

There will be worries and well-argued points about how choosing today’s technologies to build tomorrow’s is fraught with peril. They will be very tempting. I’ve gotten snared by them many times. I also found that the most productive way is to embrace the paradox. Accept these arguments as true – and yet, recognize that each new miracle cuts down the odds of our work mattering when tomorrow finally arrives.

With miracles, there’s always a coin toss somewhere. Some things we thought were certain and simple prove otherwise. And things that we decided weren’t worth paying attention boomerang at our backs. By picking one miracle at a time, we can reduce the total surface of uncertainty and be principled about where we focus our attention.

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