Aside

The Biggest Impact

It is tempting to load up our lives with commitments and projects. This allows us to express our many ambitious aims. It feels like we are being creative, and prolific, and alive.

A few years ago, when I was leading a team, running a business, writing a book, keynoting at conferences, yada, yada, I embodied this. If you asked me then, I would have argued with you why this made sense; why, just over the horizon, I could, finally, focus. I argued this for years. Focus was for later, after I had success. I was doing many things in the hope something (actually, more like ANYTHING!) would stick and lead to the big outcome I was seeking. I equated doing many things, to achieving big things.

I now realize I was pursuing the 1000 Flowers Blooming vs. Sequoia Strategy.

Now I find myself advising Shaherose Charania, the CEO and co-founder of Women 2.0 as she takes a similar path. And it is the path of so many entrepreneurs. And, so with her permission, I’m sharing the reasoning for the two strategies and where they yield.

Shaherose is reimagining the organization and the related spinoff organization, Founders Lab, to be a scalable, consequential venture that can make a meaningful difference for entrepreneurs, and the marketplace. That organization holds events, creates content, runs an incubator, etc. etc. And Shaherose is jack of all trades. She has a lot of talents and she gets called to use them all from running classes to raising venture money.

People like Shaherose – creative, entrepreneurial types – are flooded with good ideas. The question for her as well as for all of us is this: Given the many ways we can spend our energy, how do we get the biggest impact we want?

There are two approaches: Do many things. Do 1 thing and do it ridiculously well.Or as I like to think of it: 1000 flowers vs. Sequoias.

As we try to pursue many good ideas, our energy, enthusiasm, resources, network, and attention all dissipate. It’s like peanut butter – the more you spread it, the thinner and less tasty it becomes. The resulting effect doesn’t get a ‘nom-nom’ response, it gets more of a ‘meh’ response. The starting material was good but spread too thing, it doesn’t make an impact.

So it is with ideas also. Spreading the energy out over many ideas, as it turns out, will get many things to grow. But not 1 BIG thing. It’s the equivalent of 1,000 flowers blooming. (Which, admittedly is better than not doing anything…which if I try and carry this analogy out would be like having the fallow land with perhaps only the weeds flourishing. But fallow land is rarely the problem for creative types like Shaherose, or the readers of this blog)

The problem with the 1000 flowers blooming strategy is this: it is rarely seen from far way. If each of us want to build something big – something that be can spotted from miles away – something that will stand the test of time – then we have to stop doing everything. Instead, we have to pick 1 idea to pursue, one to which we can say HellYeah as Derek Sivers recommends, and focus. That’ll get us something more like a Sequoia tree – something that can withstand tough conditions, and grow taller than anything around them, to thrive beyond the immediate. In entrepreneurial language, it’s the business that scales beyond your individual energy as a leader. If you want the Sequoia, you’re going to have to pick that one seed and then give it the care and nurture it will need to grow. Focusing your enthusiasm, resources, network and attention to 1 thing will let you signal to everyone what matters to you, and what you could use help on. Having two or many things means people don’t know what matters to you and so can’t help. This limits the network effect.

The reason we don’t pick the sequoia seed? My sense is it because we don’t know which of these seeds we want most to grow. Or perhaps we don’t know which of these seeds before us could become big. Either way, are working from lack of clarity and lack of insight for ourselves, and most likely, the market. So we do the “easier” of the two strategies: pursue many things as a kind of “insurance” that at least there will be something to show for our hard work.

[NOTE: I can do a post in a few days of how to think about picking the Sequoia seed vs. the 1000 flowers strategy if you’d like. Sort of the personal version of MurderBoarding in business. Add a comment to me if you want that...and, what questions you have around this…]

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17 Responses:

  1. Michele Turner. June 28, 2011 at 12:49 am  |  

    Great topic, and I’d love to see your perspective on how to pick the Sequoia. For many of us who like to “make things happen” and thrive on sowing and nurturing many seeds, we get hooked on the joy of immediate gratification. You can see weekly, if not daily, how you’re making a difference. When you take the long view, nurturing something big, the payoff is not immediate and that sense of gratification is delayed. The fundamental change that you speak of in this post is very hard for most creative, innovative types for whom opportunity is always an idea away.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. June 28, 2011 at 1:50 am  |  

      Michele – glad you raised this point. The immediate vs. long-term view might have been something I overlooked!

      Reply
  2. Jane Willis. June 28, 2011 at 2:42 am  |  

    Nilofer,
    Another great post. It just so happens that in the last two weeks, I dropped one client, one potential client and one class. I realized I was getting spread so thin that I wasn’t doing a great job on anything…and not having any fun!
    Please do post your follow-up. One thing I found to be an issue was that even though I knew some things had to go, I hated to give up on the potential that I still saw in the things I gave up. Focusing, by it’s nature, means turning away from other things and perhaps losing them altogether. To do this, at least two things are required: one is the development of a greater belief in or a greater desire for the thing you focus on…and the other is just plain guts and willpower.
    Whatever advice you have on applying murderboarding to life would be much appreciated. Figuring out which of your options to focus on is a hard question for many of us.

    P.S. Great looking and content packed new website. Congratulations.

    Reply
  3. Alex Krasne. June 28, 2011 at 2:47 am  |  

    Great post! Totally agree with Michelle and I, too, am curious about how to pick the Sequoia from out of the field of flowers. I love instant gratification, having 100s of ideas, and doing many things well, but having something big to nurture is life’s work — things you’ll be remembered by after you’re gone. Those little day-to-day wins aren’t nearly as fulfilling and sustaining (and not nearly as intentional, at least for me).

    But how do you decide what your sequoia will be? How do you ignore those 1000s of ideas and focus on one? And how do you stay engaged and excited on one idea without losing focus because you see something shiny over there in the corner? Oh, look…

    Reply
  4. Khalid. June 28, 2011 at 7:42 pm  |  

    Excellent reasoning as usual Nilofer.

    I have thins problem at work. I’m spreading my self too thin on so many projects that I don’t have enough time to invest in each to reach the ultimate quality level that I usually deliver.

    But how can I choose being in projects? These are being assigned by the boss!

    Khalid

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. June 28, 2011 at 10:39 pm  |  

      Khalid – a question of clarity — are you being asked to do the same role on all projects or can you think of your role in particular ways, like: I need to facilitate here, be an idea generator here, etc? Because then you could make distinctions for how much energy you need to put in/will put in/and communicate expectations with others.

      Reply
      • Khalid. June 29, 2011 at 4:42 am  |  

        Hi Nilofer,

        You can’t imagine how happy I’m getting your reply :)

        Hmmm, well I think the problem is with myself. I’m kind of an achiever who wants to put my footprint everywhere.

        As of now I have 4 projects that I lead, 2 projects that I’m a technical leader, 1 good idea that I submit (we have a good idea scheme in the company and that’s my first good idea in my 9 years stay in the company which will save thousands of $ for my company). I have to come up with a proposal to good idea section ASAP but I have no time! I’m also a technical consultant in 2 more projects :(

        You see what i mean now! There is one BIG project out of the 4 that i’m leading which is so important to the company (payroll system) but i just can’t focus on it clearly! For the sake of irony, I sent a blank weekly status report to my boss because i was in a hurry to do something else in other projects (It took more than a week and I haven’t received any complain from my boss on that by the way! It looks that he didn’t bother opening it which motivates me coz i spend hours on something that my boss doesn’t open).

        The good thing that they don’t all run in parellel but each has its own expectation that i need to meet! I hope this thing will change soon because now we have a project management team who will look after all projects and will distribute resources evenly. I hope by then this issue will be resolved.

        Thanks alot Nilofer for showing interest in my post. Glad to be your follower.

        Khalid

        Reply
        • Nilofer Merchant. June 29, 2011 at 3:32 pm  |  

          Khalid –
          I sense a lot of enthusiasm to prove yourself. Which is fine and lovely. From what you’re writing, I’m getting a time management, how do I make sure I’m focused on the right things. If there is 1 project that really has the greatest impact potential than the others, I would recommend you find a way to carve off time specifically to that project. I use the term “big rock” from the analog of the rocks and the jar (I found this as an easy reference: http://andrew.goenardi.com/big-rocks-and-a-jar). The big rocks have to go in first for them to fit. For me, this is writing. I block off 4 hour chunks on my calendar that I don’t move to make sure I write at least once a week.

          Hope that helps as a strategy for you.

          Reply
          • Khalid. July 1, 2011 at 3:47 pm  |  

            Nilofer,

            Wow! You know I read this long time ago but never really took it that serious! I sent the link to my work email so I can print it and hang it on the wall of my office :)

            Thanks for the complement :) I’m so much inspired by the way you find time to write such wonderful blogs! In fact I always ask myself how could you find time to do so and here I got the answer without asking :) I think you can read minds over the cloud which is amazing too :)

            Since I completed my MBA in marketing and I still dream of the day when I can arrange for my PHD. I can’t do that now coz I’m helping my wife in her study so I’ve always dreamed of doing some research to be published in the Internet. Following your blogs, I can see this happening soon :)

            Thanks Nilofer for your guidance. I would love if you can follow me on @Khalid_tweet so I can communicate easier with you.

            Khalid

  5. ctodd. June 29, 2011 at 12:18 am  |  

    Great post, Nilofer

    I am interested in the binary factor. Is it always either-or?

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. June 29, 2011 at 12:22 am  |  

      Todd –

      It’s a writing mechanism, right? to show contrast but in real life it’s more nuanced to know when/how/if what idea should be best applied. In Shaheroses’ case where she is literally doing too much, it needs to be more binary to pull her to the new side.

      Nilofer

      Reply
  6. Chris Finlay. June 29, 2011 at 1:18 am  |  

    There is an appropriate time for different approaches as you indicate in a previous comment. It is the, right person, right time, right level aspect of everything we do. This is particularly interesting for me at this point in time though. I am historically a “do a lot at once” but focus for short periods on individual projects and get things done over time. Which I hadn’t stood back and thought about in those terms till now.

    Up until recently I have felt the need to be “bonafide” or prove myself in certain ways. Now I feel the need to do less and with more depth. Not sure it is a sequoia issue or spread issue but rather a personal connection and intensity issue. More intimate than growing a big tree for everyone to look at or a legacy. Maybe I am in a rooting stage till I sprout something glorious! :)

    Anyway, thanks for the post. Seems like this high level view of how to approach the world is probably something people quietly struggle with. It is often hard to deal with first things first when you are living it everyday.

    On another note, also enjoyed your post about choosing a word / mindset for a presentation. I have been trying to choose a word to represent my day. Victory, passion, love, etc. Good stuff.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. June 29, 2011 at 1:45 am  |  

      It’s a lovely metaphor to think about what we are planting — and how to recognize something can be at rooting stage and still beautiful.

      Reply
  7. marion chapsal. June 29, 2011 at 3:04 am  |  

    Oh yes!!! Please, Nilofer do that post of how to think about picking the Sequoia seed vs. the 1000 flowers strategy!
    I am in the midst of billion flowers, sprouting in stellar directions. More like rhyzomes.
    It’s great for incubation, but that time has to stop one day, or at least be put in second position.
    The irony is that my job exactly consist in helping women clarify their sense of purpose and design the way to achieve their goals.
    We teach best what we need to learn, don’t we? :-)
    It seems like yourself got trapped in the same whirlpool of short term gratifying billions of activities, at the expense of your long term vision and biggest impact.
    There’s a time to plant, there’s a time to harvest :-)
    I wonder if it has to do with weeding?
    Also wonder if sequoia would grow without the wonderful thousand flowers company.
    Excellent perspectives you shared with us, and such a teasing post!
    Don’t have us wait too long !
    I want to grow my Sequoîa and I heard that it takes several hundred years…

    Reply
  8. Marsha Keeffer. June 29, 2011 at 3:52 am  |  

    I believe the choice between the two has something to do with fear. And perhaps with our culture’s insistence on never letting go.

    Excellent post – I’ll be here often.

    Reply
  9. Nilofer Merchant. July 2, 2011 at 5:41 pm  |  

    You all inspired me to write a post on Picking the Big Idea, a more personal form of MurderBoarding as my next post. Thank you. Let me know what you think, as always, to continue the conversation.

    Reply

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