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The Way You Plan and Execute May Be All Wrong: Terminalism or Incrementalism


Most of us have heard the old axiom, begin with the end in mind. Create a vision for what you want and go after it. But what if that is all wrong? What if having a picture of what you wish blinds you to opportunities along the way? Can we be so focused on one outcome that we miss others that appear in our path?

In the classic book, Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill, espoused the idea of simply looking for something (like wealth) at the subconscious level primes the reticular activating system in the brain to see opportunities missed by most people. The brain can see something at both the conscious and subconscious levels. This vision may be practical for some things and harmful for others.

Consider the terms incrementalism and terminalism as two new ideas. Incrementalism is a method of working by using many small incremental changes instead of a few (extensively planned) large jumps. Terminalism is rare in the current dictionary vocabulary, and there is not much about the concept in this context. My computer screams at me that the word is wrong as I type. I am ignoring it, by the way.

Availability bias (heuristic) is a mental shortcut to connect with ideas or opportunities. This bias can render someone blind to other courses of action. My thesis is that when we start with the end in mind, we can become blinded to different decisions. Your favorite detective novels and movies are rich with cases where the officer becomes convinced one person is guilty and no longer looks at additional evidence. The same phenomenon can happen in business when a strategic plan can blind someone to other opportunities. The farther out you plan, the bigger your blind spot becomes.

Here is an example to consider. I encourage all the CEOs and business owners (who I work with) to create an infographic about the current business strategy. I recommend this because the vision in your head is rarely seen accurately by your team members. You may be to see it vividly, but your people cannot. I model the behavior by creating an infographic for my business to encourage them to do the same. In less than one year, my infographic has become wildly inaccurate. Things have changed along with opportunities for my business.

A typical 3-year strategic plan in business is practically worthless in one year or less. I am not negating the power of planning. Companies must look toward the horizon for opportunities. However, when looking too far ahead, you can miss opportunities as they present for your business. I call this practice terminalism. 

Terminalism is the idea that your long-term plan becomes hardened over time and your team becomes aligned with making it work to the detriment of additional or different opportunities. History is rich with businesses that started in one sector yet adapted quickly to be successful with a completely different market opportunity, thus avoiding the trap of terminalism.

In the book, Traction, Gino Wickman recommends quarterly meetings to minimize terminalism (my word, not his). I teach the concept of the OODA loop as a method of negating the harm caused by terminalism. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. OODA loops are the essence of incrementalism. We can all get blinded by the vision we have for our business. We become blind to other value propositions and opportunities. I hear this blind spot in phrases like; we do not do that, we have never done that before, or that is not how we do things. These are symptoms of terminalism for your business.

I encourage you to force the OODA loop process into your business strategy at least quarterly. Enhance this thinking by adding a literal stop-doing list. Be deliberate about projects, plans, and opportunities to be placed on the list to stop. Observe what you are doing and not doing currently. Force the team to answer why this is the case. Orient to new opportunities and analyze them vigorously from a customer perspective. Decide to continue or change course with small incremental steps. Require action and resources to flow toward the incremental steps along the way.

Every business can disrupt itself by avoiding the terminal trap. A series of high-value small changes are much more effective than a lengthy plan that quickly becomes outdated during execution. Remember, an adaptive and responsive business will always be more successful than a rigid, less responsive competitor. Fast Company magazine promotes the idea that fast companies beat larger and slower-moving competitors.

A long-term vision is acceptable, only it gets questioned as perspective and position in the market change. Quarterly recalibration meetings can offset the blindness that creeps in over time. Be willing to test new opportunities with short bursts of time and resources. Reorienting your business will make you more adaptive and successful. Test, fail, and adapt continuously. Your market, competitors and customers are constantly changing. Why are you not doing the same? Thinking your long-term plan remains accurate is the very definition of terminalism. 

Kill the sacred cows and demand incrementalism as the new path forward. Utilize the cone of uncertainty that describes how reality becomes increasingly uncertain over time. Reassess your strategy every ninety days. Go off-site and hire a facilitator who is not blind to the same terminalism your team is experiencing. Over time, your team will learn to question everything and adapt to new opportunities. Gino Wickman calls this “the build-up” as the quarterly meeting approaches in the EOS model.

Your team will initially resist the discipline that accompanies the OODA loop process. They will question the need for another off-site meeting. Hold firm and make this a ritual in your business. Make it the way your company operates. Slowly, the team will adapt, becoming the new normal. Over time, your company will become more successful with incrementalism at the core.

Incrementalism and Terminalism
An insightful blog as always, Mr. Grubbs. The OODA loop has proven itself effective in many situations. Sometimes I forget to use it during my workday. Thanks for that reminder and for sharing such great information with us.
(July 12, 2022 ~ 12:28 PM)
By Anonymous