In order to execute with agility, founders must successfully deal witha paradox. Effective entrepreneurs are able to completely commit toan idea, while remaining open to changing it. This ability to committo a path without becoming attached to it is no simple skill. In athletics,the most agile athletes operate from a base of readiness, always undercontrol, reading the field around them and quickly responding to team-mates and competitors. They come with a game plan but quickly im-provise if needed to respond to unfolding events. They skillfullymanage the tension between rehearsed and spontaneous movement.
A similar tension permeates every startup journey. By followingyour early plans, creating your first products and winning your firstcustomers, you create a base of strength and a platform from whichto move forward. But both successes and failures bring unforeseen op-portunities and threats. You will need to reconsider early decisionsand most likely shift your offerings and your model. This ongoing ten-sion between your pride in what you have built and your unendingdesire to improve it is inherent in the process of bringing a conceptto life. It is the nature of an evolving, iterating idea becoming real.
The greater our passion, the more likely it is that we will fall vic-tim to cognitive biases that encourage us to stick with an early idea,even in the face of contradictory signals. The cognitive bias of anchor-ing, for example, leads us to give too much weight to our first big ideaor strategy.
We unconsciously filter new information so that it fitswithin our established view of the venture, instead of provoking us tosee it in entirely new ways. Also coming into play is the sunk cost fallacy,the cognitive bias that pressures founders and investors to stick withan existing plan to avoid wasting previously invested time, money, andeffort. The real mistake, however, comes in thinking that prior invest-ments somehow justify the continuation of a losing strategy.
The ability to commit without attaching has benefits ranging farbeyond the world of startups. Donald Sull, professor of managementpractice at the London Business School and a global expert on man-aging in turbulent markets, advises companies to “keep the visionfuzzy and the priorities clear,” emphasizing the value of laser-like focus and crisp execution in the short term, while recognizing thatlonger-term events are ultimately unpredictable. “A fuzzy visionworks,” he writes, “because it provides general direction and sets as-pirations without prematurely locking the company in to a specificcourse of action.
Describing his approach to the same challenge, J.C. Faulkner usesthe term perch management, evoking the example of a bird flyingthrough a forest with a clear focus on the next landing place. Each legof your startup journey will lead to a new “perch,” from which a newvista opens up and another destination is chosen. “Long-range plan-ning is important, but it’s always wonderfully imperfect,” he says. “Soyou should focus on what it takes to get to the next perch, to executeon your next logical step.