Become ‘Great by Choice’ by Testing Your Ideas before Investing in Them

Most REX Roundtable members have been assigned to read “Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All,” written by Jim Collins and Morton T. Hansen. These authors (along with 20 researchers) looked for businesses that exceeded their industry performance by 10 times for 15 years, frequently in environments with strong forces and rapid shifts that the leaders could not predict or control.

This book is one to read, reflect on and apply its suggestions in your club. It covers a handful of important topics that are unique to management and business training. In other words, the research points out fresh insights about what it takes to be great in business. The questions the book can help you answer are how do you succeed when the world is unpredictable, and how do you succeed 10 times better than your competitors?

One of the most beneficial chapters is the fourth one, “Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs.” The chapter demonstrates that experimentation and prototypes are extraordinarily valuable when seeking improvements and progress. Collins and Hansen use the example of cannoneers on war ships in the 18th century who had to keep testing the distance of the enemy ship, its speed and the wind strength by firing cannonballs too far, then not far enough until they finally hit the enemy. Cannoneers called this “walking to the target,” but it meant firing lots of precious cannonballs to find the range and score a hit.

However, smart captains began saving their cannonballs by having their crew fire rifle shots until the distance, ship speed and wind strength were determined. This meant that the gunners did not have to have brilliant skills or insights; they simply needed to practice low-cost experimentation.

Too many businesses emphasize being creative. But companies that perform 10 times better than their competitors are not necessarily creative. Instead, they are just creative enough. They fire a lot of rifle shots to experiment and learn. Through the learning, they make continuous, cumulative progress and get 10 times ahead of their industry peers.


Too often, once a good idea does come along, the undisciplined captain fires cannonballs without first firing rifle shot tests. We call these uncalibrated cannonballs because we have no idea if they will hit a target.

An uncalibrated cannonball can lead to calamity more often than to success. The missed venture burns huge resources that limits the ability to fund future experiments. The failed venture tempers creative and risk-taking behaviors, causing staff to act too cautiously and fear trying something new. If you have fired uncalibrated cannonballs, make sure you understand your successes and failures so that you don’t repeat them.

The purpose of rifle shot tests and then cannonball successes is to marry relentless discipline and creativity. Just as creativity without the discipline of rifle shots costs resources and confidence, rifle shots that hit the target but are not followed by cannonballs cause you to lose the advantage.

As this fourth chapter shows, continuous experimentation with low-cost, lowrisk, low-distraction rifle shots is the way to become a “10 times” performer.

At your next staff meeting, discuss some past rifle shots, what you learned from them and whether they led to a cannonball. Talk about the procedures or structure that you have in place to ensure that you are continuously generating rifle shots in your club. Remember, this process is meant to nurture creativity and convert that creativity into constructive, practical experiments, so you need a process and culture that nurtures creativity. You should have a disciplined, low-cost, low-risk process to test your ideas and a process to convert successful ones to cannonballs. Lastly, make sure you evaluate the entire process in order to improve it.

By analyzing your approach with your staff, you will be able to determine whether you need more rifle shots, better rifle shots, discipline in not firing uncalibrated cannonballs or better conversion of rifle shots to cannonballs.


Ed Tock is a partner with REX Roundtables, which runs roundtables for business owners and chief executives. As a consultant, he has worked with more than 1,000 clubs since 1983. He can be reached at 845-736-0307.

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