Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast, but plan properly

In the 1960’s futurist Roy Amara stated ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.’ This became known as Amara’s law and 50 years on the statement is still unfortunately true for many tech adopters.

In 2019 futurist Jim Carroll coined a phrase which just might give the three key steps for avoiding the disappointment identified by Amara, he stated “Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast.” And while it’s easy to see how this sentiment applies to startups or new consumer services, it’s equally applicable - and important - to established businesses looking to modernise or improve their internal systems.

This tactical short-termism means businesses are always playing catch-up.

Given an unlimited budget and endless time for blue sky thinking it’s easy to think big, but budget and time often feel like a luxury a business can't afford and so thinking reverts to tactical problem-solving, creating a patchwork of solutions destined to underperform in the face of benefits that have been overestimated.

This tactical short-termism means businesses are always playing catch-up. Chasing the problem of the moment, rather than thinking in a holistic way and trying to understand the bigger picture. While time is a luxury, this level of thinking is a necessity if the project is to succeed. As an example, the advent of widespread digital banking 20 or so years ago saw banks put web-enabled front ends over existing in-branch systems. This solved the problem of having a digital banking system but was it useful? Did it solve the problem that digital banking set out to solve? Arguably, no. It’s only in the last few years that these systems have been modified and upgraded enough to do what they originally set out to do.

For those with sufficient budget and large ambitions, starting small lacks appeal. Why test and adjust when the excitement comes from a big bang? In many of these instances the short term overestimation rings true because of delivery delays and scope creep, and the long term experience hardly ever matches up to the early hubris.Indeed, starting big leaves no room for scale, and how do you get people to adopt a technology that’s big, likely to be expensive given its size, and is unproven?

Budget and ambition is no substitute for planning. What problem is the solution solving? How scalable is it? Does it work? All these questions must be answered and it’s impossible to do that if you don’t start small. And that’s the key message of Carroll’s statement. Once you’ve laid the groundwork and have a proven, workable solution, then scale fast.

Our biggest impact comes not from the delivery of a single screen of dazzling UI but in agreeing the big thoughts, implementing the small first steps and then with trust built and faith in the technology, scaling a solution to continually deliver return on digital investment in the long term.