Bullets Before Cannonballs

At this time of the year, in addition to celebrating the holidays, many leaders and organizations are currently in the thick of making plans and budgeting for the next year. This brings an important lesson to mind that I learned during my time at Chick-fil-A.

What a lot of people try and do is create momentum where there is none – particularly in the area of marketing. They think, “if we just throw a lot of money at something we’ll create momentum.” The smartest marketers I know, and the smartest business people I know, don’t try to create momentum. They find momentum and then fuel it. And money spent fueling momentum versus trying to create it is so much more efficient, and so much more effective.

I remember visiting with Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, one time and he shared a corollary idea with us. He said that back during the Civil War when soldiers were out on ships, the storage is at such a premium that when they were getting ready to fire a cannon that they would first fire a musket. Because a musket just used a little bit of lead and a little bit of gunpowder, compared to the heavy cannonballs. Let’s say that the first musket shot was 10% off from the target. So, then they’d fire another one, fire another one, and maybe 10 shots later, they’re right on the target. Then they would know the exact right angle from which to fire the cannonball.

The whole idea was bullets before cannonballs. What most organizations do is fire the cannonball first, cross their fingers, and hope it hits. What the bullets do is they help you find the momentum to fuel.

This was revolutionary one year at Chick-fil-A when we were working on the budget. The budget process used to be so painful because we were all arguing over a limited amount of money and if your “thing” didn’t get funded, you felt deflated. Instead of arguing over cannonballs, i.e. these multi-million dollar ideas, we finally said, “how about if instead of arguing about which cannonball is best, we fire 10 bullets, trial those, and find the cannonball that we should launch next year?”

The whole idea is bullets are things that are low risk, don’t take a lot of capital, don’t take a lot of time, and not a lot of damage is done if they don’t work out. Firing multiple bullets is a way to find the momentum that you want to fuel: the cannonballs. This is now part of the budgeting process at Chick-fil-A, as well as at Roam. We fund a lot of little bullets in order to find the cannonball that we want to fire next year. And by the time we fired the cannonball, we’re fueling momentum, not trying to find it.

I’ll never forget the first year we adopted this idea at Chick-fil-A. In so many organizations, what happens is you get all these smart people around the table. They all have their cannonball and try to make the best argument. And then one cannonball gets funded, but the other nine don’t. So, nine people walk away as losers. Usually it’s the person who’s the best arguer that wins, but that’s not necessarily the best idea!

Instead of narrowing down to one cannonball from the jump, consider funding 10 bullets. Then everybody can at least dabble in an idea and find out if they really have something. That then becomes the data needed to justify the money that you need for the cannonball. And sure enough, not all 10 bullets are going to become a cannonball. But that small investment is sure worth finding out which bullets you should fire cannonballs after.

The bottom line: find momentum and fuel it. And the way to find momentum is to shoot some bullets. When one of those bullets hits, you know where to fire your cannonball.

I’m so thankful to count each and every one of you as a member of this Remarkable community. I’m wishing you a Happy New Year filled with LOTS of momentum!

I’d love to connect with you on social media, you can find me on these platforms:

Together, we can Spark a Revolution of brands more defined by meaning than money, brands that achieve success in a manner that redefines it.

David Salyers
Founder, Spark A Revolution

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