There's a large pike swimming in the lily pond. It's hungry and it likes eating frogs. A frog wants to cross the lily pond. It wants to do so without being eaten by the pike. So, it jumps from pad to pad.
It helps if it can see the other side of the pond to see where to go because then it can pick the quickest route across.
If it can't see the other side it can only cross through trial and error. If it does well, at some point it might see the other side of the pond. At this point it will figure out the final moves to reach the other side.
Depending on whether the frog can see the other side or not it will either have to think backwards or think forwards.
Thinking backwards vs. forward thinking
Thinking backwards means mapping the steps back from the destination and setting in place a plan to follow these steps.
Thinking forwards means asking what is the best move to make given the information at hand.
Project managers are great at thinking backwards. Starting with a clearly defined end product, they work out what steps are needed to happen in order to get from the present to the end point.
I always wonder how they know what needs to go into the plan. In a tall skyscraper project there must be huge teams of project managers but somehow they manage to put a plan together with a high degree of accuracy in cost and time. I could say the same for event organisers. Good ones are amazing to watch, they seem to predict the future.
The advantage that project managers for buildings and events have is that a lot (I won't say all) of what is needed to complete the project is predictable because it's been done before.
Startups however can rarely see the other bank of the pond on the day they start. If they think they can, it's probably a hallucination.
There may well be a strong vision of why they are crossing the pond but it's always a big step into the unknown.
Forward thinking with a purpose
Randomly jumping from one lily pad to another is going to consume a lot of energy.
Better is to have a clear view on why you are going to try that next lily pad, it's about having a test to know whether that route is going to be interesting.
Recognising assumptions and testing out lots of different hyoptheses quickly is the fastest way to discover if the far bank does actually exist and what the best route to get there is.
When I can't see the other bank, I always ask myself, "Given what I now know, what is the best thing to do next and what will I learn by doing so? Is that the smartest move?" It's the only way I've found to make progress in the face of uncertainty.
A good method for a startup to navigate the lily pond is to start by mapping out their assumptions using a lean canvas.
Assumptions are either hard to test or easy to test and they are critical or less crtical.
On a frequent basis it's helpful to categorise the known assumptions on these two dimensions in a simple 2 x 2 matrix. Then set aside the assumptions that are in the easy to test / critical quadrant and prioritise these tests first.
That's the first jump to make.
To be a frog is to be human
Human progress is in many ways thanks to our ability to think about the future, imagine what we want it to be like and then take actions to make that future real.
In every project we do, big or small, sometimes we know the way, sometimes we don't. Recognising this is an important first step in deciding what type of thinking to deploy.
If the destination is visible and the path is clear, thinking backwards is the best thing to do. Make a step by step plan and then deploy it.
If the destination is unclear, it helps to be a forward thinking frog.
Photo: By Gerwin Sturm from Vienna, Austria (Frog on Lily Pad) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons