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Avoid the Pitfalls of Pirates & Pioneers

A group of ambitious, and unskilled, adventurers get lost in the Swiss Alps. Days later, tired and hungry, one of the hikers discovers a map buried deep in their backpack.
The anxious and weary group finds their way to safety. After celebrating, someone takes a closer look at the map and realizes that it's a map of the Chilean Andes, not the Swiss Alps." 
- Ranjay Gulati, a professor at the Harvard Business School, often shares this anecdote.

People need a plan - even if it’s not the right plan. 


Reid Hoffman, of LinkedIn, reinforces this principle, of taking action now and adapting on the fly, quite literally and dramatically,
"Starting a {new venture} is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down…”

Although they need a good map, new ventures are better off without a rigid plan.

As a SCUBA diver I learned that one should “plan your dive, and dive your plan.” I also learned that the ocean doesn’t follow this rule. My best dives often required improvisation within guidelines and with known inflection points; "turn back," "if separated, meet here," "20 minutes of bottom time, then surface."

Established businesses are fairly good at predicting the future by extrapolating from historical results. However, new businesses make assumptions without prior experience, and those assumptions are often wrong.

New ventures should value flexibility over compliance.

This concept is reinforced by Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, and her co-author Ian MacMillan, a professor at Wharton, in their article, Discovery Driven-Planning

In their study, McGrath and MacMillan state that new ventures should
“...convert assumptions into knowledge as a strategic venture unfolds. When new data are uncovered, they are incorporated into the evolving plan. The real potential of the venture is discovered as it develops—hence the term discovery-driven planning. The approach imposes disciplines different from, but no less precise than, the disciplines used in conventional planning.”

Pioneers vs. Settlers

Whether stated as “pioneers & settlers,” or “protect the core & explore for more,” industry literature supports framing new business units as equal to, but no better than, established businesses.

Be cautious of creating friction between “new” versus “existing” businesses and avoid inadvertently making one feel superior to the other; both should be positioned as attractive and exciting.

It may be exciting to exclaim,
It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy…” 
as Steve Jobs said when creating the Macintosh development team, and moved them to their own building. However, divisive statements alienate managers across all platforms. 


We need pioneers and we need settlers, and we need them to work together.

One final note of caution

“Pioneers often get slaughtered, and settlers prosper.” – Daymond John, Shark Tank.
First-mover advantage is only a "potential advantage." Pioneers face great rewards with an accompanying great risk. It's those who exploit and perfect a new idea that benefit the most.

Don't forget your map.

(c) 2015, David J. Katz - New York City

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