Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

THE BEST NEXT STEP

"Success is not final; failure is not fatal."
—Winston Churchill

You step out the door of a large building and glance at the time. It's 2:27 p.m. Your next meeting is at three o'clock, and it's a half hour's drive away. So you figure you've got three minutes to get yourself into your car and on the road. You look in the direction of where you parked—well, where you think you parked—and you start walking.

What happens next is probably the least interesting part of your day. Right on schedule, at about two thirty, you drop into your seat, start the car, and drive off the lot. It's an unremarkable event, but what it takes to achieve it is actually pretty sophisticated.

At first glance, it may not seem that way. It may seem that all that's happening is that your brain—your own personal executive office—is setting a goal in the form of an output requirement and a deadline: get to the car in three minutes. Then your feet, which are your workforce, carry out your orders.

Right?

Sort of—but there's more to it than that. The process does start with a high-level goal set from "above." But as soon as you start walking, things get complicated. As your feet move across the ground, they must deal with subtle variations in the surface. Is there gravel? Is the ground wet or slippery? Your front line workforce—your foot muscles—compensate without any intervention from management to keep you upright and on track.

Meanwhile, those muscles are dependent on blood oxygen, a resource, to keep going. If they're getting enough, everything is fine. If they're not—maybe the pace is too quick or the surface is too difficult—they request more. That's what we might call an escalation.

The escalation goes first to middle management—your cardiovascular system. In some cases, that system can satisfy the need directly. Your heart pumps a bit harder, and more resources are sent where they're needed. In other situations, the request is too great. Middle management can't handle it, so it gets escalated all the way to the top. The request makes it up to your brain, and you get the message: "Breathe harder or walk slower." And you make a choice.

While the work is going on at the bottom, something else is happening at the top: you're looking where you're going. And up in your executive office, you're processing new information. Maybe you see something in your path—an open hole or a tree—and decide to go around it. Or maybe you notice that you're walking toward the wrong car and you need to change direction.

So along you go. You have information flowing up from the bottom of your metaphorical organization and information flowing down from the top. You have decisions being made at all levels, with escalations when necessary. And you have a whole system—that's a key word, system—processing all of the information and decisions for one reason: so that in this moment you take the most reasonable step toward your goal, and then in the next moment you take the next most reasonable step from there.

Let me repeat that: you take the next most reasonable step from there. Not the next most reasonable step as you foresee it from here.

In other words, you Iterate.

Really, you have no choice. The total trip to your car may be a few hundred steps, but you can't foresee more than the first five or ten when you start. You can't possibly chart your course completely before you begin. And yet, if every step you take, from the first to the last, isn't the most reasonable and useful one at that moment, you'll waste time and energy. After each step is complete, the information that came from it—new information that wasn't available before you took it—must be incorporated into the decision about the next one....

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