Business, Like Life, Is About the Small Things

I used to have “second breakfast” like a hobbit. Each day, I’d grab a coffee and a buttered bagel from a street vendor on my way to work. The coffee wasn’t good and the bagel was stale, but I kept the routine up. Why? Maybe tradition was a part of it. I also felt guilty about not giving that vendor my business (he is a kind family man). I finally called it quits a year ago and here’s what happened: I saved $613 and 98,000 calories. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And the long term impact of this one small change is staggering.

$613 invested each year over 25 years is worth $44,813 if you earn 7% on your money. We’re also talking about 2,450,000 calories saved over the same time span. That’s worth 4,900 hours of heavy exercise. All of this from cutting out a $2.50 unnecessary breakfast each morning!

So Goes Life, So Goes Business

I’ve staked my career on making small, incremental changes: The Rule of 72 is my secret weapon. If I can find 72 ways to grow by 1%, then I’ll double my numbers. It’s a slog and it requires commitment. Sometimes people will breathe down your neck and ask “Is this really a good use of your time.” You’ll need the guts to say “Yes, I think it is.” Good bosses will respect that if they respect you.

But, there’s a dark side to the Rule of 72: Death by a thousand cuts.

If you find yourself in a business where the numbers have been halved but no one can figure out why, I’ll tell you what’s happening. Lots of bad decisions are being made. Dozens of them. Each one might seem trivial and unimportant on its face, but taken together, they are deadly.

This is an insidious way to lose control of a company because there’s no quick or obvious fix. It’s a vicious cycle and it can stem from the wrong goals, too much pragmatism (or optimism), or a culture that doesn’t reward open and honest discussion.

The only antidote that I know of is to be gentle with those who make honest mistakes, but brutal with those who are not honest. If everything is so great, then why are the numbers in the gutter? Something doesn’t add up. Dig for the truth. You can recover if you act quickly to stop the bleeding, but you might have to do it by mending one cut at a time.