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Chase the rabbit: A design lesson in 3 minutes

3 min read


The internet can’t seem to make up its mind about who coined the phrase “chase two rabbits, catch none.” Some people say it’s an old Russian proverb, while other attribute it to an anonymous Navajo wise man. Me, I’m pretty sure that piece of advice originated with the great hunter Elmer Fudd, because whoever came up with it clearly did so during rabbit season. Or was it duck season?

Regardless of its provenance, the rabbit saying is a good principle to keep in mind when we design things. Just as a pair of rabbits will readily elude capture by heading in opposite directions, conflicting design objectives lead to empty hands Whether we are building a strategy, writing code or creating a PowerPoint presentation, a distracted design will not satisfy any of our goals. The plan will be muddled, the code won’t compile, and the charts won’t communicate. Usually this is because chasing too many rabbits makes things more complicated than they need to be.

What does this look like? Consider the two charts below: the Army’s infamous “Afghanistan Stability / COIN Dynamics” slide and a chart from the U.S. Air Force Chief Scientist’s Global Horizons briefing. I’d be hard pressed to say which chart is worse, but in either case that’s a lot of rabbits to chase.

There is a better way, and it begins with being decisive, with establishing clear objectives and resisting the urge to run in opposite directions at the same time.

To quote from “The Simplicity Cycle,” when we are centered and focused, we can more easily avoid getting our design wrapped up in entangling complexities because our vision is clearer.” In contrast, “being unfocused and frantically confused degrades our work and fosters unnecessary complexity in our designs, as we flail around and add components in the blind hope that some of them will make the design better.”

The key to outsmarting those rascally rabbits is to cultivate a discipline of choosing. Chase one rabbit today, then go after the other one tomorrow. Yes, there is a risk of picking the wrong one, but temporarily pursuing a less-than-optimal goal may be the only way to find out which option is better.

It is important to choose wisely, but the most foolish choice of all is to divide our efforts between contradictory goals simply because we couldn’t make up our mind.

Dan Ward is the author of “F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation” (HarperBusiness, 2014) and “The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide To Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse” (HarperBusiness, 2015). Prior to launching Dan Ward Consulting, he served for more than 20 years as an acquisition officer in the US. .Air Force, where he specialized in leading high-speed, low-cost technology development programs and retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. For more information, visit his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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