How to Create an Exponential Mindset

Digital business models are a bit of a misnomer. It’s not digital technology that defines them; it’s their ability to create exponential value. The music and video industries, for example, weren’t redefined by converting analog to digital formats. Just ask Sony about Minidisc players and Netflix about their DVD business.To create exponential value, it’s imperative to first create an exponential mindset. The incremental mindset focuses on making something better, while the exponential mindset is makes something different. Incremental is satisfied with 10%. Exponential is out for 10X.

While others have written about how to design exponential strategies and organizations, I want to focus here on how to create an exponential mindset. My work with clients suggests that the incremental mindset is more deeply embedded than we might think. Unless you are conscious and diligent, you can end up with a strategy that looks digital.The role of incremental and exponential mindsets vary in each phase of the business journey: launch, grow, and expand.

Launch: Vision and Uncertainty
In the launch phase of a business, the team needs to develop and refine the business model. The Lean Startup approach of test, iterate, and pivot is the right thing to do. But you also need the right way to think.The incremental mindset draws a straight line from the present to the future. A “good” incremental business plan enables you to see exactly how you will get from here to there. But exponential models are not straight. They are like a bend in the road that prevents you from seeing around the corner, except in this case the curve goes up.

Build: Courage and Patience
These days, many companies are able to get through the launch phase with an exponential mindset. They manage their uncertainty, take the leap, and start the journey despite being unable to see around the bend. Fear of disruption and envy of unicorns can be a powerful motivator. But then something happens. Or more precisely, something doesn’t happen.

Take a look at the chart above. In the first part of the build phase, you don’t see a lot of change. It’s not until the second part when the line starts to bend. It’s simply the nature of exponential change. Things happen very slowly before they happen very quickly. If this was the only world we knew, it wouldn’t be a problem. But we were raised with an incremental mindset. So we can’t help but compare the exponential path to the incremental path. And this creates a problem.We are accustomed to measuring progress linearly and incrementally. If 30% of the time has gone by, we assume that we should be 30% of the way there. That’s how things work in the physical world when we are traveling to a destination. But exponential models don’t work that way.

Grow: Agility and Control
In the third phase, you have managed the uncertainty of the early days, the impatience of the middle phase, and now you are firmly “in the curve.” Growth is happening faster than you can handle. At this point, the incremental mindset is to try to rein things in and get things under control. But that would be a mistake. To sustain the accelerating returns, you need to shift your mindset about how to mobilize and manage resources.

The incremental mindset assumes that it takes more inputs to produce more outputs. So as growth starts to accelerate, teams start to look for more resources in proportion to the growth. But the addition of too many people or too many resources can “flood the engine” of growth. You need an exponential mindset to figure out how 1X additional input can create 10X additional output.

You also need to apply an exponential mindset to how you manage the resources you have. The incremental mindset about management is like creating a line of dominos. Everything needs to be highly coordinated with active oversight to make progress one step at a time. The exponential mindset is like this demonstration with ping pong balls in which things happen in parallel with a focus on the interactions among participants.

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