The bamboo metaphor: Why you should think beyond immediate results

We often achieve our goals in sudden spurts after laying down the roots for growth

When we set objectives, we tend to expect immediate results and we set incremental milestones for ourselves, thinking “next month I will complete 5% of my goal.” But we may not reach this milestone, even if we work very hard. The problem lies in how we set out objectives. In many cases, we learn exponentially not incrementally. In other words, for days, weeks or months nothing happens, and suddenly, something does and everything changes – as happens in companies and innovative projects, like, for example, the decoding of the human genome.

You need patience, strength and a lot of time before you can achieve your goal

The ambitious Human Genome project was launched in 1990, with an allocated budget of $6 million  and a 15-year deadline. In 1997, half of the budget had been spent but only 1% of the human genome had been sequenced. The researchers involved with the project were heavily criticized. It was thought to be a complete failure, and that at the rate they were going, 700 years would be needed to finish. Craig Venter, one of the principal researchers, received calls and advice from friends who suggested that he abandon the project – because it would ruin his career – and return the money. But Venter and his team continued with faith, a lot of patience and perhaps the conviction that many lessons happen exponentially not incrementally.

And that was the case. In 1997, the team were halfway through and had accomplished the hardest part because the 1% they had sequenced, multiplied seven times, came to 100%. In 2001, the human genome was sequenced and came in below budget. “The experts were wrong by 696 years,” said Salim Ismail, co-author of Exponential Organizations. This experience has also been seen in businesses such as Airbnb, Apple and many others who are now successful despite their “dark” early years.

Learning curves do not always happen incrementally. You need patience, strength and a lot of time before you can achieve your goal – be that learning a foreign language, meeting sales goals or mastering a new skill. This is because the first phase of learning is to plant new seeds before seeing results.

Airbnb, Apple and many others businesses are now successful despite their “dark” early years

There is a species of tree that, after planting its seeds, takes a whole seven years to sprout. But in the seventh year, in only six weeks, the bamboo tree grows more than 30 meters! Does it takes only six weeks to grow? Writer Alex Rovira reflects upon this: “No! The truth is that it takes seven years to grow and six weeks to develop.” During the first few years, where it seems that nothing is really happening, it is creating a network of roots to give itself strength for later. It is a beautiful metaphor to apply to our own challenges.

Perhaps in business we should abandon the anxious need for immediate results, which kills innovation and the lessons that are most important to achieving exponential results. Goals need to be tracked but not with an incremental mindset. Business magnate Warren Buffett, who has a clear understanding of this, at least in theory, says: “No matter how great the talent or efforts may be, some things just take time.” Therefore, we need patience, work and many learning opportunities to achieve what we want, or, to even surprise ourselves with our future results.

English translation by Asia London Palomba.


More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS