Hold the Cannons! Shoot Your Bullets First.

Have you ever gone all-in on an expensive, involved new product, program, or service… only for the idea to flop, tanking all your invested resources with it?

Or what about throwing more people at your business’ biggest problems, only to get frustrated when more hiring leads to more chaos and confusion?

Far too often, we at Exit Momentum see business owners coming into battle with their cannons loaded. They’re ready to make big moves to create big results. That’s not inherently a bad thing… unless, of course, they didn’t first take the time to calibrate with their bullets.

In his book, “Great by Choice,” renowned business thought leader and author Jim Collins shares a powerful approach to strategic decision-making—his ‘Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs’ concept. In his words:

“Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean…and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die.

But suppose instead that when you see the ship bearing down, you take a little bit of gunpowder and fire a bullet. It misses by 40 degrees. You make another bullet and fire. It misses by 30 degrees. You make a third bullet and fire, missing by only 10 degrees. The next bullet hits—ping!—the hull of the oncoming ship. Now, you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire a big cannonball along the same line of sight, which sinks the enemy ship. You live.”

This concept vividly illustrates why your ability to make logical, long-term decisions as a business leader is absolutely critical. Without proper risk management and innovation, you’re always one big ‘miss’ away from running out of gunpowder and watching the ship go down.

How to Apply the Bullets-First Concept to Your Business

Applying Collins’ metaphor to your business strategy starts with being able to discern the difference between a ‘bullet’ investment or action, versus a ‘cannonball’ investment or action.

Your ‘bullets’ are lower-risk, lower-cost actions taken in the name of experimentation, calibration, or development.

These investments are characterized by their agility, quick execution, and relatively modest resource allocation. Bullets allow you to take action swiftly and test the waters without risking it all on one big bet. Some common ‘bullet’ investments include things like:

  • Market Research & Customer Surveys
  • Pilot Programs
  • A/B Testing
  • Content Marketing
  • Partnerships & Collaborations
  • Product Iterations
  • Localized Marketing Campaigns
  • Employee Training & Development
  • Experimenting With Technology or Software
  • Event Sponsorships or Industry Event Attendance

The true power of bullets lies in their ability to guide future decision-making. By meticulously analyzing the results of these small experiments, businesses can steer their course and refine their strategies. This iterative process of learning and adaptation, driven by data, is the key to long-term success in the Bullets-First concept.

Cannonballs, on the other hand, are larger, more significant investments. These are the moves you don’t want to make without prior testing and a sound execution strategy in place.

Cannonball investments are typically made with the intention of driving significant growth. Unlike bullets, cannonballs require a greater commitment of resources and carry a higher degree of risk. However, when executed correctly, they have the potential to propel a business forward in a big way. Examples of cannonballs include:

  • Market Expansion
  • Product Development
  • Strategic Acquisitions
  • Infrastructure Investments
  • Brand Building and Marketing Campaigns
  • Research and Development (R&D) Initiatives
  • Talent Acquisition and Development
  • Digital Transformation
  • Strategic Partnerships and Joint Ventures
  • Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Initiatives

These initiatives represent bold moves that have the power to reshape the competitive landscape or reposition your business.

The key to effectively firing cannonballs lies in timing and precision. Rather than blindly investing resources, the ‘bullets first’ method calls for business owners to carefully assess market conditions, competitive dynamics, and internal capabilities before making significant commitments.

By aligning cannonball investments with strategic objectives, businesses can maximize their impact and minimize their risk.

Striking the Balance as a Leader In Your Business

As the leader of your organization, it’s up to you to successfully determine which of your investments are bullets, which are cannonballs, and to what degree you should incorporate both types of investments into your overall business strategy.

The key is the ability to balance:

  • Experimentation With Discipline.
  • Agility With Stability.
  • Innovation With Execution.

By strategically deploying low-risk experimental investments alongside larger, more significant ones, you position yourself to remain constantly innovative and flexible—while also making the bold, powerful moves that are required to see big results from your company.

Remember, in the game of business, it’s not about taking big risks for the sake of it. It’s about making smart, strategic decisions that maximize your chances of success while minimizing potential downside.

Building Momentum With Your Bullets

While finding a sense of balance in your organization is a great starting point—the magic REALLY happens when business owners understand how to use ‘bullets’ to build serious momentum toward your long-term vision.

The difference between bullets that feel scatterplot and experimental vs. bullets that consistently move you in the right direction is having a clear, precise idea of what ‘success’ looks like for this initiative.

If you invest time in the early stages of your planning to get hyper-specific and strategic about what you want to accomplish, you can move forward with ‘bullet’ activities that are supremely well-executed and strategically aligned. You know exactly what success is going to look like when you strike it. You know exactly what you’re shooting for before you start firing bullets.

Clarify your vision of success, aim your bullets carefully, and fire your cannonballs with precision—and your bottom line will thank you.

Want Support With Figuring Out Which Bullets and Cannonballs to Prioritize?

Big ideas are the heart of your business—but a clear strategy and ability to execute is the backbone. If you’re swirling in indecision and looking for a third-party business expert who can help set you moving in the right direction, one of our Exit Momentum Business Coaches would be happy to speak with you.

Helping our clients define their strategy, create clear action plans, and massively accelerate their business growth is what we do best. Check out this video to learn more about how businesses like Lou Bachrodt Automotive are implementing our guidance and Proven Process to get:

  • A more structured approach to tracking and improving metrics.
  • Overall alignment in goals and strategies.
  • More leads and an increased sales volume.


Lou Bachrodt Automotive

“Having a third party coach matters because it’s bringing somebody inside; they see from the window looking inside. It’s not the same as being within our organization. So it’s been enlightening and it’s been great. It really has…

…A lot of times in business, you can read the books or have the ideas. Exit Momentum allows you to have those ideas, get the entire team on board with everything you learn, and then cascade it throughout the organization. If you’re looking for more progress and organization, I’d tell you to schedule a Fit Call.”

Sound familiar? Then, grab a time for your Fit Call to find out whether we may be a good fit to work together.

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