One bite at a time Featured

8:00pm EDT September 30, 2007
What do eating an elephant and building a business have in common? You eat an elephant and build a business the same way — one bite at a time.

Executives and leaders with common sense and the awareness of their own vulnerability have all had that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when the size and scope of a pending project or major undertaking suddenly become overwhelming. Be it starting with a blank piece of paper to create a plan for a new business or revitalizing a tired product line, the reality can run chills down the back of the most seasoned and stoic chieftains.

To get started with one of the bigger meals of your career, first, you need to have the idea and conjure up a big picture of what has to be done. As in photography, when you pull back to get the entire subject in the frame, it always looks bigger and more daunting than it really is.

However, once you get the picture in focus and zoom in on the subject, you start to crystallize the individual pieces and parts but not the entire, if you will, elephant. A close-up of each cross section or smaller piece launches the building process.

You always begin by including all the bells and whistles. From there, you rationalize the project not only economically, but also in terms of the time and resources needed to get the job done. However, before you put pencil to paper, this question must be answered: When the new initiative is up and running, will it produce as promised, satisfying the return on investment criterion, and will it serve the end-users by offering something special that they will want and need?

Simple enough, but what do you do once you have the big picture, know the returns and have satisfied yourself that it is worth the pain and strain to complete the effort?

The next step is where our “one bite at a time” proverb really comes into play. If you pull back and look only at the big picture, you are likely to be so riddled with second thoughts, and possibly overcome with fear of failure, that you will put this well-conceived effort on the back burner or, worse yet, scuttle it altogether.

The trick is what piece to start on first. Initially, logic would suggest starting at the bottom with the foundation and then building up, step by step. It makes sense, but sometimes taking the traditional route is not the most efficient, nor the most effective.

Creating is not always a linear process. Many times, you can start eating that elephant simultaneously from the top, bottom and middle with different teams focusing on various tasks. Many movies are shot out of sequence, meaning that it is not unusual to film the end or middle of a movie before the opening scenes. That same strategy can apply to building a business.

It just may be more economical to begin with the middle or end parts for a variety of good reasons, such as the immediate availability of specialized resources or materials.

Here’s an example. In opening stores, there are teams assigned specific aspects of the project, such as designing the building, laying out the interior, buying the merchandise, creating the grand opening ad campaign, etc. — with each team doing its own thing concurrently.

In the final stages, it takes only a few days or weeks for the fixtures, merchandising and marketing dots to be connected. When they are, the doors are unlocked and management prays that since it was built, customers will come.

It’s mandatory that you decide upfront who is responsible for what. Make sure everyone involved has seen the picture of the entire elephant and understands what it is supposed to look like at the end.

Include all of the objectives, the financials and other parameters. To be sure no one goes off the reservation, set up checks and balances by having constant communication with predetermined checkpoints and formally scheduled all-hands meetings.

Don’t have any illusions. While eating your elephant, I guarantee you’ll have some indigestion. No worries, though — that’s why Rolaids were invented.

And always keep in mind that if you’re in charge, you are also the one who is responsible for walking behind the elephant with the broom and shovel. It’s just biological that with animals and projects, there are always things that need to be cleaned up and kept tidy.

Life is sometimes one big puzzle, and so is creating a business or managing a process. At that moment when all of the pieces fit together, you’ll have that “Aha!” sensation of knowing that your dream has become a reality. If you follow these steps, dessert will be sweet success.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at