Big Goals and Small and Incremental Investments

Drop in the Ocean

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Historical Case

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary John S. Herrington

What’s the Price of Mass?

In search of the Higgs boson, researchers built a series of ever larger particle colliders with ever larger budgets, including the Large Electron-Positron Collider, the Tevatron, and the Superconducting Super Collider, which was canceled in 1993 after $2 billion had been spent. None of these projects reached the energy level necessary to produce traces of the Higgs. That changed with the massive $9 billion in international investments that funded the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC began operating in 2008 and discovered the Higgs in 2012.

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

Business Case

Could Not Be Delivered: DHL’s Push into the U.S. Freight and Parcel Market

In 2003, DHL International entered the U.S. freight and parcel market with its acquisition of local player Airborne Express. With the goal to establish a foothold in the express-delivery business, DHL invested nearly $10 billion in the unit. However, the market was dominated by UPS and FedEx, which achieved sustainably lower costs and higher margins owing to their large scale. DHL’s investment was not enough to build the scale necessary to sustainably compete with the local giants. In 2008, DHL closed its domestic operations to focus on international delivery to and from the U.S.

Big Investments Must Be Made to Shape Malleable Environments


Warning Signs to Heed

  • Small, dispersed, impatient investments in support of ambitious goals
  • Lack of progress in tackling larger problems or developing major new opportunities
  • Belief that iterative experimentation will eventually yield an answer to all challenges


Beacons to Navigate By

  • Explicit consideration of the sufficiency of an investment when committing to big objectives
  • Building for scalability
  • A long-term organization structure that is designed to follow through on ambitious projects