Incremental improvements and big bets

I was reading Auren Hoffman’s Step Functions and One-percent Improvements and remembered a key piece of advice we received early at Bloc. I can’t remember who told us, but it was:

Every project is either an incremental improvement or a big bet. You need both.

I think about this a lot during roadmapping exercises or strategic planning.

Some examples of incremental improvements:

  • Find your customer’s pricing ceiling by methodically raising prices until you see a drop-off in conversion rates
  • Take the website’s load time from 350ms to 200ms
  • Address student delinquency by checking in with them more frequently
  • Increase customer satisfaction by investing in continuous improvement of the curriculum

Some examples of big bets:

  • Launch a 2-year long Software Engineering Track
  • Move from a contract role for your instructors to a full time and part time employment role
  • Redesign the marketing website from the ground up
  • Provide customers with a tuition reimbursement guarantee

By investing in each of these buckets proportionally you can optimize your chances of growth. Of course it also influences who you hire and what your org structure evolves into.

I’ll let you guess which one of these worked and which didn’t!


I was hiking with a friend this weekend in Ansel Adams Wilderness in the eastern Sierra. This was our view as we entered the wilderness. Note the clear blue sky!

Gem Lake Saturday, Sept 5, 2020

Over the course of the day as we hiked our loop, we noticed more smoke. “Must be the Slink Fire or something”, I thought. Which was pretty far away but hey, winds can carry smoke long distances.

As we were taking a break around 2pm, we heard some thunder in the direction of the smoke. The wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. We were only day hiking and didn’t have our full overnight load out, so we jumped up and started the 5m hike back out to avoid being caught in a storm.

Here’s the best photo I could find. Note the smoke/cloud front halfway across the sky as we hiked out:

Agnew Lake Saturday, Sept 5, 2020

I remember looking at the weather radar on my phone and wondering why the green/yellow precipitation blob suddenly seemed to appear around 2pm from a totally clear sky.

Of course, we later discovered it was due to the new Creek Fire burning near Shaver Lake.

Turns out, this is a well-understood phenomena that I had not previously heard of. A bit of research led me to discover Pyrocumulonimbus clouds. From wikipedia:

The cumulonimbus flammagenitus cloud (CbFg), also known as the pyrocumulonimbus cloud, is a type of cumulonimbus cloud that forms above a source of heat, such as a wildfire or volcanic eruption,[5] and may sometimes even extinguish the fire that formed it.

One of the most striking examples of this phenomena I could find was the result of the Atomic Bomb strike on Hiroshima. This photo is of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, often mistakenly identified as the fallout from the bomb itself:

As we endure a terrible wildfire season here in California, I’d love to see any other striking examples of this. The more you know!