In the early 1800s a boy named Frederic Tudor was on a trip to Havana, Cuba and had a thought. As he stood in the sweltering sun he wondered if people there would be interested in a cold drink. This little insight stuck with Tudor and he would grow up to pioneer the shipping of New England ice on wooden ships to places as far away as Calcutta, India.
This was not as difficult as it may at first seem. Ice, when packed together in large quantity and kept out of the sun, actually melts very slowly. When covered with sawdust it can last even longer. In large enough tonnage, according to author William Bernstein, Tudor discovered that as much as two thirds of his original cargo could arrive in India still frozen. Innovations were even made to this process, such as the shipping of uniform blocks of ice. These were easier to stack and arrange as ballast in a ship's hull.
Along several of these shipping routes, perishable fruits were packed on the ice and transported where they could be eaten "out of season:" apples taken south and bananas taken north, for instance. However, this idea was not really utilized much, and for some reason Tudor would continue to consider the shipping of ice his main business throughout his life. The much larger business of refrigerated shipping, technically "invented" by Tudor, would be developed upon by others. This huge breakthrough was literally right under Tudor's nose the whole time. He hadn't exactly missed it, he simply didn't capitalize on it. Instead, he began speculating on coffee futures and other diversions.
This story makes one think about the Japanese VCR manufacturers fighting over tape formats while the real money was being made on movies, or IBM missing the trend to PC's even though they were the world's leader in computers at the time. Or even simpler; Mark Twain squandering his fortune multiple times upon get-rich-quick inventions and investments when he could literally create wealth with his pen.
What explains the occurrence of huge ideas being missed because those involved were occupied with the smaller ones that lead up to it?
Why do so many who begin to succeed get distracted and allow their focus to be dissipated on lesser pursuits?
Why is good such a distraction from great?
And more important still: what big breakthrough is lurking just outside your current scope of operations?
What have you implemented or pioneered that is good but not great? Or is a step toward something bigger?
What could you be missing?
These are the kinds of questions that should send chills up any true leader's spine, because, although this may sound cold - anything less is merely hauling ice!