The really interesting improvements companies make come from takings risks, but in a lot of cases risk-taking can be held hostage by needing data to support every decision. Being conservative and careful across the board may be safe, but it’s not where breakthrough learning happens.
This is where I see a lot of startups struggle: confronting the tension that is created between knowing when to apply disciplined fact-based decision making to avoid failure, and when to be disciplined about making decisions where failure is accepted as a likely outcome.
The best companies create a culture that can foster two seemingly conflicting organization abilities: precision and failure. In fact, you need both to reliably profit from your mistakes.
The key is understanding where in your business you can afford to routinely experience failure, and where failure has more costly significance. You need internal processes that measure performance, coupled with a culture that has a pretty solid foundation of trust – where anyone and everyone feels comfortable taking a risk, and reporting the results as data. I wrote on this earlier, it’s a culture where bad news has got to travel faster than good news.
Steve Blank wrote a pithy essay on how to navigate this decision making quandry and I love the quote he referenced from General Patton: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” This is a variant (or perhaps the inspiration) for another saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
To me they drive home the value of action and experience placed on par with the value of planning and data. Patton would never go into battle without a well thought through and justified plan, but he speaks to how perfecting the plan is different from winning the battle.
The same is true in startups. It’s critical that they operate with a well thought through plan supported by data, but it’s equally important that they understand when the plan is no longer as important as what the real world is telling you. It’s another way of understanding why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong, and is in fact healthy.
Steve talks about a simple heuristic, that decisions have two states: reversible and irreversible. With the reversible decisions you can liberally experiment, and should. This is where you can create significant breakthroughs for your company by being highly creative, and surprise yourself by taking risks, and failing, perhaps a lot. If you’re wrong, re-load and try again. For me the construct is learning to try “lots of low cost experiments”.
He makes an even more interesting observation about tempo. It’s not sufficient to be able to take risks with reversible decisions, it’s to do so at a brisk tempo. Quick, responsive, hungry.
Where this comes in especially handy is with sales and marketing performance and new product development. In both cases you’re in a race to discover what works, and then what works on a repeatable, scalable basis. I forwarded Steve Blank’s article to one my CEO’s who is focused on improving her sales and marketing team’s pace and performance.
Jenny Hall also made a similar observation in her post about what she learned as CEO of Trendi.com when it failed. For her it was “if it won’t matter in three months, don’t spend too much time on it.”
She’s got the necessary ingredients: a culture of trust within the company, data-driven decision making, and performance measurement processes. When she first arrived, these ingredients weren’t as prevalent, and she worked hard to put them in place, and placed a priority on reducing errors and increasing predictability. But that was then, this is now, and she’s making the transition to fostering more appropriate risk taking as a way to increase performance.
Lots of low cost experiments combined with a brisk tempo supported by a disciplined acceptance of failure. That sounds like a lot of fun. Try it.