“Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”
This quote comes from a Nightline broadcast more than 10 years ago on the design firm IDEO (Link to Video). I have seen the video many times which documents their process of designing something truly different and unique. But when I saw the video again a few weeks ago, this quote struck me more significantly than it has in the past.
Many times we spend countless hours crafting our message, building our plans and designing our strategies. Much like an annual report, which is said to be a document that is read more before it is published than after, our business plans and strategy documents are revised and refined to “perfection.” Yet when we go to the market, our tactics are often worthless. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
Our competitors, the market, our customers and even the government are all changing the playing field. The idea of adaptability is what Plan B Philosophy is all about. But yet, what is “enlightened trial and error” and how can we leverage it to create success faster?
There are businesses that are driven on experimentation and data – tech firms are the best example. Companies can measure clicks and usage and transactions to determine whether the new feature was adopted. Google revolutionized this approach in the Web world. But in most businesses it is difficult to sort out the noise from the true insights as a new product or strategy is introduced. Prospective customers provide feedback and we are left to determine which demands are most valid for the market and which are merely a one-off for a particular situation. I know my company struggles with these choices everyday – there are features that can be added or modified that will meet the needs of individual customers, but it is often unclear which features will meet the need of the entire market or market segment.
So how do we effectively have enlightened trial and error?
I am reminded about the approach that Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers (and my favorite NFL team), brought to a game's first plays on offense. After breaking down the defensive tendencies of the opponent during the week, he and his offensive coaches would script the first 15 to 25 plays they would run to begin a game. They would only deviate from the script if the situation was dramatically different than the play call (3rd and 1 to go and the script called for a deep pass). Certainly their goal was to score, but they were working to see the reaction of the defensive to the plays and understand which of their offensive strategies were to be most effective. Once they understood, they could apply their judgment to the remainder of the game and the offensive plan.
Contrast that to the lone genius offensive coordinator (in my mind I visualize Mike Martz) who singularly analyzes the defense and attempts to call the exact right play at the right time based on his experience, intuition and analysis. It can work – Martz won a Super Bowl in St. Louis – but it takes the right person with the right players, experience, intuition and analysis. Clearly the structured approach creates more opportunity to learn the market, the competition and a winning approach.
In football or any sport, it’s pretty clear whether the tactic was successful or unsuccessful. The scoreboard is available for all to see and you know whether you are ahead or behind. The business world isn’t that clear. But we need to continue to work to develop a methodology for analyzing the results of our experiments. How did that sales strategy work with that market segment? Why was it successful? Was it a one-time success or repeatable?
Admittedly, I am not the best at creating process around these trial and error tests. I tend towards the improvisation approach, more like a jazz or jam band than an orchestra. In my football analogy, I personally prefer the Indianpolis Colts’ approach of letting Payton Manning make the call at the line based on what he sees in the defense. But in the midst of growing businesses, I have realized that to create scale and move beyond a single individual operating like the conductor, you need to have a feedback loop for how your adaptations are impacting the business at large.
Our businesses are certainly not perfect at this, nor do we have a magic answer, but we do talk about it frequently. We try to talk out loud about how this feature, product or solution enhances our competitive advantage and value proposition to our customers? The dialogue I think can aid in the discovery of what truly creates value and what is noise. My opinion has not always been spot on – my co-workers can cite many times when my grand vision has fallen on deaf ears in the market. But our approach of listening and adapting has usually been successful.
It’s tempting to want the answer to come from a lone genius in a locked room with a crystal ball peering into the future. However, in the end it comes back to having a compelling vision with the will to adapt your tactics to meet the needs of your customers. In the IDEO video, there is a moment when the self-appointed “adults” decide which customer needs to optimize and then send their teams off to determine the best way to design their features to meet these needs. Similarly our teams need to continue to look for which needs to focus on and then make sure they are meeting those needs. Enlightened trial and error vs. lone genius. I would put my money on an innovation process than timing the innovation market.