Trial & Error: So Powerful, So Overlooked

A few months ago, I was introduced to the book, The Lean Startup. For me, the timing was right to read and agree with concepts. I had learned and increasingly applied similar principles to my sales and recruiting (same thing!) efforts. This book is fully trendy. There are always a few business ideas that are coming into vogue, introduced in a best-selling book or article. Sometimes they contain truly new ideas, but most of the time we’re looking at old ideas repackaged and applied to current events. I believe Eric Ries has given us a work that goes beyond mere recycling—I think he’s introduced ideas that can fully take root only now with the ubiquitous availability of instant information and the data storage and analysis capabilities that have been engineered in the 21st century.

Aside: the name itself might conjure thoughts of lean production. That’s on purpose. Lean production was invented to eliminate waste. Lean startup does the exact same thing with 21st century digital (and other) products.

Like the best marketable frameworks, Lean Startup principles can be neatly listed

  • Entrepreneurs are everywhere
  • Entrepreneurship is Management
  • Validated Learning
  • Innovation Accounting
  • Build-Measure-Learn

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The way I read it, Lean Startup ideas can be described as a specific process to put trial and error to work. The trick is to speed up trials and minimize the impact of errors. It’s evolution without that troublesome extinction step. This process requires 21st century technology and product delivery (Internet) and at the same time is based on an old chestnut we all take for granted. Trial and Error. An old boss, the late Stan Karandanis who founded Datacube in the 80’s held court one day and said to all assembled, “Besides the wheel, the greatest invention of mankind is feedback!” Right. I didn’t completely get it 25 years ago. Now I do, and I believe it. Hopefully the connection to the title of this post isn’t too obscure….

For now, I’d like to focus on the 5th principle. Build-Measure-Learn absolutely depends upon devising and using feedback. Using feedback isn’t easy.

While reading a book, doing a case in business school, or taking a look at the other guy’s business, it’s a lot easier to see the build-measure-learn cycle. And also see ways to clarify the cycle and speed it up—which are good things. How about when it’s your business? In my experience—especially in recent years—I’ve observed just how blind business executives can be (myself included) to their own build-measure-learn cycle.

Build issues: Are you willing to substitute customer feedback for your own “wisdom” ever? How do you feel about presenting a product or service that you know isn’t perfect to your market? How sensitive are you to the negative feedback you may receive?

Measure issues: Are you relentlessly measuring? Do you know what relentlessly means in this context? If you are relentlessly measuring, how often do you consider other metrics that might be new to you and your team?

Learn issues: This is the real problem. People invested in anything learn very, very slowly…if at all. It would be very surprising (and wonderful) if you and your team aren’t ignoring important feedback right now.

Add it all up, and it’s easy to see how difficult the build-measure-learn cycle is for your business. We’d all be pretty good Lean Startup consultants for someone else…but for ourselves??