Is experimentation more effective than engineering in achieving an optimal solution? This is the case made by economics writer Tim Harford in his latest TED talk. He further advocates that schools, politicians and companies adopt this trial and error approach, which he opposes to the so-called “God complex”. One of the most compelling examples, I find, is the one from Unilever about manufacturing detergent.
As a consultant and trainer in the field of organisational learning, I agree that experimentation and mistakes are the best sources for learning. I believe that the most successful companies are those that are able to adapt. One of my favorite quotes from Charles Darwin is the following: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
What I would add to Harford’s demonstration is the imperious need, not only to transform our beliefs about trial and error, but also to be able to capture and reuse the results of each trial and error. This is commonly referred to as knowledge management. Companies suffer just as much from this lack of continuity as they do from error-averse culture. If we start each trial and error with the best available hypothesis as an input, we are that much closer to the better solution. As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Fail, fail again. Fail better.”
As an entrepreneur and head of ParisSharing.com, which is my main hat, I intuitively and wholeheartedly adhere to the trial and error thesis. Only fools (and bankers) believe in business plans. Of course, I have one as well, and have in fact invested enormous time into it. If a business model doesn’t even work on paper, it more than likely will fail in application. Unfortunately for those who believe in their business plans, the reverse is far from true. Both opportunity and setback cause a young business to evolve on a weekly basis, sometimes in unexpected directions.
Example from this very week. The ParisSharing business plan was focused on capturing English-speaking customers in the first three years, assuming that these would require a lower cost of acquisition for both cultural and linguistic reasons. The new reality: we suddenly have a small group of associates and lead customers who speak Japanese and have close ties with Japan. I do mean suddenly, and we did nothing in particular to attract them. But now it has become obvious that this represents an opportunity to tackle a market that we had previously considered impenetrable. As early as next week, translations into Japanese will commence, contrary to plan.
I’ll end off by suggesting that the cultures and economies that have most rapidly developed over the past several hundred years are those in which trial and error were not only tolerated but encouraged.
So, if you really think you have the solution for a complex problem (a healthcare system, for example), your credibility is waning. But you may still have potential as a politician.