“Get it wrong first time” to deliver successful change and innovation

“Getting it right first time” is, to me, one of the worst management doctrines. It suggests that a perfect solution can be delivered immediately, and that failure should be punished.

My own experience is that “right first time” can only happen with luck, and inhibits breakthrough growth. I have only been involved in one project that “succeeded” first time, and our ensuing arrogance meant that subsequent implementations simply failed to deliver.

So how do you encourage your people to try new stuff without expecting perfection? How do you welcome failure without constantly having dark thoughts of Nick Leeson bringing down Barings Bank?

I think that the answer lies in looking at how a baby learns to walk. Far from “getting it right first time”, babies often fall flat on their face, bottom, hands and knees. Yet some will end up running 100m in less than 10 seconds – not first time, but ultimately! Here are three things that help them go from crawling to walking.

  1. Start with a series of small steps. Babies start with small journeys, often holding on to your hand or the furniture. In business terms such small steps are taken through tests, trials and prototyping. The quicker this happens the bigger the success. As Michael Bloomberg wrote of his business media company, “While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs (hey, another baby analogy!) trying to make the design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we are on version #10. It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one; others plan how to plan-for months.” Of course, to succeed in rapid prototyping requires a culture of openness. Encouraging your people to share their failures as well as their successes, and celebrating both, will give your team the motivation to try new things. Instead of wasting time hiding failure at their performance review, your people will be onto the next iteration (or two, or three) of the concept.
  2. Be persistent. No matter how many times they fall over, babies will dust themselves down (after a bit of TLC) and have another go. Similarly, I have written elsewhere about Tesco’s persistence in developing their Express format. Far from being an overnight success, it took six years for the company to develop a model they could roll-out. The key to their ultimate success was their refusal to give up. Management believed that the convenience format would be a key driver of future growth. It was therefore not a question of if they should develop the new concept, but simply a question of how it should be developed – even after failing to get it right first (second and third) time.
  3. Find out what works and go from there. As with all aspiring toddlers, an approach that focuses on testing, trying and (often) failing means that you also need to be good at spotting what’s working and making the most of it. Perhaps no company has done this better than 3M, the makers of post-it notes. Originally a mining company, 3M moved into abrasives at the turn of the twentieth century. This move only happened because the owners had to something with the grit they had removed from their failed mine! As their former CEO Richard Carlton once said, “Our company has indeed stumbled onto some of its new products. But never forget that you can only stumble if you’re moving.”

The bottom line

Real failure is a failure to try, not a failure to achieve instant perfection. As a next step, identify which of your projects are being planned to death, and then encourage your team to act, build a prototype, make some mistakes and start to make a real difference.


To find out more contact Stuart by clicking here or call +44-(0)1636-526111.