For Heaven’s Sake, Try It!

Tom Peters

Americans are a pragmatic, impatient lot. From time to time our “shoot first, ask questions later” approach causes problems. Sometimes grave ones. But mostly, throughout our history, the rush to do something has paid off.

On the other hand, we think of the Japanese as very patient. I’ve even heard that one giant Japanese firm has a 500-year plan. Perhaps the story is apocryphal—but, hey, who’s to say?

Then again, maybe we’ve got the Japanese pegged wrong—as is so often the case. Japanese company “winners,” McKinsey and consultant Kenichi Ohmae told Time magazine, “look more like survivors ofa demolition derby than meticulous strategic planners.” Clever, flawless Japanese products that we see on American store shelves are survivors of the mad, bloody, competitive battles in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo.

The Economist magazine echoed Ohmae, recently reporting on Japan’s “product-churning” penchant: “When developing a new product, Western firms use a ‘rifle’ approach, testing the market constantly and revising the product each time until it exactly meets the customer’s needs before launching it.” Japanese manufacturers, by contrast, “tend to use a ‘shotgun’ approach. For instance, around 1,000 new soft drinks appear annually in Japan, though 99 percent of them vanish within a year. New-product ideas are not tested through market research, but by selling the first production batch.”

The Economist provides the further example of a Sharp hi-fi with two compact disc players instead of one. Sharp itself was openly skeptical about the need for such a configuration, but forged ahead anyway. Kids lapped it up, unexpectedly using machines “to mix tracks from separate CDs onto tape.” Never know until you try!

In marked contrast to Sharp and its Japanese brethren, our organizations, especially the largest ones, seem to have grown nearly perfect action-impedance mechanisms. What will get us off this dime?

Maybe looking at life will help—that is, “real” life, outside of work. My experience with “real-life Americans,” as opposed to “corporate Americans,” is consistent: For one thing, our impatient weekend selves rarely read a manual to its conclusion. We stop at about page 3—and try it. Assembling a backyard barbecue, powering up a short-wave radio, learning to spin wool? We start in on the directions, get antsy, and begin tinkering. The result is a lot of dumb moves. If only we’d taken our time, eh?

Hold on! “Dumb” moves teach us, remarkably quickly, a “feel” for whatever it is. By putting it together wrong, we learn more and gain mastery faster, I’d judge, than if we’d followed instructions and by some miracle put it together right the first time. Each wrong turn, shanked golf shot, or flubbed keyboard instruction teaches us something about the journey, game, program. Often, in my experience, our tomfoolery reveals facets of the product that even the designer didn’t consider.

So why don’t we transplant our “hobbyist’s approach” to business? We seem to grow more at hobbies on weekends than at work during the weekdays. But somewhere, somehow, our natural “try it” bias recedes into the shadows during the trip from home to office. The fearless hobbyist-experimenter in the garage woodwork shop cowers before a phalanx of clucking MBAs, consultants, and other “experts” at 8 a.m. Monday morning—always asking for “more analysis,” “more research.” The result: At home, our motto is “Ready. Fire. Aim.” At work, “Ready. Aim. Aim. Aim. Aim. …” (This was perhaps former board member Ross Perot’s most damning indictment of General Motors some years back.)

A few American firms do get the point. Most executives shake their heads at 3M’s relentless, error-free march to ever greater innovation success. Of course, that’s exactly wrong. 3M today thrives as ever on its longstanding creed: “Make a little, sell a little, make a little more.” Error free? Hardly. The 3M secret is error-prone. I’d hazard a guess that 3M is a league leader in product failures—and also, and more important, a champion when it comes to saying “try it,” “try it again.” It’s hard to fathom a bunch of clowns who’d hang in with a silly, dead-end idea like Post-it Notes for a decade, right? PepsiCo is another peerless star at the same game; CEO Wayne Calloway openly proclaims his own “Ready. Fire. Aim.” dogma.

My proposal is modest: Remember your pragmatic weekend self! When asked about anything, why not respond with “try it”? You’ll create a double-win. First, “try it” constitutes the ultimate in delegation. If, on the off chance, an idea does need a touch more thinking out, you can be sure that “they” will do it following an honest “try it” on your part—because that honest “try it” has put the monkey squarely on their backs and removed it from yours. Second, of course, the more “try its,” the more tries, the more instructive failures, the more happy accidents, the more learning, the faster the corrective process—and the higher the odds of success. It is about that simple.

Try it!

(C)1991 TPG Communications.

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