The Drive to Act
It's nice to have something in common with Johannes Kepler! Kepler's extraordinary empirical efforts during the 1600s validated Copernican theory developed during a century earlier that the earth rotates around the sun. Yet Kepler considered himself a failure. That is, his entire scientific life was devoted to proof of a dead-wrong theory of the universe. Along the way, Kepler's accurate observations caused a scientific revolution of unparalleled magnitude.
My accomplishment is more mundane, to be sure. This past Christmas season, I produced a batch of superb eggnog, as a result of an unintended variation on a recipe. I was following the recipe meticulously. But I was using an undersized mixing bowl, and I could not fully whip the cream because it began to overflow the bowl. The accidentally achieved consistency triggered a positive breakthrough.
Likewise, a friend and I enjoyed several weeks this summer in rural France. Each morning we intensely studied numerous maps. Our precise targets included obscure remnants of prehistoric civilization. Fortunately, both of us have a touch of ineptitude when it comes to map following. I say "fortunately," because virtually every exciting find occurred because of a wrong turn en route to a carefully mapped destination. In one case we missed a prehistoric burial site by just 50 yards. While we groped in the nearby woods, we came across a beautifully preserved World War II Resistance radio transmitter with an intact antenna in the surrounding treetops.
While my and Kepler's unintended successes impacted the world to greatly differing degrees, they have a thread in common. On the surface, all three feats originally were failures. Yet they all resulted in success far beyond the initial objective. Most important, the three accomplishments were a tribute to the power of action over excessive contemplation.
One of the most profound failings of big corporations and of management practice as it has evolved over the past 40 years is the suppression of action in deference of excessive planning.
"Excessive" is the key word. For all three of my examples involved planning, whether through well conceived scientific hypotheses, tried and true recipe, or detailed map. Nonetheless, the three successes were due to unintended action that occurred only after real-world experimentation began.
One of Inc. magazine's fastest growing private companies is Sparta, North Carolina-based Pioneer/Eclipse Corp., producer of mundane floor-cleaning equipment. To my delight, President William H. Wilson calls his substantial research department the "T&E Department"—for trial and error.
Of course we must plan and we must thoughtfully target opportunities. But we must move rapidly to tests, trials, experiments, and pilot projects. Regis McKenna, the Silicon Valley marketing expert, contends that all of marketing should be viewed as "a continuous experiment." Amen. His view, sadly, is unique among most other honored marketing commentators.
The world is much more complex than our most intricate models and simulations. We should continue to model and simulate. But we also should move to tests in the real world; that is where the vagaries of actual use, personal tastes, and biases are revealed. We can accomplish little until living, "naive" users sample our frozen fruit bars, home computers, or jet aircraft engines.
I was pleased to note that McDonald's newest product, the McD.L.T., was the brainchild of a franchisee far removed from the company's headquarters. Most of McDonald's products were conceived outside its corporate bureaucracy. This is a potent lesson for most sizeable businesses. That is, product development might best be conceived as an array of naturally occurring, ongoing experiments. Franchisees or store managers or engineers in an almost forgotten applications lab 4,000 miles from headquarters are at work every day in these practical, not-so-bureaucratic environments. Their relatively unfettered tests provide vast opportunities for a corporate or division center not completely overcome by the Not Invented Here syndrome.
I am not repudiating thoughtfulness or planning. But I am suggesting that in the course of any project's genesis, planning must soon be supplanted by action. Much of our nation's progress has been a product of scientific inquiry. The prime tenet of the scientific method is not hypothesis generation; rather, it is hypothesis testing—i.e., action.
The themes "do it, fix it, try it" or "ready, fire, aim" (rather than "ready, aim, fire") must become the watchword of any organization bent upon constant renewal. Can you unearth a sizeable project and cut the time-to-first-practical-test by 50 percent to 75 percent?
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