Things Don’t Always Go According to Plan
Here’s one of my recent mistakes:
We bought the fish because we thought it would be a funny cat bed.
But, of course, the cats prefer the box it came in.
This is not unusual. Here is James Burke in Connections:
Things almost never turn out as expected. When the telephone was invented, people thought it would only be used for broadcasting. Radio was intended for use exclusively onboard ships. A few decades ago, the head of IBM said America would never need more than four or five computers. Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don’t happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident. Second-guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or things or ideas come together in new ways, the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts. A silk loom and the 1890 U.S. census gave birth to the computer. Gaslight and the American War of Independence were responsible for raincoats. Glassmaking and English clay made possible transatlantic navigation.
Adjusting on the Fly
So what? Well, here are some ideas:
- Use more empathy. The cats love boxes. Our floor is strewn with amazon boxes, and they love them. They are a lot pickier about things that resemble caves. We knew this, but we didn’t think like a cat when we ordered that cat bed.
- The purpose of our idea is discovered in use. The point of Burke’s book is that great ideas accumulate over time – and the use is not obvious in advance. We only figure out what things are good for when we start using them, and combining them with other ideas. That’s why it’s almost impossible to say who invented the computer – lots of people did, and the ideas that contributed to computers accumulated over thousands of years.
- We don’t know in advance what the great ideas are. Check out this idea from John Cassidy on tech bubbles:
That’s not to dismiss the great success of some of the companies founded during the tech bubble, such as Amazon and eBay. Similarly, some of the investments in the dot-com era that seemed to be wasted, such as the laying of large amounts of fibre-optic cable, turned out to be productive. Is there a way to encourage the investment and innovation we want without enduring all the consequences of a bubble?
The problem is this: we don’t know in advance which ones are the innovations that we want.
We get this a lot when we talk about innovation – people say, “well, just invest in the good ideas, not the speculative ones.” That would be great, but we don’t know in advance what the good ones are. It was in no way obvious that amazon would be able to beat out Barnes & Noble and Borders for online book sales – in fact, most people expected Jeff Bezos to fail.
The amazon story is often told as though everyone knew that it would work in advance. But here’s Bezos in this year’s letter to shareholders:
Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right. When this process works, it means our failures are relatively small in size (most experiments can start small), and when we hit on something that is really working for customers, we double-down on it with hopes to turn it into an even bigger success. However, it’s not always as clean as that. Inventing is messy, and over time, it’s certain that we’ll fail at some big bets too.
I’m not saying “don’t plan.” What I’m saying is “don’t expect things to go to plan.” There’s a difference. Planning helps you figure out what you will do in different circumstances. But when you’re trying something new, you have to be ready for the plan to be wrong.
That’s why we need to build learning loops into our plans. Eventually, if we keep muddling along, we might even get things right.