You Are What You Try


Tom Peters has released a massive, 14-section slide deck that summarises both the evolution and current state of his thinking on management. When I was a manager, Peter’s work always resonated very strongly with me. Now that I’m an academic, it’s clear that there is a sound research base supporting most of his key arguments as well.

The section in the deck resonates with both my manager and my academic sides.

The key message from Peters is:

Whoever tries the most stuff wins. (WTTMSW)


As he points out, this approach is central to science, evolution, innovation, growth.

In another slide, he says:

“The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, psychologist Dean Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. ‘Quality,’ Simonton writes, ‘is a probabilistic function of quantity.’” *
—Malcolm Gladwell, “Creation Myth,” New Yorker

*Joe Murray, to TJP, on winning a Nobel in medicine for the 1st
successful organ transplant: “We did more procedures.”

Quality is a probabilistic function of quality – I’ve said this myself!

For innovators, this has some important implications:

  • Action now! Innovators innovate. If we’re trying to become more innovative, the best thing to do is to start trying stuff. Don’t look for the perfect idea. Don’t plan to make sure you don’t make a mistake. Try stuff.
  • Purpose is what grounds your experiments. The danger in just trying stuff is that you have no idea where you’ll end up. (Though that’s also the opportunity!) Dan Pontefract calls purpose the “leaders’ duty of care.” Nilofer Merchant says that purpose replaces marketing – and it what guides experiments:

    Have a bigger goal. Have a reason to care that reaches beyond you / your product / your company. The secret is that it’s something people actually care about outside your organization – something they are already pursuing, and you happen to also be pursuing it. You then get to band together to go after common goal.

  • Velocity becomes a key metric. How fast you move becomes really important.

What’s the last new thing you tried? If you can’t remember, or it’s been a while, it’s time to get going. This isn’t just for software startups either. Shawn Cunningham has a great example from a small manufacturing firm he’s worked with.

If whoever tries the most stuff wins, then you are what you try.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “You Are What You Try

  1. Hi Tim,

    Great article. The only thing I would add to the Rapid Trial and Error is something which would resound with Eric Ries. More important than the Rapid Trial and Error is rapid learning and improving from each trial. Without this we’re wasting our time.


  2. Hi Tim,

    I want to take issue with the notion that “quality is a probabilistic function of quality.” While it is true that research has consistently shown that not only are the best creators the most prolific, but also that they do their best work in their most prolific periods. That would seem to support the notion that quantity leads to quality, but the truth is more complicated.

    A similar idea is Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule.” Simply stated, it says that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become world class in any field. Yet the research that underlies this notion makes it clear that it’s not any kind of practice that leads to excellence, but “deliberate practice,” which involves working on weak areas, taking advice from coaches, etc. Simply going through the motions for 10,000 hours won’t achieve much.

    I believe the same thing is true with creative output. Creating more work will not directly lead to better work, but exploring more possibilities will. You need to be more prolific to explore more widely, but simply cranking things out will not immediately lead you to new horizons. That takes serious effort. You have to stretch yourself.

    I apologize if you don’t like this comment. If that’s the case, please let me know. I’ll write a thousand more until I get it right:-)

    – Greg

  3. Thanks Evan and Greg. I think that you’re both on to essentially the same point – that directed learning is necessary to make this work.

    And I agree that this is true, and necessary.

    However, I think that the argument is a bit of a straw man – I can’t think of examples of firms that have been prolific experimenters and failed. It takes a particular culture to experiment widely and rapidly – and, for the most part, learning is built into that approach.

    But I can’t tell you how many firms I’ve run across that don’t try enough new ideas – this is a real problem, and dangerous.

    Even at the personal level, how many people actually do 10,000 hours of practice on something without getting some kind of outcome? I don’t think there are many.

    So I absolutely take your points, and I’m glad that you made them. We can add them to the post so that the argument is more nuanced, and closer to correct. But I also stand by the value of sheer volume.

  4. I have learned that building a team is the best way to try new things. Two heads are better than one, and 4 are better than 2. People tend to support what they help create, so building a team and trying lots of new, outside the box experiments gives you other people’s feedback. Each will do the project in a little different way, and we can share the best practices. The first attempts are often ugly and laughable, but each one after that gets better and better.