Enlightened Trial and Error Outperforms the Planning of Flawless Intellects

That’s the mantra at IDEO, which they apply not only to the design of their products, but also to their organization itself.

Now, before getting into that, a quick aside. This principle, that “enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects,” is quite profound. It is based on the reality that we are finite, and is in fact one of the key lessons of human history.

For example, it shows us why central planning doesn’t work as an economic system. Or, better, the failure of central planning as an economic system manifests the truth of this principle (which we can now use to discourage new attempts at increased central planning, BTW!).

The mass collaboration of the internet is also powered, in part, by this principle of enlightened trial and error — in this case, the enlightened trial and error of essentially millions of people collaborating (directly and indirectly) on a massive scale because of technology.

For example, the team at OmniGroup created the task management application OmniFocus. But they encourage user feedback and even gather data on how their program is used. They are continually building out and improving the program on the basis of how people actually use it and on the basis of what the users identify as potentially being most important to them.

That is only one small example of how many things, even though ultimately developed by a company, are now developed “in collaboration with” large groups of real people. There are also many other forms of mass collaboration that are now happening (on this see the excellent book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything).

We are just on the cusp of some very powerful changes that will come about from this new way of working and thinking, made possibly by the web (and now, especially, web 2.0 functionality).

So this principle is very, very significant and has very wide application.

But back to IDEO.

IDEO shows that of the many areas where this principle is relevant, an easily overlooked but quite fascinating application is to the arena of organizational strategy and design.

Here is what we read about IDEO in What Were They Thinking?: Unconventional Wisdom About Management:

IDEO’s mantra is that “enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects,” a philosophy it applies not just to the design of its products but also to itself, its organization, and how it conducts business.

It has built an experimenting, do-what-it-takes culture. IDEO had made a good living by designing products for the high technology industry. But during the technology crash of 2001, it needed to reinvent itself, and it did. The company began designing products for consumer goods companies like Procter & Gamble. And it even got into the business of designing experiences, which helped it garner business figuring out how to design hospital emergency rooms, for instance, to make things less confusing and fearful for patients.

Here’s the application:

So, instead of sitting in meetings and spending time preparing fancy PowerPoint presentaitons, develop your strategy adaptively, by using your company’s best thinking at the time, learning from experience, and then trying again, using what you have learned.

Building and experimenting, mistake-forgiving, adaptive culture provides a competitive advantage that lasts, because that sort of environment is much more difficult to copy than some dogmatic strategy. Under almost all circumstances, fast learners are going to outperform even the most brilliant strategists who can’t adapt.