Build It, Try It, Fix It

July 30, 2007  

Here is another “innovation tip.” This one is simple, yet incredibly powerful. In fact, I am using this concept right now with this website. But more on that later.

One of the biggest barriers to success is analysis paralysis. It is the belief that studying the marketplace infinitum will yield better results. This is just not true. We can never predict what will happen in the “real” world, no matter how much Customer Relationship Management (CRM) data we have, how many focus groups we conduct, or how many strategy consulting firms we hire.

Rather than using the “analyze, design, build, test, deploy” model, use the “build it, try it, fix it” model – build something, try it out for a while, and learn from your “experiences.” Although some may call these experiences “failures,” I think of them as valuable information about the real world.

The process is simple. Develop a small experiment where the risk associated with failure is limited or controllable (build it). Learn from the results (try it). Adjust the experiment (fix it). Continue to iterate with larger experiments, increasing the scale. Stop pursuing an idea when the experiment suggests a lack of viability or desirability

Example: A clothing manufacturer wanted to venture into retail stores. Rather than developing detailed plans based on years of analysis, they rented empty space in a local mall and set up a trial shop in a matter of weeks. The store was set up with video cameras and other equipment to help analyze the results. Although the store concept “failed,” they learned more during two months of running the experiment than they would have spending a year analyzing the marketplace. They quickly reworked the store and tested out version 2. This continued—with frequent iterations. Over time they increased the size of the experiments until the stores were rolled out on a national level.

How am I using the “build it, try it, fix it” concept with this website? Some of you may have noticed that the tag line has changed a few times over the past several months. This blog was originally titled “Goal-Free Living.” Unfortunately, I found that it limited my ability to incorporate my corporate innovation & creativity work. I also discovered that the “goal-free” name turned off many goal-obsessed organizations.

Next I tried “The Science of High Performance.” The word “science” confused some people. And “high performance” was not quite right. Besides, it was too close to Accenture’s tag line – “High Performance. Delivered.”

My latest tag line is: “Unconventional Thinking for Explosive Business Growth.” This too is an experiment. Although I like this tag line, I am not attached to it. What I like about it is that it focuses on what I enjoy most: getting people to think differently. I renamed my speeches too:

  • Unconventional Thinking about Innovation (this is my 24/7 Innovation content)
  • Unconventional Thinking about Creativity (this is my SpeedInnovating content)
  • Unconventional Thinking about Goals & Performance (this is my Goal-Free Living content)
  • Unconventional Thinking about Thinking (this is the content of my TV show)

What do you think? I welcome your comments on my “Unconventional Thinking” brand. I also am interested in examples of where you applied the “build it, try it, fix it” approach and had positive (or negative) results.

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15 Responses to “Build It, Try It, Fix It”

  1. Tom Wrensch on July 30th, 2007 5:02 pm

    A very clear description of a powerful idea!

    I’ve found this approach to be incredibly useful in my own field (Computer Science) where it’s given names like “iterative refinement” and “agile”.

    What I’ve had trouble with is effectively teaching this idea. It sounds simple, my students nod when I talk about it–but most don’t use it. The few who do try it don’t seem to understand it’s breath and power.

    I admit that my corporate clients seem to understand it better than the undergraduates I used to teach. Due, I expect, to their deeper understanding of real-world problems.

    – Tom Wrensch

  2. Rosie Bernardo on August 2nd, 2007 2:51 am

    Hey there,
    I LOVE the new tag line. Love it!!!!
    The use of the word unconventional really works.
    Great to see the new web site too!
    Rosie

  3. Rosario on August 8th, 2007 4:07 pm

    I like very much the first part of your new tag line (unconventional thinking) and not so much the second part (for explosive business growth). It doesn’t fully resonate with the values or approach that you defend. Your statement about how much you enjoy encouraging people for unconventional thinking stopped there and didn’t include that you also love making people’s businesses grow in an explosive way. So, I think that you still are looking to find a better end for your tag line.

    In my opinion you clearly reflect in your contributions that you are very comfortable with creative thinking and education. However, how much of an integrated life may have someone who suddenly experiments an explosive business growth that she/he is not prepared to manage in a healthy way?

    Industrial technologies have been mostly based in explosion for energy production and not in implosion, and that’s where nature points intelligently for us to pay attention. A science that it is not humble enough to mimick nature’s mechanisms to learn from them can certainly generate much destruction and not enough recovery for energetic balance. That’s why I could even be suspicious of the word “science”. What kind of science would you subscribe to?

    Goethe, the great German poet and playwright, whas also a man of science, and he susbscribed to a participatory science of qualities. He pointed out how even though we don’t see how a leave grows, it happens before our eyes. This is generative growth, subtle, continuous, often invisible. I use this concept (generative development) in the field of development studies to indicate how different cultures and countries evolve according to their particular rhythms, not necessarily at the pace of Western countries, but organically in their own way, which depends fundamentally on their interaction with nature. Explosive economic growths may create havoc in a society that is not prepared for that. Same at individual level for a business project if the person has not reflected about how that “success” will integrate within personal life.

    You defended recently your belief in integration and not balance. You could draw from it for your tag line. Unconventional thinking for an integrated life or for an integrated success or for an integrated performance, could work (you would have to define what those concepts mean for you). They would sound more like who you are, given that you also defend organic growth that at the end needs to be embedded within the company’s structure in order to be lasting. Integrated performance, for instance, may give you chance to include your concept of goal-free living within the picture.

    Someone who trusts life, flows with it, and accept what is happening while holding a vision of the future with faith will manifest simultaneously diverse brain-wave patterns associated with relaxation, creativity, alertedness, and “groundness” (see biofeedback research by Maxwell Cade). This full spectrum has been associated with high performance, but why don’t name it integrated performance, if actually the brain is showing integration of functions and wave patterns?

    As for the “build it, try it, fix it” I am for it but also for the analyze first and then these three verbs. What you propose doesn’t come out from improvisation that easily but from extensive/intensive reflection, study, and preparation. Perhaps some people learn by doing and others prefer theory and then go to practice. How these two groups can find commonality is the most interesting.

    I have met innovators applying what you named it who went along experimenting, testing, and trusting in the midst of adverse circumstances. Some of them experimented with the zero emissions concept. I didn’t meet Paolo Lugari, great innovator with Las Gaviotas project in Colombia, but have enjoyed learning about how his creativity has worked beautifully and helped to overcome difficulties. Through this link you can learn about what he did and is doing. But specially I thought that you would like to see the picture when you scroll down the page: it shows creative ways of using a seesaw for community benefits (http://www.zeri.org/case_studies_reforestation.htm)

    I am sure that you are enjoying your exploration of creative tag lines, any way. Keep on doing that! We are learning and enjoying the process with you!

  4. LNK on August 17th, 2007 9:53 am

    I agree w the previous post – “unconventional thinking” is a great descriptor. “For explosive business growth” is limiting. While I understand that you are trying to target corporate clients, I work with many businesses and their biggest problems (at least where we live) are not those of lack of growth. In fact, their bigger problems are often caused by explosive growth – inability to hire and inspire employees, find good product, set boundaries with customers, etc. Explosive growth can be scary to a lot of businesses, for these reasons. So I would recommend continuing to refine this.

    Build it, try it fix it – love it! I do this in my consulting practice on a frequent basis. Clients like being in charge, and knowing that their is more than one way to do something. Also they love that I listen to their input about how to do things. I also use this in my personal life. Life is just like this, can never be adequately planned.

  5. Yve on August 21st, 2007 11:41 am

    ‘Unconventional thinking’ sounds like ‘freedom thinking’ which sounds like having fun. Which sounds a lot better like ‘market research’ which to me sounds like looking for possible problems and certainly doesn’t involve having fun what so ever.

    Build it, try it, fix it works for me, always has …. but I had to learn to quit it when things can’t be fixed or just don’t fit personally.

  6. Philip Fortuna on August 24th, 2007 4:10 pm

    Stephen, you are just brilliant. In a world that focus obsessively on certainty, your voice lends sanity. We have just founded http://www.cphint.com , a global student think tank, and it seemed like we needed to know what and how we were going to do things up front.

    By just going out to do what we felt right we have discovered our purpose and methods far better than any strategy session good have taught us.

    With the little bits of wisdom your newsletter has given me, and the confidence in my ability to learn while doing, I have been able to lead the team to a successful start-up and we look forward to bigger things in the future.

  7. Innovation Mindset, Not Innovation Tools : Stephen Shapiro on December 31st, 2007 7:01 am

    [...] But failures do not need to be costly. Move to innovation by experimentation. I call it “Build It, Try It, Fix It.” Instead of an all-or-nothing innovation mindset, try lots of small experiments that can be [...]

  8. HP to Consolidate Innovation Efforts | Stephen Shapiro on Innovation, Creativity, Goals & Performance on March 18th, 2008 6:50 am

    [...] learn this by doing a series of small experiments that scale over time.  I call this the “Built It, Try It, Fix It” model.  Instead of placing fewer big bets, you try a large number of small experiments [...]

  9. 7 Ways Innovation Can Recession-Proof Your Business | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on October 23rd, 2008 9:15 am

    [...] 5. Fail Cheaply If you are truly innovative, you will fail.  If you don’t fail, you are playing it safe.  Therefore, if you are going to fail, FAIL CHEAPLY.  And no, this is not the same as failing fast.  I am not talking about speed, I am addressing the cost to implement.  To fail cheaply, you must embrace the “build it, try it, fix it” mentality.  Build our your idea as a small experiment.  Implement it.  Learn from the experience. My Innovation Personality Poker was developed using this approach.  I first created a simple spreadsheet to test for personalities.  Then I created home-made cards printed at FedEx Kinkos.  Finally, when we knew it was perfect, we invested in designers and 500 decks of expensive cards.   Learn more about the “build it, try it, fix it” approach. [...]

  10. Steve Adams on November 17th, 2008 7:17 pm

    it is really an awesome … and brilliant idea to share, especially to those student like me .

    I hope many article and other, writing about IT, also, system development. More power to you!
    Thank you…..!

  11. Kevin Weir on January 14th, 2009 7:37 am

    Build it, try it, fix it!

    I liked the article and agree fully with the principles and advantages described. Thank you!

    My question is; in what circumstances is this process most effective?

    I can see its benefit more when considering incremental-type innovations where the application, market and customer base are known and one wants to be sure the innovation will work as anticipated – i.e. the risk is relatively low. I also see a benefit for new technology development in a known market eg. palm pilot development.

    But what about its relevance for “new/new” situations.

    I have a hard time convincing companies to spend less time trying to “guess” the potential of a yet-to-emerge market and spend more time doing exactly what you perscribe – get something out there and learn for yourself – how the market will react and how fast it might develop. Any insights on how this process reduces risk of uncertainty and how it might help predict business success?

  12. Stephen Shapiro on February 1st, 2009 2:12 am

    Kevin,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. This is a great question. Interestingly, I feel that the Build It, Try It, Fix It (BTF) approach works even better for new/new situations.

    Look at it this way. With incremental innovation, you know who your customers are. If you wanted, you could analyze the marketplace with reasonable accuracy to understand if a new product or service will succeed. Customer insight and data analysis tools can measure the behaviors of your existing customers with reasonable accuracy.

    Same holds true, as you point out with certain technologies – especially web-based technologies where change is easy.

    But in the new/new situation, your target audience may not be clearly identified. And even if it is, you may not have access to that market to get insight. Get accurate data may be nearly impossible. Therefore, the best thing to do is think creatively about how to create an experiment that will help shake out the marketplace.

    Maybe this isn’t the best example, but I like what Starwood Hotels did when the introduced aLoft, a new hotel chain. As a way of getting feedback from the largest group of people, the created a virtual hotel in Second Life. This gave them greater access to a wider group of people than those who are current Starwood customers. Theoretically, this idea could be applied to any new concept.

    The key is to think of these not as prototypes, but rather experiments. The objective is not to success or fail, but rather to gain real-world insights into customer behaviors. And this requires a lot of creative thinking. Put as much creativity energy into think through your experiments as you do in developing the idea you want to test out.

    Let me know if there is something else you had in mind.

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    [...] on this blog, I discuss many different ways of making this happen. Some of them include “Build It, Try It, Fix It” – an iterative development process where you learn by doing rather than analyzing. Other [...]

  14. 699 Failures is a Failure | Business Innovation Speaker and Consultant Stephen Shapiro on August 7th, 2009 2:18 pm

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