Ever wonder how powdered detergent is manufactured? Of course you do! Liquid detergent gets sprayed on to a wall where it dries, falls to the floor and is then gathered and packaged. Pretty straightforward, right? It turns out, however, that the way in which the liquid is sprayed greatly impacts the efficiency of the entire process. The right type of nozzle becomes crucial. Queue Unilever, a major manufacturer, who wanted to develop a new type of nozzle that would both provide a better spray pattern and reduce the likelihood of the nozzle getting blocked.
What did they do? They turned to the experts. A team of mathematicians, physicists and engineers worked together to design the new nozzle, utilizing a wealth of data, knowledge and experience in fluid dynamics. The end result was a beautiful new product that they were sure would be optimal. It was a huge failure.
Not intent to give up, Unilever decided to take a different approach. They created 10 random variations of the existing nozzle, some bigger, some with grooves, some without, etc… They took the one that performed the best, created 10 new variations, and repeated the process. 45 generations later they ended up with a totally unique nozzle design that both exceeded all their initial targets and baffled the experts. With a little trial and error, the next generation in powdered detergent manufacturing was born.
Why do we sometimes fear trial and error? Our industry is facing a growing number of complex business problems that aren’t going to be solved overnight. New technologies and platforms are threatening long held best practices. The next generation of renters are bringing entirely new sets of needs and wants. Shifts in consumer expectations are forcing changes to on-site strategies. The growing dominance of online marketing continues to disrupt traditional methodologies. And the list goes on. It seems we have three choices:
- Hunker down and hold tight to the status quo
- Design solutions up front using the best and brightest resources available
- Discover solutions using trial and error
Despite there being plenty of evidence that trial and error can serve as a practical basis for achieving significant results, many business leaders still tend to go with one of the first two options. Why?
The cost of failure can be high. Trial and error will inevitably involve misfires, it’s just a part of the process. When budgets are tight and short term performance is emphasized, it is hard to take on any risk, even if the long term payout may be large.
Our ego is on the line. To engage in trial and error is an open admission that we don’t know the solution and don’t have all the answers. That’s not always an easy truth to swallow and, in some cases, is even frowned upon.
We’re not willing to change. Trial and error can lead to surprising conclusions. Are we prepared to accept a solution that may force us to abandon old traditions and embrace a new paradigm?
Someone else must have the answer already. It’s amazing how powerful the phrase “best practices” can be, even if the credentials supporting them are, well, sketchy. And yet, we all want to learn from the experts, right? Knowing when to pay attention and when to blaze a new trail is a hallmark of successful business leaders.
It’s a lot of work. Trial and error is usually not a fast process nor does it come without a great deal of effort. It involves iterations, resets, and do-overs. It can be frustrating to anyone looking for a quick fix.
Embracing the unknown. One of the most interesting aspects of the Unilever case study was that the experts had no scientific explanation for why the resulting nozzle was so successful. It was beyond anything they could have designed or conceived. It’s a cautionary and somewhat frightening insight that we really don’t know as much as we think we do.
One thing we do know is that the more complex the system, the harder it will be to design a solution up front. Practical trials put all the variables in motion, whether anticipated or not, and allow us to learn from the results. Here is what organizations can do to better institutionalize the process of trial and error:
- Make sure you are distinguishing symptoms from root problems. Focus your time and efforts on solving for the later.
- Be willing to explore technologies and solutions that you’ve previously dismissed. The trial half of the process requires exploring new territory.
- Set realistic expectations. Not every exercise in trial and error will lead to a golden goose and time frames can be hard to predict. Anticipate plenty of error along the way.
- Good planning, controlled samples and the ability to measure results quickly will help minimize costs and result in better decisions. Does that sound like the scientific method? It should.
- Speaking of planning, have an if/then strategy in place so you already know what the next steps will be regardless of the outcome.
- Pick vendors and partners that also embrace trial and error by allowing you to run pilot programs, participate in case studies, and are flexible with you making changes. Don’t be afraid of vendors that are of themselves using trial and error to improve their solutions and products.
- Encourage and embrace a company culture where certain types of failure are acceptable as long as there is learning and improving. It’s okay to not always have the answers upfront.
Do we really need to be reinventing wheels all the time? Absolutely not. There is a time and place for trial and error just as there is a time and place for the adoption of established best practices and consultation with the experts. You will have to navigate that line for yourself. Trial and error can lead to amazingly effective results and some of the most profound insights both within and outside our industry have been discovered with this process. Trial and error can also lead to the one thing all businesses yearn for but few truly achieve: differentiation. Now that’s something to think about.