Spiral Thinking

Dave Zaboski recently spoke at a METal International meeting about the journey of an idea from inception to making something. A point he made was we tend to try to force ideas along a linear path from idea to “thing,” when instead, we should be thinking along a non-linear, spiral path. This allows the idea to quickly evolve to what it should/could be as we fail and learn. 

The linear path suggests we can predict the specific “thing” that should be created. It assumes we know the longitude and latitude of the destination and we can map the most efficient route. We apply rigorous planning and project management to invoke corrective procedures when the process is out of specification. That’s classic business management. 

The spiral path suggests a Baysean approach to the development process and is the antithesis of strategic planning. Rather than predicting the “thing,” we have a general idea of what it should be, but the final output is driven by what is learned along the way. A colleague Gil Nevo recently described this as the “fast feedback loop” that entrepreneurs must apply to successfully grow their business. The intent is to create a minimally viable product as quickly as possible and get it in users’ hands. Then iterate, iterate, iterate. It's messier, but the benefit is getting to the optimal version of the "thing" quicker.

Which is great in theory and makes for good blogs. Does it really work? Yes, and plenty of examples exist. SpaceX was a huge failure at first - but they rapidly iterated from their first failures to resolve problems. The Wright brothers suffered dismal failure after dismal failure, but just 72 hours after once again crashing their “flying machine,” they had a revised version ready to go and it worked. Snapchat began by creating a product that only shared pictures for seconds, then grew their very popular product by quickly testing new features. 

Why don’t more companies embrace this way of thinking? Because there is a mistaken belief that failure is bad. Companies focus on adherence to plan over speed to market because predictability and stability are preferred over short-term variability. The problem is, with constantly changing technology and a rapidly transforming business environment, focusing on predictability, safety and stability will increase business risk rather than decrease it. 

If you are interested in giving it a try, here’s a few tips:

  • Learn about the the discipline of rapid prototyping. A good overview: http://goo.gl/J5Zky8.
  • Focus data analysis on making a good judgement call, not getting a precise answer.
  • Work in service of the idea, not your ego. You’re going to get some critical feedback.
  • Find a small project where failures won’t be scrutinized.
  • Document the process and tell the story in as many places as you can. 
  • Explain the process in the language of your audience and always show the business value.