Baby-Stepping to Awesome: Iteration, Experimentation & Validated Learning

I’ve learned to embrace an iterative process. It hasn’t come easily. At the age of nine, I committed myself to keeping a daily journal. When I would (occasionally and invariably) miss a day, I’d play catch-up, writing two to three entries at time. “You accomplish your end goal,” I told myself, “or you don’t do it all!”  I was so caught up with keeping a daily journal that I never stopped to ask myself why I wanted to accomplish this goal, what I thought its value would be for me, and whether there weren’t more productive ways of getting at my why and its anticipated value. One day, months into my commitment, and frustrated with what I viewed as failure, I found myself so angry that I tore all the pages out of my journal and burned the whole thing.  (Oh, to be nine years old, idealistic, and totally inflexible in one’s expectations.)


I’ve since learned to take setting and reaching goals a little more lightly. Last night I ran into a friend, Jim Jubelirer, who works as a business coach. He told me that he’s preparing a talk on how most people overestimate what they’re able to accomplish in one year–and underestimate what they can accomplish in five. Turns out that a long view is crucial to being able to make the most of each day, week, month, and year–and that of course we only set ourselves up for disappointment and failure if we expect that we can achieve longer term goals (or habits, like keeping a daily journal) in an inappropriately short time frame.  This is a great reminder for me as I work on applying to business school and marrying my two loves of business and food.


Taking a deliberate and slower, more flexible approach has serious applications to business as well.  I used to want to design the perfect marketing campaign, execute it to according to plan, and call it a success because I had launched on-time and according to specs.  Metrics, I thought, could be measured later.  But let’s think about that.  So what if you design what you think is an AWESOME product and get it packaged and ready for distribution by your target date–and then it turns out that no stores want to carry it? FAIL. So what if your marketing campaign goes out on time to 10,000 people–and no one responds?  (Chalking your campaign up to “awareness building” only works for so long.) FAIL.

Embracing an iterative process in business means not only that you see your end goal and break it into little bitty bite size (accomplish-able) pieces, but that you measure your success along the way and adjust course as needed–and before you reach what you think is your ultimate goal.  In marketing, we talk about taking a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach. Seriously. The target is moving so fast these days that we’re stupid not to measure not only our progress along the way, but also the meaning and worth of that progress.  Targets change.  Eric Ries, in his (awesome book) The Lean Startup addresses the same problem and its solutions, describing the iterative process  as “Build-Measure-Learn.”


And let’s be serious. An iterative, slow-moving, forgiving process works for smaller tasks, too. I’ve been working on “the perfect resume” for almost a year. I’m certain that it’s better now than it was a year ago; but the way that it has gotten better has only been through small changes over time.  And how did I know which changes to make?  Because I got feedback.  I learned along the way.  The best part of taking a slower approach and testing your results is not only that you usually end up with a better outcome, but that you get to enjoy the process along the way. So take it easy. Accomplish your goals in bite-sized chunks, and take the opportunity to review your progress and make sure that you’re getting where you really need to be.

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