Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 11;   March 14, 2007:

Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best

by

You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.

Many workplaces are festooned with "slogan posters," and sometimes they do have a positive effect. But sometimes they're unhelpful — even destructive. One slogan that can be especially inappropriate in problem-solving organizations is "Do It Right the First Time." It has an equally inappropriate cousin: "If you don't have time to do it right, how will you get time to do it again?"

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6 during the first-ever docking of two orbiting spacecraft. The Gemini Program was a preliminary to moon exploration, but none of the Gemini vehicles were capable of completing a trip there. The program's purpose was purely experimental. The pilot of Gemini 7, by the way, was James Lovell, who later commanded Apollo XIII, the mission that nearly failed due to an on-board explosion. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

These slogans might make some sense in the operational context, where tasks are very repeatable. But problem-solving tasks are different. Problem solving, which occurs most often in the project context, entails doing something new here, in our organization, if not the world.

Here are three advantages of organizational cultures that grant permission to experiment — to "do it wrong" the first time.

Accelerated progress
We often learn more by doing it wrong than by doing right. A series of well-designed experiments that focus on specific learning goals can usually advance the project faster than consistently trying to implement deliverable solutions.
Normalized risk taking
When we require that every effort produce deliverable results, we create a culture that's averse to taking the kind of risks that are often necessary to complete projects successfully.
Cost savings
When we can accept that a particular implementation isn't "final," and won't ever be, we can take steps to limit our investment in that implementation. We can work on answering only the question at hand.

Even if We often learn more
by doing it wrong
than by doing right
you decide that experimental approaches are sometimes justified, there are three traps awaiting many organizations.

Confusion between operations and projects
Leaders and managers accustomed to operationally oriented organizations often see exploratory failures as worthless indulgences, because they don't directly produce the desired result. Many with strictly operational experience must learn new ways when they manage problem-solving organizations.
Hidden problem-solving organizations
Problem solving organizations can be embedded within operationally oriented organizations. For instance, most IT organizations are responsible for information and computation operations. Managing them requires an operational orientation. But these same IT organizations also contain groups that develop new products and first-of-kind services. Managing these efforts requires a more experimental approach. And this is a problem for slogan posters, because everyone sees them, and some slogans aren't right for everybody.
Cultural inertia
Some organizations have a historically operational orientation, but now perform most of their work in the project context. In some cases, the old culture hasn't yet adapted to the new work.

Doing it right by first doing it wrong can give you personal advantages, too. A very small example: how much better would our work lives be if we gave ourselves permission to keep revising the email messages we write until we feel good about them? You can start today. Go to top Top  Next issue: Dismissive Gestures: I  Next Issue

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