I’m a longtime fan of the Chicago based web-application firm 37signals and have enjoyed their blog, books, and other writing on how they approach business. They’ve been outspoken in their opposition to the typical bureaucracy found in the corporate world and provide a refreshingly different take on how to tackle today’s business challenges.
Co-founder Jason Fried’s article for Inc. Magazine last week was an insightful look at where they’ve found themselves coming up short recently. He talks about the inherent tensions between being a detail oriented culture with an obsession with quality and being able to move quickly in the development process. Both skill sets are critical, but like most things I talk about here, it pays to be intentional about which tool you’re using for which purpose.
All of us were excited and working hard, but a week later, we had almost nothing to show for our effort. Nearly two months had passed since we had set out to test our idea, and we still had no idea if it would work.
Jason Fried - 37signals
In the early stages of testing ideas, it’s all about moving quickly (and cheaply) with a focus on learning. We’ve been talking about this in terms of risk management. Design and innovation is an inherently risky business, there’s simply no way around that. But that doesn’t mean you have to pile all of those risks into one big opportunity to swing for the fences. That tends to make the endeavor into a pass / fail situation with a low success rate. (Which translates into a lot of wasted time and money.) It’s far better to break those risks into small pieces where you can focus on quickly learning more instead of being caught up in that pass / fail mindset.
Fried talks about how they found themselves caught up in the wrong things at the front end of developing an idea. They took a step back, re-focused (partly by setting a very tight time constraint on the exercise), and cranked out a crude prototype that was perfect for testing the idea and helping them figure out where to go next.
It’s a great reminder that while sweating the details to put out a quality product is important, we can’t let it bog down the entire process when quality isn’t the point in the early stages.