Be good at being wrong… and getting it right quickly

Even the best entrepreneurs get things wrong from time to time. Launching a business is a learning process, and you are bound to go down dead ends and change direction here and there, says CEO of Nomanini, Vahid Monadjem. 

One of our investors, Esther Dyson, has the words “Always make new mistakes!” in her email footer. Being wrong is pretty much unavoidable when you’re doing something new. You have to work with a mixture of facts and assumptions. You don’t have a crystal ball, but you have to take a view. And even if a solution or a strategy is right now, the landscape changes quickly, especially for technology start-ups. So be prepared to make new mistakes!

At the strategic level, we call being wrong “pivoting”. Entrepreneurs need to manage the balance between persevering on a strategy versus knowing when to call it and pivoting to a new strategy. Our business was a very different one four years ago. We discovered an unexpected need for an international white-labeled solution rather than the direct approach we were taking. Up until that point you could argue the previous strategy was wrong. In retrospect it was, but given what we knew at the outset, it was the best answer.

At the tactical level, we call being wrong “optimising”. With any given operational process, you start with some answer and you improve. Your first version is inevitably “wrong”. You can’t wait until your answer is perfectly right to get started. So you start with something, that you know will be wrong, but is the best option with which to start. Then you gradually improve the answer.

At an individual level, it’s part of the gift that is “feedback”. Teams working together need to reflect and correct the way they interact. In high growth companies, the right sets of actions or attitude for the start-up could become the wrong one in the growth phase.

If you can’t be wrong, you can’t improve. The trick is being able to identify when you’re incorrect and put it right as quickly as possible.

Have the personality to admit you’re wrong

I think role-modelling is important. If you’re highly insecure and rest your authority only on having superior insight it is hard to admit you’re wrong. But authority doesn’t need to be based on always having the perfect answer, but rather being able to guide teams to better answers and execute on them.

Generally your investors and colleagues know making mistakes goes with the territory. You need to accept that businesses pivot, and that some things don’t work as you expected them to. It is important to have the personality to admit there are better ways of doing things, and that the world changes.

Test your assumptions

The only way to realise you’re wrong is to have a hypothesis and an expected outcome, and test it. Be rigorous and analytical, and have criteria against which to test. This should be an ongoing process within your business at multiple levels. Agree on a hypothesis, execute, get results and improve.

If people aren’t being wrong in your organisation, then they are either hiding it, not venturing their views, or you aren’t creating hypotheses to measure against. Whichever of these it is, you have problems. There can also often be a tendency to think the first iteration of a solution will be perfect. This is highly unlikely.

Have the infrastructure to implement a better solution quickly

Once you’ve been able to realise you’re wrong it is about doing it quick and minimising impact. As you start something, you obtain more information, and as you get that the answers you come to change. That happens pretty constantly across multiple levels.

Creating this structure where you can implement an improved answer quickly is vital. Whether this is company governance, team communication or technological, this is key.

For example, our terminals are used across Africa. In one country, we found the network would go off for hours at a time, which was hugely problematic for merchants dependent on these sales for their livelihood. We were able to roll out a fix, and have everyone updated within days and able to operate in spite of network outages. We had the infrastructure, not only to improve, but also to roll out improvements. Without this it would have taken weeks. If you can’t recover from something, you have massive problems. Inertia can hurt your business.

Infuse your team with the culture of being wrong

The culture around being wrong is important, especially when it comes to your team. When hypotheses and solutions are too closely affiliated with people, and saying those solutions are incorrect becomes a personal criticism of them, it becomes difficult. You need to divorce answers from the people.

Ensure you don’t have a blame culture in your business. Allow people to make calls, but don’t allow people to lose political capital. Team members must be able to state their views in a safe way where people aren’t criticised. We recently had a small mutiny where our engineers insisted they wanted to do something differently. That’s what you want, a team that has bought into your product.

First published online via Entrepreneur magazine South Africa

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