Because, like Louis C.K., we don’t get it right the first time.
We’ve come to believe that process is more important than product. Here’s an example. The scientific method is a process. It’s a way of testing ideas. As a process it is more valuable than any of the great things it has produced…airplanes, cures for diseases, the internet, etc.
Iteration is also process. You have a goal and you take a step towards it. Then you evaluate the results. You find ways to improve it. You do those things. Then you repeat.
Louis C.K., the great comedian, tells lots of bad jokes. These bad jokes aren’t bad because they are about taboo subjects like what happens in the bathroom or the bedroom, they’re bad because they just aren’t funny. They are low quality. We don’t get to hear most of his bad jokes because he tells them at little comedy clubs around the country. When he plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at Bullfrog’s Live Comedy Club in Topeka, Kansas he’s trying out new jokes. Many of them bomb. The two-drink minimum crowd has hired a babysitter, checked their worries at the door and they are there to laugh with the funniest comedian of our time. But their goodwill still won’t make a stinker into a belly laugh.
He describes his iterative process as similar to the way Japanese master knife blacksmiths forge a knife from many pieces of steel. He hammers layers together, one after another, until each word and each pause and each intonation forms a perfect, deadly joke. A joke that kills. But he starts with imperfect stuff, basic steel, that needs to be forged. One idea doesn’t flow into another. Or his observation is too broad or too personal or too obscure. He doesn’t know what to fix until he’s on stage at Bullfrog’s telling a bad joke and watching it bomb in front of a packed audience.
Iterating is courageous. You have to be willing to fail and embarrass yourself. You have to do it on purpose.
This week we sent out a new version of a report to three of our clients. We would rather have emptied our trash can into a box and FedExed it to them. That’s how embarrassed we feel about those reports. We have masters degrees, we have Ph.D.’s, we’ve taught economics at the master’s level. So we know a few things about numbers and how to display them. But a client looking at those reports, like an audience member at Bullfrog’s, could doubt they are looking at the work of a skilled professional.
Why did we do it? Because we – and we includes Louis C.K., too – don’t know how to make something better until we’ve seen exactly why it’s bad. We need the negative reaction to be able to improve.
We’re not sure which charts and graphs will answer our clients’ most important questions. We really want to know. The only way to figure it out is to bomb. We have to try things. We have to fail and then – this is truly awful – watch the embarrassing failure so closely that we really learn from it, pick ourselves up and start developing new ideas. Then we start the whole process all over again.
Iterating is the hard path to greatness. Paradoxically, it requires choosing to fail again and again and again.
We wish there was another way. There i-i-i-isn’t.