By Brian McKay
zenruption is an experiment in stumbling. It has started rough, is still rough and really trying to work all the kinks out. As it is determined what the site’s audience is, how to increase interaction and grow viewership, everything is a stumble forward and some occasional steps backward. Eventually things will come together as we learn and it might not even be what was expected.
Another name for this stumbling is probe and learn. An organization needs to be constantly putting out feelers and tests into their markets and even into their own operations in order to refine their approaches. Just as the crew in Star Trek might send out a probe for information on an area of space of which they wish to learn, the company is sending a probe out into the marketplace, its operations, product development, strategy, etc.
Probing and Learning is an incremental process of continuous improvement. A nimble firm can constantly be probing and assessing the take away from each experience. Slow but constant improvements meted out through probing and learning can mean the difference in attaining efficient processes and lean practices or to better tailoring a product to fit the ever changing needs of the customer base.
Marketing should stumble forward as well. No matter how much money has been spent and how many executives and corporate psychologists have reviewed an ad, product change, packaging or market segmentation, there have been some truly epic failures. Often discontinuous campaigns can show mixed results. Just like advancing a process or design, learning about a customer base is a continual activity as market demographics and trends can and do change over time. Stumbling forward allows for the continual learning of consumer changes.
Product design and enhancement over time is certainly a continuous process. While Apple created a monumental discontinuous innovation with the iPhone, it has been the constant refining and vaunted September releases that has continued to drive profits to the point where the company has 93% of all net profits earned in the smart phone industry. Apple has shown absolute mastery in probing and learning along with its excellent product designers under Johnny Ive. While there have been the obvious missteps, the use of probing and learning has created far more successes. The leadership of Tim Cook has been successful in that he has continued this process of small, continuous improvements after the death of Steve Jobs.
Manufacturing operations need to stumble forward every day. Tightening up processes and slowly reducing statistical outliers is almost always accomplished through the probe and learn process. Lean processes are about identifying waste as operations move through their daily process. Lean, or kaizan, is employed in observation and making small changes throughout the process to eliminate waste. Lean advancements happen by stumbling forward day after day. While consultants will often sell a company major transformational change in their supposed “lean thinking” seminars, this is not the case. Constant refinement over time is what creates success.
Employee incentives can be another faucet of the business that benefits from stumbling forward. People are driven to do certain things for differing reasons. Finding a mix of incentives that produces the desired outcome for both you and your employees can involve small changes and revisions. Communicate with your employees that you are in the process of probing and learning to see what really works best for them. They will be supportive if the culture of the company supports stumbling forward.
Probing and learning needs to permeate your company’s culture. Whether it be in the HR department, marketing, operations or finance, the company has to create a sense that working towards small, continuous improvement is always the goal. Many companies neglect this by pushing for large discontinuous improvements that might or might not pan out when it is the small changes that can create true success.
Another problem is that lack of change becomes institutionalized or that middle management is simply making small changes in order to appear effective regardless of the actual impact of the change. When “this has always worked” becomes a common statement in a company it will eventually see itself falling behind. Such institutionalized aversion to change often comes with size but can happen in smaller organizations as well.
A disrupter embraces stumbling forward and making small continuous changes that enhance their products and operations. They empower their employees to challenge things and look for those small improvements. Those changes won’t always be right and there might be an occasional step back, but they will be stumbling forward towards success.
Go zenrupt some business.
Brian McKay is a co-founder of zenruption and has his MBA from Boise State University. He is pretty certain his whole life is about stumbling forward with an immense amount of learning experiences and claims he learned more in failure than success. Currently, he is failing at learning to cook better through probing and learning. It isn’t going so well and the zenruption staff gracefully declines dinners at his place.