The Poor Case for Destructive Testing

We are inculcated from our youth to engage in destructive testing. That is, we strive to prove why something won’t work and why it’s a bad idea. A succession of overworked parents, uninterested teachers, aloof professors, and insecure bosses forms a coterie of contempt for anyone suggesting improvements in their lives.

Since my own credo has been “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying,” my entrepreneurial life has been about trying to determine how to ensure things WILL work. If you look at any great inventor—of tangibles or ideas—he or she is engaged in a great deal of failure to gain a success. That applies both to Edison and Einstein, to Sloan and to Sophocles.

In most organizational environments, you will hear publicly why an idea or initiative won’t work (unless it’s proposed by the boss, in which case you’ll have to tap-in to the grapevine to hear why it won’t work). Some of the resistance to the new idea is because it breaks with a comfortable past, some because it requires more work, some because it’s simply someone else’s idea and their potential credit. At a meeting among peers, new ideas are usually tossed about like a volleyball, except with every hit someone is deflating it until just a sorry, puckered piece of leather lies dead on the table.

Consulting is about raising standards and improving the client’s condition. By definition, that won’t occur if you simply do nothing (entropy will erode your deceivingly safe plateau), or if you merely engage in “lean, mean, 12 sigma, quality fanaticism,” which fixes what goes wrong to restore prior performance, or creates millimeters of improvement at dysfunctional cost. To truly raise the bar you need new ideas, not charts and graphs; new thinking, not secret decoder rings.

I have tended to walk away from prospects when the buyer keeps telling me why what we’re discussing “will never work.” I leave meetings in which new approaches are ridiculed and not tried. I abandon conversations wherein the participants are eviscerating someone’s idea without providing either an objective assessment or a BETTER idea.

People who play it safe are among the most boring in existence. Their life is actuarial, not actual. When’s the last time you desperately needed an actuary?

Don’t enable your clients to mercilessly hunt down new ideas and kill them. Don’t trap and capture those who suggest new paths. It’s your job as a consultant to find ways to make new things happen, within prudent risk (not absence of risk), so that the client’s condition is improved dramatically. Why else pay you? To do a report? To bring something back up to standard? To validate the mediocre? To assuage an ego? I’d rather be plowing fields, which is, at least, honest work which enables things to grow.

Start building better futures for yourself and your clients. Raise the bar. Fail in good causes. The people who play it safe are not the ones in front of the pack. They are the people who bring up the rear.

© Alan Weiss 2007. All rights reserved.


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