Yoda Had it Wrong

Can someone point me to the day when “trial and error” morphed into “do perfectly or fail”?  I know Yoda is the all-powerful —“Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”— but I did not know that this declaration in a fictional movie had become management orthodoxy.

I’m currently serving on the ASAE Innovation Task Force. As a result, creativity, innovation, and invention are an even greater part of my reading efforts and conversations than usual.  And what I am discovering from listening to others is that people deeply believe one of the reasons we are not more innovative in associations is that we fear failure, particularly our volunteer leaders.

At face value this makes some sense.  Associations are process-oriented organizations, and striving for consensus can (but doesn’t have to) lead to a result that excites few, but offends no one.  Volunteer leaders are temporary stewards of a project (committee chair) or the organization (board member) and don’t want to be the ones who really screwed things up on their watch, so they may tend to be more conservative in their decision-making.

But I don’t recall a meeting where we made a decision that we would try something, but only a 100% perfect outcome would be considered success.  “The motion to endorse the new annual meeting format passes with the understanding that if even one member raises one concern, the event will be a failure and we will revert immediately to what we were doing before, apologize profusely to the membership, and never make such a decision again.”

You neither?

Yet somehow it seems there is an undercurrent (who knows how pervasive) that falling short = failure.  Not perfect = failure.  Mistakes = failure. Not going as planned = failure. 

And we have to immediately stop that because such a belief immediately stops us … from experimenting.  And if we can’t “try a lot of stuff to see what works” as advised by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last, our future progress is indeed limited.  Innovation is typically not a pass-fail course.  A lot of possible grades come between A+ and an F.

And even when a product is released widely, it can still be done in varying tiers of completeness/functionality as evidenced by Google and its rollout of the Chrome browser.  Here's how Business Week described it in January of this year:
"Chrome has three levels of participation once a product is deemed ready to be released beyond the company’s own engineering base: Dev; Beta and Stable. 'Dev' is open to the developer community at large, allowing feedback and commentary from a sophisticated user group. The Beta channel has what Chrome’s Director of Product Management, Brian Rakowski, describes as 'reasonable stability' while the Stable channel, the one that just got upgraded, is intended for 'the majority of people who just want it to work.' According to Rakowski, this maps out at roughly 1%: 10%: 89% ratio of users."
Yoda had it wrong.  When it comes to innovation there is only try.  Try often.  Listen.  Revise.  Try again.  As Collins notes in Good to Great: "Greatness is not a function of circumstance.  Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline."

We need to choose to be great and to then engage in the disciplined experimentation that moves us toward that destination, incrementally and exponentially.  To believe we must do something and have it go exactly as planned is to ensure little in the way of innovation will be done.  And that is an error for which we will be found guilty at trial.


Jamie Notter said...

Okay, I agree with absolutely everything you are saying (great post!). It's true that we stifle progress by expecting perfection.

But in defense of my good friend Yoda, I always heard his advice slightly differently. There is something important about the difference between trying and doing, but it is internal. It's not about the result of the effort working or not, it's about whether I go fully into it and give all of myself or not. When I am only trying, I have the option of backing out and giving up, because it was only an attempt. It wasn't the real thing.

I know that many of my efforts will not work out as planned, and I embrace experimentation and learning from failure. But I also go 100% into those experiments and I don't let myself off the hook just because it might not work out. It's a bit of a paradox I think--confidence that you are "doing" while knowing you may have to do differently. But that lack of confidence can stymie us as much as the need to be perfect can.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Jamie, your interpretation of dear Yoda is of course the more correct one. I was just leveraging him for a bit of a connection. Thanks for commenting.

Dave Lutz said...

Great post Jeffrey! Every conference should at least have a beta track, or six. With the abundance of free information available, face2face conferences need to really up their game.

Bob Van Hook said...

Jeff (and Jaime),I couldn't agree more. If some of our efforts (trying) don't fail, we're not trying enough stuff. Thanks.

Eric Lanke said...


We've seen the same fear of failure in the innovation work being done by the Wisconsin Society of Association Exeuctives (WSAE). We identified it as one of the primary barriers to innovation in the association world. Quoting from our soon-to-be-published white paper:

"Innovative organizations are by nature risk-taking organizations--places with the freedom to experiment and fail. But many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The need for change must be clearly documented and then trial-ballooned and focus-grouped with numerous stakeholders before it can get off the ground, and then it often has to navigate a minefield of existing programs and sacred cows in order to compete for funding. What many associations deem normal due diligence procedures--financial analyses and projections--can prematurely kill most innovative ideas, by creating the illusion of a known financial outcome where none, in fact, exists. Furthermore, the perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is also often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation."

Associations must find ways arround this fear--which isn't limited to just volunteer leaders--if they are going to move towards more innovative operation.

Eddie Colbeth said...

I completely agree with what your saying about failure and it's importance in creativity. The old software development saying, fail early and fail often, comes to mind. I wrote a blog post about Leading by Failing, because I think leaders should fail more publicly in our organizations.

As far as Yoda goes, I use those words not infrequently. To me it means that giving up is not an option, failing is just one of the stepping stones to success. Doing is powerful.

Cecilia Sepp said...

Jeff, I really liked this post! I agree that the fear of failure keeps people from trying. If you try and fail, you still learn alot. Like Edison said, "I now know 99 ways *not* to make a light bulb."

And, Jamie has already defended the true meaning of Yoda's advice, so I am happy about that. I had a supervisor once who used that line every day. There was no try; we did and we either succeeded or failed.