Jester

ID 17386749 © Olga Kvach | Dreamstime.com

I read a short story once about a king that got down in his cup and wrongly took exception to something that the court jester said. He ordered the court jester beheaded and, the king’s word being law, the sentence was swiftly carried out.

End of story? Not quite, because a few days later a chamber maid ran screaming through the halls claiming she saw the head of the jester. Obviously she was a silly girl, but soon others began to report similar sightings until the palace was in an uproar. So the king ordered that whoever saw the jester’s head next was to invite the jester’s head to see the king. The order was soon carried out by the Lord Chamberlain and the jester appeared before the king. The king acknowledged that he had been wrong and asked what he had to do in order to restore peace to his palace. The jester demanded that he be allowed to sit beside the king for one month and whisper in his ear whenever he was going to pass judgment. The king agreed and for the next month, whenever the king was about to pass judgment, he would bend over and the jester would whisper words into his ear. At the end of the month, the jester disappear, never to be seen again.

End of story? Not quite, because the king’s subjects began to notice a difference in the judgments he passed. Within a few years he was being called the Wise and near the end of his life was being called the Great. Some philosophers came to him and asked if he would pass on his wisdom so all might benefit from it. The king promised to have his wisdom inscribed on his tombstone, which said,

“Consider that you might be wrong.”

In business and professional life, particularly in the United States, we all have a strong bias on being positive. “Failure is not an option” is a favorite declaration in Hollywood movies and real life. But let’s face facts – Failure is an option – in fact, most businesses are out of business within five years; 50% of marriages end in divorce; we are constantly correcting mistakes we and others make. So you could say that “Failure is the most likely option!”

Now I don’t mean to imply that everyone is a loser – that’s far from the truth. In reality, we are imperfect beings who attain success only by trying again and again and again.

What we need to do is learn to fail quickly. This is the mantra at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – Fail Quickly. You would never know it by looking at the public news about DARPA. They place small bets on critical technologies expecting that many of them will fail, but they don’t spend a lot of money on them. They’re small bets. If they don’t work, then we haven’t invested too much. If they work, then we can go like gangbusters because we know that the critical parts will work.

Brad Feld coined the term Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to describe in the Lean Startup how to quickly gain evidence whether or not your product idea will work. You build the simplest prototype, test it with real customers and get honest feedback. Then you go through the cycle again – each time getting closer to what the customer really needs and wants. Contrast this approach with the traditional development model of design, build, test and then market.

When HP first developed the handheld calculator they considered it too expensive to be successful in the market place. But the decision was to make 1,000 calculators and see what the result was – and the HP 35 was born as the first successful handheld calculator and everyone learned reverse polish notation calculations. I remember when the lab I was working in got our first handheld calculator – an HP 45. We put it in a security cradle with a steel cable that was looped over the overhead pipes so we could pass it around but no one could steal it.

So on your next project or business venture, consider that you might be wrong – particularly on your assumptions. Figure out how to test your assumptions with a small bet quickly. Gather feedback. And keep cycling until you succeed. Because you likely wrong.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.