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The Value of Not Knowing


There is a lot to unpack in Jon Smart’s book, Sooner Safer Happier: Antipatterns and Patterns for Business Agility, but the biggest surprise I found along the way was the critical role that humility plays in success.

Whether your goal is to transform your organization, create a game-changing product, or both, believing you have all the answers before you start is the surest path to waste and unnecessary suffering along the way. On the other hand, starting a major undertaking with a commitment to learning what you don’t know is the surest path to success.

Fail. Iterate. Learn.

Jon and his co-authors have led or been along for the ride on multiple initiatives that burned through years of time and millions of dollars, initially without much to show in return aside from lessons learned. Even with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and top-level visibility, the major enterprises they worked with or for often did so poorly with digital transformation initiatives that outcomes got worse, not better.

Reflecting upon what led to failure (anti-patterns) and what lead to success (patterns) over more than a decade of these efforts, Jon and his team came up with the Better Value Sooner Safer Happier (BVSSH) principles. These aren’t “best practices,” because each of our problem spaces is unique, and there is no one size fits all solution. Instead, the anti-patterns and patterns are grouped into contrasting pairs filled with stories and examples that illuminate the value of following BVSSH principles (or not!), in any domain. You won’t be able to copy and paste, but if you read and ponder, you’ll likely know what to do in your situation.

Wait. Have I Seen This Movie Before?

If you’ve spent any time in the trenches, you’ll likely recognize your own experiences in the list of anti-patterns and patterns (I know I did!). If you are earlier in this leg of your journey, you are still in luck, because this book will save you from years of heartache, or at least give you a sense of humor and the impetus to make changes when you feel you are facing circumstances beyond your control.

What Do I Need To Know?

Let’s switch gears and follow-through on the value of not knowing. Imagine the rest of this post is like a mini boot-camp or basic training and I’m your drill sergeant, only nobody is getting their hair cut (it’s COVID after all) and there’s no shouting.

This first part is going to be rough, but you’ll emerge stronger than ever and with newfound confidence.

I promise.

Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.

Back when I was a freshly-minted product manager, my boss sent me to a workshop led by Pragmatic Marketing. Each of us arriving at that class at the fancy waterfront hotel felt a little special, excited to have been entrusted with charting the course for our product.

The framework we were there to learn was laid out in a sprawling chart with 37 separate boxes. Imagine my surprise when I read the slogan on the instructor’s coffee mug, which summed up the entire curriculum in just six words: “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.”

The words on that coffee mug were a perfect wake-up call for our class: we had to get our personal “stuff” out of the way in order to see the opportunities that lay before us. Building the right product isn’t about having the right opinion. Being a great product person is about having the curiosity and tactics to learn what your customers, your prospects, and the larger addressable market will adapt and champion.

The Sooner You Learn, The Less Time You Will Squander

Whether you love or hate the phrase, “work smarter, not harder,” you probably would agree that blindly going in an ineffective direction is not a winning strategy, right? The problem with “big” ideas and grand initiatives is that they often ask you to lock in a detailed plan upfront. Unless you are duplicating something that already exists, you don’t already know the best way to get it done.

Traditionally, “big” projects make huge investments in up-front planning. Then the focus shifts to execution and status checking. When does the learning happen? Near the end, when things aren’t working out as planned. Next, there is either a doubling-down to “try harder” based on “minor adjustments” or there is a reorganization under new leadership with new milestones and dates and the process starts all over again. It’s a huge waste of time, money, and energy.

BVSSH principles suggest instead that we “Achieve Big Through Small.”

By thinking big, but starting small, we increase the odds that we will learn fast. Scaling up prematurely creates lots of dust and confusion, hampering the very coordination and communication needed to triangulate on effective strategies. In other words, if you approach your biggest goals with humility you are more likely to succeed, and to reach that success faster.

Entrepreneurs, out of survival, know they must find product/market fit before they scale. Enterprises can boost their odds of success and speed their rate of progress by applying this same rationale to transformation projects and game-changing product efforts.

Learn to Thrive in the Emergent World of The Unknown

At the risk of stating the obvious, innovation requires you to “figure out” the best way to do something that has not been done before. The greatest risks and the greatest opportunities lie in what Smart and his co-authors call the “emergent” world of unknown unknowns (problems you don’t even know that you need to solve yet).

The BVSSH principle of “Foster Psychological Safety” calls for leaders to foster an open culture of learning through intelligent failure. In other words, “It’s OK to not know the answer. Focus on being good at asking smart questions, performing experiments and learning from them.”

Imagine you set foot into a hotel room you’ve never been in before and just as you open the door, the power goes out. How might you find your way to the bed? You would literally bump around in the dark, react to things you feel, and change course until you find the end of the bed with pillows. In other words, you would probe, sense and respond. Those are exactly the behaviors that work best in the emergent domain.

The anti-pattern to avoid here is expecting human leaders to provide top-down guidance when teams are faced with the unknown. Instead, the BVSSH principle of “Leverage Emergence” challenges us to move authority to the information with a focus on transparency. Leadership’s value here isn’t in command and control, it’s in coaching, supporting behaviors, and providing tools that help the organization probe, sense, and respond efficiently.

Put The Law of Compounding On Your Side

As I read Sooner, Safer, Happier, it dawned on me that at the intersection of “Probe. Sense. Respond” and “Think Big. Start Small. Learn Fast” lies the principle of compound interest. Even very small gains (or losses) can and will compound upon each other over time. I would wager that realizing small changes for the better and avoiding death by a thousand small cuts yields a far larger impact over time than landing a few “big” breakthroughs.

If we’re giving more “authority” to information, how do we make sure we use the law of compound interest in our favor? The short answer is that you need a trusted platform and a consistent way of working that supports that. The more ideas you test and by extension the more experiments you run, the more you will learn about the actual value of the experiences you deliver to users. How do you make this easier to do?

Is There An App For That?

If your goal is to move authority to the information and focus on transparency, then having a reliable, consistent and easily accessed platform to conduct experiments is a game changer. High-volume business to consumer (B2C) teams have known this for some time, pioneering big-data solutions that allowed them to conduct experiments at scale. The boldest of them have evolved their platforms beyond raw capabilities dependent upon manual staging by experts into widely deployed democratized solutions built for the majority, if not all, of their employees to use on demand.

If you work at LinkedIn, or Pinterest, or Microsoft, or a dozen or so other B2C giants, there is an app for that. But what about the rest of us? That’s where partnering with an experimentation SaaS provider like Split comes in. Our team and advisors worked in those firms and others. As we moved to other shops, we missed those capabilities. Eventually, we dedicated ourselves to building the Split platform, found our own product/market fit, and the rest is history.

There are other platforms that do parts of what we do, but if your goal is to scale up and accelerate experimentation so that product and engineering teams can probe, sense, and respond as a standard practice, we think you’ll like Split.

Learn More About Leveraging The Value of Not Knowing Through Experimentation

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