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Analyze This!: Fail fast and forward

The value of starting swiftly and small, experimenting and iterating.

Vijay MehrotraBy Vijay Mehrotra

I am excited to be returning to Burning Man this August. For those not familiar with Burning Man, think of it as a cross between an extreme camping trip, an avant-garde art festival, a massive 24-hour-a-day costume party, and a rapidly constructed temporary city in the middle of the Nevada desert that is home to about 70,000 people for one week each year and then immediately disappears afterward.

Virtually nothing is bought or sold at Burning Man. Instead, Burning Man features a Gift Economy, stemming from a guiding principle that states: “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value” [1]. As part of my contribution to the Burning Man community, each year I create a gift for some of the many people that I meet there.

This year, I decided to attempt to create hand-painted T-shirts featuring a simple positive slogan on the front and a variant of the Burning Man logo on the back. After I found some instructional videos on the Internet and unexpectedly met someone who offered to help me make stencils with his laser cutting machine, I jumped into the project with both feet.

Learning from My Mistakes

Alas, given my track record (I almost failed the last art class I had taken, which was back in 7th grade), it is not surprising that I made a bunch of mistakes. I showed up with plywood that was too thick for the laser cutter to get through (we later learned that this was because we incorrectly configured the machine’s settings). We managed to improvise by making stencils out of some cardboard that was laying around, but when I used those stencils to paint the first couple of shirts, they produced far sloppier lines than I had planned on. Meanwhile, the stencil for our camp’s logo featured a few detailed lines that were too small and intricate for even my smallest paintbrushes to navigate. To top it all off, I forgot to put a divider between the two panels of the first few T-shirts and so I wound up with paint bleeding through to the other side.

Burning Man: a cross between an extreme camping trip, an avant-garde art festival and a massive 24-hour-a-day costume party in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Burning Man: a cross between an extreme camping trip, an avant-garde art festival and a massive 24-hour-a-day costume party in the middle of the Nevada desert.

In the past, I would have taken such slip-ups as evidence of my own incompetence, become deeply demoralized and quite possibly abandoned the project. But sometime after turning 50, I have finally come to understand that when doing something new and creative (which includes not only Burning Man art projects but also most of the work that we do as analytics professionals), there are inevitably steps that need time to master, ideas that need to get sharpened, and unforeseen problems that need to be solved along the way. So, despite my initial flubs, I was somehow able to smile and treat my first batch of T-shirts not as failures but rather as experiments that provided lessons and insights about my project.

There’s nothing particularly novel about any of this. Designers refer to this as “iterative prototyping” [2], a fundamental element of “design thinking.” Silicon Valley entrepreneurs talk incessantly about the need to “fail forward fast” (and to “pivot” as needed). Educators extoll the virtues of “discovery learning” [3]. But it is only in the past few years that I’ve been able to actually internalize this mindset – and of late, I have found myself wondering just why it took me so long to “get it.”

Serious Challenge for Analytics Projects

Back in the last century, my business partners and I were routinely pitching would-be clients on the business value of mathematical models (a much more radical managerial idea then than it is now) while also convincing them that we were uniquely qualified to help them capture that value (despite our relative youth and inexperience). As a result, we often felt a great deal of pressure to produce results without really having the time, budget or organizational buy-in needed to deliver on what we had promised – which in turn prevented some of our projects from getting the additional funding needed to go further. Even today, this is still a very serious challenge for analytics projects [4].

But my slowness to embrace the iterate-and-improve mindset has deeper roots. For me, graduate school was a great struggle. I often felt overwhelmed, first by the rigorous technical coursework, then by the challenge of finding a dissertation topic, and finally by actually making progress toward solving the problem itself. To my credit, I did ultimately manage to persist and complete my degree – and I will be forever grateful for being granted the opportunity to face this kind of challenge.

Unfortunately, the emotional arc of this experience somehow left me with a terrible default model for engaging with challenges big and small. Begin by viewing the problem as complex and overwhelming, and spend a lot of nonproductive time feeling despair. Next, after having already wasted valuable hours (or days or weeks or months), finally begin to work on it with little enthusiasm or optimism. Lastly, muster up a best first effort, declare the project complete, find something else to do, and try not to look back at the specifics too closely.

How did I eventually learn to appreciate the value of starting swiftly and small, experimenting and iterating? Years of Burning Man art projects have certainly been part of it. In addition, for the past five years I have been coaching student consulting teams in business analytics and customer success management. Living through many project cycles with these MBA students has brought me face-to-face with the value of starting quickly, systematically iterating, learning through feedback, cheerfully persisting and relentlessly revising. And helping them manage their emotional journeys has provided me with significant insight into my own patterns.

There is a famous quote from Steve Jobs that I often reference with my students: “When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there” [5]. Words to live by.

Now, back to the next round of Burning Man T-shirt prototypes. I expect they will be better than the last ones.

Vijay Mehrotra (vmehrotra@usfca.edu) is a professor in the Department of Business Analytics and Information Systems at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a longtime member of INFORMS.

References

  1. https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/
  2. https://hbr.org/2014/02/intervention-design-building-the-business-partners-confidence
  3. https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/ref/10.1287/ited.2017.0185
  4. http://www.digitaljournal.com/tech-and-science/technology/big-data-strategies-disappoint-with-85-percent-failure-rate/article/508325
  5. https://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/08/24/steve-jobss-best-quotes/

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