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Why learn-as-you-go is the only way to do complicated stuff

Dec 11, 2022 Success, Sunday Nation

I have a lot of time for Michael Bungay Stanier. This author and coach in Canada is invariably honest, authentic, and sincere. So open is he that he once wrote out an entire long note on Medium outlining exactly how he self-published his best-selling book, The Coaching Habit. He provided step-by-step guidance on how to design, edit and market books in today’s new self-help world.

(Side-note: that very generous post helped me to find a new direction for my own book, The Bigger Deal.)

I mention Michael today because I recently came across a fresh thought from him. In his new book, How to Begin, he gives us this excellent insight: your first draft is always crappy! He tells us that he can attest to this truth, because “the first time I write anything, it’s thoroughly mediocre. It’s tepid and confused. It’s overstuffed and underbaked. It’s too specific and too vague, all at once.”

You will see from the sentences above that his crappy first draft definitely looks great by the time it’s published! And to prove this further, the author goes on to write, in his very particular style, that his first draft is also “‘Funny’ but not in a way that’s at all amusing. It’s overloaded with metaphors, like a sausage about to split its casing, or a circus with a surfeit of clowns…”

Once I had stopped laughing, I paid attention to the wider point being made. All our first drafts are always crappy. Not just for writers, but pretty much in any area of endeavour. The very first cup of tea you ever made was probably a weak one. You may be a great chef today, but your first attempt at baking a simple pie probably ended in tears. You may be a noted architect now, but your very first plan probably got you sent back to the drawing board, ears ringing. You may even be a Nobel laureate these days, but you probably never want anyone to see your very first piece of writing.

What a wonderful release that is for everyone reading this. If all our first drafts of everything are always crappy, we can all get on and get started! If no one gets it right the first time round, then we can all pile in and make our first attempts, knowing full well that we will get many things wrong—and that’s A-OK, because the whole point is to get started, and then learn as you go.

Indeed, learn-as-you-go is the essential philosophy to apply to all human endeavour. As  a strategy advisor, I say to every client: don’t worry about perfection, because there’s no such thing as the perfect strategy. Don’t worry about getting everything right, because you can’t. Don’t worry about ticking every box—that’s actually a mistake, and not even strategic. Don’t worry about being comprehensive—this is not a school exam with a marking scheme, this is real life, messy and unpredictable. The aim is not to nail it first time; the aim is to do just enough thinking and planning to get going. After that, discovery will come from practice, and from the market. When your strategy makes first contact with employees and customers, you will know what you got right, and what needs improving. You will iterate, you will tweak, you will get better and better.

What’s true for strategy is true for most things. As Michael Bungay Stanier puts it, give yourself full permission to write down a crappy first draft—it’s a significant and critical first step. And as we know from the old adage, the thousand-step journey also needs the crucial first step, even if it’s a hesitant stumble.

We let our children take their first bike ride, knowing full well that they will likely fall over. Why then do we chastise ourselves and our employees for getting things wrong the first time they try them? When I ran my first ever virtual client meeting during the early days of the pandemic lockdown, I got pretty much everything wrong! Camera angle, lighting, internet backup, screen sharing—it all sucked. But the second and third meetings were way better, and by the time we got to number four, the team was as good as any.

Why? Because learn-as-you-go is the motto. We get better by trying and by observing and by remediating.

Good parents and good leaders know this. Encourage people to do new things by giving them permission to get it wrong at first attempt. Make the first draft a discovery process—it will reveal the work that lies ahead. Let people stumble and fall, but not too hard. Then pick them up and show them what might have gone wrong, and challenge them to fix it. Once their confidence improves, give them the freedom to soar in their own way.

Now, don’t you wish you had a leader who allowed you that?

(Sunday Nation, 11 December 2022)

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