Once Upon a Time …

A Cautionary Tale About Change and Success

Eric Ries tells a story in his book The Lean Startup that makes an emotional connection for me, and serves as a clear motivation to think in a different way, no matter whether you’re in an established company or startup. He says that in a startup, no one can predict the future, unlike in an established company where the bosses or expert can predict the future.

“Once upon a time, bosses could make a prediction… and then the prediction would come true.”

Ability to predict the future may seem absurd, but in most established companies, in stable situations, it is not a fairy tale. It is true. Maybe not exactly true, but close enough to often result in success.

Not only would the boss or expert predict the future, but that prediction would be the reference point for determining whether someone was deemed a success or a failure. If a project succeeded, it was because a person did a good job. If the project failed, it was because they did a poor job.

I think it is helpful to extend this “once upon a time” statement to say that:

“Once upon a time, the boss or expert could make a plan, and when this plan was faithfully executed, the project or organization would succeed.”

This is what typical established organizations are depending on with their “execution” culture.

Eric said that he had never experienced an organization that could predict the future in his years of experience (mostly with startups). Perhaps that’s why he gives it a fairy tale form. I have experienced this ability of bosses to predict the future in only one situation in my career, and I’ve been part of a number of big companies that are regarded as successful. Think carefully about your career. Think of times when the predictions or plans of the boss or the expert came true? Hopefully the project or business was a success. That’s the way established, successful companies are supposed to work, and mostly they do to this day.

Here are some other words that can be used to describe the distinction. (For background, see the previous post “Knowns and Unknowns in IIoT Projects).

For “Knowns”                    For “Unknowns”

the plan                               a guess
just execute                       an experiment
value prescription           value discovery

I’m trying to sensitize you to an important issue that is commonly invisible. Most organizations believe that they can achieve success by executing the plan, even if the situation is one where they actually need to discover value by experimenting. Since you’re working on an IIoT related project, there’s a fair chance that some new aspect of this project has changed one of more “Knowns” of the project into “Unknowns”.

In subsequent blogs, I’ll suggest what you might do knowing this.