Beta-think (and ending malaria)

The organizers of the End Malaria campaign are putting on one more push to sell the book they organized (at least $20 from every sale goes to buying nets) and so they suggested that the contributors post their essays as enticement that you’ll want to read more like (or better than) this. Here’s my contribution on betathink:

Voltaire was half right. “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” he said: The best is the enemy of the good. The best is also the enemy of the better. Striving for perfection complicates and delays getting things done. Worse, the myth of perfection can shut off the process of improvement and the possibility of collaboration.

That myth of perfection is a byproduct of the industrial revolution and the efficiencies of mass production, distribution, and marketing. A product that takes a long time to design and produce is sold to a large market with a claim of perfection. Its manufacturer can’t have customers think otherwise. The distribution chain invests in large quantities of the product and can’t afford for it to be flawed. Mass marketing is spent to convince customers it is the best it can be. Thus perfection becomes our standard or at least our presumption. But perfection is delusion. Nothing and no one is perfect.

The modern cure to Voltaire’s paradox—and a gift of the digital age—is the beta: the unfinished and imperfect product or process that is opened up so customers can offer advice and improvements. Releasing a beta is a public act, an invitation to customers to help complete and improve it. It is an act of transparency and an admission of humility. It is also an act of generosity and trust, handing over a measure of control to others.

Google vice-president Marissa Mayer tells the story of the launch of Google News. It was near the end of the week. No online product is ever released on a Friday (if it breaks, your Saturday is ruined). So the team had just enough time before the weekend to add one more feature. They were debating whether to add a function to sort the news by date or by place. They never got past debating. Come Monday, Google News came out as a beta (and stayed a beta for three years). That afternoon, Mayer says, the team received 305 emails from users, 300 of which begged for sort by date.

By admitting they weren’t finished, the company heard from customers what to do next. “We make mistakes every time, every day,” Mayer confesses. “But if you launch things and iterate really quickly, people forget about those mistakes and have a lot of respect for how quickly you build the product up and make it better.” Beta is Google’s way of never having to say they’re sorry.

Beta-think can benefit more than technology products. I see betas coming from companies in fashion, restaurants, even chocolate and automotive. I wish we’d see more beta-think—more innovation, experimentation and risk—from government, but bureaucrats and politicians are loath to admit imperfection. I also wish that education would operate under beta-think, encouraging learning by failure rather than teaching to a test and a perfect score of right answers. Beta-think can change how we think as managers. It can even change marriage (so much for trying to find the perfect husband or fix all his imperfections).

Beta-think opens an enterprise to the surprising generosity of the public. Look at the value users build in Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Yelp and other services they control. Beta-think improves an institution’s relationship with its public. Making errors—and confessing and correcting them quickly—will enhance rather than diminish credibility. Once the fear of imperfection is taken out of the equation, innovation can flourish. Look at how Zappos improved customer service by letting employees make their own decisions (and mistakes). What does beta-think do to competitiveness? How can you show your hand to your rivals? That depends on where you see your real value: in keeping secrets from customers or in building strong relationships of trust by listening to and collaborating with them. Beta-think also brings speed. Even perfectionist Apple released its iPhone aware that it was incomplete, promising missing pieces in future updates.

Here’s the wonderful irony of beta-think: It says that we can make what we do ever-better because we are never done, never satisfied, always seeking ways to improve by working in public.

This essay, too, is a beta. It’s not perfect. I’m not done with it. So please come to and help make it better.