First Time Right

First Time Right - an outdated claim?

In recent months, we have had to adjust our demands for predictability or resilient processes and increasingly engage in experimentation. Presumably, this will not change much in the near future. Nevertheless (or because of this), leaders in particular should continue to demand quality and reliability.

Experiments offer many advantages. For example, they give employees the freedom to approach a task playfully rather than analytically. Fewer are excluded. And in experiments, boundaries (thinking, acting, culture) are explored, hurdles or gardens are overcome thanks to multifaceted cooperation. So it’s no surprise that experiments are seen as THE answer to dynamics, uncertainty and complexity (see, among others, McKinsey, October 5, 2020; podcast und transcript).

An experiment is not a party.

In my opinion, one aspect is not properly illuminated: Despite the open form of the experiment, the joint search for answers or the calculated possibility of failure, experiments - at least in terms of cooperation, commitment and responsibility - are not parties. We should not simply enjoy an experiment in a relaxed way, avoiding uncomfortable topics of conversation, avoiding people who are too pushy, hanging out at the bar observing, or saying goodbye when things get boring.

Experiments are events where everyone involved should really, really put in the effort and make sure, to the best of their ability, that this experiment delivers what it was created for, preferably right off the bat. Experiments are often associated with considerable risks for companies. For this reason alone, the demand for “first time right” is justified.

Demand the best from employees. Only then will they make helpful mistakes - instead of just unnecessary ones.

If participants do not show the right spirit, even the tightest control rhythms or the most comprehensive reviews cannot avoid failure. If participants do not try to achieve an above-average result right away, they will only make unnecessary instead of necessary mistakes. So make sure that you convey your expectation with the term “experiment”. But this seems to become a spoiler against the backdrop of new work models (new work, agile mindset, …) or work philosophies, according to which employees should particularly pursue those tasks that they enjoy the most. This makes sense and has been scientifically proven many times. But in my opinion, this fun is not enough to really convey the entrepreneurial significance of experiments.

Customers have become more demanding, impatient and undifferentiated. An almost toxic mixture for play, fun and experiments. Nevertheless, experimentation is essential today for companies to discover opportunities, to move forward, and to create interesting opportunities for employees to learn, to grow, to expand their potential. And that’s why the demand for “first time right” is a helpful stirrup for leaders who dare the balancing act between playful impartiality on the one hand and self-responsible quality orientation on the other, who understand that companies should also develop in uncertain and complex times (instead of merely holding out).

The importance of experimentation for corporate development is undisputed. For this very reason, leaders should not only provide suitable structural framework conditions, but also ensure with concrete expectations that employees are oriented to a high personal and common level of aspiration right from the start. This makes the following results possible:

  • You realize and expand the potential of your employees. If you raise your expectations gently but also consistently, you will find those who can go one step further: Only tapped potentials point to possible further potentials.
  • Employees are not satisfied with the first best solution, they look for a better, more elegant, more effective way. In doing so, they build together on previous suggestions, searching for the next-best level.
  • Employees recognize that they do not necessarily need extraordinary talents to participate in an experiment (see, among others, Colvin, Geoff (2019): Talent is overrated). Many people surpass themselves with discipline and focused effort. Take a look at your own biography: In which moments, at which tasks or under which conditions have you really and sustainably grown?

Want to take on this task? Here are three tips to help you do so:

  • Form as diverse a team as possible. They will quickly understand that they will only achieve your expectations with open cooperation and transparent communication, but by no means on their own. Heterogeneous teams shed hierarchies, origins and status more quickly than homogeneous units - simply because no one cares.
  • Make the “Obligation to Dissent” (see, among others, Taylor, Bill (2017): True Leaders Believe Dissent Is an Obligation) a central building block of ambitious and dynamic cooperation. It requires that stakeholders are always encouraged to express their opinions openly and to draw attention to inhibiting conditions (such as mistrust, hypocrisy, or misconduct). Bottom line: “People become fearless” (Robin Richards, CEO CareerArc Group).
  • Set an ambitious deadline. This results in focused discussions that generate ideas and suggestions that are available exactly when they are needed. In my time as a consultant, such tight time frames regularly led to short nights - but always to surprisingly good solution proposals.

And here are three more observed mistakes in dealing with the First-Time-Right claim:

  • Overtaxing - “We can do it”; with these words, Angela Merkel sold an experiment to the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany without defining it further. This was indeed a bold announcement - and at the same time an enormous overchallenge for many.
  • No overarching exchange of experience - experiments rarely run in the same way. But this does not mean that the participants are lone warriors. They should learn from each other, for example, how to deal with unpredictability or internal tensions, or how to maintain resilience and confidence.
  • Egocentric motivation - In my interactions with leaders, I regularly encounter people who pursue the development of the company with “cool” experiments rather than positioning themselves personally and cultivating their image - an unparalleled drain on resources.

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