Iteration is the way effective systems solve problems whose solutions are too complex to be predefined. It's how trees take
shape as they grow. It's how computers simulate weather, traffic patterns, and aircraft flight. It's how humankind got from the first Wright Flyer to the mass-produced Boeing 747. And it's how you walk to your car.
If you're still not impressed by your trip across the parking lot, let's talk about what 'doesn't' happen along the way.
You don't find yourself paralyzed on the sidewalk with your feet awaiting permission from your brain to take the next step because you stepped on a piece of gravel that wasn't in the original plan. You don't stop in the middle of the street for a process debate about left-foot-first versus right-foot-first. You don't see an open manhole coming forty paces away, repeatedly decide to change direction, and then fall down the hole anyway. You don't arrive at the wrong car or arrive 50% to 200% later than you expected (as many business initiatives do). You don't run out of blood oxygen because your foot muscles can't get what they need from your cardiovascular system. And you don't roam the parking lot in circles, trying to decide whether you'll ever get to the car or whether you should cancel your three o'clock meeting.
Any of those outcomes would be, well, dumb. But they don't happen. Not on your walk to the car.
They do happen in organizations. Micromanagement from above stalls progress below. Turf wars stifle output. Lack of flexibility makes even the most foreseeable problems impossible to avoid. Plans and budgets never catch up with real complexity and cost. Resources are held hostage by cumbersome approval processes. And lack of information from above and below pollutes decision-making at all levels.
You've probably been part of a "dumb" work group or organization—one that delivered less intelligent decisions and
results than those its individual members could have come up with alone. If so, you know how frustrating and wasteful this is.
If you're lucky, you've also been part of a smart organization—one that Iterates. One that moves the right information up and down the hierarchy, in regular and useful ways, in support of good decisions. One that makes good decisions at every level. One that doesn't get stuck in an overly rigid plan but instead stays flexible as it pursues clearly defined outcomes. One that continually asks itself the question, "What's the next most logical step to be taken?" and then takes it, learns from it, and repeats.
If you've had this experience, you know how engaging and exciting it can be to Iterate—to work in groups that produce a whole lot more intelligence together than their members could alone. If you haven't had it, you should know that such places exist. They do, and they're not nearly the minority that you may imagine. Simply look for the highest-performing entrants in any given market space. Chances are they're Iterating.
Whether or not you've experienced such an organization firsthand, you need to know not only that they exist but also that they're consistent and recognizable: they share common behaviors that can be defined, observed, encouraged, and rewarded. In my firm's work with our clients, we rely on more than seventy years of research, information, and experience to define exactly what people do in these organizations—especially the people in management. And we have almost that much collective experience helping leaders, managers, and their teams to improve at it. Anyone who runs or advises a management team 'without' understanding Iteration is doing both the team and the company a huge disservice.
This book is your guide to running an Iterative organization. It's written with three goals in mind. First, for you to understand: to
learn the key behaviors of management that make an organization Iterate (and keep it from being dumb). Second, for you to assess: to recognize the extent to which those behaviors are present or absent—in yourself as a manager, among the managers you supervise, and in the managers around and above you. And third, for you to improve: to help yourself, your team, and your organization to Iterate—even just a little more than they do now....