Your phone is not a phone. Your PC is not a PC. And you are not…ok we’ll leave that one for later. But what we think of as objects or products (including that last one), are actually iterations of products. They are “snapshots” of the ongoing development of the idea of a product.
One definition of iteration I like a lot, from the web, is:
Iteration: Repeatedly applying a series of operations to progressively advance towards a solution.
Iteration is crucial for success. Charles Murray, in his monumental work Human Accomplishment , teaches us that the truly great geniuses separate themselves from the merely talented not just by the incredible, almost non-human quality of their output, but by the profuse quantity. Similarly, successful corporations often don’t succeed by doing one “thing”, but by iterating, that is, continually re-introducing and refining, the products and services they sell. Think of Intel, McDonalds, Fedex, or Apple, and it is clear that that , while these companies all began with a groundbreaking concept, it is the decades of iteration, the consistent improvement, refinement, and response to the never-ending feedback of consumers and competitors, as well as continual reexamination of all tools, technologies, and other resources, that truly brands these companies as standouts.
I bring up the concept of iteration because of its relevance to the area of personal success. If we realize that success is not an “event”, but a process, and indeed an open-ended and potentially limitless process, we gain an enormous reserve of power. For instance, many motivational speakers discuss idea that, once a task is begun, all sorts of resources seem to become available. Here is how Scott Berkun, author of The Art Of Project Management , sees it:
"…until you take that step forward and make a decision (“Let’s run with design B!”) you won’t see all the problems and issues. Making decisions…is the only way to force issues and problems to the surface”
Iteration is commonplace across the spectrum of human activity:
The industrial concept known as “spiral development” aims to get products out the door, even if they are nor "perfect", so that they can be evaluated in the “real world”, not just in the lab, thus drastically speeding up the improvement process.
The Air Force uses the brief/mission/debrief cycle to improve their capabilities after each mission.
Warren Buffett is said to be constantly searching for more “opportunity cost” …i.e. the highest-value activities he is not yet investing in, so he can improve his record.
So what does iteration mean for us on the level of personal success?
1. It is tragic state when we are frozen in an unchanging idea of self. A person who doesn’t continually change and grow is similar to a telephone from 1959, or a computer from 1979: a quaint, mostly useless pile of outdated and irrelevant ideas and standards. I know way too many people who haven’t changed their core beliefs for decades, although the world had marched on. And the most tragic part, is that their core beliefes about themselves and their own capabilities are the most "frozen" beliefs.
2. There is no “perfect time” to start a project, because, as Berkun tells us in the example above, only by engaging in the project can you even begin to understand what tasks are involved in the project. And most projects are going to unfold and develop as a result of starting them.
3. Each time you discover a new dimension to a project, you multiply the other dimensions by that new dimension, thus geometrically improving your possibilities. You cannot do this unless you are constantly seeking input and growth. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re going to take a public speaking course. In the course they introduce you to methods of standing with good posture, speaking clearly, and explaining your ideas forcefully. Now, you have three different tools that can be disaggregated and used individually, Then one day, you find that people see you as “leadership material”. Now you have a new dimension, leadership, to explore, and you start using your previous three skills in the service of the new skill. You get feedback on your leadership skills, and, perhaps uncover other areas, or dimensions, of skills you want to learn, such as personal organization, motivation, etc and so each acquired skill iterates into other dimensions, in a nonstop pattern of growth and development. As long as you’re willing to iterate, and respond to the feedback of previous iterations, you are going to grow nonstop.
4. When Ben Stein tells us to “stay at the table” until we win, and that even the very most successful people have to struggle each and every day (How Successful People Win ), he is telling us that success is an iterative journey. A game of inches. A marathon. He encourages to think in terms of an unfolding series of better and better results.
5. In a free society, there is no stasis. Things are changing every day. We need to learn to love this. Stock clerks become billionaires. Students become teachers. Truth becomes less true, yielding to new truth. Amateurs become professionals. There is no “that’s the way it is”. Reality is fluid, flowing, responsive.
Now, let’s say you’ve just been examining a previous outcome in your quest for personal success. It may have been an unfortunate outcome. What tools can we apply to improve the next iteration?
Techniques for dealing with sub-optimal outcomes:
1. What components of this outcome did I not expect?
2. What components suggest obvious “fixes”?
3. Is there a reason to give up the project just because of this one outcome, considering all the possible adjustments I can make, and the potential success ahead of me?
4.What results, however small, could I amplify to improve results the next time?
5. What sources of knowledge are available to me to improve the next iteration of this project? People? Books? Articles? Coaches? Friends? Mentors? Family? Spiritual?
6. What organizational tools could I use to improve my outcome next time? Checklists? Notepads? Printouts? Graphs? Charts? Pre-rehearsal? Written agenda?
7. Even though this might have been a negative outcome, as it in any way better than a previous outcome?
8.Now that I have “been through” this outcome, is there a “change of focus”? Should I be focusing on something (slightly or largely) different?
Here’s one other secret about iteration. You can’t lose. You see, if the goal is making each cycle better, and you did something, anything, to make the next attempt better, you actually won. As Vince Lombardi famously said: "We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time."