When we counsel clients about online strategy, we frequently use the term “perpetual beta.” The idea is to break the notion of a “complete” web project, that what lies ahead is a continuous learning experience. Corporate response to this is almost universal: Help us make a bullet-proof plan. The problem with “perfect plans” is that they end in perfect failure.
Let’s take a sidebar from biologist Lewis Thomas’s essay, “The Wonderful Mistake” ( Medusa and the Snail , 1974):
“Here it is in a nutshell. The real marvel of DNA is its capacity to blunder slightly. Without this special attribute, we’d still be anaerobic bacteria and there’d be no music…Viewed individually, one by one, each of the mutations that have brought us along represents a random, totally spontaneous accident, but it is no accident at all that mutations occur; the molecule of DNA was ordained from the beginning to make small mistakes.”
Breaking institutionalized fear of the unknown may arguably be the first and most essential step in helping shape a digital strategy. CMOs, here’s your new tattoo: No mistakes? No music. The biggest risk facing companies interested in sophisticated online strategy isn’t that they will fail, it’s that they will do everything in their power to avoid failure. What is elemental to all human beings—that we make mistakes and learn from them—is somehow anathema to corporate initiatives online. Loads of resources get channeled into dodging this possibility. The result? Plans and goals are so meticulously charted that when the first mutation takes hold the result is a holistic and epidemic panic.
If you’re a CMO considering how to renovate your company’s presence in the online space, assess the capacity of the company’s culture for starting a project in which the outcome may not be entirely clear. Will your efforts be scrutinized on a quarterly basis? Annually? Will the first unanticipated result cause chaos? Do you have the space to build a small digital lab within your larger, traditional efforts? Are your ideas backed by an organizational structure that will be flexible enough to capitalize on happy accidents as you stumble upon them?
Remember that MySpace started out for unsigned bands, and that Google’s garage days didn’t begin with the goal of forcing a paradigm shift in advertising. Make no claims that you will revolutionize the landscape, but begin work on your own gorgeous instability.
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