Be Good at Being Wrong by Getting it Right Quickly

Be Good at Being Wrong by Getting it Right Quickly


One of our investors, Esther Dyson, includes the statement “Always make new mistakes!” in her email footer. Going wrong is often unavoidable when you’re doing something new. You have to work with a mixture of facts and assumptions. The landscape changes quickly, especially for technology start-ups. So be prepared to make new mistakes!

At a strategic level, we call being wrong “pivoting”. Entrepreneurs need to manage the balance between persevering on a strategy versus knowing when to call it and pivot to a new one. Our business was a very different one four years ago.

We discovered an unexpected need for an international white-labeled solution rather than the direct approach we were taking in South Africa. Up until then, you could argue that our previous strategy was wrong. In retrospect it was, but given what we knew at the outset, it was the best answer.

Related: The Three Rs for Avoiding Start-up Failure

At the tactical level, we call being wrong “optimising”. With any given operational process, you start with some answer and you improve. Your first version is inevitably “wrong”. You can’t wait until your answer is perfectly “right” to get started.

At an individual level, its part of the gift that is “feedback”. Teams working together need to reflect and correct the way they interact. In high growth companies, the right set of actions or attitude for the start up could become the wrong one in the growth phase.

Admit you’re wrong

If you’re highly insecure, it is hard to admit you’re wrong. But authority and respect doesn’t need to be based on always having the perfect answer – rather, it can be based around being able to guide teams to better answers and execute on them.

Generally, your investors and colleagues know making mistakes goes with the territory. You need to accept that businesses pivot, and that some things don’t work as you expected them to.

Test your assumptions

The only way to realise you’re wrong is to have a hypothesis and an expected outcome, and test it. Be rigorous and analytical, and have criteria against which to test. This should be an ongoing process within your business at multiple levels. Agree on a hypothesis, execute, get results and improve.

If people aren’t being wrong in your organisation, then they are either hiding it, not venturing their views, or you aren’t creating hypotheses to measure against.

Have the infrastructure to implement a better solution quickly

Once you’ve been able to realise you’re wrong, it is about changing quickly and minimising the impact. As you start something, you obtain more information, and as you get that the answers you come to change. That happens pretty constantly across multiple levels.

Creating this structure – where you can implement and improve quickly – is vital. Whether this is company governance, team communication or technological – it is key.

Create a culture of freedom to go wrong

The culture around being wrong is important, especially when it comes to your team. When hypotheses and solutions are too closely affiliated with people, and saying those solutions are incorrect becomes a personal criticism of them, it becomes difficult. You need to divorce answers from the people.

Related: Business Plans: A Remedy for Failure

Ensure that you don’t have a blame culture in your business. Allow people to make calls, but don’t allow them to lose political capital in the process.

Vahid Monadjem
Vahid Monadjem is the founder and CEO of Nomanini, a South African-based enterprise payments platform provider that enables transactions in the cash-based informal retail sector.