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Many wrongs make it right

Being “productively wrong” can help fortify success.

By Dylan Walsh  |  May 10, 2017

2017-Netflix

Productively wrong: Netflix's original model was the wrong one for growth, but it was essential to developing its now-thriving business.

In 1971, the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace formed and launched its first expedition. A ragged crew of friends and acquaintances decided to pilot a fishing boat from Vancouver, Canada to the small island of Amchitka, Alaska, where the U.S. government was testing nuclear warheads. Greenpeace assumed that their presence would stall the tests. The crew raised money, set sail and, soon after departure, was intercepted by the Navy, who sent them home.

Everyone onboard lamented the failure until the boat pulled into harbor and, through media attention, public interest swelled. Greenpeace realized that a vocal public could be just as effective for protest as an anchored fishing boat. “Being wrong showed a path to success,” said Luis Perez-Breva, director of the MIT Innovation Teams Program at MIT Sloan. To put it another way: Greenpeace was productively wrong.

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Perez-Breva, in his new book on innovating, uses this term to demonstrate how pursuing a thorough understanding of how ideas are wrong is necessary to successful innovating. (“Innovation,” he notes, is an outcome; “innovating” is the process.) Whether entrepreneurs just getting started or a well-established global business, the lesson holds. “We all love to be right,” he said. “But if we make it an operating principle to identify the ways that our ideas are wrong, we tend to learn more.” 

Here are three reasons why it’s right to pursue what’s wrong.

The certainty of wrongness
One of the fundamental benefits of being wrong is its definitiveness. “When something is wrong, you know that with full certainty,” Perez-Breva said. “We don’t often realize that the alternative to being wrong is gambling.” Rightness cannot be proved; it is uncertain. We may believe we’re right about an idea, but we cannot know for sure.

Physicist Theodore Maiman, for instance, invented the first laser in 1960 by shining a lamp purchased from a photographic equipment catalog on a ruby rod. His colleagues told him it would never work. “But simply trying it out was easier, and better, than ‘being right,’” Perez-Breva said. “He started out thinking that he was wrong. It turned out everyone else was wrong.”

When pushing an idea to see if it’s wrong, Perez-Breva explained that one of two things might happen. “Either you’ll be wrong and find out about it, and so you fix it before you’ve spent an enormous amount of money, or, if the idea is stubbornly resistant to being proven wrong, then maybe there’s something to it.”

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Being wrong is the opposite of failing 
While it’s easy to conflate being wrong and failure, Perez-Breva notes that the former is actually intended to prevent the latter. “I don’t believe you should fail,” Perez-Breva said. “Nobody wants to fail.”

Being productively wrong instead implies “running a story forward” to ferret out the weaknesses in an idea. He pointed to astronauts as exemplars of this strategy. Before a mission, astronauts don’t try to find the best way to stay alive in space, but they try to determine everything that might get them killed. And through this inquisition they develop the tools to stay alive.

Though counterintuitive, any company can standardize this practice by flipping the way it approaches problems: rather than trying to find a single best answer, try to find all the pitfalls that need to be sidestepped.

“Throughout my work I’ve seen so many examples of failure that could have been avoided,” Perez-Breva said. In the business and nonprofit worlds, the cost of this avoidable failure extends beyond simply lost money. “It is a societal waste because those people in the company had energy, they had a desire to bring about change,” he said.

Taking wrongness to scale
In writing his book, Perez-Breva sorted through hundreds of examples of innovative companies. He found that those that succeed cannot be thought of as simply growing out from core competencies, but as “layering up,” he said. “What these companies did first becomes an innovation for what comes next.”

He used Netflix as an example: they started as a DVD-by-mail company, and have since added on a streaming service and a production studio — two endeavors that have little in common with the original model. The DVD rental business was an essential way for Netflix to create revenue and learn — it was a prototype — but it was the wrong organization for acquiring new consumers and growing. Netflix needed to correct inefficiencies and ultimately layer a new company on top of the old one.

“You can’t hack scale; you learn your way through it,” Perez-Breva said. “The ‘old organization’ teaches you, but is ill-suited to target the next scale. It is wrong. Everything that's wrong about it tells you what you ought to solve for at the next scale.”

Paying attention to what’s wrong inside a company opens avenues to successful growth. “As an organization grows, some parts will be reorganized, some discarded, and what you end up with may have no obvious resemblance to the original organization,” Perez-Breva said. “This is how being productively wrong can be brought up to scale.”