Most so-called “experiments” at startups aren't really experiments; just a cursory glance at their methodology and the rigor with which they're conducted would appall any serious scientist. In all honesty, the startup world has loved borrowing fancy terms from science and military strategy, but it rarely does them any justice.
Experiments at startups are, simply put, glorified trial and error, with a pinch of observation and reasoning backing them. Nothing wrong with that, considering the time pressure most VC-funded startups are working in and how quickly they have to iterate and try new things.
But here's the problem:
If you don't gracefully close your loops and learn from them, you waste your iterations. And worse: you create a sort of, what I can only call an “unconscious backlog” that's engendered by a lack of closure and stays with you for a long time after any of these experiments is shelved, never having explored its true potential.
What you get is a graveyard of unfinished loops: a place where great ideas, once brimming with potential, now lie abandoned, half-realized, and forgotten — but not quite.
The allure of the new
You're in the middle of a project, say, a meticulously planned email drip campaign strategy. You've been at it for a fortnight, meticulously researching the efficacy of email drip campaigns and writing one that's just right for you.
Then, out of nowhere, your manager loses interest in the project and decides to move on to discussing YouTube strategy instead. Suddenly, you're nerd sniped into thinking about YouTube and pulled away from the email drip project.
What seemed so vital just moments ago, now pales in comparison to the allure of this new problem. A week passes by. There's now an unspoken agreement to shelve the email drip project for now.
This is the “Shiny Object Syndrome” in action, a phenomenon that has you and your team abandoning ongoing projects for the promise of something new, something better. It's like being in the middle of a good book, only to leave it unfinished because a new bestseller caught your eye. The first book wasn't bad; the new one just seemed more exciting.
And just like that, another unfinished loop is added to the graveyard.
But what's the harm, you might ask? After all, if the new problem is more promising and a higher priority, isn't it worth the switch?
The consequences of unfinished business
Leaving a loop unfinished isn't just about the effort or resources that went into it. It's about the potential that was never realized. That unfinished email drip? It could have led to new learning for the business in terms of how prospects responded to it. All that work put into it would have been put to use.
But now, it's just a what-if, buried in the graveyard of unfinished loops.
For another example, imagine you're a manager who initiated a new feedback system for your team. You were excited about it, and so was your team. But then, a few weeks in, you read an essay about a different feedback system. It seemed more efficient, more effective. So, you abandoned the first system and introduced the new one.
Now, your team is confused. They had just started getting used to the first system, and now they have to adapt to a new one. Trust in your decision-making erodes. The first feedback system, once seeding some newfound enthusiasm in the team, is now just another unfinished loop.
And it's not just about the confusion or the eroded trust. It's about the lost opportunity to fully explore the potential of the first system. Could it have led to more open communication within your team? Could it have boosted morale, increased productivity?
You'll never know, because it was left unfinished.
Over time, this backlog grows subconsciously within the team. People now don't approach new ideas or projects with much enthusiasm. There is always this underlying fear about whether the team is going to follow through with this project. And even when people work on projects, they don't commit fully to it, because their conviction has slowly eroded due to a heavy backlog of abandoned projects.
Another side-effect is your team loses its agility and now moves more sluggishly.
“My manager may find the next shiny object in a few days, so let me take this lightly, keep it on the backseat for a while and wait till the novelty passes.”
Navigating away from the graveyard
To not populate the graveyard lies in a blend of clarity and conviction.
It's natural to get excited about new ideas. But it's also essential to evaluate their merit critically.
Is this new strategy genuinely better, or is it just new?
Remember, novelty doesn't always equate to value.
For example, a new project management tool might seem exciting with its sleek interface and unique features. But does it really offer more value than your current tool? Does it align with your team's workflow? Asking these questions can help you resist the allure of the new and stay focused on your ongoing projects.
But if you realize that something is worth pursuing, then putting on your blinders and racing along the track with total conviction helps more than it hurts. Not only do you end up doing justice to your experiment, the feedback you get also helps you honestly assess if the thing was worth doing or wasn't.
Half-assed experiments with half-assed effort can't be experiments: the feedback you get from them will never let you know if the strategy itself was the problem or its execution was. Because more often than not, improper execution leads to failed projects, not bad strategies.
In the end, it's not about how many loops you start, but how many you successfully close. Iterations are only valuable when you learn concrete things from them, otherwise, they're just empty repetitions.
Embrace the loop, see it through to the end, and only then move on to the next. A completed loop, no matter how small or simple, sets a good precedent and validates your ability to see the potential in an idea and realize it fully.
And that's a skill worth cultivating.