The God Complex and the Importance of Trial and Error

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by: Jason Miller

I recently watched an incredibly inspiring Ted Talk by Tim Harford. Harford is an economics writer who studies complex systems and finds a surprising link among the most successful ones; they are built through trial and error. His talk centers around the idea of a God complex – a refusal to admit the possibility of being wrong regardless of the complexity of the situation – and how trial and error creates better results than a self proclaimed expert.

Here’s an excerpt from Harford’s stellar Ted Talk:

So let’s say you wanted to make detergent. Let’s say you’re Unilever and you want to make detergent in a factory near Liverpool. How do you do it? Well you have this great big tank full of liquid detergent. You pump it at a high pressure through a nozzle. You create a spray of detergent. Then the spray dries. It turns into powder. It falls to the floor. You scoop it up. You put it in cardboard boxes. You sell it at a supermarket. You make lots of money.

How do you design that nozzle? It turns out to be very important. Now if you ascribe to the God complex, what you do is you find yourself a little God. You find yourself a mathematician; you find yourself a physicist — somebody who understands the dynamics of this fluid. And he will, or she will, calculate the optimal design of the nozzle. Now Unilever did this and it didn’t work — too complicated. Even this problem, too complicated.

But the geneticist Professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever actually did solve this problem — trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10, you keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You try out 10 variations on that one. You see how this works, right.

And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle. It looks a bit like a chess piece — functions absolutely brilliantly. We have no idea why it works, no idea at all.

And the moment you step back from the God complex — let’s just try to have a bunch of stuff; let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not — you can solve your problem.

Unilever had a problem which they solved by variation, selection, and trial and error. I couldn’t help but think about the similarities a B2B marketer might face. There’s of course variation, such as AB testing landing pages. Then there’s selection, as in deciding which marketing programs are most successful. Finally there’s trial and error, or experimenting with different offers and implementing new technology. In all of these scenarios, an expert is not necessarily the optimal solution. Much like the Unilever example, innovation is often born through mistakes, you just have to move forward with the knowledge to do better.

The lesson here for B2B marketers is to adapt quickly, experiment often, and continually try new things.  Harford’s latest book Adapt is full of scenarios of businesses that have disappeared over the last century from failing to do so. Harford  encourages us as leaders to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes. Abandon the idea that an expert, or even a team of experts, has all the answers and the ability to think through a complex problem. Instead consider many options and narrow in on the best after developing a process of trial and error, selection and variation.

Watch the full 18 minute Ted Talk

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Do you agree with Harford’s approach to solving complex problems? Did his talk inspire you as a marketer?

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