Why do most entrepreneurs and intrapreneuers fail? Is it because they don’t hustle? They don’t think outside the box? They don’t disrupt?

Most of them create something based on some sort of problem or trend they’ve observed in the market and build a solution, service, or product. They create a little marketing site and announce it – usually with a press release and a one size fits all graphic. And then they just sit back.

Maybe they’ll do some social media, maybe they don’t. Maybe they’ll do a video about it, maybe they don’t. And after a few months, after having had few customers or, worse, no success and no traction around it, they wind it down. And what do they say? “This simply doesn’t work. This product doesn’t work. Entrepreneurship, doesn’t work. Innovation doesn’t work.” What we have discovered in our work with hundreds of companies and thousands of intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs is that you don’t have to have the perfect answer right away.

The key to producing tangible results is mastering the art of iteration.

Iteration is a concept that receives a lot of attention these days. Contrary to what you have heard, however, iteration is not a new concept. It has been around for a long time. In fact, I want to take you all the way back to a period between the 8th and 14th century, what’s commonly referred to as the Islamic Golden Age.

Progress In The Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age was a period of cultural, economic, and scientific progress. A lot of it driven by Bayt al-Hikma, otherwise known as The House of Wisdom. The House of Wisdom was one of the greatest repositories of books in the world. And one of the greatest intellectual hubs in the middle ages attracting the most brilliant minds from all over. Scholars and scientists translated all the world’s classical knowledge from Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, Persian on all kinds of topics, physics, chemistry, cartography, geography, astronomy, medicine – you name it. Experts from The House of Wisdom made groundbreaking scientific discoveries, saved people’s lives, built lasting structures and consulted on any major project going on at the time.

Now here’s the interesting part: Anytime knowledge was gained through either market validation or through some kind of new discovery, they would go back and wait for it, iterate the translation.

They would make corrections based on the latest discoveries and would add knowledge and new understanding where it was needed. They improved on the original works and made the books better with every translation. In the process, they would improve their own knowledge on the subject better, which in turn led to new discoveries and more progress. This iterative cycle was institutionalized at the house of wisdom and it led to unprecedented discoveries in medicine, agriculture, finance, and engineering.

3M and 15% Time

In more recent times, a great example is 3M, a company with 100 year tradition of institutionalized innovation. At 3M, employees spend 15% of their time on new products and innovations. And 30% of each division sales come from products less than four years old. Many of these new products are a result of iterative experimentation.

Let’s take Post-Its, a product many consider an overnight success. In reality, they were a product of iteration. The initial goal was to create a high strength adhesive for airplanes, which obviously they failed at horribly. The adhesive they got as a result, was a low strength adhesive that didn’t leave a residue.

A few clever people realized that this adhesive could be used in other applications. They iterated to create an A0 sized sticky board that people could stick papers to and remove anytime they wanted. That got a little bit of success, but not enough to justify full commercialization.

“Why don’t we cut these up into small squares and send them to people?” They iterated again and sent the smaller samples to customers. Once they sent it, they got 90% of people ordering those little sticky notes again.

Three major iterations over the span of a few years. That’s how Post-Its that we all love and use, were born.

Always Be Iterating

Without constant iteration, many of the 60,000 products 3M sells today would never have gotten off the ground. So the lesson here is “always be iterating.” Whether you’re looking to create a product or a profit center, iteration is the name of the game. You need to have the right process and the framework for iteration. And this is something that’s been proven through the ages. It’s not something new.

In our Think Fast Decide Faster interventions, we have streamlined this process to rapidly spin up new business models, built AI pilots, create go-to-market strategies and everything in between. In both our on-site and virtual programs the amount of iteration is what surprises participants of the programs.