Conor egan chief product officer


On the Power of Iteration

MAy 31, 2017

Colonel John Boyd was a pilot and military strategist. He was confounded by a puzzle in the early days of military jet-powered aircraft: he wanted to know why pilots preferred the American-made but technically inferior F-86 fighter to the Russian-made MIG-15. The MIG could turn and climb faster as well as see further into the distance, so why wouldn’t it be a unanimous favorite? The numbers did not lie, however; the F-86 consistently bested it’s technically-superior counterpart in one-on-one conflicts.

He found that one difference in the F-86’s favor that did not necessarily show on a spec sheet was its hydraulic flight controls. This allowed its pilots to react faster and with less effort than those using the MIG-15’s manual controls. As a result, the F-86 pilots could execute decisions more quickly and adjust to the changing environment faster than their technically more powerful opponent. To quote author Roger Sessions:

“Boyd decided that the primary determinant to winning dogfights was not observing, orienting, planning, or acting better. The primary determinant to winning dogfights was observing, orienting, planning, and acting faster. In other words, how quickly one could iterate. Speed of iteration, Boyd suggested, beats quality of iteration.”

This suggests that the interval of iteration is as important if not more so than the quality of that actual decision making process.

If planes are not your thing, imagine a choice between two ship captains that are proposing to take you to an island across the ocean. One captain has a fast ship and good instincts, but as a result only takes his bearings once a day and then corrects course once a day based on his reading. The other may not have such a quick ship or good instincts but as a result checks his bearings every hour, resetting his course based on where currents or winds have blown him off course. As you can imagine, the faster iteration would allow the second captain to hew closer to an ideal path to the island.

This principle can be applied to many disciplines. We apply it when developing product. Our goal is to get a working prototype of a new feature or product improvement up as soon as possible. Even the most intuitive product designer is likely to overlook things until they can be touched and tested in a real environment. There is also value to delivering an initial, usable version to customers quickly and understand if and how it meets their needs. If your product release cycle becomes overly long you miss not only opportunities for feedback, but your user base and your competitors may have moved on and changed their priorities.

Iteration is also massively important when crafting your web experiences. If it takes weeks or months instead of days to make vital changes to your website you are likely to be skating to where the puck was, and as a result stuck with an imperfect message for awhile until you can course correct again. Remember, all the work up front trying to craft your perfect message can still be outdone by a more nimble strategy. This of course all also depends on your ability to determine the success of your changes, so it must also be paired with clear success criteria and a foolproof way to execute them.

Don’t let your competition fly circles around you. Arm yourself with the tools you need to be able to move quickly. Don’t let yourself be outmaneuvered. Even the most intuitive and experienced planner can be bested by a less experienced team that can iterate and adapt to changes faster than you can.