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Trial balloons and other ways to mitigate failure

Tom Berliner

Tom Berliner

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Updated: November 30, 2013 7:51PM

We live in a world that demands instantaneous and superlative responses. If I request something, I expect the answer immediately, not in minutes, much less hours or days. If I make an investment, I expect the returns to be beyond my original expectations, not just something conservatively good. We are so spoiled.

The problem arises when we address an opportunity or face a problem. One of my mantras is: “Satisfaction is a function of expectation.” High expectations lessen the likelihood that we will be pleased with the results.

The converse is also true. Low expectations heighten the likelihood that we will be pleased with the results. There are things to be said for both of these approaches; although, typically, dedicated efforts and modest expectations is a good combination.

Elevated expectations are frequently prevalent when we are about to try something different, perhaps introducing a new product/service or entering a new field, to name but two possibilities. With a rosy future expected, it is easy to put on commitment blinders, go after our objective full bore and, disregarding all else, run smack into failure.


In risk/reward lingo, we call this putting all our eggs in one basket. Success is glorious but failure is catastrophic. What could we do to lessen the risk?

Try it on first

“Great by Choice” is Jim Collins’ follow up to “Good to Great.” It is fascinating for a lot of different reasons, one of which is the research premise. It looked at successful companies in unstable conditions.

Hello! What have we here? Aren’t we currently operating in a significantly unpredictable environment? We most assuredly are. Learning the things that allowed successful organizations to not only exceed but totally blow away their competition might be helpful to us.

Obviously, I encourage you to read this very important book. But, more than that, I want to lift up one concept for your consideration. It’s called “Fire bullets, then cannonballs.”

Bullets, in a more conventional metaphor, would be trial balloons. Actually, it’s a little bit more structured and empirically-based than that, but we’re in the same relative space when we talk about both. Once carefully-selected bullets hone in on the target, the full power of the remaining arsenal can be brought to bear. It’s not a one-shot-and-hope-that-it-hits-the-target approach.

So what does that tell us? Four things, I think.

One, take some risks. Remember: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Two, be smart. Weigh the risks versus the rewards.

Three, the more significant your investment of resources (money, people, expertise or whatever), the more thoughtful and cautious you have to be.

Four, you can mitigate negative results by trying something out before going for broke. Trying things out are the bullets to which Collins refers. Yes, it’ll take a bit more time. Yes, the costs associated with this may feel unnecessary. However, in the long run, you will likely save a bunch going this route.

Among other things, you will get a much better feel for the undertaking (probability of success, unexpected obstacles, additional alternatives). When the trial is complete, and it needn’t take forever, you can determine whether to fire cannonballs or save them for a more profitable target.

More questions

When one of my team members comes to me with an idea, I always have loads of questions. These aren’t to discourage the individual (I try very hard not to do that), but, instead, to get a sense for myself whether or not this undertaking makes sense.

Often, some of the questions cannot be answered by anything other than experiential data.

I could somewhat blindly project the data favorably or unfavorably and make a decision based on that.

Alternatively, I could ask for a sample run, review the results and extrapolate from that. If the project is significant, it’s a no-brainer: Run with the sample.

I recommend the same for you.

As always, if there is anything that I can do to support or encourage you, I would be delighted to assist in your success. Please contact me at or at 847-628-1520.

Tom Berliner is a
Montgomery resident and dean
of the School of Leadership
and Business at Judson
University in Elgin.

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