Test: The importance of trial and error

One of my favourite TED talks is by Tim Harford titled Trial and Error and the God Complex.

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 is 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.

This talk has challenged me to keep a trial & error lifestyle, without regrets.

The lesson here for entrepreneurs is to: adapt quickly, experiment often, and continually try new things.



How do you speak to yourself?



Often when we see a man walking down the street openly speaking to himself, we say he is has gone mental.

And when a man speaks to himself silently, we say he is thoughtful and a thinker.

In both instances the man is speaking to himself.

We all speak to ourselves.

How do you speak to yourself?

I’m referring to the conversations we have with ourselves in the privacy of our own mind.

What is the tone of your inner dialogue?

Are you calm, forgiving, and kind, or demanding, impatient and a little judgmental?

If we are always too hard on ourselves, always bashing ourselves, it becomes very difficult to have a peace of mind.

We need to learn to be genuinely kind to ourselves, so that we can be kind to others.

Forgive yourself when you are not perfect, but never let yourself off the hook from not trying your best.

Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.




Test: “Here I made this, what do you think?”


So you have built this product or prototype, a book, painting, blog article, conference, or anything new, and now you have to deliver it to the customers.

You are nervous, because you don’t know how it will be received.

Will they like it?

Will it be rejected?

What if people think it is terrible?

This is like being at the bridge just before you bungee jump.

Maybe the approach should be:

“Here I made this, what do you think?”

Saying this is difficult and frightening.

And the response may be “no thank you”

And you will have to respond to that and say with respect: “Thank you, it’s not for you” and walk-away to someone else and again say “Here, I made this, what do you think?”

Embedded in this notion is the realisation that:

Not everyone will love what you do, but at the same time, not everyone will hate what you do.

Your job, your task as an entrepreneur is to look for people who will say: “Thank you, this is what I have been looking for.”





Test: Implementation is king


It is easy to have an idea, you have an idea, the person sitting next to you has one, the receptionist at work has one.

The challenge is not the lack of ideas, the challenge is the implementation of ideas.

Just having an idea is not enough.

Ideas have to go through a process, something a difficult one, for them to stand a chance of seeing the light of day.

The design thinking process is one such process and follows these five principles:

  1. Empathise – Learn about your audience, understand your customer pains and frustrations.
  2. Define – After understanding your customer pains and frustrations, construct a point of view based on their needs.
  3. Ideate – Brainstorm creative solutions based on your understanding and definition of their frustrations
  4. Prototype – Build something, come up with a prototype that will go towards solving their problems.
  5. Test – Test your ideas

Test your ideas, iterate, change, test again, iterate, change and on and on and on.

Go and get more feedback. Yes, negative and positive. It hurts, but it should not destroy you.

Structure your projects so that failure is not fatal.




One of the few…


Few organisations look past the data to see the humanity of the client behind the numbers.

Few companies act as if it is a privilege to serve their customers.

Few people take time to listen twice as much as they speak.

Few people are comfortable not attention-seeking.

Few products are made with love.

Few people are willing to do the work and forgo receiving credit.

Few people connect with others without expecting anything in return.

In a world where we are doing our best to fit in, it is easy to fall into the trap of emulating what most people are doing.

We make our biggest contribution when we dare to do what only a handful will do.

Being one of the few is underrated.

Book Review: Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu by Sihle Khumalo


I usually read books on entrepreneurship related topics. This is my first travel book I have read. So I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The book is funny, but also smart. Sihle get’s into plane and travels to West African, and when he lands in Senegal, he uses public transport to travel throughout the region. In each of the cities, he spends a few days there, visits tourist attractions sites, eats local foods and then get’s into a bus to another country.

Traveling by public transport, a bus, and a not so luxury couche is not easy, let alone being in an French speaking country, where almost everyone doesn’t understand what you are saying is scary.

Sihle Khumalo makes it look so easy and enjoyable.

This book is about exploring African cities, African people, transport systems, b&bs, local food, cultures etc.

He lands in Senegal, spends a few days there, then proceeds to Mali. Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo using busses and cabs.

What stood out for me is that Sihle is not deterred by the fact that almost everyone in these countries are French speaking, and very little if any of the locals speak English.

Besides the adventure and scary encounters, this is a smart book. Sihle has done his homework in terms of researching various places he wants to visit but also the history of those places. He goes to various tourist attraction places with knowledge of what happened at these heritage sites, monuments, statues, airports, cities.



I loved this book and I would recommend it especially to those who want to explore the real West Africa.

If you are into first class travel, fancy hotels and restaurants, and you are not willing to explore the real lives of locals, then this book is not for you.

This book takes you out of your comfort zone.

Not only will you be entertained by Sihle’s stories, but you will be well informed about West Africa.

Favourite Quotes

  • “Part of me likes to live on the edge, waking up and not knowing where I am going to sleep that very night. I love being forced to make plans as I go along. I love solving a series of problems and the satisfaction that comes from having done so successfully.”

  • “Naturally, we Africans won’t take responsibility for our actions, and especially our inactions; instead, as usual, we blame it all on colonialism. And Imperialism. And racism. And God. And the Ancestors. And anything and everything else under the sun but ourselves.”
  • “On all my trips I have had to reluctantly accept that Africans are not light travelers. I have realised, however, there is a logical reason for this: most people travel for a very long time before they get to the city of their destination.”

  • “But that is the unending story of Africa: loads of potential that remains just that, potential.”
  • With a ‘mercy buku’ [that is how ‘thank you’ sounds in French]

  • “Records show that the slave trade in Africa was initiated by the Arabs, as early as the 7th century, mainly in the north and on the east coast of the Continent, with the slave routes running across the Indian Ocean, and on land through North Africa.”
  • “If all the skies were paper and all the seas ink, I would not be able to describe the brutality of the slave trade.”
  • “I grappled with the question of how people could act so inhumanely and yet claim to be civilized. How could people have been so brutal and heartless to other human beings?

Who is this all for?


In the end, the enterprise, and the sacrifice are all about the audience.

It is easy to forget and make it about you.

It’s not, it’s for the audience.

The audience is the hero.

The sacrifices are about the readers, the theatre goers, the site visitors, the listeners, the concert goers, the gamers, the gallery goers, a group which by the way includes you and me.

We are the audience.

In the hero’s journey, the wonderer returns home after years of exiles and struggle and suffering.

He brings a gift for the people.

That gift arises from what the hero has seen, what he has endured, what he has learned.

But the gift is not that raw material alone, it is the ore refined into gold by the hero wonderer, artist skilled with loving hands.

You are that artist.

I will gladly spend my money to read, or see, or listen to your gift you have refined from your pain, and your vision and your imagination.

I need it.

We all do.

We are struggling here in the trenches.

That beauty, that wisdom, those thrills and chills, even that mindless escape on a rainy winter afternoon, I want it.

Hook me down for it.

The hero wonders.

The hero suffers.

The hero returns.

You are that hero.








Keep grinding


The amateur believes he must have all his ducks in a row before he can launch a startup, or compose a song, or design his iPhone app.

The professional knows better.

Has your wife just broken up with you?

Has your house been repossessed?

Keep writing, keep composing, keep coding, keep recording film.

Athletes play hurt, warriors fight scared, the professional takes two pills and keeps grinding.

Don’t wait for perfect, keep grinding, perfect will find you on the way.




How we were sold smoking, bacon and the ideal of slender women

Edward Bernays is one of the most influential persons in the 20th century.

He is considered the father of “Public Relations” and changed how we think of mass marketing, advertising at scale and consumerism.

And, yet, strangely it is likely you have never heard of him.

Despite his enduring impact on the world, there are many reasons for this lack of popularity.

However, chief among them is reluctance among the colleagues in his industry to talk about his work.

So, you don’t hear Marketing professors or advertising executives mention him or his work.


Not doing so denies some fascinating lessons that might shape how we think about the attention economy, public relations and marketing.

So who is Edward Bernays?

Edward Bernays was an Austrian American whose family moved to the United States in the 1890s.

He spent the early part of his career as a Medical Editor and Press Agent. In both these roles, he showcased an ability to take strong positions on certain causes and successfully get support from the public ,  among them elites like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts.

After the US entered World War I, he was recruited by the US Government’s “Commission on Public Information” to build support for the war domestically.

Since a large portion of Americans had just fled Europe, this did not make much sense. But, Bernays coined a phrase : “Make the World Safe for Democracy” that became the slogan President Woodrow Wilson needed.


It gave the senseless war a higher purpose.

And, Bernays began referring to his work as “psychological warfare.”

Bernays also added significant artillery to his propoganda techniques.

He did this by incorporating the lessons from a then-infamous psychologist uncle who published work about how individuals are driven by unconscious needs, desires, and fears.

Sigmund Freud [Bernays’s uncle], until then, was a relative unknown as he had been shunned by the European society.

But, his nephew, Edward Bernays, made him and his work famous in the United States and ensured he attained fame and prestige.

Bernays applied his uncle’s insights to great effect by manipulating public opinion through mass media.

As he became the world’s foremost expert in propaganda, he realised it was as powerful a tool in peacetime as it was during war.

How do we get people to buy more goods, even if they don’t need more? Get Edward Bernays to do the job.

So, after the war, he moved to New York and decided to counsel companies in propoganda.

However, since the word propoganda was controversial and since its alternate “advertising” was too mundane, he decided to rename it “Public Relations.”

Why smoking and bacon are great for you?

Sadly, Bernays’ advice was sold to anyone who cared to pay him well for it.

And, the bulk of his big clients were the tobacco companies and the pork industry.

In his work with them, he demonstrated his skills as a master campaign strategist.

For example, he staged the “Torches of Freedom” event during the 1929 Easter Day Parade as a means of conflating smoking and women’s rights.


Tens of millions of women threw off their shackles to claim their right to smoke in public.

His media strategy involved persuading women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating.

He began by promoting the ideal of thin women by using photographers and artists in newspapers and magazines to promote their “special beauty.”

He, then, had medical authorities promote the cigarettes over sweets.

Bernays also pioneered the covert use of third parties.

For instance, he convinced a doctor to write to 5,000 other doctors asking them to confirm that they’d recommend heavy breakfasts.

4,500 doctors wrote back and agreed.


He arranged for these findings to be published in every newspaper across the country while stating that “bacon and eggs should be a central part of breakfast.”

Sales of bacon went up.

The Engineering of Consent

Bernays called his brand of mass manipulation the “engineering of consent.”

He worked with every major political power during his day to help provide the tools to non-coercive control of the mind.

In 1928, he crystallised some of his lessons in his book “Propoganda.”

Here is a passage that describes his thought process about the importance of his work in society :

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Edward Bernays held the masses in contempt. That is why we don’t know much about Bernays.

He simply didn’t care about popularity in the eyes of those who he held in contempt.

The impact of his techniques on society are undeniable.

Every marketing and PR campaign since has used his techniques to shape our minds.

We study his work in every case on mass marketing , without ever referring to him.

The incredible jump in the proportion of British workers who voted “leave” in the 2 months before the EU referendum would not have been possible if it was not for Bernays techniques.

We vote for Presidents because we have been “engineered to consent” for them.

I have reservations about marketing and PR because in the back of my mind, Marketing and PR is about lying, about propaganda and manipulating people.

You see an AirBnB advert, it looks fantastic, the wording and the advert ticks all the boxes, and then you get to the place and it’s not what you expected it is.

Social media has amplified people “engineering” their images to look more fantastic than they are, and then you meet them and you realise they are not what they claim to be.

When a war or military coup is imminent, the first thing those in control do is take over the state broadcaster.

If you watched South Africa during apartheid years from a distance through eyes of the media, you will be forgiven to think that it is a peaceful country.

Advertising and marketing has used to run campaigns to shape [engineer consent] thoughts and views of people and in the process creating unrealistic lifestyles.

Today we have campaigns like Black Fridays.

Black Friday was a deliberate invention of the National Association of Retailers. It was not only the perfect way to promote stores during a super slow news day, but had the side benefit of creating a new cultural norm.

People like doing what other people are doing. People don’t like being left out. The media likes both and uses that to engineer society to behave in a certain manner, in this case to go shopping.

How would we go about learning marketing and public relations if we studied the life and work of Edward Bernays?

I understand why professors and executives don’t want to talk about Bernays.

Discussing his beliefs and techniques can seem akin to touting the power of the dark arts.

But, every useful tool has its dark sides. And, the founding story of the PR industry is a great example of that.

It is not an example we should avoid. Instead, it is a story we must learn from.

It will make us all better marketers and, perhaps, better human beings.

As Mark Twain has said before: History doesn’t repeat itself,  but it rhymes.

It is why any attempt to understand the present and predict the future is futile if it is not preceded by an understanding of history.

The reason I the history of things, [revolutions, marketing, accounting etc] is because history has a way of explaining to us why we behave we way we do.

Prototype: Walking…


As humans, when we first learned to talk, we started uttering random sounds, and failed, received feedback, then tried again until we succeeded into forming correct sentences.

We prototyped our way to talking.

When we were young learning to walk, we constantly, stood up, took a couple of steps forward, fell again, stood up and tried again and again until we got it right.

We prototyped our way to walking.

Now we can reapply these basic principle with some key prototyping mindsets and prototyping tools required for innovation leadership.

We can apply these basic principles to writing, drawing, creating, building, etc.

Innovation leadership knows that product introductions that are polished and planned to perfection don’t work. Prototypes do.

Prototype: The Shinkansen story


In the 1950s, during the lingering wake of the devastation of the Second World War, Japan was intensely focused on growing the nation’s economy.

A large portion of the country’s population lived in or between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, which were separated by just 320 miles of train track.

Every day, tens of thousands of people traveled between the two cities. And in addition to the thousands of people who traveled on these trains, tons of industrial goods were transported on them, too.

But, because Japan had so many mountains spread throughout and in between the two cities that it made an already old and outdated railway system even slower due to the rough and mountainous Japanese terrain the trains were forced to travel on; making the trip as long as 20 hours.

So, in 1955, the head of the Japanese railway system issued a challenge to the nation’s finest engineers: invent a faster train.

Six months later, a team unveiled a prototype locomotive capable of going 65 miles per hour [about 100 kilometres per hour], a speed that, at the time, made it among the fastest passenger trains in the world.

“Not good enough,” the head of the railway system said. He wanted 120 miles per hour [about 200 kilometres per hour].

The engineers told the head of the railway that this just was not a realistic expectation, and was, in fact, a pretty dangerous undertaking because a train designed to go that fast [120 miles per hour] along the sharp and mountainous Japanese topography would definitely derail if it turned too sharply, and end up killing everyone on board as a result.

No way could they design a train to go that fast.

So, instead of 120 miles an hour, the engineers said that 70 miles an hour was a much more realistic number to shoot for, 75 if they were lucky. Any faster and the trains would just crash.

“Why do the trains need to turn?” the railway head asked.

“There are numerous mountains between the cities,” the engineers replied.

The railway head shot back—“Why not make tunnels, then?”

Tunnels, huh? The labor required to tunnel through that much territory could require just as many physical and financial resources as it did to rebuild the entire city of Tokyo after World War II.

Three months after that conversation, the engineers came back to the railway chief with an engine that could go as fast as 75 miles an hour.

You can probably already guess what the railway chief said:

75 miles an hour has absolutely no chance of transforming the nation!”

Incremental improvements would only yield incremental economic growth.

The only way to revamp the nation’s transportation system was to rebuild every element of how these trains functioned. Everything.

So they got to work, and over the next two years, the engineers experimented: they designed train cars that each had their own motors.

They rebuilt gears so they meshed with less friction.

They discovered that their new cars were too heavy for Japan’s existing tracks, and so they reinforced the rails, which had the added bonus of increasing the train’s stability, which added another ½ mile per hour to train’s speed.

There were hundreds of innovations, both big and small, just like these, each of which made the trains just a little bit faster than before.

And after tons of tiny tweaks and years of hard work and hustle under the Japanese railway chief’s go-big-or-go-home style of leadership, the very same team of engineers that thought it was impossible to build a 120 mile train, ended up building a 120 mile train.

In 1964, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the world’s first bullet train, left Tokyo and made its 320-mile trip towards Osaka. Except this time, instead of taking twenty hours, the trip took only four.

This remains a fascinating story about how the Shinkansen was built from “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg.

Often, the prerequisite for building great things is relentlessness and a willingness to question every current norm and start anew.

But it always starts with a prototype and then work relentlessly to improve it over time.

It started with 75 miles per hour and with relentless leadership and resolve, iterating the structure, it moved to 120 miles per hour.

Prototype, then polish.