24 May, 2017

Not Making Mistakes = Competitive Advantage

Ask who Paul Elvstrom is and unless you sail, you are unlikely to know. He is a member of very elite group of athletes who has won 4 consecutive individual gold medals at the Olympics (1948, 1952, 1956 and 1960). He was the forefather of many of the techniques still used in today’s racing dinghies and a pioneer and innovator. So what, you may ask, has Paul Elvstrom to do with the high tech world of today.

One of Paul’s key philosophies was that the competitor that makes fewest mistakes will usually win. His classic illustration is to imagine a very wide escalator that is moving downwards. All the competitors are line abreast walking up the escalator at a speed only marginally faster than the escalator moves down (therefore, everyone moves up at the same speed). Should one competitor stumble (make a mistake) they are now one step behind the rest. As a result, as everyone is still moving upwards at the same speed, they cannot regain ground unless one or more of their fellow competitors also stumbles (makes a mistake) and they are once again on a level footing. Ergo, the competitor that makes the fewest mistakes will usually win.

Using this illustration, we can see that ‘not making mistakes’, or at least, not as many as your competitor, is one route by which a competitive advantage can be gained. So how do we approach this?

Get the Basics Right & Marginal gains at a low/local level

The start point is to get the basics right. It doesn’t need to be high tech or complex, just a straightforward, common sense approach. Keep it simple. All too often, we try to be too smart, too clever, over engineer a solution when in reality, the simple solution is usually the best one. To quote Mr Elvstrom when asked where to position the mast on a new design of dinghy “Wherever it is fastest” was his simple reply.

For those that enjoy watching downhill ski racing, we know that the difference between the first 10 or 20 places is often measured in tenths if not hundredths of a second. The small but marginal gains that the top skiers make are the difference between success and a podium place and a ‘nowhere’. That said, unless you can ski and get the basics (stance, balance, body position etc.) right, then making the small gains will not make you a world champion.


Understand the Requirements

At some point, we have all seen the classic series of cartoons about making a swing in tree, the lesson being that what the customer ‘actually’ wanted was not what was really delivered. In order to support the ‘Get the basics right’ approach, if we do not understand the requirements, then how can we build a simple straightforward solution.


All too many organisations work in a silo’d or divisional fashion. For teams, particularly test teams, who have to work across a great number of support or development areas, there is great frustration as the ‘buck’ or request for the resolution of an issue gets passed form team to team, lots of whistling in through clenched teeth “Sorry mate, not my area, you need to speak to (insert name here)…”

The key to addressing this is to work in a more collaborative manner. Don’t be afraid of sharing information, build relationships, work at breaking down the barriers between silo’d teams so that they too start to talk and work together. Employ the ‘water cooler’ conversation, you’d be surprised how often it works.


Professor Stephen Hawkings once quoted “It’s Good to Talk” and he was absolutely right. We hide behind emails and txt rather than talking face to face and as a result, we can lose a lot of context in what we want to say. This can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes being made.


The key to gaining a competitive advantage is to eliminate mistakes. This is achieved by employing a simple, straightforward approach making sure that you get the basics right and do them well, ensuring that you understand what the customer really wants not what you think they want. This in itself is achieved through establishing clear communications and bringing the various teams together using a collaborative philosophy and approach. It’s not rocket science.


By Duncan Small, Test Manager at Edge Testing

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