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The Virtues of ‘Thrashing Early’

By Renee Obrecht-Como, Program Operations Director — Health & Nutrition

“Thrash early!” This was the advice from author, public speaker, entrepreneur, and marketer Seth Godin in response to a question at a 99u conference about how he “finishes stuff” (skip to 10:00 of this video: Keep Making a Ruckus).

Godin uses the term thrashing in the sense of thrashing out: “To talk over thoroughly and vigorously in order to reach a decision, conclusion, or understanding; discuss exhaustively” (see definition #12 at thrashing). Godin proposes that this stage is necessary, but that it often occurs at the wrong point in a project, thereby sabotaging timelines, productivity, and deliverables. All too often, people begin by running with an idea and then thrashing, with delays or eventual abandonment the frequent result. A more efficient and effective process, according to Godin, is to thrash out an idea first, then decide whether to commit to it or abandon it, with further thrashing shunted to the side in order to finish the project or move on.

What are examples of thrashing early in our work?
  • Focus groups
  • Pilots
  • Concept papers
  • Proposals
Clearly, the concept of thrashing early is integral to research and program development. However, I’ve noticed that many of us, myself included, often fail to reach out during the very early stages of a project, when our ideas are beginning to coalesce. We don’t communicate often enough, early enough, beyond a group of one or two close collaborators. Godin emphasizes that projects benefit when teams include a variety of colleagues and leadership in thrashing early. Then wide-open brainstorming, picking at flaws, and tweaking inform the beginning of a project and are less likely to hijack the end. Leaders also have the opportunity to decide whether to make an organizational commitment to a project, such as a new program or a grant proposal, before extensive time and money have been used.

An example is a textbook project from my days as a historian in Arizona. The historical society in Tucson had been working on an Arizona history textbook. In the early stages, authors of individual chapters each completed full drafts, which were delivered to the education director, with tweaking and differences of opinion hashed out later. As a result, the project experienced numerous delays over a period of nearly 10 years!

Eventually, the education director hired a new lead author and brought me on board as project manager and lead content editor. We pulled together a diverse team of secondary authors, co-editors, and advisors. Our team debated every aspect of the textbook, completed a survey of teachers, and designed a plan for completion, which was approved before we moved forward. Thrashing early, with the education director involved, resulted in a decision to commit to completion of the project, which we finished in less than two years.

Thrashing early with a broad group of participants and leaders can feel messy and risky, but the payoff can be tremendous. What are your thoughts and experiences with thrashing early — or not thrashing early? Please share!
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