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Pain is indeed a sign that something isn’t working. The testing phase of most projects is painful, for example, because it’s telling us about all the mistakes we made earlier in the project. 

Integration is painful because all the poor assumptions we made about how the system would work are suddenly made clear.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to avoid pain.“If it hurts, stop doing it,” I say.

This is mostly a pretty good strategy. Pain is nature’s way of telling us that something isn’t working. But I’m increasingly conscious that it may not be such a good strategy for organisations as they develop new technology and digital strategies.

Pain is indeed a sign that something isn’t working. The testing phase of most projects is painful, for example, because it’s telling us about all the mistakes we made earlier in the project.  

Integration is painful because all the poor assumptions we made about how the system would work are suddenly made clear. Customer feedback hurts most when it unveils sorry truths about how bad our products really are.

Avoiding this sort of pain, however, is a bad strategy. It is revealing new information that might help us build better products and systems.  

When we avoid it, we build the conditions for even greater pain later. We’re eventually going to find out that our systems don’t work properly, that they won’t integrate, that our customers won’t buy them.  

Do we want to find that out after we’ve invested a lot of money in development and when any fix is going to involve unravelling a lot of work? Or would it be nice to know at an early point, when we can shift course relatively easily?

So pain is really nature’s way of telling us that new information is available. In that case, we should do painful things at the earliest possible point, and frequently thereafter.  

Here are some reasons why:

  • It’s easier to deal with pain in small chunks.  

    Crises tend to put us off balance – we think less clearly and revert to more primal, less helpful behaviour patterns when we experience large amounts of pain. If we uncover problems in smaller, less threatening chunks, then we’re more likely to deal with them effectively.

  • Short feedback loops make it easier to resolve issues.  

    People are really bad at dealing with problems where there’s a long time lag between the cause and the symptom. The sooner we reveal the symptoms, the easier it is to identify what might have caused them.

  • When we ignore pain, it tends to grow worse.  

    Even if it does go away, that’s often only to find some friends and come back en masse. It’s generally a lot less painful to identify and deal with problems at the earliest possible point.  

    This doesn’t mean we should act impulsively to the first sign. Sometimes the best action is to gather more information to better understand the problem.

  • When we do stuff regularly, we get better at it.  

    As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. When we defer customer feedback, say, to a large annual survey, then we get little chance to improve at conducting customer feedback surveys.  

    When we gather feedback every day, we quickly learn how to gather and respond to it well.

  • When we do stuff regularly, it becomes easier to spot root causes.  

    When we operate in small, rapid cycles, we can set up small experiments. Vary this parameter and then that parameter to see what’s causing the pain. This is much harder to do when we defer painful things to a single phase, late in the project.

  • We get into the habit of examining the way we do things.  

    As we get into the rhythm of gathering feedback regularly and in small chunks, of setting up small experiments to look for better ways to do things, it becomes an ingrained way of working.  

    So we become more likely to find opportunities to improve, even without pain to trigger the search.

  • We engage more deeply with customers.  

    People like to give feedback; they like to feel heard. If we show that we’re prepared to listen to them, they’ll forgive a lot of initial glitches with our products. Holding a regular, meaningful conversation with customers is a great way to build loyalty.

One consequence of this philosophy is that the sources of pain will shift over time. We’ll spot a pain point, run some small experiments to find the source, build up some skills in dealing with the underlying issues, and the pain will subside.  

Now other areas will start to generate comparatively more pain. So we’ll shift our focus onto those areas, and the cycle resumes.

Eventually this becomes an ever-accelerating spiral. By frequently identifying and dealing with pain points, we get better at spotting minor pains and eliminating them before they blow up.

That’s what people mean when they talk about a culture of continuous improvement. Organisations that have this culture don’t mind pain, they welcome the new information that it brings.

Graham Oakes

Published 10 October, 2011 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

43 more posts from this author

Comments (3)



Hmmm... double checking your copy for mistakes can also be a pretty painful experience. But still well worth the effort. See above.

over 5 years ago


Kev Leighton

CSI is an interesting topic which is often discussed but in my personal corporate experience never embraced.

Does anybody know of an organisation that truly practices CSI?

over 5 years ago



Sounds very much like lean startup to me. More Pain Please = Fail Fast?

over 5 years ago

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