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Beta-testing isn't just for software

COMMENTARY In the tech world, once a program is written, it isn't considered done. Instead, you often put it through "beta-testing" -- letting external users kick the tires for a while to uncover bugs or request features you hadn't thought of before. Beta-testing recognizes that few ideas or products spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed. Feedback makes things better.

It's a great idea -- but there's no reason folks in the software world should be the only ones to take advantage of this. Years ago, I co-wrote a book with some software entrepreneurs turned philanthropists. They introduced me to the idea of beta-testing a book. We had people in the target market read a draft and give feedback. Not just of the "I like it" or "I hate it" variety, but letting us know where their attention lagged, where they needed more clarity, and other constructive criticisms.

Since then, I've done this with most of my other books as well. Last spring, I let dozens of people read an early draft of "All the Money in the World," the personal finance book I've been working on. I discovered that everyone hated a certain chapter, which then got a re-write. I removed some dull paragraphs in their entirety. Although books are hard to write by committee, I know the feedback made my manuscript better.

What about you? What deliverable in your world might benefit from beta-testing? Many a PowerPoint presentation given at an important meeting could have benefited from earlier feedback at smaller gatherings. Speeches definitely get better as you learn where people laugh or cry -- or fall asleep. Many product manuals need more editors, rather than fewer, with customers pointing out what is unclear. And new processes for hiring or evaluating people could benefit from a good work-out on a small group. Instead of pondering what would be perfect, you get something out there and see how it works.

What could you put through beta-testing?

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