Monday, February 18, 2013

Innovation – Is “Fail Fast” Realistic

The Success of Failure
It's natural for humans to have ideas.  At question is what we do with ideas when there is some assembly required.  Ideas do not come with an owner’s manual and, unfortunately, we are not omniscient.  

What we do know about complex ideas is that we won’t build them right the first time.  We will fail in our initial efforts to turn an idea into a useful innovation.  The question is how much time and resources we use learning how to get our ideas off the drawing board.  There are several ways to answer this question, like:

Got a hunch, bet a bunch
  • This is where we rough up the idea; amass capital behind it; put it in the market and see what happens.  Basically we let customers clarify the idea and provide the quality control.  The hope is that customers will provide ever decreasing concentric learning cycles to produce the final innovation. 
Build it and they will come
  • This where the builders painstakingly design, link, and integrate the innovation into a comprehensive whole before releasing it into the market.  Here the hope is that one big learning cycle from customers produces the definitive “v-2.”   
Fail fast, fail cheap
  • This is where the designers construct a model; break it into components; then use experiments to test underlying assumptions.  Here the hope is to learn quickly on iterative, low-cost learning cycles so the final innovation can be released in near perfect form.
Current wisdom seems to be favoring the third option as the best way to learn about our ideas.  The literature is full of examples and uses icons as great as the Wright brothers and even Thomas Edison who proclaimed that he hadn’t failed, but rather just learned a 100 ways that didn’t work.

I love Dan Ariely’s example of learning at low cost when he advised a woman to spend a few hours sitting on her washing machine while reading a book.  The bump and thud of the washing machine would imitate an airplane ride to help her decide whether to fly to a meeting late the night before or early the morning of the meeting.

The “fail fast” motto is indisputable, except in reality.  I wonder if we’re doing a disservice to Innovation by highlighting it.  Let me explain.

Gall Trumps Small
Small runs against the rhythm of most business.  Managers like big; planning and budgeting systems like big; idea experts are rewarded to act big!  Companies are looking for the next big idea; not the next small increment.

Trust is a Must
We work in a success culture, not a failure culture.  Failure for the purpose of learning requires trust; yet a recent survey by Towers Watson shows that 6 of 10 employees don’t trust their boss.  Who has the courage to admit failure, even predicted failure, when that stigma might be remembered long after the success is forgotten?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evangelize and support “fail fast, fail cheap.”  What I am saying is that we should do it with caution lest we leave the careers of our closest allies dangling over a Bunsen burner.

Organizations are structured to place big bets.  Big failures maybe costly but they can be rationalized as bold strategic strikes.  I always suspected a smile on the lips of Sisyphus on the way back down the mountain.

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