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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Innovation – Is It Just Another “Shiny Thing?”

There'll be Another Soon

Innovation has a head of steam.  It’s in all the business publications and on every CEO’s lips.  It’s today’s silver bullet.  It’s the key to growth, sustainability, and employee engagement.  But is Innovation here to stay or is it just another “shinny thing?”

I can make the case on either side of the question; however, recently I’ve had my faith restored in Innovation becoming deeply embedded in the science and practice of management.  My encouragement comes from the Management Innovation Exchange web site where it lists finalists in this year’s Innovation contest.  Two of the entries come from clients and friends.

Whirlpool Corporation
The first comes from Moises Norena the Global Director of Innovation at Whirlpool Corporations.  He writes about: Whirlpool’s Innovation Journey: An On-Going Quest for a Rock-Solid and Inescapable Innovation Capability.  The full story is at: Whirlpool's Innovation Journey.

For me the significant part of Moises’ story is that it starts in 1999.  As he says, the Innovation journey can be long but it has big rewards.  I was involved in the early chapters when Gary Hamel started Whirlpool down the Innovation path.  He and his team at Strategos used their tools to begin building the Innovation capability within the corporation.

My role in the early 2000’s was to lead the team that focused on Customer Loyalty.  We used our global customer research as the primary input into understanding Customer Insights and Discontinuities in the appliance market.  We then used the Innovation tools to frame and implement innovations that would capture the articulated and unarticulated needs of Whirlpool’s customers.

From these green-shoots Moises weaves an interesting tale of the constant adjustment Whirlpool makes to the expectations and theories about embedding Innovation.  I’m not sure if Moises agrees, but my major take away from his work is that: Innovation can’t be embedded; it can only be a capability that evolves to meet the business needs of the day.

Korea Telecom
The second article is from Misook Lim the Director of the Innovation Management Center at Korea Telecom.  Her story is about Transforming Culture Through Pervasive Innovation.  It can be found at: Korea Telecom - Innovation Changes Culture.

I worked with Misook and her team for about 26 months.  Again the connection was through Gary Hamel and this allowed us to draw on the Whirlpool experience through the generous support of people like Moises and his boss Nancy Tennant who has been named by Business Week as one of the world’s 25 Innovation Champions.

Misook does a wonderful job of relating the multiple fronts that had to be pursued to have Innovation recognized as a needed tool to position Korea Telecom for the aggressive changes taking place in its market.  She walks us through a series of initiative such as: building capability in a core team; leading Innovation challenges within business units; setting the governance structure; and developing the companies executive team and vice presidents.

For me the Korea Telecom experience re-proved something we all know: culture is a major issue when implementing change.  I learned that you have to understand culture and respect it as a starting point for change.  The culture at Korea Telecom was hierarchical and deferential; sometimes our western beliefs about equality and participation had to wait.

Often in the Innovation consulting business we’re asked for proof, best practices, and where this has been done before.  Moises and Misook answer the question.