Monday, October 24, 2011

An Innovation Paradox - Succeeding by Failing Faster

Development lifecycles have been shrinking rapidly so those that do spend extraordinary amounts of time over developing a new product or service will lose out to the competition. Also, our competitors are developing the ability to catch up and copy our initiatives even faster than before. We must therefore develop new ideas quickly and be ready to repeat that process after a short time. There will therefore be more frantic development activity.

Our frantic actions might increase the frequency with which things don't go according to plan but reduced preparation and planning time also increases the risk of failure still further. The number of failures we have must go up! Some people say "these are not failures, they are learning opportunities". Any lessons worth learning must be captured but if we did not achieve our objective then we failed. What we have to do next is to pick ourselves up quickly and try once more.

Dusting ourselves off and trying again is not unusual for many people who spend their time in laboratories or similar environments, however corporately we tend not to tolerate failure so we call it something else or sweep it under the carpet. The boss wants to know how many times you succeeded, not how many times you failed. But what if you calibrated your innovation pipeline and determined that only 1 in 10 projects succeeded. You could report either that 1 succeeded or 9 failed. Imagine now that you have developed a rapid process for bringing ideas to market but that the ratio of success to failure was still the same. Your boss might be unhappy if you tell him that you have had 900 failures in the same period of time but the flip side is that you will also have had 100 successes.

Assuming that we are not failing due to incompetence then both numbers actually indicate our level of activity. In reality it does not matter which set of numbers we use but those who sit around the boardroom table must understand that the more we do and the faster we do it, the more likely we are to fail. The flip side is that the more we do and the faster we do it the more likely we are to succeed.

The upshot is that we must become more comfortable with the concept of failure whatever words we use to describe it. We must become smarter about failing and focus on lessons learned not punishment and our corporate cultures must change to reflect this.

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