In society today failure has a number of connotations. At primary school failure doesn’t really exist anymore - with phrases like “we’re all winners” and “it’s all about taking part” being banded about as regularly as “sit still please Billy…” On the sports field failure is still very much a thing and unfortunately for those that drop the catch or trip on the hurdle, social media can now make what was a momentary departure of concentration, a career damaging event of global proportions.
But what about the work place? Do we love or loathe failure? Do we fear making mistakes because it could end in ridicule? Love making them because we learn and improve both our work and ourselves? Or do we treat each other like children congratulating one another, no matter what the result?
When it comes to the Innovation movement, failure is definitely a positive. By now most people will have at least heard of the ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’ or ‘Fail Better’ concepts, which strive to encourage failure as a method of learning, improving and therefore succeeding in the end through well structured iterative testing programs. But, I’m regularly asked whether these concepts actually work or is the ‘original’ meaning of failure waiting around the corner, ready to envelop us with consternation.
Firstly, a lot depends on your culture. If your entire team is driven to succeed, has autonomy to make decisions, and a robust process for testing, failing and learning, then as long as this passion is upheld and improvement is always the focus, then failure will remain a positive thing. But, if your business isn’t responsive to change, manages risk within an inch of its life and has been doing the same things the same way for at least the last decade, then failure is probably not looked upon kindly.
Many senior managers will also argue that your ability to succeed at failure depends on what industry you’re in and the size of your organisation. It’s easy to understand why the concept of ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’ is popular in silicon valley. If you’re working on an IT venture, configuring code and testing online models, it’s relatively easy to trial ideas, test them out, learn from them and make changes quickly, without a huge investment. Likewise, as a Start Up with only yourself and possibly a couple of core staff to consider, any mistakes you make aren’t going to mean that 100s of people don’t receive their next pay cheque. In this case, failing is a valuable tool for moving onwards and upwards.
However, if you have large overheads, staff to pay and families to feel responsible for, it may not seem so simple.
But, it can be.
Following through ideas and inevitably meeting with failure at some level, does not have to involve large scale investment. For example, a simple CAD drawing could quickly highlight problems and solutions, but you can also find your answers without lifting a finger. Ideas can be questioned, qualified or even quashed before a prototype is even mentioned. Create a list of questions you want answered and make it a challenge to resolve as many concerns as possible without spending a dollar. Talk to people inside and outside of your organisation, sleep on it, research it, sketch it…
And when the time comes for prototyping, don’t begin with what you want the end product to look like. Many prototypes never see the light of day because the budget ran out before there was time to solve every question. You may be able to test a number of your initial hypotheses by building a prototype with everyday items like cardboard, paper clips and rubber bands. This is known as low fidelity prototyping (or as we call it, "Quick and Dirty.") By building a simple, preliminary version of your product, you will catch potential problems and promising insights faster and earlier in the process. It will also prevent you and your test users being bedazzled by a shiny, beautiful prototype to the detriment of its usability.
It may be the oxymoron of statements, but Success at Failure is what Innovation is all about. To achieve it, you need to create a risk tolerant, autonomous culture and have a willingness to separate the desired outcome from what you do at the outset.
Begin Fast and Small, and grow to Big and Brilliant.
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