To fail properly is really to learn how to do something better, to learn what didn’t work so you can more easily identify what will work. Most true innovations are not successful the first time out of the box, so failure is inevitable. The trick is to fail fast and to fail cheaply. Failing fast means having a process and structure that allows for small experiments or prototypes without taking eons to prove or disprove a hypothesis. To fail cheaply means to “test and learn” without betting the farm. Both speed and frugality are a must for innovation, and if done properly can result in small failures that eventually contribute to success. However, if not done properly, long or costly failures can sap limited innovation resources and critically wound programs.
Practically speaking, there are two proven methods to successfully fail quickly and cheaply:
1) Protect and prioritize your ideas. In this hyper-innovative environment, new ideas and products have the shelf-life of a raw fruit. So your program and structure must facilitate quick action and rapid learning. For most successful organizations, the operational environment will necessitate a protected environment for testing new ideas. Organizations must create a place and process that allows ideas to be promptly tested, prototyped and incubated without having to go through leagues of supervisors or committee approvals. I’ve seen many approaches to protecting ideas, and have built labs and innovation centers that work nicely. But whatever the structure used, the key is to test, learn and move on. If your resources are finite, which most are, make sure you are prioritizing which ideas you pursue according to an overall strategy and vision. I’m not suggesting that all innovations be linked to the strategy, but by prioritizing towards a strategy, you will help your ideas move more quickly.
2) Make numerous small bets. To save on resources, invest small amounts in the most promising ideas. Then closely watch and study those ideas. When your small bets fail, learn from those failures and either retry them (if worth it) or park them in your learning database for future use. When your small bets show success, invest more in them to take them to the next level of development. This way, you will be building your way to success in iterative steps. In this manner, you can quickly achieve a revolutionary innovation in small stages. There are many related terms used for this process including agile development, adaptive innovation, and experiential learning. But whatever process you take, the key is to make small experiments that help you to launch a revolutionary innovation.
Of course, there are many more practical methods for failing quickly and cheaply. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If you fail quickly you are also likely to save resources, and if you fail cheaply you are also likely to save time. The ultimate goal is to launch new innovations that delight your customers and bring value to your organization. To do that, organizations must embrace the F-word, but they must fail in the right manner.