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Can adopting a “fail fast” culture accelerate the success of innovation and transformation programmes?

Nov 5th, 2020
Many people dream of success. To me, success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the 1 percent of your work which results from the 99 percent that is called failure.

Soichiro Honda
Founder of the Honda Motor Company

What if failure was simply part and parcel of the process? Or indeed, what if innovation and transformation were seen as not possible without some failures occurring? For innovation to work, it has to be possible to try a lot of different things. But when projects are assessed one by one, predicting the result is not always easy – will a project create value or will it just crash and burn? So why not take inspiration from the “fail fast” concept held so dear in Lean Startup? Can we consider an accelerated version of innovation management involving faster decision making between the “right” and “wrong” projects to support? What does that imply in terms of coordination and management?

What do we mean by “fail fast” innovation?

In Western Europe, people tend to find failure difficult to accept, whether in the workplace or in their private lives. This pattern starts at school, as our education systems are intolerant of mistakes. In contrast, in North America, where a culture of innovation reigns, experimentation – and therefore the failure that goes with it – is seen as a way of learning and an integral part of the creative process. Is Thomas Edison not famous for saying that he had not failed, just “found 10,000 ways that won’t work”?

The whole point of fail fast is therefore to make failure part and parcel of any creative process, and indeed of corporate culture, and hence to speed up creative output. In fact, recognising failure at an earlier stage makes it possible to focus on the “right” projects, i.e. those that stand the best chance of working and generating value. Popularised by start-ups (Facebook’s motto used to be “Move fast and break things”), this project management concept applies perfectly to innovation projects that could become risky for the organisation if left to drift off course.

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are the inevitable consequence of doing something new (and as such, should be valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).

Ed Catmull
Co-founder of Pixar and President of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Improving innovation culture within businesses should therefore include always accepting mistakes as an essential part of learning. Perhaps we should get into the habit of referring to them as “feedback” rather than mistakes or errors, because the objective of fail fast is really to ensure that the right lessons are learned and to not waste time on projects going nowhere. This is best achieved by sharing the results of all trials and experiments, be they good or bad, and, crucially, not concealing them. Without falling into the trap of “celebrating failure”, the knowledge acquired should be highlighted, as one key aspect of fail fast is systematic sharing of information so that other staff can benefit from the learning experience and not repeat the same mistakes.

For read more about setting up an effective innovation culture, download our guide:

Creating a culture of “good” failure

In KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook report, 84% of CEOs said they wanted to boost collaborative innovation by introducing a fail fast culture. However, scarcely 56% have put initiatives in place to welcome and encourage failure, so why the discrepancy? Because there is still some hesitancy in advocating failure, where negative connotations persist. It is therefore vital to differentiate between “good” and “bad” failure.

Bad failures are often those that result from some lack of attention, skills, time or resources. In contrast, good failures are the result of testing new ideas, or experimenting with working assumptions, adding new knowledge to contribute to continuing the experiment and culminating, over the course of time, in genuine innovation. These “intelligent” failures typically feature five aspects:

  • They are the outcome of well organised and properly planned work;
  • They result from a combination of ideas from various areas;
  • They are on a modest scale, so less costly;
  • They are run so as to provide a quick result;
  • They involve areas that are sufficiently familiar to enable effective and operationally-applicable conclusions to be drawn.

Creating an innovation culture that leaves enough room for the right kind of failure therefore requires that the main focus falls on the process and learning rather than on the result, and this will only be possible after a paradigm shift within the business. Employees need not only the space and resources necessary to experiment and fail, but also a certain confidence in their ability to generate ideas and see them through. This connects to the managerial dimension, which needs to support and value employees by establishing a real bond of trust with them.

The fail fast approach requires strict control over the project portfolio

Transformation project management has become a vital issue for businesses, especially in a context that is as uncertain as today’s environment. For this management to succeed, you need to ensure that all the conditions necessary to ensure governance that bolsters engagement and motivation are met, otherwise the chances of success are low.

This presupposes the existence of a clear and comprehensive picture of all current projects. Project portfolio management provides an overview of the state of progress of all projects, and can serve to identify those likely to fail and those that, in contrast, should be supported and boosted. Fail fast then shows its real value in avoiding management heads being buried in the sand in terms of watermelon projects – all green on the outside but all red on the inside – where everything looks good but deep down, many initiatives have taken a turn for the worse. Project portfolio management therefore remains the key component of successful transformation programmes.

Download our ebook on collaborative project management and give fresh impetus to your employees:

Download our guide for successful collaborative projects

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