I Fail, Therefore I Am (an innovator)

Columbus insisted the world was round and then promptly missed America on his first attempt. The Wright brothers claimed flying was possible and nearly killed themselves trying to prove it. And, of course, Albert Einstein, whose very name we use as a shorthand for “genius,” was a lousy student.

Our point: Failure isn’t fatal; in fact, it is actually required for innovation success.

If you study the pattern of companies that have a history of introducing new products successfully, you will see they follow a pattern that looks like this: try, fail, learn; try, fail, learn; try, succeed, repeat. All that failure — all those introductions of versions of a product or service that just don’t work — is a critical cultural attribute for successful, fast-growth companies.

“Failure is part of my success.” This is an idea you need to accept if you are going to do your best work, and it is an idea you definitely have to get across to your team in order to free it from the innovation-limiting shackles of perfection. You need to make failure a positive part of everyone’s personal brands.

Great innovation, like great people, typically is not born, it is raised. The phrase, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet” is a healthy mantra for most of us — and most innovation projects. One reason that’s true is that in order to make a product or service everything it can be, it needs to be repeatedly soft-launched. This means literally sending the idea — be it a product or a service — into a limited part of the marketplace with the full understanding that it will be modified (perhaps extensively) based on how consumers react.

“ ‘Success’ usually marks the end
of an endeavor, whereas failure is
the signal for another advancement.”

“ ‘Courage’ is going from failure to
failure without losing enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill

For successful launches to happen, a team must be OK with the premise that they are starting with what some may consider a half-baked idea — one that very well may fail as constituted. You need to make this OK. You need to tell your team that the real failure is fear of launching an idea until it is perfect.

To buttress your case, make the following points:
1.    We’re only right when the market tells us so. Right now, we presume to be right, and our thinking is based on as-good-as-we-can-get research, history and gut feel. The market will help us see and hear what we can do to be more right (and also help us eliminate all the things our customers — and potential customers — don’t like or don’t want).
2.    We can make any changes quickly. We can simulate years of research data in the span of months once we are out in the marketplace. It is the fastest way to learn.
3.    It has never been cheaper to test ideas. The Internet allows for instant feedback; empty strip malls allow for in-and-out shopping experiences with risk-free, short-term leases; storefronts are often now virtual, which means you can test the product and marketing real time; technology has made prototyping doable in days instead of months; online panels give you an instant read on the market.
4.    It will be fun. We’re doing this to learn and improve, not to beat up an idea. (So there is no reason for anyone to get defensive.)
5.    We will be making our “mistake” on a small scale, i.e., we are not launching the Iridium Phone or Segway only to find no one understands it or only 1,000 people want it. If we find out our idea is completely off base, we’ll save the company millions of dollars and perhaps our jobs.

One more point: Be careful with the language you use when describing your testing process. We often find that words like “prototype” and “beta” come with too much baggage to overcome. When they hear those terms, many people think it means certain elements of the product (or service) you are about to test are locked in place. That’s not the message you want to send. Just about everything should be up for grabs. For our people, “soft launch” means we expect lots of things about the idea to change. But consider creating your own language that stresses the results you are trying to achieve, e.g., “iteration phase 3” or “project optimize.” If your team still resists the idea of iterative soft launches, just remind them that if this approach was good enough for Columbus and the Wright brothers, it is probably good enough for them.

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