Failing: How Fast Is Too Fast?

“Fail fast, fail often, fail cheaply”. Thus goes the mantra of innovation in 2009. And it’s correct; generate lots of ideas, however absurd, and critique them later. Know when to cut your losses and move on and do so with the minimum investment possible. But here’s the rub: how fast is too fast? After all, it’s very easy to say no, to reject an idea and move on. Innovation may start with the generation of ideas, but that’s not where it ends, that’s merely the beginning of the pipeline. If all that is happening is the generation of large numbers of ideas and the expediting of them through a pipeline to be quickly judged by one or two executives who may themselves epitomize the very barriers to innovation that the process was put in place to help break down, then this is innovation in name only and, ultimately, is unlikely to generate great breakthroughs or cost savings.

True innovation may start with the generation of ideas, but it only moves forward towards implementation when those reviewing these ideas take a big picture view; when they look at an idea, then turn it on its head; when they recognize not its inapplicability for their department or project, but its applicability for another group. Having this vision requires the ability to look at an idea and shift the paradigm over a few notches.

A new product from Dyson vacuum cleaners perfectly illustrates this point; while experimenting with a new design for a hand-drier they realized that they had failed at their stated task. But they also realized that they had just invented a bladeless fan. And so a whole new product was born. The easy thing would have been to have rejected the innovation as a hand-drier component; the paradigm shift was having the vision to see the concept through a new lens. To have rejected it out of hand would have been to have thrown away a whole new potential product.

Of course, this is a delicate balancing act to perform; remain too attached to an idea and you risk getting mired down with research and development costs for an idea to nowhere. But say no too soon, and you lose the potential of what the idea might have grown into. How to walk this tightrope? Well, the first step is having as diverse a team as possible reviewing ideas; diverse in every sense of the word: culturally, demographically, and professionally. Out of a diversity of viewpoint, backgrounds and experiences will arise enough unique perspectives to enable the idea to be turned on its head if necessary. Out of a melodious blending of these viewpoints might emerge the idea that the original idea could have been were it crafted better, articulated better, and better thought-out. Or perhaps it was already all these things and just needed someone who could step outside of a particular area of interest and think big picture, “some of the great innovation wins are cross purposing of concepts out of silos” – Jon Bidwell, Chubb.

Ultimately, I think that what needs to happen is a certain suspension of belief when initially reviewing ideas. Suspend belief for a few minutes and think about all the possibilities that the idea brings to mind and see what, if anything, shakes out of that. And if nothing does shake out in a reasonable amount of time, then pull the plug and move quickly onto the next idea.


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5 Responses to Failing: How Fast Is Too Fast?

  1. Jeff DeLisio says:

    I like this angle at looking at cross purposing an idea, prototype… certainly there are many examples from Post-Its (failed glue) to Gore-Tex (failed polymer for something. )

    One aspect of this in software is when a tool is designed with some set purpose in mind and later you find out your users have found many other ways to utilize it.

    I wonder though how well we can be trained to take this approach. Perhaps the best thing is to at least help people see that rather than burying a project that does not seem to be working, let some others outside the project have a look as well – but that requires the courage.

  2. m-c says:

    The last paragraph says it all. Well done sarah!

  3. Chris Wasden says:

    In my theory of innovation, all innovation emerges from failure. Fast failure decrease cycle time in innovation. Most innivators tend to take too long to fail because they are stuck in a paradigm if thinking that blocks the diversity and variety neededto change the paradigm. The key to fast failure is not failing and abadoning your innovation but failing and therefore creating the need to find a better solution to improve your innovation. The failure to stop jail breaking iPhones led to the innovation of the App store. The key is to transform a maladaptive tension like jail breaking into a creative tension like the app store that leads to even more innovation. The faster you can transform these tensions the faster you can innovate. The problem however is that you need to really understand why failure is taking place. This can take a long time. So while you may fail fast you may not understand why you failed and that is what will slow down the innovation cycle.

  4. Mark Karasek says:

    Thanks for the article. It is thought provoking. I guess I have always interpreted the “fail fast” as being mostly about trying to get someone to pay you for the product or solution, and adjusting or moving on if they won’t pay for it. We need good tools to screen concepts within our product development organization, but it seems like the real value gets created when people figure out how to get something in front of customers and see how they use it or ignore it. My experience has been that most organizations have more good ideas than they know what to do with. It seems like the key muscle to grow within a lot of organizations is the ability to cost effectively and quickly experiment in the marketplace.

  5. Contrarian says:

    Failing fast is too fast.

    “Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.” – Thomas Edison

    “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
    – Thomas Edison

    I understand your position from a risk management and cost management perspective, but maybe those are the wrong perspectives. If you want to focus on features rather than truly game changing discoveries, then by all means “Fail fast, fail often, fail cheaply” according to the fad of 2009.

    High risks are what protect truly great accomplishments from the majority of people and organizations. The cost almost decides who is worthy of reaping the reward.

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