So you have a business need to innovate? Check.
You have developed your innovation strategy? Check.
You’ve set up an Agile team? Check.
But somehow you’re not getting the results you expected.
You can talk about innovation measurement. I certainly have. You can talk about quick wins through employing specialist teams for short sharp projects. You can talk about ‘fail often and fail fast’. I talk about all of that.
And still, companies could be doing more. We saw that when the pandemic hit. Companies implemented their five-year e-commerce plan in five weeks.
What drove that very fast adoption was an existential fear. Companies that went online quickly knew they had to do it if they were to stay in business at all. They solved extraordinary problems. Whole call centres started working from home. Companies found the budget and the project management and the tools to equip people to work from home and still integrate with the systems that were at the office.
So what has happened since then?
I think there’s another kind of fear that is holding companies back.
Innovation involves risk, and with risk comes reward – but also the possibility of failure. Boardrooms like the “reward” part. But they are less keen on the “possibility of failure” bit.
That’s what we’re seeing with cloud adoption in some sectors. There’s a big upside to cloud adoption, but there’s a risk that the new systems will cost more and deliver less functionality. So it’s easy to defer the decision until you’re certain.
I hear board members saying all the right things. “We can fail early and pivot. We can learn from our mistakes and iterate.”
That’s the theory. But the truth is, decisions are made by people, and people prefer to play it safe. Nobody will be fired because they delayed a decision in order to play it safe. They won’t get massively promoted either.
Careers end when somebody makes a call and it blows up in their faces. People like innovation, but the tricky part of trial and error is risking failure and staring it in the face.
We need to create cultures that are more forgiving of failure. There needs to be a safe space for teams to experiment and get it wrong.
I am reminded of Elon Musk who watched one of his reusable rockets explode, costing $200m. It’s easy to see that as a failure. Instead, he tweeted: “[We] should know what [happened] once we can examine the bits later today.”
His team blew up a $200m rocket and he basically said: “How interesting. I wonder what we can learn from this.”
It’s not that you’re free of consequences. I think the measure of a good decision is: “Did you apply your mind and make the best decision you could have made at the time?” Not: “Did your decision turn out well?”
The way to win is to calculate the risks and place lots of bets. That way, if many bets fail, it’s OK; one of the bets will certainly pay off. But most leaders shy away from that model because a failure reflects badly on them.
In this world of big data we can track how well the project is performing, almost in real time. We can launch a product, see how customers respond, and then use that data as input into the next iteration. Big data is bringing down the cost of failure – provided leaders can re-think what “failure” means.
I think failure should mean “we didn’t learn anything from that.” Failure should not mean “we lost money on that.” Of course some of the decisions will cost money. That’s why they’re called “school fees.” You’re paying for an education in what the market wants.
This is a very personal opinion. I’m passionate about innovation, and I can see that with a slight change of mindset, we could really make the world a better place.