Innovation: How fast are you failing?

Innovation: How fast are you failing?

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera wryly observed that business has only two functions – Marketing and Innovation. And everyone loves to talk about innovation. The term is bandied about so frequently that it has unfortunately become somewhat meaningless. Perhaps some of the trouble might originate from the general nature of the term. It is all too often confused with invention but innovation builds on something established. The Oxford dictionary notes that to innovate is to “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products”. It follows that the scope for innovation is almost infinite in every corporate setting. Being ‘creative’ is often associated with innovation; nevertheless, I enjoy the distinction made by the former Harvard professor Theodore Levitt who noted that “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things“.

However, before doing new things and in order to innovate effectively, you must spot a market gap or a potential improvement in an existing product offering or process (read as ‘make it better’). Unfortunately, the cross-functional organisational setup and cultural shift required to drive innovation is rarely promoted effectively in corporate environments. After all, constant innovation disrupts the existing conditions and there is a mountain of evidence confirming that we humans are huge fans of maintaining the status quo, unless there is an extremely obvious benefit to change. So executives are challenged with the double-edged sword of not only delivering innovation but also nurturing an innovative culture, which is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for the leadership in a corporate setting.  

Corporate innovation (not an oxymoron) is something of a new concept in this space and has gained traction in recent years as many firms have created their own innovation labs, hackathons, intrapreneurial initiatives etc. Much of this would appear to be a reaction to the speed at which start-ups and digitalisation are threatening existing products and revenue streams. However, it should be noted that this current fad is really nothing new. I recently read an article in Time Magazine from 1985, advocating intrapreneurship, that was completely in line with the current trend. Famously, much of the work done at 3M in the late 1970s was effectively promoting a start-up culture within the mothership organisation. That investment certainly paid dividends as it led to the development of the Post-it note in 1980, which in a twist of fate became central to agile software development methods. 

And yet so much innovation ends in failure, that it has almost become a badge of honour to fail. Of course, there is nothing wrong with failure. But failing fast is extremely different than failing after investing months or years into a project or activity. In an excellent talk on the topic, Diana Kander observed that we have to stop teaching innovators to be fortune tellers who can predict the future and rather focus on teaching them to be detectives who use facts and evidence to back up their assertions on how customers will behave. What might sound reasonable in a boardroom pitch, may well fall flat when it hits the market, so failing fast saves time, money and effort. If you believe your new product or improvement will be successful, then test the market with paying customers early before moving forward. Likewise, limit the extent to which you put new processes into action in order to prove their value before committing to their implementation.

I don’t believe that there is an easy answer or quick fix to delivering innovation in a corporate context as it requires a cultural shift and redesign of the organisational setup to be effective. However, the current efforts by many organisations to propagate a more innovative spirit should be applauded as I believe this creates a more enjoyable working environment. Let’s use the power of agile development techniques to focus on creating the conditions that allow cross-functional teams to deliver and fail fast as this should engender a dynamic and fun work environment that might just unlock the door to successful innovation. How fast are you failing?

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