Sometimes it seems Eric Ries could have saved himself a lot of trouble when writing The Lean Startup by just printing the phrase “fail fast” on a stack of post-it notes and sending them out to innovation teams around the world.
The book has ample content worth studying, but almost every week I meet business leaders who have concluded that simply giving teams permission to “fail fast” is the secret to unlocking product innovation. That’s too bad, because “fail fast” when taken literally is easily one of the least useful concepts for real life enterprise innovators.
Not Enough Monkeys
Taken at face value, “fail fast” has a very narrow range of applicability. It’s a good tool for filtering and rejecting ideas. For example, a product owner with a backlog of a potential 100 improvements, can typically only afford to take a few into production. Being able to quickly cull the list is a fine skill. By making a hypothesis and quickly AB testing it, failing fast avoids a lot of wasted investment.
Exploring unknown new business opportunities might seem like another use case where hypothesis testing and killing off the laggards is valuable. For example, when trying to discover a disruptive new product idea, it would seem that the quicker dead ends can be ruled out, the better.
That’s true to an extent. If your only strategy for exploring the unknown is to pick up rocks and look underneath, then the more rocks you turn over the better. The problem is that test and reject doesn’t scale well. For the disruptive ideas with the potential to make a difference in sophisticated markets, there are lots and lots of rocks to upend.
The late Berkeley Professor Robert Wilensky quipped, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now thanks to the Internet, we know this isn’t true.”
No matter how fast we fail, simply stumbling across a masterwork, whether in literature or product innovation, is improbable at best.
Failure Really Isn’t an Option
There's another hard reality. Established organizations don’t get to make an unlimited number of bets on the marketplace. At some point there is a need to commit resources at an enterprise scale. The ability for a few college friends working in a garage to test and discard ideas is limited only by their ongoing willingness to continue surviving on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Dreams of big (but improbable) rewards, and the ability to make simple low cost pivots, keep their operations going.
An established enterprise has no such luxury. They face active pressure from disruptive competitors and must operate at scale. Innovations that matter will almost certainly be complex and multi-dimensional. There is still a real need to validate the product-market fit of any new proposal, but that challenge sits alongside the need to build innovations that engage many different stakeholders inside and outside the organization.
The innovators advancing an enterprise need to do more than simply validate ideas. With sharks circling in the marketplace, their ideas must creatively use legacy systems, break through regulatory barriers, and marshal multi-disciplinary teams.
Hypothesis testing has limits. As a metaphor, imagine a product owner jumps out of a plane, the ripcord to a single parachute tightly gripped in their hand. They take the fail fast message seriously and pull the cord as soon as possible. The parachute doesn’t open. How much is that information worth? Simply discovering facts in not enough. There must also be a clever use of hard won insights.
Learn Quickly and Think Well
A more powerful (if less pithy) mantra for real world enterprise innovation teams would be “Learn Quickly and Think Well." With each hypothesis tested, extract wisdom. What went wrong? What new things are know about the world? How can this knowledge be used more effectively by us than by anyone else?
This sophisticated insight building requires advanced talents from teams that have previously been praised for filling Kanban walls with hypotheses to test. Complex creative visions require synthetic thinking and a big picture perspective of messy problems.
This can be a real challenge for leaders who want to build a lean enterprise which has innovation as a core competency. Simply giving people “permission to fail” is fairly small first step, one whose challenges are mostly rooted in shifting the culture of oversight. Creating a broad-based capacity to see, learn, and then shape complex alternatives requires much more from team members and leadership.
Learning and thinking well requires developing skills in:
- Root Cause Insights – There is little actionable information in the fact that users didn’t like a product. What matters is the reason why.
- Synthesis and Integration – It’s easy to test simple things. It’s harder, but ultimately more profitable, to deal with the complexity that comes from combining diverse domains and many moving parts.
- Synergy and Elegance – 2+2=4 is for suckers. Combine two things to do more than either can in isolation.
- Clever Circumvention – Don’t solve the problem presented to you. Discover a way to go around.
Teams accustomed to executing a series of fail fast experiments often find it hard to embrace these messy skills. They are not turn-the-crank activities. Shifting the perspective to insightful learning and developing genuinely thoughtful responses can demand more than process changes from a team.
Create Competitive Advantage
Victor Hugo said that it is impossible to resist an idea whose time has come. Today, in a hyper-creative world every good idea surely has dozens of teams pursuing it. There's little chance that a Brazilian team in Porto Alegre is starting from a dramatically different place than teams in Beijing, London, or Austin, Texas.
So who wins? Speed matters, but the organizations that excel will be those with teams who get the greatest insight from their testing investment and then design the best pivot toward greater value. It will be the organizations, teams, and individuals who go beyond simply failing fast and who master the art of Learning Quickly and Thinking Well.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Distilled's blog.