Innovation ‘Ego’systems: Organisations Love ‘Fail Fast’ But Hate To Be Proven Wrong

Explore how can you adopt a “fail fast” innovation culture in your organisation that serves strategic growth and digital transformation rather than hinders it.

“Let’s fail fast.” We’ve all heard this, a lot. It’s like a linguistic crack for enigmatic corporate leaders. 

Fail fast has been embraced. According to Harvard Business Review, fail fast has even become a cliché in management thinking. Not just as jargon, but almost as a mantra. “We need to build an innovation culture where it’s OK to fail; where we can fail quickly, cheaply and learn from it”, we hear from our partners. 

But ‘failure’ has lost its meaning. Like many things, it’s become adopted performatively, and it’s time for leaders to recognise this and course-correct.

Why? Because against a backdrop of strategic commitments across large swathes of the economy to innovate through new products/services and entering new markets, driven by rapid digital transformation, it has never been more crucial for organisations to get to the root causes of why innovation culture has struggled to flourish. 

The History of Fail Fast

Let’s start with a bit of etymology. ‘Fail fast’ evolved from the world of fast-growth technology startup entrepreneurs and product innovation. For those who have read up on The Lean Startup, frameworks like the Build-Measure-Learn cycle as well as Agile development methodologies, you’ll know that a key principle is rapidly and iteratively improving products based on learnings gathered through customer feedback. 

You release products (often digital), when you know they’re not fully ready, in order to learn from observed user behaviour and user feedback; to then iterate the product quickly, launch the next version, and repeat the cycle again. This fundamental tenet from product innovation is about intentionally testing something that is not yet reflecting the ideal product they have in mind, specifically to be able to learn from the reasons why, and move it closer towards something that is more likely to work out. i.e. go ahead and fail, but make it quick and make it cheap.

This approach and mindset has crossed into the corporate world as business leaders look to emanate the practices and principles that have made tenacious startups successful. Big organisations began to embrace the concept of failing fast for corporate innovation.

Fail Fast: The Dark Side

The challenge, however, is that in many cases, failing fast runs counter to another fundamental of corporate life: it’s just not very advantageous to someone’s corporate career if they’re seen to be wrong about things (even when it’s fast). It doesn’t exactly help the reputation.

This is a deep-seated, DNA-level feature of the corporate status quo, and indeed, of the human psyche. It can apply equally to small things (“Hey I told you we shouldn’t have included this slide in the deck!”) and big strategic ideas (“Hey I told you this customer segment wasn’t the right one!”) 

It’s one thing to be seen as one of the cool kids embracing innovative trends like fail fast; it’s another thing when you get proven wrong about the actual concept, or the customer segment, or the go-to-market strategy, etc. Some people can take it. Many people can’t. 

So what? Well, what this means is that when it comes to corporate innovation — which is inherently ambiguous in the early stages with no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ — progress can often be frustrated through a lack of alignment between stakeholders

They each have differing beliefs about the situation or proposition, and are reluctant (or afraid) to be proven wrong, which can often lead to major pitfalls such as jumping straight into building a solution concept without having validated the need (hey if we bypass validation we won’t get proven wrong, right?) and ending up wasting valuable time and resources.

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Learning Fearless Fail Fast For Corporate Innovation

Here are 3 ways we’ve seen that teams can practically and pragmatically support themselves to overcome this reluctance or fear of being proven wrong — and in so doing, role-model an innovation culture that serves strategic growth and digital transformation rather than hinders it.

1. Get to the point of speaking with customers, fast

When it comes to internal innovation and intrapreneurship programmes, we’ve seen that often the most enlightening and freeing moment is when teams carry out customer discovery or validation activities directly with customers or users, to verify their assumptions about the problem space or solution concept. The reason why this is usually a turning point is that no matter what their prior beliefs were, the evidence and data they gather can irrefutably align them with the truth. 

Some are proven correct while others are proven wrong, but once a team has reached the point where they have real evidence and data to adjudicate, this hump is usually not as scary as it may have seemed. 

But it’s not always straightforward because large organisations often don’t easily let employees who are not sales or marketing teams directly engage with customers, despite the fact that it can be extremely valuable and insightful.

Organisations need to open this up within reason, and doing this repeatedly will help teams become accustomed to it, stop fearing it, start appreciating it as a way of working, and quintessentially become more okay with being proven wrong (or right!).

2. Help teams adopt the technique of identifying and ranking assumptions

The first step to solving a problem is recognising you have one. The problem here is that an unwillingness to be proven wrong makes alignment between people difficult. And as we all know, alignment between people in large organisations is one of the most fundamental building blocks of success. 

One super simple technique that we often whip out when we want to achieve alignment is to facilitate the identification and prioritisation of assumptions. This is a vital exercise for intrapreneurs in the early stages of innovation, but it’s equally as powerful in everyday collaborative meetings to help bring people together. 

Through helping everyone be explicit about the underlying assumptions that drive their point of view, you can help them see that there are specific questions that can be answered to bring about alignment.

This isn’t just for the innovators in the organisation — this is something for everyone. Helping the whole organisation adopt such a technique could help move the needle at an innovation culture level.

3. Adopt an experimentative approach

Once you’ve made assumptions explicit and ranked them in order of criticality, you’ve got a set of questions that need to be answered. “Is it really the case that my assumption is true?” 

Answering these questions often requires an experimentative approach. For a full run-down of what it means and what kind of experiments you could try, check out our other article specifically about it here — but for a brief overview, an experimentative approach is a scientific one: 

    • Decide what experiment you want to run in order to put your assumption to the test (e.g. a landing page and ad campaign?)
    • Agree what metric(s) you will measure 
    • Agree what particular thresholds will indicate a success (it’s a good idea to look at industry benchmarks to get a sense of averages)
    • Put it into action

Essentially, an experimentative approach is all about the mindset — always seek to ask yourself: “Is it really the case that my assumption is true? How can I test this and gather data or evidence to prove it?”

Help Your Teams Fail Fast

Being willing to be proven wrong is a human factor; and at the heart of all transformations are the people and teams who are changing. If you’re a leader who is trying to create strategic growth and transformation to evolve your organisation, then how are you putting in place pragmatic steps to help your people practice a new way of working and make principles of innovation culture like fail fast a success?

After all, it’s easier for people to act themselves into a new way of thinking, than to think themselves into a new way of acting.

At Studio Zao, we specialise in helping teams to learn and adopt entrepreneurial methods, apply them in practice for innovation and transformation, and evolve mindsets through action. 

Written by Jamie Qiu

Managing Founding Partner of Studio Zao.
Connect with me on LinkedIn or schedule a chat here!

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