Many new technologies don't have well-established practices for success. This requires organizations to either wait for someone else to write the rules and risk being left behind, or determine how to succeed through what's largely a process of intelligent trial and error, categorized by fast failure.
Conceptually, most leaders understand the need for failure. Without failure there can be no innovation, learning, or transitioning in an organization, and the organization that never fails often stagnates and becomes irrelevant. What's difficult is learning to accept failure, and encouraging that behavior throughout your organization. For innovation to become embedded in your organizational culture, not only must you learn to fail, but learn to do so early and often.
Here's how to encourage a mindset of fast failure.
Investigate, learn, rinse, and repeat
Perhaps the most insidious reaction to failure is allowing it to hang about like a decaying fish. At first it's visible, and then it begins to stink until it's intolerable to be around.
In a misguided attempt to avoid hurt feelings or to move forward, failures that remain undiagnosed hang around like the metaphorical fish. Sometimes the failing effort will be allowed to continue well past its prime, expending valuable resources, since no one is willing to stop the effort and regroup.
As soon as an effort has failed to the point that reasonable course corrections cannot turn things around, it's time to call a halt, and lead an analysis of what went wrong. Objectively investigate whether environmental factors were misjudged, incorrect resources were assigned, or technologies deployed that were not up to the task. You should involve all relevant team members, including relatively junior resources that have insight into the day-to-day activities that might have contributed to the failed effort.
At all times during this investigation, regard the failure and its analysis as efforts to move forward, rather than efforts to assign blame or fight old battles. If an individual was unable to perform his or her assigned tasks, look for a new role for that person, or determine how their role and support structure can be changed to ensure success. Develop recommendations for how to modify the effort to ultimately achieve your objective that are concrete, actionable, and measurable, and immediately begin to implement the recommendations as you relaunch an effort to achieve your ultimate objective. Use failure to learn how to improve, implement what you learn, and then move forward.
Depending on the complexity of the effort, this process may take hours, a few days, or in the rarest cases a week. Your goal is not to correct every wrong, but to determine if the effort should continue, and how to "course correct" so the next iteration gets closer to success.
This is similar to many systems and product development methodologies where a fixed duration period of work occurs (often called a sprint), which ends with an evaluation of what was accomplished and a plan on how to execute the next sprint.
Failure and staff development
Thriving in an environment of fast failure requires different skills than operating in a traditional "run and maintain" environment; therefore, part of your failure analysis should consider if the team members are in the right roles, or potentially not cut out for innovation-oriented projects. Look for employees and managers who can thrive in an environment of uncertainty, and who see "permission to fail" as an enabler that allows them to push organizational, personal, and technological barriers.
You'll need to encourage this behavior, while ensuring failure does not incur organizational retribution. This will require personal risks on your part, as you'll have to trust your team's judgment and accept that they may eventually make the wrong choice. Requiring that they over-analyze every decision or gain broad organizational acceptance is certain to derail the innovation process and communicate that you don't trust their judgment.
The bottom line
While allowing for fast failure can be nerve-wracking for a leader, it's the only way to out-innovate your competition. You'll surely encounter more dead ends than amazing innovations, but quickly diagnosing and learning from failure and empowering your team will create an innovation engine that becomes an invaluable asset in times of rapid technological change.
- IT projects: Why you need to fail more often
- The three best lessons I learned from a failed project
- First-time project managers need failures
- Five reasons to discuss project failure
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.