Thursday, October 3, 2013

Failure is a Requirement for Innovation

By Al Norval

As the parent of two children, I often found myself trying to protect my kids from failure. As I reflect back on that now, I’m not sure I always made the right decisions in doing so. How could I expect my kids to learn if they never experienced failure. Even more difficult, how do I get them to be more comfortable with failure. Anyway, more on the dilemmas of parenting in another blog.

The same principle holds true in Lean as we apply the Scientific Method to problem solving. In the scientific method we set out a hypothesis and then run experiments to test our thinking. The test needs to be binary – it either succeeds in which case we implement and standardize our countermeasure or it fails in which case we need to develop another countermeasure.

The key to the scientific method is that we learn something in both cases which is why it is critical for organizational learning. Not only do we learn when we succeed but we learn how not to do things when we fail. In fact, many times success only comes after repeated failure. Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, is a great example of someone who embodied this principle.

But what happens if we apply the scientific method, develop a hypothesis and run an experiment on things we already know and understand?

Result – we can follow the methodology but no organizational learning occurs.

To learn we need to run experiments and test things where we don’t know the outcome. This leads to the mantra:

“Experiment, Fail, Experiment again, Fail Again but this time Fail better”

Failing better means we’re learning. We’re learning what doesn’t work which means we’re closer to learning what will work. This learning allows us to develop more creative and innovative countermeasures to address the problem. Combine this with “Fail Fast” and we have the formula for rapid innovation within organizations. As a side note, “Failing Fast” doesn’t necessarily help an organization if they aren’t learning from their failures.

For leaders this means becoming comfortable with failures, encouraging teams to try new things and ensuring the salient learning points are captured from the experiments.

Doing so will help ensure organizational success and wise leaders know, it’s only a thin line that separates success from failure.


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