For the longest time business and military leaders wouldn’t dare utter the word failure in front of their organizations. For many the credo was that failure wasn’t an option. Times have certainly changed but many organizations are just scratching the surface in addressing the difficult issues surrounding failure.
In business we often launch new initiatives without thinking through the “what if’s?” of the project failing. Instead we get to the end of the road and the initiative didn’t turn out as planned. Rather than chalking up one big failure at the end you can break the initiative up into pieces and evaluate each stage along the way.
Last month consulting firm Accenture released a report (“Why Low-Risk Innovation Is Costly“) on the state of innovation at big companies from the U.S., U.K., and France. Their survey of 519 executives at large companies concluded that most were disappointed with the return on their innovation investment. Many of these companies cited that they were scaling back their disruptive innovation efforts and settling for more incremental innovation like product line extensions.
Last month Inc. magazine ran an article titled “Why Silicon Valley Loves Failure” about how failure has moved beyond a buzzword in the land of Internet startups. The author (Eric Markowitz – @EricMarkowitz) shared the story of mid-’90s entrepreneur Kamran Elahian. Elahian had custom plates for his Ferrari F355 made with the word “Momenta.” Momenta was the name of a company that he founded in back 1989. Great, so what you say? There are thousands of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who drive around with their company’s name on the vanity plates. The interesting point was that Elahian chose the name of his previous company that had already gone bankrupt back in 1992. When ask why he chose his failed company, Elahian responded with “It’s to remind me not to be too proud. Unlike other entrepreneurs who put the names of successful companies on license plates, I decided to put my biggest failure. That way, I have to be reminded of it every time I get in the car.” He had moved beyond accepting his failure to being proud of his failures (see my post on the idea of a having a Failure Resume).
Almost nine years ago I had reentered the retail business after a fourteen year hiatus. The company I joined was just beginning a zealous journey to focus on the customer. The entire organization was determined to be more “customer centric” in every decision they made. They had gone so far as to identify six demographic target profiles that they were going to cater to. The goal was to get intimately familiar with each of these customer segments so that we could offer them the “best” and most appropriate goods and services. Some of those goods and services were already available but we were not aware of which customers needed them or why. In other circumstances we needed to be more innovative and seek out or create new products or service offerings. As we sought to delight the customer, we assumed that they would reciprocate by buying more or at least more profitable goods and services.
Back in 2009 Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries (@ericries) had coined the term “pivot” for the technique used by tech startups to change the strategic direction of their companies based on what they had learned (see his original post here). The theory goes that by doing you are actually learning something along the way (see my previous post on learning from feedback loops in systems thinking) and that you might find the “something” that you had learned has a better chance of success than your original strategy. The alternative is that at least it will enable you to extend your organization’s runway further out into the future in search of success.
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