• February 22, 2017

Fail Often: Overcoming the Fear of Defeat

Finding innovation through trial and error.

The invention of the lightbulb is a far more complex story than many believe, mainly because Thomas Edison didn’t invent the device. More than 20 different lightbulb variations were produced before the famed inventor’s bulb, though none of their prototypes were commercially viable. Edison and his lab associates conducted thousands of experiments before they found a design that was economical and practical.

Digital transformation, like the iterative development of the lightbulb, requires constant experimentation—and constant failure. But institutional fear of failure inhibits innovation—after all, no one wants to be associated with a failed initiative.

To move into the future, the enterprise must take advantage of the current environment that has significantly reduced the drain on enterprise resources; for instance, cloud systems eliminate the need for underlying software and operating systems. This frees up IT to concentrate on system functionality, user needs, experimentation—and innovation.

Embracing Failure in App Development

Recognizing the idea-dampening power of the fear of failure, some organizations have instituted new approaches to application development.

Eyewear company Warby Parker devised a process that encourages all of its 800 employees to nominate new programming projects. Dubbed Warbles, the innovative methodology has generated new ideas from all levels of the company. Managers vote for proposals they believe will add sufficient value, and then programmers pick the projects they find most interesting. This system is a shared decision-making process so that no single or small group of managers owns the concept. If the project doesn’t succeed, no individual is solely responsible.

Another advantageous Warbles aspect is good ideas that bubble up from employees who deal with customer issues day-to-day. Before Warbles, IT projects were assigned from the top down—a system that may be less effective in generating the best ideas.

In a study of how Cirque du Soleil invented new acts, Stanford University business professor Justin Berg found that when creators of acts evaluated new acts proposed by their peers, they were much better than managers at predicting success. Berg concluded that as managers get promoted, they have less exposure to new ideas and are more committed to old ideas. A program like Warbles produces more innovative project proposals and allows them to be heard by more managers.

A Culture of Innovation

Enterprises need such a systematic approach to nurturing innovation. They need to focus on their innovative foundation long before trying to build anything on top of it, says Ailton Santos, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services Vice President of Software, Brazil. The approach should remove barriers to experimentation so that the organization can freely test, fail, learn, and iterate.

Fail fast and fail often,” advises Greg Franczyk, chief technology officer of Madison Logic. “The nimble company will jump into the process of creating and building. This builds a culture of innovation and an agile team supported by an agile infrastructure.”

This is true of any enterprise, but it’s especially pertinent to those who have or are moving to enterprise cloud solutions. Such organizations that don’t find ways to amplify their innovative pursuits through trial and error are not only failing to get the most out of IT, but they also risk being out-innovated by competitors.

Like this story? Learn more about inspiring enterprise innovation and download our “Who’s Thriving and Who’s Just Surviving: How Does Your Transformation Measure Up?” report to see who’s doing innovation right.