Monday, 23 May 2011

Fail fast, errr, how exactly does that work?

A practical tool that makes learning from failure a reality

'Fail Fast'.  If it's not number one in the league of annoying innovation motherhood statements it’s certainly top five.  Ok, yes we get the 'fail fast' principle but does it work?  Has any business leader actually ever told their people to fail fast.  I'm imagining a lot of blank faces when being exhorted to 'screw it up and be happy'.  Is Fail Fast a myth?  

If you're interested in innovation this is an inescapable topic.  And rightly so.  Harvard Business Review dedicated a whole issue to 'failure' recently (HBR April 2011).  There's a tremendous article about the demise of Blockbuster and written from several of the key player's perspectives.

But I have to admit I'm such a failure I'm still working my way through 140 pages of failure analysis.  So here's my greatest ever failure story, so great its really a success story masquerading as a failure story.  It's short too:

My great buddy Eric Peacock told me about the time he was Investor, Chair and Chief Executive of BabygroThey are the people who make that cuddly product all us parents of grown up kids remember wistfully.  I too have now forgotten the dreadful smells and sleep stealing brand associations..... Back to the story:  Eric bought into the concept of learning from failure as part of the innovation process but wanted to structure it into business operations.  Cleverly he invented the Learning Account, a line on a spreadsheet that totaled 'wasted' expenditure and itemised the learning from each failed investment.  Eric tells me that recasting losses as learning’s and taking the trouble to articulate each meant his teams dug deep into what really was the learning, could it have been foreseen, should they feel good about it or bad about it?  And just as management accounts were scrutinised by investors and company leaders so was the Learning Account.  Not many organisations debate  how much to invest in learning through failure, that's because they don't measure it, they haven't got a Learning Account.