Why Failing is O.K.

Columbus insisted the world was round and then promptly missed America on his first attempt. The Wright Brothers claimed flying was possible and nearly killed themselves trying to make it happen. Steve Jobs launched NEXT computers—a hardware failure that most don’t remember because they now think of him as the guru behind such ground-breaking devices as the iPod and iPhone. And, of course, Albert Einstein, whose very name we use as a short-hand for describing someone as a genius, was a lousy student. (As were many successful CEOs and entrepreneurs.)

Our point: Failure isn’t fatal, in fact, failure is actually required for innovation success.

That is an idea you need to accept, if you are going to do your best work. It is an idea that you definitely have to get across to your team—and indeed your entire company—in order to free it from the innovation-limiting shackles of perfection.

The phrase “Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet” is a healthy mantra for most of us—and most of our innovation projects.

Soft Launches

One reason that’s true is that in order to make a product or service everything it can be it needs to be repeatedly soft-launched with both internal stakeholders and external customers. This means literally sending the idea—be it a product or a service—into a limited part of the marketplace with the full understanding that it will be modified (perhaps extensively) based on how customers and consumers react.

For successful launches to happen, a team must be O.K. with the premise that they are starting with what some may consider a half-baked idea, one that very well may fail as constituted. You need to make this O.K. You need to tell your team that the real failure is fear of launching an idea until it is perfect.

To buttress your case, make the following points:

1. We’re only right when the market tells us so. Right now, we presume to be right, and our thinking is based on as-good-as-we-can-get research, history, and gut feel. The market will help us see and hear what we can do to be more right (and also help us eliminate all the things our customers—and potential customers—don’t like or don’t want.)

2. We can make any changes quickly. We can simulate years of research data in the span of months once we are out in the marketplace. It is the fastest way to learn.

3. It has never been cheaper to test ideas; The Internet allows for instant feedback; empty strip malls allow for in-and-out shopping experiences with risk-free short-term leases; technology has made prototyping doable in days instead of weeks.

4. It is going to be fun. We’re doing this to learn and improve, not to beat up an idea. (So there is no reason for anyone to get defensive.)

5. We will be making our “mistake” on a small scale, i.e. you are not launching the Iridium Phone or Segway only to find no one understands it or only 1,000 people want it. If we find out our idea is completely off-base, we’re about to save the company millions of dollars and perhaps our jobs.

One more point: Be careful of the language that you use when describing your testing process. We often find that words like “prototype” and “beta” come with too much baggage to overcome. When they hear those terms, many people think it means that certain elements of the product (or service) that you are about to test are locked in place. That’s not the message you want to send. Just about everything should be up for grabs. For our people “soft launch” sends the message we expect lots of things about the idea to change. But consider creating your own language that stresses the results you are trying to achieve, e.g., iteration phase 3 or “project optimize”.

If your team still resists the idea of iterative soft launches, just remind them that if this approach was good enough for Columbus, Steve Jobs, and the Wright brothers, it is probably good enough for them.

G. Michael Maddock is founding partner, and Raphael Louis Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, a company that invents, brands, and markets products “for companies driven by innovation.” .

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