When it comes to elastic innovation, leaders increasingly talk about the concept of “failing fast.” The most effective leaders shift that mindset to “learning fast.”
As WTW’s Katie Plemmons has written, failing fast is a philosophy that relies on testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea or solution has value. Failing fast is the backbone of agile product development, where the goal is to make small iterations on a product and test those iterations with users. If the iteration does not resonate with users, the development team has the option to fail fast or make necessary changes to either pivot or persevere. That makes “failing” all about learning.
Many companies pivoted during market disruption in recent years to retool supply chains, distribution models, customer service protocols and products. History suggests innovative businesses are more resilient in economic headwinds because their cultures and business models allow them to move quickly and navigate through market uncertainty.
Effective leaders recognize that people are at the center of innovation, and that innovation creates both growth and value in any environment. This is especially important with key talent in high demand. Effective leaders know that learning fast enables teams to rapidly develop and test products, focusing their energy and funds on the products and features that best solve users’ problems and provide value.
In many traditional corporate settings, leaders report a fear of failure that stems from a desire for accuracy, consistency, quality, and both short-term and sustainable financial results. While these goals can be healthy when it comes to operational excellence, fear of failure inhibits innovation. Overcoming the concept of “failure” itself in innovation remains a challenge.
Effective leaders shift the mindset from failing to learning through a number of actions, including:
The concept of treating failure as the first attempt in learning (“F.A.I.L.”), often is attributed to A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the 11th president of India and an aerospace engineer. Because innovation requires trial and error, innovators including Archimedes, Leonardo DiVinci, Benjamin Franklin, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, Alan Turing, Thomas Watson, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs knew that experimentation leads to learning and eventual success. However, that success seldom comes in the first attempt.
In 2011, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson wrote about strategies for learning from failure that later became the basis for her landmark work in psychological safety. Edmonson observed that failure and fault are virtually inseparable in most households, organizations, and cultures; she noted that, at some point, every child learns that admitting failure means taking the blame. However, this mindset is based on a false premise which suggests that failure should be scorned and hidden rather than elevated as part of the learning process – particularly in the context of creating a safe environment where it’s okay to fail. Psychological safety is foundational to cultures of innovation and ecosystems where ideation requires cultivation (which includes both nurturing and pruning). Learning is key to performance. Leaders who assign blame – and shame teams – for failure tend to limit innovation. Leaders who celebrate learning and encourage teams to build experience into their next project are more effective at driving innovation.
Effective leaders broadly share and communicate learnings and insights from experimentation with the organization so that others can learn from them. This is counter to traditional organizations that hide failures. This sharing practice has distinguished innovation in industries such as technology and life sciences. For example, according to a quote attributed to Silicon Valley author Michael S. Malone: “Outsiders think of Silicon Valley as a success story, but in truth it is a graveyard. Failure is Silicon Valley’s greatest strength. Every failed product or enterprise is a lesson stored in the collective memory.”
While language around innovation often includes references to winners and losers, effective leaders treat all projects that adhere to appropriate process and cultural norms as successful, even if they do not proceed. Many effective leaders use terms such as “completing the process,” “graduating from the process,” or “accomplishing the process” even if projects do not advance as long as there are documented learnings. They consider a project that is down-selected for the right reasons to be a success in terms of learnings.
Effective leaders create a culture that provides teams with the space to learn and apply those learnings as an iterative part of the innovation process. They promote constant experimentation, learning, and improvement. Ideally, as teams define the problem they are trying to solve, they are not starting from scratch but rather incorporating learnings from previous experiments. Throughout their development process they are constantly learning and evolving, ultimately leading to a break-through. If a project works, it proceeds. If not, the learnings are applied to the next incarnation.
Effective leaders encourage teams to generate results in the short-term while also focusing on the long-term. Teams accomplish this through constant and rapid experimentation, testing, learning, and application of experience into subsequent innovations.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on July 27, 2022.