‘Experimentation Includes Failure’; Leaders Talk About the Keys to Innovation

Failures can and should be learned from. There’s even a Museum of Failure that started in Sweden and now pops up all over the world—the latest being Calgary. “The museum aims to stimulate productive discussion about failure and inspire us to take meaningful risks.”

During ASAE22’s recent opening keynote, former biotech CEO and author Safi Bahcall “challenged attendees to test new ideas, large and small, and ignore the critics,” reported Associations Now. Here are his five keys for successful innovation—with some of our own AM&P Network-ification.

Here are some keys to innovation.

First, celebrate “good fails.” Even ideas that don’t take off can provide meaningful information. Bahcall pointed to Amazon’s history which is littered with failures. “These days, you have to rely on people in your teams to be smarter than you,” Anita Zielina, who just departed as director of news innovation and leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, told us at BIMS a few years ago. “And that’s a tough thing. And embracing failure is easier said than done. We like to win and are not so excited about failure. But the culture of failure empowers your team to experiment. If you don’t, you’re not going to have creativity in the room. Experimentation includes failure, and organizations need to live with that. There is no digital product development that doesn’t have unexpected turbulences. But it also allows for agility.”

Second, avoid the idea of the CEO as a singular leader who is the sole shepherd and generator of brilliant ideas. “Rather than being a ‘Moses’ proclaiming wisdom from a mountaintop, the CEO should be a ‘gardener’ who helps coordinate ideas and takes away roadblocks from experiments.” Zielina encourages leaders to think about whether their organization is prepared for transformation. They must focus on which audiences they want or need to reach, and how to ensure that appropriate resources are prioritized. Integral to this is a “talent pipeline” as well as clarity about the type of work culture you want to instill.

Third, work to strike a balance between people with big-picture, even unusual ideas (who he calls “artists”) with the more pragmatic, rigorous and detail-focused people (who he calls “soldiers”). In their session a few years ago on New Rules for Product Development and Time to Market, Molly Lindblom, senior product marketing manager for Agiloft, and David Foster, CEO, Business Valuation Resources, wrote: “The goal is to fail cheap, fail fast and fail forward… It’s about getting quick feedback from your customers and segments… When you invalidate an assumption, say you find out that you completely mischaracterized a customer segment, you walk away with those insights and gems that can point you in the right direction.”

Fourth, manage a supply of experiments that are adjacent to your core mission and some that might initially seem off-point. “I tell everybody that works for me that I’d rather have them try and fail than not try,” said Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media. “And that I want them to make a decision. We can fix a bad decision; we can’t fix a no-decision. No one will ever get fired for trying something new or for failing at something they tried to do. I reward people who try, people who think outside the box. I am doing everything I can to empower my team all the way down the chain to say, ‘Look, this is what we need to do for the customer.'”

Fifth, Bahcall said creating urgency around an experiment is more important than letting everybody in on what you’re doing. “Create a culture to build trust and collaboration, and breaking down silos…” Tim Hartman, CEO of GovExec, once told us. “Think ambitious experiments and trust each other. If you look around and don’t see that, you have a problem.” “Once you have the data from real experiments, you can convince the skeptics,” Bahcall said.

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