David Kelley at IDEO once said that you have to “fail faster to succeed sooner”.
You can tell a lot about an organization by how they treat failure. Do they focus on the learning or do they focus on the punishment?
When I worked at General Mills, they launched a new snack brand called Wahoos to take on Frito-Lay. The launch failed. Many who worked on the snack development project were let go. It created something we called the Wahoos hangover. In the midst of product development, someone would invariably say, “we don’t want another Wahoos” and the team would choose to take the safest course of action.
Many companies have a form of Wahoos hangover. Successes are celebrated, but failures are turned into cautionary tales. The result is that the riskier (and potentially more breakthrough) ideas are dismissed or watered down.
David Kelley’s maxim encourages prototyping to facilitate early learning. Early failures guide the innovation process, so there is greater chance for success at launch.
My friend Kaj Johnson gave me a failed prototype from a low point in a project he helped develop. All of team’s effort had been focused on one particular project direction. Yet they couldn’t get the economics to work. So Kaj inked the letters “F-A-I-L” on the side the prototype and placed it on the table in front of the team. The act of designating the prototype as a failure allowed the team to finally let go on that particular direction and find a breakthrough in another direction altogether. There was no finger-pointing. It was just a matter-of-fact acknowledgement that failure is a part of the process. Through this failure, the team achieved greater success.
I keep the failed prototype on my desk as a reminder to celebrate and learn from failure. Failures are usually more instructive than successes.