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For your assignment this week, in 2-3 pages think of a  work-related failure that you experienced or you are aware of and after describing it,  answer the following questions:

  1. What individual and/or organizational factors might have contributed to the failure?  
  2. What was the manager's or organization's reaction to the failure?  How does that reaction compare to what you learned in this week's lesson?
  3. Did it become a learning experience?  If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  4. Based on what your learned would you describe this organization as innovative?  Why or why not?


Lecture Reading

Last week we learned that we minimize risk associated with innovation by managing a portfolio of innovations.  That risk results when innovative ideas don’t result in marketable products or reduced costs.  This week we focus on the culture of failure.

There are many legends about the innovative success of companies and their founders, including great financial rewards.  Microsoft and Google both started life in a garage and their founders are now billionaires!

It’s easy to assume that the products or processes in these stories were “light bulb” ideas, generated in full form and ready for the market.  What we don’t usually hear about are products that were tested by these same companies but were not successful, about the financial investments made in trial products that never earned a return.

  • Apple, often considered the most innovation-driven companies in the world, and certainly, the company that has launched the most disruptive innovation in the last decade, has also acquired experience in innovation failure. A few years ago, it launched its Maps application which caused controversy, leading CEO Tim Cook to publicly apologize.
  • Dannon has invested millions in developing a new kind of yogurt, one that claimed to offer benefits to the skin. The result? Essentiswas retired from the market.
  • Microsoft has failed many times as well, such as with its Zune Player. And, even in its core business, the operating systems Windows Vista and Windows 8 have caused controversy.
  • French automobile maker Renault has also failed to penetrate the high-end market segment with its VelSatis.
  • Google, often considered to be a paragon of innovation, has failed many times. Its product meant at competing against Wikipedia, called Knol, has been discontinued. Google Reader and Google Buzz  failed (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. , as well. Most of its successful innovations were, in fact, start-up acquisitions such as YouTube.

Today the conventional wisdom is that innovative companies need to be prepared for failures.  Author Langdon Morris stated “A healthy percentage of projects should fail, because failure is an indication that we are pushing the limits of our current understanding hard enough to be sure that we are extracting every last bit of value from every situation and at the same time preparing for a  broad range of unanticipated futures.”

Innovative companies should expect failure.  In fact, the following quick reads suggest (1) those organizations that don’t accept failure stifle innovation and (2) employees are naturally innovative. 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2016/07/27/why-failure-is-the-key-to-workplace-culture-success/#1f1045bf48f4 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

http://www.innovationmanagement.se/imtool-articles/failure-is-the-mother-of-innovation/ (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Innovative companies should also accept that the innovation process is messy.  Bill Coyne, who led R&D at 3M for over a decade understands both the messiness and misguided impulse to clean it up. His quote was referenced by Bob Sutton:

Finally, don't try to control or make safe the fumbling, panicky, glorious adventure of discovery. Occasionally, one sees articles that describe how to rationalize this process, how to take the fuzzy front end and give it a nice haircut. This is self-defeating. We should allow the fuzzy front end to be as unkempt and as fuzzy as we can. Long-term growth depends on innovation, and innovation isn't neat. We stumble on many of our best discoveries. If you want to follow the rapidly moving leading edge, you must learn to live on your feet. And you must be willing to make necessary, healthy stumbles( citation (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. )

Jeff DeGraff, professor at University of Michigan, wrote a great piece below that in a few words neatly explains innovation and its inherent messiness. ( citation (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. )

Starbucks provides a real-life example about the messiness of innovation. An interesting quote by Starbucks chief digital officer Adam Brotman:  "We don't want to wait on innovation," Brotman explained. "Because if we waited until we could make it perfect across every single experience of every single store, we would have to move much more slowly for the vast majority of our customers. So we've taken an approach that's not always perfect, but we think it's the best thing for our brand and customers."  After reading this article, what do you think? ( citation (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. )

Can you imagine working for an organization that celebratesfailure? Some of the most innovative companies out there celebrate failure on a daily basis. As I write this, it makes me want to work for one! 

The following information is quoted from Acton (2017) and her article: "The Most Creative Companies Are the Ones That Celebrate Failure. Here's How To Do It Effectively." ( citation  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. )

The Silicon Valley mantra, failing is a good thing, has taken the corporate world by storm. Just look at how we idolize people like Elon Musk for his kaleidoscopic career of failures, pivots, and reinventions. The failing mantra has taken on many variations:

  • Failures are really just lessons on the path to success
  • Failing fast is economical in the long-run
  • Only through failure can you discover greatness and great risk begets great failure or great reward.

But, unless a company has policies in place to support and celebrate failures, then these mantras become vacuous company values, living only in strategic documents; not in the fabric of the company, and not felt in the day-to-day of employees throughout. A company that embraces, celebratesand rewardsfailure doesn't happen accidentally; there needs to be systems, behaviors, and structuresin place to incentivize, encourage and make room for flops.

Here are four ideas you, as a business manager, can implement immediately to make your work environment a better place to fail.

1. Actively Kill Ideas

Most organizations don't take time to actively kill ideas. Often, they confuse prioritizing initiatives with killing ideas, but this is a separate thing to laying ideas to rest. When you take items off your task list, you can focus on the ones that really matter. Focusing on a few things allows you to do them well, and is a critical success factor. Steve Jobs famously slashed Apple's pipeline from 150 products to just 4 when he returned to take the reigns in 1997 (one desktop and one portable device for both consumers and professionals). Jobs famously said, "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do". And it's a skill that requires practice.

Try:Hosting a monthly 'Kill' meeting where you actively kill, not just prioritize, ideas that are not delivering. Each department should aim to have no more than 4 key initiatives in play at any one time.

2. Host Idea Funerals

Killing an idea or initiative presents a chance to learn from it, and steal its most potent properties to incorporate into other initiatives. Hosting an "Idea Funeral" may sound extreme, but it's a sticky initiative that sends a strong message to the company that failures are not just tolerated but actively welcomed. At an Idea Funeral, a team should: share what parts of the idea they'd like to keep, identity what prevented the initiative from really delivering and finally brainstorm ways to incorporate the 'best of' the idea into other initiatives that are still in play. This is also an opportunity to acknowledge team members who not only brought the idea this far but most importantly, had the audacity to kill it.

Try:Idea Funerals should feel more like a wake, and represent a chance for teams to bond and create a safe space for people to feel they can fail in. Bring music, snacks, and keep it light.

3. Create a "Failed Ideas Hall Of Fame"

This is an easy-to-implement idea that packs a big punch. In the same way, many companies pay tribute to their most successful launches and achievements, this is your opportunity to create a similar one for product, marketing, sales, and innovation failures. Similarly to Idea Funerals, this sends a very strong and public message to all employees that failing is OK and actually welcomed. Under each idea, there is an opportunity to capture shared learnings. For example, you can write an obituary for the idea that spells out what its strong points were, and how these now lives on in other initiatives. In killing one idea, it freed the team up to focus on a potential new blockbuster. This sentiment should be captured in the obituary.

Try:Creating a "Hall of Failure'" that showcases some monumental failures loudly and proudly. You can even intersperse other epic failures from history to reinforce the message. For example, Decca Records didn't sign the Beatles because guitar music was on its way out, the Leaning Tower of Pisa took 177 years to build and only ten to start tiling or Fox Studios gave George Lucas all Star Wars merchandising rights for just $20,000 in 1977.

4. Change KPIs to Reward Risk and Failure

Most KPIs are tied exclusively to productivity, efficiency and boosting the bottom line. However, without incentivizing risk taking, and making allowances for the inevitable outcomes that comes with taking risks (failure), innovation quickly becomes all talk and no action. To truly make trying new things part of the culture, employees must be measured against it. A simple way of doing this is to hold employees accountable for trying a new approach to one of their tasks each quarter. Some of the initiatives they try differently might be close-in and relatively safe. However, at least one should feel intimidating and unknown.

Try:Adding a KPI that explicitly encourages employees to try new things; including an allowance for a grandiose failure and sharing the lessons they learned with their team.

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